Advice to a New Elder: Deacons

shepherd3I once attended a class taught to a group of 50 or so elders from across the Southeast. It was an open-forum kind of class, and the teacher asked what we’d like to talk about.

One elder mentioned “Deacons!” — and the room resounded with amens. Nearly to a man, the elders struggled with what to do with the deacons. Really.

You see, the Church of Christ traditional perspective on deacons has these inherent difficulties:

  1. There’s no way to remove a deacon who is unmotivated or whose skills no longer fit his assignment. Take away his title, and while he might feel relieved, he’ll think that the church will assume he is guilty of some “mortal” sin, such as adultery. I mean, our tradition is that deacons are appointed for life — and so removal looks like punishment of some kind.
  2. Deacons often outlive their jobs. Most newly ordained deacons are given a job. But sometimes the ministry dies or is merged with another program or outgrows what a volunteer can do and is taken on by staff. The result is a deacon without a job — an “at large” deacon. What do you do with a guy who was made a deacon 30 years ago because he maintained the lawn and building, and now that the church has 800 members hires a professional lawn care and janitorial service? Do you de-deaconize him?
  3. As churches grow larger, the role of deacons changes. For a small church, a deacon might unlock and lock the building or handle the books. A large church may have a janitor to lock and unlock the building and an accounting firm to handle the books. Where does the old deacon go?
  4. While there is no scriptural warrant for the deacons to meet as a group, many churches have a long tradition of the elders meeting with the deacons. But the deacons are half at large with no job and no real awareness of what’s going on, and half have jobs and are busy doing them well, and don’t really need to give up two hours a month to affirm decisions the elders have already made.
  5. Worse yet, in such churches, the elders often use the deacons as a sounding board for major decisions, and yet the deacons can’t speak for the singles, the childless, the unmarried, the widows, the widowers, the college students, or the women. That is, they are not remotely representative of the congregation as a whole — and yet they are often treated as “speaking for the church” because some are younger than the elders.
  6. What do you do if a deacon turn out to be a lousy father? He was ordained because he managed his household well — but that was before his kids became teens. Now that his teenagaers are an embarrassment to the church, do you have the heart to compound his suffering by removing him as a deacon? And what if he’s in charge of vehicle maintenance and doing a great job that no one else could do nearly as well? Do we deny him the use of his gifts to serve God because he has a rebellious child?
  7. In today’s world, why give titles to men when there are women with no titles who do more for the church and who are more essential to the church’s health than any two of the deacons put together? But if you ordain a woman, you know you’re in for a fight from someone — and is it worth the fight?
  8. And what about the single and childless men who can’t be deaconized but who are invaluable servants of the church? Why give a title to men with spouses and children who do less? Why does someone have to be married and fertile (or willing and able to adopt) to qualify to turn off the lights after the congregation leaves the building?
  9. And why, oh, why do we feel compelled to issue titles as though mature Christians should be motivated by an ordination ceremony and title — when we expect women, singles, and the childless to do their work without any such pomp and ceremony?
  10. And doesn’t our tradition cut 90-degrees against the doctrine of gifts of the Spirit? How do we preach the Spirit’s gifts while only ordaining men with wives and children — when they are not the only gifted members and often not even the most gifted?
  11. Who decided that every program has to be headed by a deacon? That is plainly not in the Bible. Why do we do that?
  12. Who decreed that we must have deacons to be “scripturally organized” but don’t have to have an order of widows (1 Tim 5) or assign a committee of seven to oversee the distribution of food to widows (Acts 6)? Or have teachers and prophets (Acts 13:1)?

Our doctrine and practice regarding deacons is a mess. And our leaders have largely figured this out — and so our largest congregations don’t have deacons. Or they have deacons as well as “ministry leaders” — who do the work of deacons but are women or childless men gifted to serve in their areas. We rationalize.

But those churches that create deaconships find some deacons wondering and complaining because being a deacon is just a job — and they were really hoping to get to meet and make big decisions. When they called mom and told her they’d “made deacon,” they were thrilled not just at the honor but at the chance to vote on big church issues.

As a result, there is no easy path for an eldership regarding deacons. Appoint deacons and you’ve insulted the harder working, often more gifted women and single men — and created an expectation of meetings and the exercise of church-wide power — utterly without scriptural justification. Refuse to ordain deacons and you appear to leave the church not “scripturally organized” to many members. Try to explain to the members a more scriptural understanding, and for many, it’s a bridge too far. It’s contrary to our identity as a Church of Christ — and fearsome to risk God’s wrath for not being “scripturally organized.”

So you have my sympathy. It’s a lose-lose proposition.

