Ray Evans has been considering the role of deacons. How does a church go about appointing them and how does that work in churches of different sizes?
I sense a greater confusion in the modern church about the role of deacons than was seen in previous generations. Questions abound.
- Are deacons mandated so you must have them?
- Is it just a wisdom issue whether to appoint them - or not?
- Can they be replaced by other staff workers?
- What is their place in the church’s overall leadership structure?
- Do they deal with ‘the practical’, while elders do ‘the spiritual’?
- Are they unpaid, in contrast to the paid pastor?
- Are they the older men who basically run the shop, or are they men and women serving to carry out tasks for the church?
- Are they part of the leadership, or just aids to the leadership?
I have heard variety of answers to these questions. Some of this is due to a differing weight given to the biblical passages. Some draw on Acts 6 and see the appointment of deacons as a pragmatic response to help the work to get done. Others see them as a commanded ‘office bearer’, quite like elders, and lean on 1 Timothy 3 and Philippians 1:1 to justify that view.
Some see them as only practical, others argue that ‘everything is spiritual’ and their ministry is a reflection of Christ’s office as merciful ‘Priest’ helping the needy (whereas elders represent Christ as ‘King’ and ‘Prophet’).
Some argue that the main role is to relieve the eldership from certain tasks, so that they can concentrate on their primary responsibilities of prayer and word ministry (Acts 6:4).
Deacons as servants
It strikes me that hard and fast divisions are unhelpful.
For example, an elder ‘must manage his own family well’, otherwise he won’t be able ‘to take care of the church of God’ (1 Tim 3:4, 5). ‘Take care’ is an interesting word in Greek (epimelēsetai). It is only used in the New Testament in one other place: the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:34, 35). After taking care of the man who had been beaten and robbed, the Samaritan then charges the innkeeper with taking care of him too. He left the wherewithal for that to happen. It was a caring and practical act. Elders need to carry out ‘managing’/’taking care’ tasks both in their families, and in the family of God. Deacons can aid them in this, but it doesn’t remove elders from caring.
My own feeling is that deacons (‘servants’ would be a more accurate and helpful translation) should assist elders. But this assistance isn’t menial or insignificant. Their qualifications show this, for they are equivalent to elders, but for the ‘able to teach’. They clearly have to show an aptitude to do tasks, as they have to be tested and proved themselves first (1 Tim 3:10). Then they can serve, in the name of the Lord, and as official representatives of the church. So, Phoebe is a servant (that seems to mean a recognised and set-apart worker) of the church at Cenchrea (Rom 16:1).
Many churches have recognised both the biblical and practical case for having women ‘servants’. The passage in 1 Timothy 3 seems a tad anachronistic if a deacon’s wife has to be assessed as part of her husband’s qualification requirements, when they aren’t mentioned in the case of elders (arguably they are just as, if not even more significant, in that context). The word ‘wives’ can equally be translated ‘women’, and many have seen a reference to women servants in this section.
Women take on many ministries, especially those utilising and serving other women. Some of these would otherwise require an elder and his wife in order to be involved if everything is to be ‘above reproach’. Ministry to single mums, female divorcees, new mums, women whose spouses don’t believe, and women from various community contacts are often better served by women servants working in the name of the Lord and for their church.
If that is the case, it raises the further question of how elders and deacons relate together in the governance of the church.
In many smaller churches the inherited tradition has been of pastor and deacons basically ruling the church. If that is the case having women deacons governing the church may be problematic. But where there are larger elderships, it often means that they do the leading, and the diaconate then help implement what the elders decide has to be done. In that case female deacons don’t contradict a complementarian view of the leading of the church.
In a previous article, I argued that the church ought to recognise all those that the Lord Jesus gives to the office of elder. With deacons, the biblical input points to a ‘what is needed’ approach. A church’s eldership may decide that they need more help and ask for prayer for more deacons. They can also help everyone to decide who can be appointed to the role of deacon (Acts 6:3, 5).
