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.

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Reforming the Deacons (11): “Ten No-No’s for Deacons”

Recently, when the directors of missions for our state met in their annual retreat, they asked me to lead an evening session on “Do’s and Do Not’s for DOMs.” On the ride up to our gathering place, a friend asked if I had trouble selecting 10 of each. I said, “Right now, I have the list down to 730.” He laughed, understanding fully what I was saying. There are so many good choices and an equal number of bad.

In this series on “Reforming the Deacons,” that is, remaking your church’s body of deacons into a powerful team of servants, we need to pause and mention some serious practices faithful deacons will avoid.

1. A deacon should never politic to be elected.

Let the church membership choose whom it will. Remembering that diakonos means “the lowliest servant,” one who goes “through the dust” to get a job done, to campaign for election undermines the very idea.

Why would a man (or just as likely, his family and friends) campaign for election as a deacon? In most cases, it’s because that church’s deacons have become the power center of the church and that’s where the authority lies. There is a certain class of humanity that loves to rule, takes pride in exerting influence over others, and enjoys the prestige of being chosen above others. We who find ourselves in that class should take warning, for what it says about our spiritual condition is not good.

Take the deacons’ authority away–which is what we are urging–and ask them to restrict their activities to serving church members in need and working in the background, and you will see an end to the politicking. Few want to be servants; far more want to be the one giving orders to the servants.

2. A deacon should cut no corners of truth in order to be chosen.

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I’ve Been Forgiven? Wow. I’d Forgotten.

If you had nearly died from a strange illness and the doctors had given up hope, then suddenly you recovered and were able to get on with your life, could you ever ever forget that?

If you had suffered on death’s row at Angola Prison, and the prison chaplain was preparing a final prayer and the chef had laid out your last meal, when suddenly the governor pardoned you and you walked outside a free man, and then got on with your life, could you ever forget it?

Apparently some people can forget the most momentuous events in their lives.

Consider this line: For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten that he was forgiven from his past sins. (II Peter 1:9)

It appears that some calling themselves Christians no longer remember that they have been forgiven of their sins. How strange is that? And how does it happen?

I think we know.

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Reforming the Deacons (10): “How to Tell a Servant When You See One”

If to be a deacon means to serve, and if it really matters the quality of the person chosen to serve the congregation, then someone in church leadership must be able to recognize a servant when they see one.

Otherwise, you may end up with a lot of men in your deacon body who want to do anything in the world except serve.

Which, as you think of it, is a perfect description of a thousand deacon groups: a lot of men who want to do many things, none of them being to serve.

Now, before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He should depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end…. (John 13:1)

You will recognize that as the opening of the Upper Room passage where the Lord washes the feet of His disciples, the ultimate act of servitude. In this one verse, we find a number of insights as to the traits of a great servant.

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Reforming the Deacons (9): “Dealing With the Bully”

If the deacon body is to be healthy, it must get rid of toxic members in its fellowship.

Toxic member number one: The bully. He’s the guy who throws his weight around, demands that everyone follow his agenda, issues orders to the pastor and staff, and instills fear in half the people around him.

You thought the problem with bullies ended after elementary school? Think again.

Bullies can be found in the classroom (as professors), on football fields (as coaches or players), in the workplace (more likely, it’s the boss), and, most surprising of all to most people, in church.

All bullies are dangerous to the success of whatever mission they are engaged in. They can wreck the program by demanding their own way, by undermining the work of leaders, and by driving away good people who refuse to cave in to them.

Since the work of the church is the Kingdom of God on earth, a bully in the sacred place can cause damage having eternal consequences.

Now, the church bully can be a pastor, a Sunday School teacher, a somebody or a nobody. But when the bully is a deacon, particularly in a wonderful church doing significant work for the Lord, he is especially dangerous and must be dealt with.

Just one such monster left unchecked and unchallenged can stop a good ministry in its tracks, destroy the work of a faithful pastor, ruin a church’s reputation, hold the Lord’s people up as a laughingstock before the world, and splinter a united congregation.

