Writings about deacons tend to fall into two groups: the mind-numbingly boring and the scripture-exceeding authoritative.
The dull writings are well-intentioned, we will grant. The writers tended to be denominational servants assigned to this strata of church leadership. I imagine that someone above them felt that a book on this subject would be in order, would do some good, and would sell. They proceeded to write the book which hundreds and thousands of churches bought and then taught to their people for generations. What such books refused to do, however, was to deal with practical questions, issues which bug us to this day. (For some of those questions, keep reading.)
The overly authoritative writings regarding deacons may be reactions against the boring publications, but more likely are responses of the writers to misguided deacon groups they have come up against. In trying to correct the errors, the imbalance, or the tangents these deacons have veered upon, the writers cancel out all interpretations but their own.
Let’s try to avoid both those ditches and stay in the road here.
Questions we wish Scriptures had answered for us concerning the deacons:
1) Since there were obviously many New Testament churches with deacons, what did they do?
We know other churches had deacons since Paul instructs Timothy about them in I Timothy 3. We can wish he had told us what some of them were doing. The fact that he didn’t–that is, that the Holy Spirit did not see fit to include this in Holy Scripture–tells us the Lord did not want us to be hide-bound to literalism here.
2) After the Jerusalem church of Acts 6 chose deacons and assigned them to food distribution, what happened next?
Was that set-up temporary or permanent? Was the ministry of the Jerusalem deacons limited to food distribution to the widows? What would have happened, let’s say, if the church had become wealthy and there were no more needy among their membership? (This is not theoretical; many American churches have no poor in their congregations.)
Did their ministry evolve into something else? Did the deacons dissolve after the needs were met?
Enquiring minds want to know. (Sorry. I couldn’t resist that.)
3) What kind of organization did the first generation of deacons have?
Should deacons have officers, and if so, what are they? Should deacons be chosen on a rotation basis or elected for life? Is there a scriptural plan or is each church free to make its own choices?
4) Were there instances of deacons becoming a problem by taking too much authority for themselves?
In our day, deacons have sometimes and in some places become a major problem within the church. We emphasize that such troublesome deacons are the exception, and not the rule. However, one aberrant group of deacons can give the rest a bad name.
Some deacons with which we are familiar set themselves above any accountability, see themselves as the board of directors for the congregation as well as the supervisor of the pastor and ministerial staff, and set the rules and standards for their own election and continuance. This is as far from the scriptural plan as anything we can imagine.
From Scripture, we see that the earliest churches had their share of internal strife and divisions. Therefore, we’re probably safe in concluding some deacon groups were causing more problems than they were solving. We would have liked to have known about these. (After all, Paul’s instructions to the problem churches gave us some of the best writings in the New Testament for ordering the fellowship of the congregation.)
5) What about women deacons?
In Paul’s instructions concerning the qualifications of deacons, he says, “The women also” (I Timothy 3:11). The Greek here can be translated either “their wives” or “the women.” Churches with women deacons choose the latter; others prefer the first.
In his commentary, John MacArthur writes, “Paul likely here refers not to deacons’ wives, but to the women who serve as deacons. The use of the word ‘likewise’ as an introduction (cf.v.8) suggests a third group in addition to elders and deacons. Also, since Paul gave no requirements for elders’ wives, there is no reason to assume these would be qualifications for deacons’ wives.”
Over 42 years I pastored six churches, none of which had women deacons. However, at least two would have benefited greatly from having a few godly women in their mix!
As with many doctrinal and practical matters in Scripture, good people differ. We can wish this was clear in the Word. (And that everyone agreed on it!)
6) Did the ministry of deacons vary from church to church? And did it change from time to time?
There is not a word to answer these questions. Therefore, God’s people have been all over the map in the way they have dealt with the ministry of deacons.
Personally, I think the absence of hard-and-fast answers to these and the other questions was no oversight of Paul but the plan of the Holy Spirit. God’s Word is not intended as a strait jacket to bind and limit us, but as a guide to help and strengthen us. It is “a light unto our path” (Psalm 119:105), not a slavedriver or taskmaster.
7) Is there a problem if a church chooses not to have deacons at all?
When we have posted questions on Facebook asking what churches are doing concerning deacons, inevitably a few will respond, “We have no deacons.” And often, if the writer is a pastor, he will add, “And we like it that way.”
Bearing in mind that “diakonos” means “servant,” no church can function without servants. This is the very character and definition of the Lord’s people (see Matthew 20:25-28). But many congregations without an official group called deacons seem to function very well. In deciding not to have them, they may head off one problem. The question remains whether they end up creating other problems.