What’s the solution? Well, here are the choices:

  1. Teach the church that the Bible doesn’t require the ordination of deacons to be scripturally organized. You are required to respect and honor the gifting by the Spirit (per 1 Cor 12, Rom 12, Eph 4, etc.), and so programs will be headed by the person gifted for that task — on the very sound assumption that God chose to whom to give the gift, and so God’s decisions re gifting are authority to use the gifts in God’s service.
    1. Of course, this requires a mature church that understands the Spirit.
    2. And this requires a church with a hermeneutic that isn’t based on command, example, and necessary inference. It must have a Spirit-ual mind rather than a legalistic mind.
    3. Get ready for the criticism from the traditionally minded members — realizing that they’re being true to their upbringing and trying to honor God. So put your teaching shoes on and be ready to explain your position over and over — and to have friends look at you like you’ve completely lost your mind.
  2. Appoint deacons but only to jobs they are qualified for, and appoint women and singles to jobs they are qualified for. Call them “deacons” and “ministry leaders” and act like this is traditional behavior. Probably no one notices.
    1. DON’T empower a board of deacons to meet and make big decisions.
    2. DON’T expect the deacons to meet monthly and vote on ministries they aren’t involved with. You see, the Ministries Team concept works because every ministry — every single one — sits at the table. But the deacons will represent less than half the ministries — and when they start telling the Ladies Bible Class how to do their ministry, well, it’s usurpation, rude, and foolish. No, they do not know how to run the nursery and have no business making decisions about childcare without inviting the woman who runs childcare to the meeting.
    3. We used to have deacons meetings. I was a deacon. It felt like a jail sentence. We were asked to meet monthly and vote on things the elders were concerned with — even things the elders had already decided. There were men there with no job, no involvement, and lots of opinions — and the more ignorant of an area they were, the stronger their opinions. It was a waste of everyone’s time. Eventually, the deacons begged the elders to end the meetings. (There are better ways for the elders to receive congregational input.)
    4. PS — You can’t have deacons meetings and have a Ministries Team or an administrative team. There can only be one chain of command in any organization or else you have chaos.
  3. Let women and single men be deacons. The overwhelming majority of Church of Christ editors and leaders have approved female deacons — but the churches are all terrified of doing so for fear of criticism from other congregations or even splitting their own church. Even if the female deacons only have authority over other women, giving a title to a woman is considered sinful by many because it’s assumed that being a deacon is to sit on a board that makes decisions for the entire church (junior elders) or is a management position that oversees a program.

A list of earlier articles on deacons will be found at this link.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to Advice to a New Elder: Deacons

  1. Dwight says:

    It might seem like a natural thing, but there is no scripture that indicates that the elders are over the deacons. In Acts we read where a need arises and then the apostles appoint deacons to over see the fulfilling of the need so the apostles don’t have to. There is no extra hierarchy involved or needed or implied. The deacons were not chosen by deacons or even the elders, but were chosen by the people.
    Now according the scriptures there are qualifications that help assign who can be an elder and deacon, but while they are to serve, there is no place that argues that once the need ends, if that is possible, then the elders or deacons position ends as well. Elders that are on vacation still are elders and deacons not in active service are still deacons per their qualifications.
    As noted in #1 the church was in formation before there were elders or deacons and this is true of the local church as well. The elders and deacons were put in place to help people who were saints and were not limited to one assembly or another.
    In regards to #2 the deacons were to help the physical needs of the needy, so them getting involved in the bible study to over see it doesn’t make sense, but then again we see Stephen full of the Spirit actually fulfill the place of what an apostle would be doing. Who are we to tell a talented deacon who is helping others in their deacon role that they cannot do other task as well.
    The problem I have with #3 is that we want to constrict the service based on the titles or lack of and are very inconsistent in this. Just recently the elders appointed 4 deacons, even though I had been a deacon before, they chose not to include me as a deacon, which is fine, but then they turned around and assigned task to people to do that were not deacons because they had task to do. My point is that it seemed to have very little to do with service and everything do with a perceived lack of deacon positions for a church our size. There were more task to do and more people to choose from, but perhaps a limited space in the directory.
    I do think the qualifications for deacons meant something, which is why unmarried men and women were excluded, in the qualifications. But we do tend to overlook women in this task. Phoebe was seen as being in charge and the people were told to let her be in charge, so she was a deaconess. She had deacon authority and no elders in sight over her.

  2. Jay Guin says:

    Dwight wrote,

    It might seem like a natural thing, but there is no scripture that indicates that the elders are over the deacons.

    Recent studies in the meaning of diakonos, especially the book Diakonos by Collins, conclude that the word doesn’t mean servant but has a range of meanings including “representative.” Hence, BDAG (the most respect biblical Greek lexicon) has changed the definition to say that deacons are appointed to act on behalf of the elders, which is consistent with both Acts 6 and the early church fathers.

    Consider —

    (Acts 6:5-6 ESV) 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

    The process wasn’t just that the church selected these men. They were also ordained by the apostles in response to the church’s nomination.

    (Acts 6:3 ESV) 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.

