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:

1. Deacons are to be Spirit-filled and godly.

In brief, the deacons should be the healthiest men in the church. Period.

What is difficult about that?

We’re talking about spiritual health. This is what the apostles told the congregation at Jerusalem: “Select from among you, brethren, seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” (Acts 6:3)

Even if these three descriptions were all we had (i.e, even if we did not have I Timothy 3:8-13), they would be sufficient to give the church its finest men to serve in the most critical ways.

Good reputation. What are people saying about this person? If the community knows him in one way and the church in another, there’s a red flag.

I had a phone call from a man in a city where I once served. He said, “I know that Arnold Berinski is a deacon in your church.” Yes he is. “Well, sir, he is a hard-cursing, mean-spirited and coarse man. I’d be embarrassed to have him be my deacon.”

What the community thinks of a man is not the complete matter, but it is one key element in the matter.

Full of the Holy Spirit. The best test for the presence of the Spirit is the fruit of the Spirit. So, look at the nine character traits in Galatians 5:22-23 and consider each man in their light.

My pastor said last Sunday morning, “There’s an interesting thing about godliness: the most godly person does not know he’s godly. Because the closer to the light you get, the more imperfections you see in yourself. Others will see the Christlikeness before you wlil.”

That’s why “of good reputation” is essential. Do others in the congregation–and out of it, too, for that matter–see the Jesus-character of this man which indicates the ruling presence of the Holy Spirit?

Full of wisdom. Is there “smarts” in the man? Does he have a clue about how God works in the world? Does he know the Word of God (after all, where do you think wisdom comes from?)?

“The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy” (James 3:17).

2. Deacons are servants.

This is so elementary, we should almost be embarrassed to make the point. That’s what diakonos means. Only 3 times in the New Testament does the word refer to deacons in the church. All the other times (see a previous article in this series) the word refers to household or estate servants.

A servant works to make others successful. He/she stays in the background.

The most amazing insight about servants from our Lord is found in Luke 17:7-10.

But which one of you having a slave plowing or tending sheep will say to him when he has come in from the field, “Come immediately and sit down to eat”?

But will he not say to him, “Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me until I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink”?

He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he?

So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, “We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.”

Take that attitude–deacons, preachers, Christians–and you will head off a thousand ego problems in advance. (I always want to point out that nowhere does the Lord say we should say these things to one another, or that God says them about us. But by saying this to ourselves, we rein in the ego, we rebuke our self-centeredness which insists on appreciation, and we release our spirits to serve our Lord even moreso.)

3. Deacons serve the congregation.

Based on the few references to deacons in Scripture, we conclude that deacons were chosen to deal with needs within the congregation and not in the community at large.

Some will take issue with this, insisting that one sign of a sick church is its demand that all its resources and energies be spent taking care of its own needs as opposed to outside ministries and missions. No argument there. However, you cannot read the New Testament without being impressed by the huge emphasis Jesus puts on believers taking care of one another.

At every opportunity, I encourage pastors to get a copy of “One Anothering,” the small volume written by Al Meredith and Dan Crawford. These two men focus on the 31 times in the New Testament where believers are told to minister to “one another” (rebuke, teach, encourage, love, etc)–many of them are repeated again and again–with a chapter on each.

A recent government program directed toward early childhood education had as its theme “No Child Left Behind.” In the church, that’s the work of deacons; to make sure that no church member is left behind in ministry, teaching, nurture.

4. Deacons serve under the oversight of the pastors.

Acts 20:28 makes the point that the pastors/elders are made overseers of the church (episkopos) by the Holy Spirit.

Overseer does not mean boss or dictator. But it does mean overseer. (Our word “supervisor” is the same word. Super means “over” and visor means “to see.”)

Unless this is spelled out in so many words in church documents, the human (and thus “sinful”) tendency will be to drift away from this oversight. Before long, particularly if no oversight is ever given by the ministers, a headstrong deacon leader, one who has forgotten if he ever knew the proper order for this ministry, will assert authority over the pastors. The life of the church is all downhill from that moment on. Nothing good will come from this. Nada. Zilch. The news will all be bad.

Someone asks, “But what if the pastor is lazy or preaching false doctrine or has fallen into sin?” Answer: He must be dealt with. But not by the deacons; they do not have this as their assignment.

Each church should have a liaison group that stands with the minister, speaks up for him when necessary, and speaks to him forcefully when required. In many churches, this will be the personnel committee.

5. Deacons are always accountable to the congregation.

Deacons do not choose or recommend or nominate the next people to be elected as deacons.

Deacons do not write or rewrite their bylaws.

Deacons do not establish the specifics of requirements as to who will be elected as deacons in their church.

The church does this. The deacon group which nominates its own members or writes their own guidelines or establishes their own qualifications is usurping the authority of the church.

Deacons may individually be asked to serve on task forces assigned with these or any other projects. But the understanding must always be that this church is congregation-led and that the membership will make the final decision on all matters.

I have no idea what issues were dividing the Baptist church where the dogfights broke out last night.

But I can tell you who was in the wrong.

Both sides.

If both sides are fighting, both are in the wrong. Better to walk away from an angry brother or sister than descend into the sinful, fleshly mode of cursing, harshness, and ugly behavior. Wounds are afflicted in such verbal attacks that will never heal.

The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle…. (James 3:17)

Let these words soak down deep, Christian. Deacon. Pastor.

James 3:17 is your mandate in relating to one another. If you cannot accept that, please–please!–when a church member approaches you with the request that you serve the church in any capacity, please say “thank you, but no.” If they persist, simply say, “I am not qualified.” And stand your ground.

Nothing blesses a church more than a sweet, godly believer serving in a key capacity. However, almost as beneficial to the church is when a carnal, immature believer refuses to serve.

Let it mean something wonderful when your church selects you as a servant.

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

  1. One issue keeps hiding in the background in this series, but today you brought it out. The issue of who is the overseer? I think that is one major part of our present deacon trouble.

    Since we (SBC) typically hold that only one pastor, the senior pastor, fits this role, we create a leadership vacuum. Biblically we constantly see a plurality of elders in the local church, from Jerusalem to Crete. Without a plurality of elders the deacons step into the role by default to one degree or another. The problem with that is the deacons are not equipped for the role. One distinguishing feature of elders vs. deacons in 1 Tim. is the elders have the ability to teach (this means both a gifting to do the task and a living knowledge of the Word to teach) and most deacons do not fit that criteria. Thus, their leadership is not informed by the Word and, of course, goes badly.

    The other major aspect that affects us, I think Dr. Chuck Kelly hit on in his speech called “The New Methodists.” His concluding lesson was this, “Aggressive Evangelism without Aggressive Discipleship will eventually undo itself.” In other words, where he sees the SBC – lots of evangelism with decades of little discipleship. We are seeing the results of generations not being aggressively discipled and thus the deacons we have are not the disciples we need.

    The solution is to change the leadership picture of our local churches, but most of all begin discipling. (By the way it is a verb in the Greek, so let’s make it one in English as well.) The results will not fully be seen for a generation maybe, but it will bring a major shift to the problem.

  2. A good resource for the expectations of deacons can also be found in Ignatius of Antioch’s seven letters, where he mentions deacons quite often.

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