Some churches appoint individuals to a diaconate, and then tasks are shared out amongst them. Others appoint deacons to specific tasks (such as finance, or fabric, or mercy ministry) and they carry out that task until ‘job done’, when they then step back into regular membership. It is difficult to be very definite about, ‘How many?’, for, ‘How long?’, and, ‘Through what appointment and standing-down procedures?’
Some churches have a rotation system with deacons only being allowed to serve officially for relatively short fixed-terms. That approach rarely focuses on what is needed to help the elders at a particular moment. It can get overly political, and those with ability to serve are sometimes forced to stand down just when their wisdom and gifts are required.
Others have deacons serving for life. The tasks they once did as younger people are now carried out by others and they serve ultimately as a source of wisdom. The tendency, however, can be that they become a focus for resisting change.
Honest conversations, held in love, will need to be had about, ‘Time to stand down’ as well as ‘Time to stand up’. We neither want to write off the elderly deacons, nor do we want to make unrealistic demands upon them. Review and reflection seems the wisest way forward.
A worked example
In our own church we have wrestled with all this for ages.
At one time, as we expanded team ministries across the church, we thought about making all team leaders servants (deacons), as they carried significant responsibilities in organising care and leading teams of other workers.
But we desisted, as it would have led to an unwieldy approach (we have 40+ teams in the church). With that many teams, leaders are coming and going as yo-yos. To hold an appointment to Office each time they were asked to help lead, seemed unwise. We have come to a position where our team leaders are regarded as ‘proto-deacons’ (just as our home group leaders are ‘proto-elders’). That is not a disparaging observation, just an awareness that they were not elected or appointed by the church to an Office. Yet they carry out a significant role, which one day may lead to a wider official recognition by the whole church.
Whatever system you have, the key is that elders and deacons must trust one another. They must respect one another enough to let each other get on with the job. Acts 6 shows this. ‘We will turn this responsibility over to them’ (Acts 6:4) is an empowering for the task which the whole church recognised. So members should demonstrate proper respect and obedience towards deacons, knowing the role which they have been appointed to.
What about paid staff?
The entrusting with power (the ability to get something done) is also something that the church has to consider if and when it financially employs people other than its main pastor. We do not have specific instructions on this in the New Testament, but there are general principles, such as ‘the worker deserves his wages’ (1 Tim 5:18; 1 Cor 9:7-12).
One of the challenges I have picked up on is the difficulty of balancing the employment/friendship tension, especially in a small workforce or team. Staff are employed, someone has to manage them and ensure that work is done, that it is at least satisfactory, and that the person is properly directed and supported in doing the job. But church employment often feels like working in ‘the family firm’ where relationships are key. We are not just colleagues, but family. This is especially true if a staff worker has been appointed from within the church membership. Romans 16 gives us insights into the depths, quality, and closeness of the many working relationships the Apostle Paul had. But it can be a problem area.1
Many church leaders are not trained in this aspect of their role. They tend to ‘pick it up as they go along’. Many feel that they stumble along. They are not sure what is appropriate, as they direct colleagues they are responsible for.
It can get even more complicated with mixed-gender staff. Not only are there important moral boundaries to really respect, there are emotional challenges to face. To create a culture where all feel respected and heard is a complex job, but senior leaders have to model this without showing favouritism (James 2:1-12).
It is a tough calling working for ‘the family firm’. Staff may see a lot of ‘the bad and the ugly’ of church life, more than ‘the good’. Church staff will need to abound in discretion, to trust senior leaders especially when they don’t know all that has gone into the decisions that may affect them, and to grow in fortitude. So they need everyone’s prayers, lots of encouragement, and words of appreciation as they share in the spiritual fight that is church ministry.
1. Pete Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Leader (Zondervan, 2015). His chapter on ‘Power in leadership’ has some astute observations about the problems which can arise when the boundary between ‘employee’ and ‘friend’ is blurred. Worth reading! At this point you may also want to check out an earlier post on staff meetings and structures.