    The apostles did the appointing/ordaining. This is not a democratic process whereby the church elected its own deacons independent of apostolic oversight. I mean, why call overseers “overseers” and elders “elders” and then deny then the authority that overseers and elders had in that culture? Rather, we see the apostles, very much acting in the role of elders — as church leaders — overseeing the ordination process while delegating the work as well as they responsibly could.

    PS – Notice that the Seven were ordained as a committee to handle a single task, not as individual program heads. Just one program overseen by Seven men.

  3. dwight says:

    Jay, There were elders before they were appointed in the church in Jewish society that basically ruled over the people guiding them spiritually, after all they didn’t replace the King, princes, governors, judges, etc.
    While it might mean representative, it still is shown in Acts 6 that they were appointed to oversee the tables of the needy. If what you suggest is true, then the apostles also appointed elders (who are not mentioned) to over see the deacons who oversaw the feeding of the widows. Again this is not intuitive of what we read. Acts 6 argues that the people chose the seven and then put them before the apostles to be ordained. Later the qualifications would do the ordaining.
    What you say “we see” ought to have a scripture attached to it. I have never read where the elders whose qualifications are mentioned along with the elders are under the elders in performing the task. What we see is that the deacons could exist without elders, so if this is the case, then why is oversight of their duties put upon the elders.
    I see a division between elders (spiritual) and deacons (physical) needs, where they worked for the betterment of the people. While true seven were chosen, there is no sense in that they were a committee but that they had a task. Chances are they worked together to get it done, but to I have seen people work together to have a picnic without a committee…people just choose a task and then do it.
    I will have to read Diakonos, but I think sometimes we try to make things more complicated than they actually are with layers that may not be necessary.

  4. “When they called mom and told her they’d ‘made deacon,’ they were thrilled…at the honor”

    I lived through this 25 years ago. I did feel honored to “make deacon.” Someone mature in the faith recognized me and said, “Your presence blesses us.”

    I believe that if the Elders, ministers, staff, and others mature in the faith would routinely say this to younger persons, the vast majority of problems in the churches would go away. And I mean ROUTINELY as in a few times a month.

  5. Mark says:

    But when you appoint men for life, where is the new blood? Where are the new ideas? How do you prevent factionalism?

    Dwight wrote, “I believe that if the Elders, ministers, staff, and others mature in the faith would routinely say… ‘Your presence blesses us’ to younger persons, the vast majority of problems in the churches would go away.”

    Let’s begin with them not actively working to get the young people out of the church.

  6. Dwight says:

    Mark, I am pretty sure I didn’t say the statement you ascribed to me and if so I cannot find it.
    I understand that Collins book argues that deacon means “representative” in its correct understanding even though the word directly means “servant”, but then again if you look at elder aka presbyteros, it means “old” in the sense of old and being a senior, which doesn’t carry with it any inherent thought of action with it. But the term deacon seems to at least carry with it the action of what it means…servant…servitude.
    And yet the elders were to be servants also?
    A deacon might very well be a representative, but if the scripture assigns any other action beyond serving others as in Acts 2, I don’t know where that is.
    If Stephen was doing what a n deacon was doing in testifying before the Jewish leaders, then what were the apostles doing?
    Or the preachers or evangelist?
    The apostles left the seven in charge so they could not do what the seven were doing of even bothered with it so they could “give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
    They didn’t say, “pick seven so we oversee them and give ourselves to prayer and ministry of the word.”
    There goal was to relieve themselves of the work of overseeing that work through the deacons.
    Again when we look at deacons and elders we don’t see where one oversees the actions or thoughts of the other and the qualifications are side-by-side. The elders in the OT never ruled in the sense of what we think of as rule in directing people to do this as they couldn’t step beyond God’s law or prophetic messages. This is not to knock the elders, but it should result in removing so much responsibility from the plates of the elders who should be concentrating on the spiritually weak and needy.
    I think much of this goes back to the Catholic hierarchy where one person is over three people who are over ten people, etc. We can’t fathom the concept that two groups of people by position could oversee two different things on the same level of authority.
    This is why Paul says of Pheobe “that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also.”
    Her role was of a helper, but she also had the authority to direct others in helping. The elders are not mentioned and within this context even the elders would have been subject to her in her mission of helping.

    But let’s read the following sentence from Hermas (Sim., IX, 26):
    “They that have spots are the deacons that exercised their office ill and plundered the livelihood of widows and orphans and made gains for themselves from the ministrations they had received to perform.”
    Or, again, St. Ignatius (Ep. ii to the Trallians):
    “Those who are deacons of the mysteries of Jesus Christ must please all men in all ways. For they are not deacons of meats and drinks [only] but servants of the church of God.”
    It is clear that Hermas suggest the deacons had control of the money, but were abusing it.
    It is clear from Ignatius that the deacons were servants in general, but did supply meats and drinks within their duties.

    Ironically the number of deacons were limited to seven in the early church, as noted by the apostles command, which would be a foreign concept to us, even those who argue that for the contribution of the saints to be collected on the first day of the week as a command.

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