One of the hallmarks of reformed theology is captured in the cry of Sola Scriptura! We recall from 2 Peter 1:3 that the Lord has given us all we need for life and godliness – and this applies no less to life in the local church than to the individual Christian. As we consider the various way local churches deploy the office of deacon, it is painfully apparent that many of us have lost sight of the completeness of the wisdom our Lord has provided us and the reason for it – that how we serve Him and one another would be to the glory of His name and the good of His people.
The Scriptures are clear in describing two distinct offices (by this I mean positions with defined responsibilities) within the local church: elder/overseer/pastor and deacon are identified and qualified in 1 Tim 3. The men who serve in these offices are co-laborers, with distinctly different roles within the church. The account in Acts 6 gives a clear delineation between the two offices (with the Apostles as the spiritual shepherds at this time, prior to New Covenant elders), showing the service aspect of deacon ministry contrasted with the ministry of the word and prayer.
Robert Boyt C. Howell, in The Deaconship, laments “much confusion and division of sentiment regarding the nature of the office”; and he points out how so many church groups miss the Scriptural teachings that describe the conduct of those who hold the office of deacon. “Nearly all the churches have made them ministers of the gospel. In the Roman Catholic church he is an inferior ecclesiastic, the second in the sacred order, who, with the permission of the bishop, has authority to preach and baptize. In the English church the Deacons are clergymen, but of the lowest grade; who can perform all the offices of priests, except the consecration of the sacred elements and the pronouncing of the absolution. In the German Protestant churches, when more ministers than one in the same congregation are necessary, the second, or assistant minister, is called the Deacon; and if there are two assistants the first is called the Arch-Deacon. In the Presbyterian church, the office is commonly merged with that of ruling elder, and, therefore, mostly disused. Where it is still retained, it embraces, as among Congregationalists and others, merely the distribution of alms. The Methodist and Episcopal churches in this country adopt, substantially, the practice of the English church, of which they are descendants. In the Baptist churches, the Deacons are not ministers who preach, on the one hand, nor mere distributors of alms on the other, but serve in a different capacity. They are a board of directors, and have charge of all the secular affairs in the kingdom of Christ.” It is not unusual for Baptist deacons to have hire & fire authority over the pastor (a corollary error in this circumstance is the absence of a plurality of elders). In the end, nobody escapes unscathed! And this all-too-common Baptist practice is blatantly taken from the modern business world, and puts the lower office of deacon as overseers of the those called to be overseers!
We need to ask – is the Bible so unclear on the nature and duties of the office of deacon? Brothers, this is not the case! It is sin that keeps God's people from seeing clearly, not a lack of clarity in God's Holy Word, for we still see through the glass darkly. Certainly, the Greek word, diaconos, means servant and oft times in Scripture refers not to those in this office, but to others who serve the local body of Christ in many ways. This gives some men excuse to enlarge the office to include women. I do not see how it, or anything else, excuses men who label “under-elders” or elders in training as “deacons”. This background is necessary, if we are to rightly see the biblical case for actual role of the deacon and how we, as Reformed Baptists, should employ the men who serve in this office. If we are people of the Book – as Baptists and all Reformed people have long claimed to be – we must abide by what the Book reveals, and guard against traditions not found therein. Sola Scriptura! applies here, not only in the
deeper waters of soteriology.
Let's look at the text, 1 Tim 3:8-13 (ESV):
8 Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober- minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
The qualifications of deacons differ from those of elders on the single requirement of elders, but not deacons, being able to teach the Word of God. Deacons are not required to be spiritual guides, feeders of the flock, or teachers; they are required as to be trustworthy and of moral character as they deal with matters of temporal importance. The distinction between these two important roles is clearly portrayed in Acts 6, where the feeders of the flock appointed 7 godly men (who were brought to them by the people – not far different from a nomination process) to tend to the temporal affairs of the gathering so they would be dragged away from their devotion to prayer and teaching.
Deacons are to be men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit, holding the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. From my own experience, I have seen these bedrock character traits often neglected when selecting deacons – as churches focus on the man's record of financial giving and abstinence from alcohol. These three traits - of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit, holding the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience – are not so easily quantified. It takes serious thought and hard work to determine if a man has a good reputation among his neighbors and work colleagues. It takes time and discernment to see if there be evidence of the Holy Spirit in a man. And who wants to put a man on the spot and see if he holds the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience? Can you even explain this requirement, much less investigate it? The requirement that deacons be tested first gives us a hint that we should invest the time and energy in examining would-be deacons; and not assuming these traits be theirs. This testing also provides the opportunity to see if his wife is sober minded and faithful, if his children are “managed well”. We must exercise the full measure of the biblical text to prove the men who would serve as deacons – they are care-takers of God's sheep and co-laborers with His under- shepherds. This is a high calling – those who serve well gain a good standing – and we cannot allow our lazy human minds to rest on our own wisdom, or the taking of shortcuts or reliance on the traditions handed to us by other men. Finding men who tithe and do not frequent bars is too low a bar for the office our Lord established for the temporal care of His redeemed.