Bullies cannot be left unguarded, their tactics unchallenged, and their demands unaddressed. Someone must do something.

Has anyone ever written on what deacons should do concerning the bullies within their fellowship?

Diotrephes was a bully. The Apostle John said, “I wrote something to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say. For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does, unjustly accusing us with wicked words, and not satisfied with this, neither does he himself receive the brethren, and he forbids those who desire to do so, and puts them out of the church” (III John 9-10).

The Pharisees were bullies. Jesus said they “shut up the kingdom of heaven from men,” they “devour widows’ houses,” and they are in danger of “the sentence of hell” (Matthew 23).

What should a deacon do about a bully within his own group?

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Reforming the Deacons (8): “How to Begin a Major Overhaul”

The old joke–it’s probably more of a parable–has the mice plotting what to do about the cat. Finally, they decided to tie a bell around the cat’s neck so they could hear it coming.

The only thing they could not agree on was who would bell the cat.

It’s one thing to talk about reforming the deacons, and another thing to do it.

How would one go about it? Where would you start?

Let the deacons take the initiative.

Why them? Because the alternative might create an uproar unnecessarily.

Imagine someone standing in your church business conference to propose a complete reorganization of the deacons, including qualifications, membership, assignments, accountability, and limitations.

Now, imagine this coming as a complete surprise to the deacons.

Imagine further that the deacons are being run–and I do mean “run”–by a few strong-willed individuals who see this as their way of controlling the church and its ministers. And in their mind, that’s a good thing.

You may as well have called them crooks and challenged them to a duel. They are shocked, stunned, enraged, and ready to tear the church up to salvage their honor and prevent this from happening.

That’s why you’re not going to do it. (There is a good reason no mouse volunteered to bell that cat. It’s a suicide mission.)

NOTE: We assume here that the deacon body is in need of wholesale changes, a “drastic overhaul.” If something less than that is needed, you may choose to skip what follows.

Let the deacons take the initiative.

Ideally, if the church’s deacon system is not working or is causing more trouble than it is solving, all the deacons will see and acknowledge it, and will agree to bring the matter to the church.

If that’s the case, the church will do it in a heartbeat.

The second approach is not as clear-cut but better than the alternatives of putting up with the defective status quo or springing it on the deacons in a business meeting.

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Reforming the Deacons (Part 7): “5 Pillars for Deacon Ministry”

On Facebook this week, a woman asked, “Why are you on this kick about deacons?”

I replied that in the last few days, two pastors have emailed me about rogue deacon groups that are making their lives miserable, presenting silly lists of requirements which they have to meet, and threatening them with termination. By what sick interpretation of Scripture does anyone find that kind of activity in God’s Holy Word, someone tell me?

And now, this morning as I sit at the breakfast table typing, one of the pastors emails to say he and his entire staff are being forced out. The church business session he moderated last night, he said, felt like “The Jerry Springer Show.” After the meeting ended, several fist-fights almost broke out. He added that most of the godly leadership of the church is resigning also. (I referenced this pastor in an earlier piece as saying the previous pastor had been forced out after 30 months. “And I am in my 30th month,” he added.)

That’s why. Someone needs to protect the church, not molest it.

The Bride of Christ is being molested. Gang-attacked, if you will.

Safeguarding the Lord’s Church begins with the ministers, those assigned to oversee and shepherd the flock. It continues with a group of people who should be the healthiest, most normal, kindest and most Christlike people in the church: The Deacons.

But if the deacons themselves are not healthy, if they are trouble-makers and preacher-bosses, if they are constantly at war among themselves and often at odds with the rest of the church leadership, the church is at great risk.

What is a healthy deacon ministry? Short answer: it will be right Scripturally.

Longer answer: A healthy deacon ministry will be based on these five pillars:

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Reforming the Deacons (Part 6): “How Not to Choose Deacons”

The Bible does not tell us how to choose deacons.

In fact, it doesn’t even command that we do so. Each church decides for itself whether to have deacons. Once it does to do so, the question then becomes how to choose them.

