Reforming the Deacons (12): “We Now Know Whom to Blame”

As a student of American history, I’ve long been intrigued by the massive carnage of the American Civil War, and have wondered whom to blame for this most devastating event. The answer, as I’m finding now in a new book called “America’s Great Debate”(by Fergus M. Bordewich; Simon and Schuster, 2012), lies with a number of rabid politicians from both the South and the North, who for decades tried to shout each other down and fought against anyone proposing anything remotely looking like a compromise.

I’m not sure why I needed to fix the blame for this, to have someone identifiable before whose doorstep we could lay this. One would like to think that modern political leaders would learn important lessons in the failures of their predecessors–that failing to deal with the tough issues and handing them off to the next generation is abject dereliction of duty.

On these pages, as I have railed against the practice of deacons ruling the church and bossing the pastors–a practice not even remotely suggested by anything in Scripture–I’ve wondered where it all started.

Now we know.

It has not been a secret, although it has been pretty much unknown. Howard B. Foshee covered this in his 1968 book, “The Ministry of the Deacon,” published by Convention Press. For a generation, his book was the standard for Southern Baptists wanting to know how to organize and train their church’s deacon groups.

In a chapter chronicling “Evolving Concepts of Deacon Service,” Dr. Foshee identifies the smoking gun.

It all began with the 1774 “Charleston Confession of Faith.” Until that time, Foshee says, deacons were seen to be servants of the congregation, doing whatever ministry was necessary. All they had to guide them was the scripture and it was enough.

The Charleston Confession put deacons in charge of “inferior” services of a church.

And what are those “inferior” services of a church?

Foshee says, “Deacons were admonished to serve at the Lord’s table, to collect and dispense for the poor, to aid in maintaining the fellowship of the flock, and to give close attention to relieving the pastor of secular church concerns.”

That last part–“relieving the pastor of secular church concerns”–did the trick. It started many a church down a slippery slope.

Since confessions of faith do not drop down out of Heaven but are written by men in crowded rooms, we conclude that a group of men–however well-intentioned–decided to change the ministry of deacons from the biblical concept. Not good.

In 1846, a Baptist leader named R. B. C. Howell wrote “The Deaconship.” Foshee says it had wide influence among our people for a long time. Howell’s contribution was to insist that deacons focus on administering the temporal affairs of the church.

Foshee says, “(Howell) spoke of the deacon working in his separate department–the secular business of the church–while the pastor tended to the spiritual affairs.”

He adds, “This concept was widely acclaimed, and many churches assigned all church business responsibilities to the pastor.”

Bear in mind that Howell’s book was published one year after the Southern Baptist Convention came into being. Our churches were few in number and tended to be small, rural, and scattered. Pastors were usually bi-vocational, often untrained, and could benefit from qualified laymen helping with the churchwork. Foshee writes, “Since the deacons were often the only elected church officers, they gradually assumed their responsiblities.”

In the 1920’s, Prince E. Burroughs wrote “Honoring the Deaconship.” Written in the form of a church study course, it followed the same approach toward deacon ministry as Howell’s book, and was taught in hundreds of churches across the land.

The error keeps getting perpetuated, the practice takes root in more and more churches, and deacons establish ruling traditions.

And, here we are, nearly a century later, with this erroneous, unbiblical concept of deacon ministry frustrating the work of many a good pastor, dividing and weakening many a congregation, and stifling the effectiveness of the Lord’s people in doing their work . Meanwhile, mostly good and faithful men who should be serving people in need are logging untold hours pouring over financial statements, discussing and voting on hiring staff, purchasing supplies, and whether to add another phone line coming into the office.

Or a mimeograph machine for the secretary.

One of the saddest, but almost laughable, aspects of such a deacon ministry is that after a full evening of hassle and debate over such issues, the men return home dead tired, feeling they have done something for the kingdom, hoping it was all worthwhile. In most cases, I venture to say they haven’t and it wasn’t.

Other groups of lay men and women in the congregation (finance committee, personnel committee, etc) could work with the staff on these issues while the deacons devoted themselves to serving ministry needs of the membership.

Let a church change its deacon assignments from ruling to serving and you will see a mighty exodus of the unspiritual who would far rather rule on financial matters than visit a sick widow in the hospital.

Dr. Foshee suggests four questions to determine if your church’s deacons are functioning as its business managers:

1) Are the deacons’ responsibilities mainly regarding business management matters?

2) Are the deacons administering the churchwork primarily as a business operation?

3) Does your church look upon the deacons as the decision-makers in financial matters?

4) In a deacons meeting, is the primary discussion on the business matters of the church?

As a pastor, I have dragged home many an evening after enduring three hours of such deacons meetings. Again and again, I was discouraged, frustrated, and burdened. Discouraged because of the immaturity on display throughout the evening, frustrated because of the wasted energies and misused talents of some good people, and burdened that there seemed to be no way of changing things.

That’s the impetus for my wanting to reform the deacons. It was not triggered in a moment or by one thing, but resulted from years of painful endurance of pointless deacons meetings.

We have several observations on this subject.

1) Some have tried to use Acts 6:3 as scriptural basis for deacons administering the secular affairs of the church. The apostles told the congregation to “select seven men whom we may put in charge of this business.” The word translated “business,” however, simply means “this need” or “task.”

Deacons are in charge of whatever “tasks” or “needs” the congregation decides. That’s what the Jerusalem church did in Acts 6, and should be their guide today: “What does your church need from its deacon-servants?”

2) If a church finds itself in a situation where it needs the deacons to administer the business affairs–overseeing administration, personnel, financial, buildings and grounds–in place of the pastors, there is no reason why this should not be done. However, no church should “have” to do it this way, none should do so because a book said it’s the norm, and no church should do this without the whole-hearted endorsement of the minister.

3) Deacons are servants, nothing more and nothing less. Scripture puts a great value on the work of a servant. The Lord Jesus said, “I am among you as One who serves.” If that is not enough for us, we are missing something valuable in our Christian faith.

4 thoughts on “Reforming the Deacons (12): “We Now Know Whom to Blame”

  1. I appreciate this series, Joe, and I hope you can put it into a form that will give it wider distribution. It was my privilege to have Howard Foshee as my first boss in denominational work (Church Administration Department at BSSB). He was and is a model of the finest qualities of leadership . I am grateful he was my mentor and is my friend.

    I was privileged to serve as deacon, chair of deacons, and life deacon at FBC Nashville. Under inspired pastoral and lay leadership this church moved gracefully to a servant model of deaconship.

    I have also been privileged to serve as deacon and chair of deacons at FBC Bowling Green, KY. This church also takes seriously the role of deacon as minister. Instead of committees, the deacons are organized into ministry care teams.

  2. It should also be noted that R.B.C. Howell was a long-time pastor of FBC Nashville, and I believe Burroughs was a member at one time. This shows that it took courage and painstaking work to move from deacons as administrators there to deacons as ministers, given their authorship of these books!

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