In the absence of answers to these questions, what may we conclude?
1) We may conclude that God gave us what He wanted us to have and no more.
After all, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3:16-17).
If we fall into the trap of criticizing God’s Word for what it does not say and seek to remedy that omission by adding to it, we create a world of problems. (I’m remembering a visiting preacher who told a neighboring congregation that the Bible was at fault for not addressing drugs, nuclear war, and capital punishment. He would have convened a denominational council to make amendments to Scripture. The prospect of that horrifies me.)
2) We may conclude that, in the absence of strict guidelines, churches are to avoid hard and fast rules governing the selection, operation, and ministry of deacons.
The pattern of the Acts 6 church is a good one: A need arose which the pastors felt others could handle better than they; the ministers stayed with their priorities; the congregation responded faithfully and promptly; and those chosen did their ministries so well that the watching world was impressed and wanted in on what they beheld.
Oh, that we would handle our internal conflicts so faithfully and successfully.
3) We must be flexible and adaptable.
We can feel confident that if the situation in Jerusalem had changed, the assignment of the seven would have been altered accordingly. In fact, the number and makeup of these servants may well have changed also.
The absence of hard-and-fast rules leaves the individual congregations open to respond to local needs in accordance with Scripture and the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
Church A may need 25 deacons this year and only 10 next year. Church B may need several women serving alongside the men because of their unique situation. Church C may need no deacons at all this year, but need to select some next year.
4) Look for scriptural principles.
This is always the plan for scriptural interpretation when the Bible does not address situations we find ourselves facing: look for the principles.
What principles govern the selection, operation, and ministry of deacons? First, we must treat Paul’s instructions to Timothy (I Timothy 3) as revealed Truth for God’s church, and not merely suggestions or guidelines. However, we should not add to it, making becoming a deacon harder than what the Word says.
Second, we look to the Jerusalem church of Acts 6 for our example.
Beyond that, we are guided by scripture’s teachings on love, conflict management (Matthew 18:15-17), service, and such.
What about (for want of a better term) “the law of common sense”? Should that be a factor in decisions our churches make, leaders it chooses, etc?
There is no such law. There is only what seems reasonable (“no-brainers”) to the assembly as a whole or the majority of the congregation or the leadership. We should emphasize, there is much to be said for using common sense. And, do we need to point out that when churches have failed to exercise sound judgment they have done great damage to their mission and made themselves a laughingstock before the world?
5) The non-negotiable principles of the ministry of deacons seem to be these:
a) They are among the godliest members of the church.
Both I Timothy 3 and Acts 6 emphasize they are to be disciples of the highest character and Christlikeness. If a church cannot find such people within its membership, it should leave the office of deacon vacant. Put immature or ungodly men into the diaconate and you have done them, the Lord, and the church a gross disservice.
b) They serve the congregation.
Their focus is inward, not outward. They ride drag, seeing that none of the members are left behind. They function within the body like white corpuscles, rushing to the first sign of infection and doing whatever is necessary for the health of the congregation.
c) They serve under the authority of the pastors.
Acts 20:28 makes it plain that the Holy Spirit makes the pastors the “overseers” (episcopoi) of the Lord’s flock. There’s not a word of scripture elsewhere saying anything different.
d) They are devoted to the unity and health of the church.
They are not the ones to give primary direction to the church; that’s the role of the pastors. Deacons respond to needs that arise within the body of believers, whatever is necessary to keep the church together, faithful, and strong.
e) Their focus is on meeting needs that have been unaddressed.
If the senior members of the congregation are feeling neglected and left out of ministry, and if the church already has in place people assigned to them, the solution is not for the deacons to do an end-run and interfere. Instead, they might do something as simple as asking the minister-in-charge, “What can we do to help?”
If members in financial need are being overlooked, deacons will want to ask the ministers, “How can we help?” After asking the question, they should be prepared to act, because they’ll probably get an earful. (Smiley-face goes here.)
For good reason, the Lord chose not to make the Bible a rule-book filled with laws governing every conceivable situation that could arise. We can only imagine the size of that book! Instead, He made the Bible something else entirely: a guidebook with instructions and insights, examples and stories and encouragements.
Then, lest we give in to our love for legalistic interpretations and our obsession with rules, He left us this:
“The words that I speak to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63).
“(He) has made us ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (II Corinthians 3:6).