The Scripture tells us much more about what is required of elders in the performance of their shepherding duties than it tells us about what temporal care responsibilities are required of deacons. This service is not reasonably limited to “serving tables” - deacon care is broad and left largely to the church to define; it is not as strategic nor eternal as is the teaching and preaching. This is why Scripture has less to say about this serving ministry than it does about the shepherding ministry - the City of God is eternal, the City of Man is temporal. Yet this does not give us permission to be unhinged from Scripture in defining the role of deacon service in our churches. For example, one must seek to understand what Paul meant in describing "the role" within a church to which only "widows indeed" were to be enrolled in order to serve well in this office. As in all aspects of life, lack of diligence in handling manna within the church can have serious consequences – this role demands maturity and love for God and His people.
And the job of deacon gets more complicated when one rightly recognizes that there is a spiritual, or theological concern tied to every temporal issue – as was the case with the situation recorded in Acts chapter 6, where we see selfishness - idolatry of self - on display. Elders and deacons in each church must have solid fellowship and open lines of communication – elders refer people to deacons rather than resolving “table issues” themselves and deacons address some spiritual/theological issues as they work on temporal matters. Elders need to devote themselves to prayer and the Word of God; deacons cannot carry an elder in their pockets when the theological aspect of a temporal matter is addressed. Deacons need wisdom to know when an elder is needed; elders and deacons must trust one another. They must know one another well to develop this trust. This calls for maturity and is one of the main reasons the Word of God lays out pretty much identical qualifications for each office.
GfBC strives to work according to a shepherding matrix, which primarily provides the framework for how our elders shepherd the flock and also assigns duties to the deacons. This shepherding matrix recognizes that these ministries must be biblical, not merely busy. They must be systematic, not left to whimsy; comprehensive, not focused on whiners and needy people; and they must be relational, not merely programmatic.
Systematic + Relational without Comprehensive = Exclusional (some are left out)
Systematic + Comprehensive without Relational = Institutional (impersonal)
Comprehensive + Relational without Systematic = Recreational (lack of focus)
Shepherds are to visit each home with their family groups at least annually and call each home at least monthly. Deacons take attendance and review that with the elders, as one of the first signs of a sick sheep is inconsistent attendance.
At GfBC, we have far more deacons per member than other churches I've served in and heard of: 10 deacons with a membership of approximately 260. Each deacon is responsible for staying in touch with an assigned group of families (5 to 7 families per deacon), at least a monthly phone with each, and visits when possible and when needed. These visits can be for fellowship, providing requested assistance, and for checking up on a family – do they appear in their home to be the same family that shows up for church on Sunday? Does the father exhibit those Christian characteristics we read in 1 Tim 3? Negligence of a father to properly lead and teach his family would be a matter of prayer and reproof, with intervention by the assigned elder when appropriate.
As we desire our men to provide for their families – spiritually as well as physically – our deacons are to help families in each arena, with boundaries in both. Neither the church nor either office therein can unreasonably meddle with a family. God has established three spheres in this age, with specific roles and limits. It's been said that to the state God gave the sword, to the church He gave the keys to the kingdom, and the family He gave the rod of correction. We should not cross these boundaries without a clear biblical basis. So wisdom and care is needed so we tend to God's people without ruling over them as "Gentiles" tend to do.
When a deacon assists a family in managing its money, for example, the goal is for the family to learn to live within its means and see those means as a gift from God to be properly stewarded. Idolatry is likely to crop up in this situation just as it did in Acts 6. To provide both our deacons and our families a clear picture of responsibilities for each, GfBC has published a single-page document describing how our benevolence program works and what its limits are. We make a large percentage of our annual budget available to this deacon managed benevolence program, knowing that we must be ready to help members when extraordinary circumstances arise. Participation in this benevolence program carries certain responsibilities for the family as well as for the church. Our one-page document explains this
and escalates authority to the elders if certain limits (money and membership) are exceeded. This not only guides all concerned, it provides accountability on the entire ministry and those who administer it. We are, after all, to avoid all appearance of evil and covetousness.
As mentioned above, in the seemingly mechanical task of taking attendance, the deacons provide a significant spiritual duty, as neglecting the assembling with the redeemed may be symptomatic of a spiritual problem. Healthy church members let their deacons know ahead of time when they will miss – and explain why. They will be more inclined to assemble with another local body while away if they properly understand church membership. This exercise of membership responsibilities is representative of any number of other earthly matters that deacons are likely to get involved with, each of which most often reflects the spiritual condition of the person. Lack of attendance and interest in church life, neglecting to worship in giving money, and many other concerns can be prompted by earthly things – illness, loss of work, death in the family, etc. In order to be wise stewards of the office, deacons must not presume to know the cause without investigating it – learning from Job who investigated the cause of what he did not know (Job 29:16). This keeps us from the sin of presumption and all that tends to follow closely behind.
As we examine men who would and do serve in our churches as deacons; as we consider how we determine the role of the office and how we select these men - let us humbly petition our God for wisdom and grace to do what is right in His sight. Let our aim be to glorify our God and Savior and do good for His people, who are His body - the bride of the resurrected and soon coming Lord Jesus, the Christ of our God!
Minister of Mercy – The New Testament Deacon, Alexander Strauch
Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons, Thabiti Anyabwile
40 Questions About Elders and Deacons, Benjamin Merkel
The Gospel Developed, William Bullein Johnson The Deaconship, Robert Boyt C. Howell