Reforming the Deacons (18): “What Unity Means Within the Deacons”

I’ve seen this happen.

The deacons studied a proposal, discussed it at length, found they were divided, and took a vote, resulting in a split decision. The majority decided to go forward and brought the recommendation to the congregation in the monthly business meeting.

After the chairman of the deacons had his say, another deacon stood to oppose it. This opened the door for a floor fight between the two factions within the deacon body, while the congregation sat and watched in stunned silence.

As the new pastor of that church, I had been caught off guard by this. At the next deacons meeting, I brought up what they had done and tried to analyze it with them. And succeeded in making almost all of them angry at me.

“There needs to be a consensus,” I said, “that when the deacons recommend something to the church, all of you will support it. That means no deacon will oppose it in the church conference.”

You would have thought I had suggested they give up all rights as Americans. “The very idea!” someone said. “I have a right to speak out. I served three years in Korea to preserve that right.”

I saw immediately this was not going to be as easy as I had expected. Somehow I had expected these men, being deacons, would have some godly maturity about them and would want what was best for the church. I was wrong. What they wanted more than anything was their individual rights.

I tried reasoning with them. “If you’re going to fight it out on the floor of the church, then what was the purpose of the meeting in this room? The church expects you to knock the hard edges of these issues in here and come together on something you can all support.”

Like talking to a wall.

Deacons are to protect the unity of the congregation.

“Be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

Think of deacons as the white corpuscles of the church. When there is infection, they rush to find it, seal it off, and deal with it.

Their overarching concern is for the health of the Lord’s people. Anything threatening that health has their full and undivided attention.

In the matter at hand, the deacons themselves were the threat. They were sowing discord within the church body. When they could not agree on a recommendation, they should have tabled it. By bringing it to the church when some of their group opposed it, they laid the foundation for a full church fight in public. No responsible church leader would do such a thing.

You know already what I think of the maturity level of that group of deacons. There were among them several godly men of wisdom and character. But over the years, they had been silenced by the bullying tactics of a few leaders, including possibly a pastor or two, to the point that they had given up trying to get the body to do right. In so doing, they had abandoned their calling to protect the sheep. They were “going along to get along.”

So, within that body we had the immature calling the shots, insisting on getting their way, while the mature sat back and acquiesced.

A key question to ask before anything is brought to the church in a business session by any leadership group is: “What will be the effect on the congregation?” Unless you know the answer to be a positive, strengthening effect, then back away.

When deacons bring a recommendation to the church, all should support it.

First, the matter should not leave the room until everyone is on board. All recommendations from the deacons to the church should be unanimous. All of them.

Explanatory note: most of these “reforming the deacons” principles suggest that deacons should be servants of the church and not rulers, not handling the “business of the church.” However, some churches will persist in the old model where deacons keep their hand on the pulse of the congregation, hear reports on activities and ministries and make recommendations to the church. This principle applies primarily to such a deacon body.

Once everyone is on board with the proposal to be presented to the church, it should be assumed that any deacon speaking out on the matter will support it.

Question: What if a deacon discovers between the deacons meeting and the church business session that something is amiss and he can no longer support the recommendation?

Answer: He should go privately and inform the chairman of the deacons. The chairman will decide whether to proceed with the plans or return to the drawing board. If he decides to go forward with that deacon protesting, the deacon should think long and hard about rising on the floor of the church to oppose the matter.

What difference does it make if a deacon publicly opposes a recommendation from the deacon body?

When that happens, it’s embarrassing to the deacons. It shows the chairman in a bad light.It’s most uncomfortable to the other deacons. It strains relationships between brothers.

When that happens, it’s damaging and confusing to the congregation. The members have a right to expect (if the deacons are going to deal with such matters at all) that these issues are hashed out on the floor of the deacons meeting to protect the congregation from dissension.  When the deacons publicly oppose one another in church conference, the membership is confused and automatically begins to take sides. No good comes of this.

It’s a sure recipe for disaster.

The deacon who is speaking against the deacons’ recommendation spends all the good will he has amassed over many years. Rebuilding the confidence and trust of the other deacons will take a long time. For that reason, unless the issue at hand is of major importance, even though he opposes the action, a deacon would do well–for the benefit of the church as a whole–to keep his objections to himself.

Doesn’t a deacon have a right to speak out when he disagrees?

Yes, he has the “right.” But any deacon who defines his ministry by “rights” and “entitlements” is a danger to the church and a threat to the deacon body. Christian discipleship is not about “rights,” but “responsibilities,” not about honors but obedience, not about self-expression but self-denial.

The deacon who publicly opposes the recommendation of his leadership, whether that is the deacon leadership or the pastors, will pay a high price in lost trust and damage within the church body. Unless the matter is of critical importance, he should sit there in silence, offering up the prayer of Psalm 141:3 –“Set a guard upon my mouth, O Lord. Keep watch over the door of my lips.”


Just as a father would die to protect his defenseless young children, the deacons (and pastoral staff also) should go to great lengths to protect the church congregation from disunity and division. If that means submitting themselves to the will of the larger body for the greater good, well, Ephesians 5:21 says that’s a good thing to do.

Lest some protest that there are times when one must dissent and protest for the integrity of his soul and the ultimate good of the Lord’s work, we do not question that at all. Christian history is populated by stories of strong, faithful men and women who laid their lives across those railroad tracks, so to speak, determined to “stop that train or die in the attempt.” If the issue is of major consequence–the inspiration of Scripture, salvation by grace through faith, the incarnation, the Trinity, or redemption–then one may need to stand alone (or with a minority) and hold his ground.

In most churches however, the issues that divide congregations are of far less seriousness. Whether to fund the pastor’s trip to a convention, whether to transfer money from one church fund to another for a specific purpose, to employ this young man to work with the youth, to construct the children’s educational building, or to redecorate the sanctuary for the church’s 50th anniversary–these and a thousand such minor issues have been known to divide congregations, derail ministries, and destroy fellowship.

When that happens, the devil throws a celebration, the gospel work is shelved, the unreached of the community are forgotten, and God in Heaven is dishonored.

Let the deacons–and all other leaders of the church–do everything in their power to bless the church and protect its health.

Even if that means going along with changing the color of the carpet in the sanctuary to fuchsia.






3 thoughts on “Reforming the Deacons (18): “What Unity Means Within the Deacons”

  1. I agree to a large degree, but not entirely. I’ve got sandbagged twice on this score. Once we had a building committee with one deacon dissenting that recommended a new building. A poorly attended deacons meeting decided to make no recommendation, but leave it to the congregation. At the Sunday morning service, with no prior notification to me, a distinguished deacon presented a rump report of about three others in favor but with a price cap the deacon on the committee had recommended. To avoid a disruptive fight, I assumed the authority to postpone the vote and deal with it later. I expected to be there long enough to build the building, but the Lord moved me, and it had nothing to do with the rejection. (BTW, I suspected then and now, that some of the deacons’ wives were behind most of the opposition.) The second time in another church, the deacons had recommended a rotation system after discussion, but no objection. But at the business meeting, a deacon announced that his brother had been rotated off at another church, not voted back on after a year, and left the church. It stymied the vote and many years later there’s no rotation to my knowledge. On the other hand, I’ve often suspected that dissent is aggravated when the church is not used to it and doesn’t know how to handle it.

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