I cannot tell you the best way to select your church’s deacons, but I can tell you the worst.

By popular vote.

There is no worst system on the planet than simply handing a ballot to the membership containing the names of all adult men and asking people to “Please mark no more than 10” or whatever.

The results will be all over the map.

Some good and godly men will be named, but you may count as fact that others nominated will be without principles, without integrity, and some even without a faith in Christ.

What are people thinking, you wonder. Answer: They’re not.

I have seen churches whose popular vote system allowed for the nomination of men with as few as ten mentions on the ballots. Is there a worst system imaginable? Probably, but I can’t think of one.

“Oh, but you’re asking my church to change the way it elects deacons? That’s not going to happen.”

Then your church deserves the trouble that is coming its way.

A church–initially, its pastors and key leadership–has to decide whether its present system is working or failing. Only the fainthearted among us would want to keep a non-working system because changing it would create waves within the membership.

Sometimes making waves is a good thing. Leaders without the courage to make needed changes in the church structure for fear of stirring up opposition have no business calling themselves leaders.

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What if the Events of Acts 6 Happened in Church Today? (Part 5 of “Reforming the Deacons”)

A most unusual thing happened.

A church found itself with an internal problem and no one blamed the preachers.

Now, at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food.

And the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. But select from among you, brethren, seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.

But we will devote ourselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:1-4)

The congregation was being torn apart by dissension and no one blamed the preachers.

When the preachers brought the congregation together with a solution, no one protested that the apostles were being autocratic.

No one argued when the disciples insisted that others should deal with this issue in order for them to keep to their priorities (“the word of God”).

No one enlarged the spiritual qualifications to include their pet peeves about deacons.

The congregation followed the lead of the pastors, the pastors held to their priorities, the congregation chose seven godly men, and the matter was dealt with beautifully.

Amazing, ain’t it?

And the statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch.

And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:5-6)

No one seemed to mind that all seven of the men were men.

No one seemed to mind that all seven of the names are Greek, indicating that the congregation chose these men from the minority group that had caused the ruckus in the first place. An incredibly mature act.

No one protested that after selecting them, the congregation then brought them to the disciples (the apostles) for their approval. The disciples prayed for guidance from the Lord, apparently received it, then “laid hands on them,” the equivalent of ordaining them.

No one seemed to protest.

What a strange church. A problem arises and they meet it head on. There is no protesting, no rebelling against spiritual leadership, no insistence on “my rights,” no need to alter the recommendation, and no delay. There is unity, love, and submission.

No wonder outsiders wanted in on this.

And the word of God kept on spreading; and the number of disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7)

Question: How long has it been since your church solved an internal problem with such swiftness and sweetness that outsiders were impressed and wanted to join?

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Reforming the Deacons (Part 4): 50 Acts of Service

What should deacons do?

If Acts 6:1-7 is to be our example and guide, the work of deacons may be defined as: whatever the congregation decides it needs, as prompted by the leadership, as chosen by the congregation, as solves the situation, and as will enhance the proclamation of the gospel.

We would appreciate a few more examples from Scripture as to what deacons did in the early church. Not having them, we are left to follow the few principles found there and the leading of the Holy Spirit as we perceive it.

Before sharing our list of 50 acts of deacon service, let us make these five observations concerning their work:

1. There is no definitive list anywhere giving the responsibilities of deacons.

2. The guiding principles seem to be a) whatever the church needs and b) the leadership supports.

3. Deacons are servants and are not found to be in authority over anyone anywhere in Scripture.

4. We should think of deacons as “leading from the rear.” They keep the flock together, take care of stragglers, work for unity, and help the fallen along the way. The pastor or pastors ride point. (Anyone dismissing this work as unimportant needs to think again.)

5. The work of deacons will vary from church to church, and from year to year. But, as in Acts 6:7, their service should always reflect so positively on the Lord Jesus Christ that outsiders will want to join such a wonderful fellowship.

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