The church is the “household of God” (1 Timothy 3:15) and like all the households of God’s design it has order and purpose. Elders and Deacons are part of this order and purpose. To some, it might seem like “organizational drudgery” to talk about church structures and offices, etc. But, ultimately, elders and deacons are one of the many complementary relationships God has created to display his glory. Just as a husband and wife are equal in dignity and value, so elders and deacons are equal in dignity and value. Just as the husband in a marriage is called and given certain essential responsibilities and the wife is called to and given different, essential responsibilities, so elders and deacons are given different and essential responsibilities.
When deacons and elders are appointed and appropriately assigned to these responsibilities, the church is acting as the “pillar and buttress of the truth” because it is submitting to God’s design for it.
What Is The Biblical Picture?
Let’s take a look at what we see in Acts 6:1-6
“Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.”
A few observations:
First of all, I see an important implication in this story. The men who were called to prioritize the teaching of the word and prayer were servant-hearted men. Consider the scene: the men knew they were supposed to prioritize teaching, preaching and prayer BUT they did not protect their work by allowing the neglect of the widows to continue. They didn’t say, “not our job!” They actually said, “both these things are important, so how can both be done by the church?” I take the actions of the apostles here to mean that elders/pastors must not think they are “above” the work of deacons. They should not think that the work of deacons is less important than the work of elders. The two roles are different, but both are vital.
This leads to the second observation: The work of deacons is vital because it meets both significant needs in the body, and it gives elders/pastors freedom to protect the quality of the word and prayer ministry. So, this is really two observations in one. (1) Deacon work will involve compassionate care for the needy in the body and (2) will give the elders freedom to concentrate on the word and prayer (e.g., teaching, preaching, spiritual care, prayer, etc.).
Third: the apostles led the way in how the deacons should be chosen, but ultimately, the church chose them. The apostles set the standard for the type of person that should fill the role (good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom). Under that standard, the believers selected these first (or prototype) deacons.
Fourth: The qualifications for deacons were primarily qualifications of character. This is an observation that can be also drawn from 1 Timothy 3:8-13 (see below). Skill was not the deciding factor in appointing these servants. It was character and spiritual maturity.
Now let’s turn to 1 Timothy 3:8-13,
“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.”
A few observations:
First, and again, we see that the qualifications listed here focus on spiritual qualities. Dignified, says what he means, self-controlled, not greedy, etc. It makes practical sense to look for highly skilled people for these roles that require so much hands on activity. But Paul (and the Holy Spirit) places much more importance on character than on skill. Incidentally, I’ve heard recently that even secular business and military leadership is beginning to recognize this principle. Businesses are beginning to build their models on the premise that more people will follow a trustworthy person better and longer than a highly skilled individual that is not trustworthy.
Second, skill can’t be totally absent and the character qualities prove that. When we’re told that deacons cannot be greedy for gain it implies that they must have had some responsibility over finances. We don’t know everything this involved in the first century but it’s conceivable that if the church took donations, disbursed benevolent gifts, or compensated the pastors, the deacons had some level of responsibility for this. So, character is primary, but skill can’t be absent.
Third, the gospel should be the motivation for serving. Deacons must “hold the mystery of faith with a clear conscience”. They must believe the gospel, know the gospel, and be able to explain the gospel to people with confidence and conviction. They need not be skilled teachers. They need not be master debaters, able to silence every atheist blogger they come across online. But they should genuinely believe the gospel and love telling people about it.
Fourth, when deacons take their responsibilities seriously their faith increases. Deacons and elders get a front row seat to all the church’s troubles. They get a look “behind the scenes” and this means they are usually the first to know about the troubles. But, that also means they get a front row seat to how God uses those troubles for His glory and how God provides and delivers in the midst of trial. Because of their position, they “gain great confidence.”
Some Brainstorming Material
9 Marks has a helpful article HERE about the nature of deacons. In that article they helpfully explain that the work of deacons is largely to “facilitate congregational involvement in the ministry”. I think this is helpful. Deacons are not “doing all the work.” They’re helping the body do the work of ministry.
So, as we labor to consider the practical change from an Elder/BOD leadership model at Discovery to an Elder/Deacon model let’s imagine some of the types of ministries that deacons will do or help facilitate.
All Current BOD Responsibilities
– The BOD has served the body well by managing finances, and caring for the facility and this should continue. The men who serve in this capacity are gifted and appreciated for this work and have had a front row seat to how God has provided over the years. This seems a very fitting ministry for deacons.
– Welcome and Hospitality Ministry. This would involve organizing ushers and greeters for Sunday morning and putting intentional thought and practice into welcoming people and showing them a path to greater church involvement.
– Benevolence and mercy. Since the prototype deacons in Acts seemed to have direct concern for meeting the physical needs of a particularly needy segment of the church, this is something that is appropriate for deacons to facilitate at Discovery. This could be as simple as a few deacons establishing a process for checking with our widows or low-income families and finding ways to involve other gifted members in these efforts. They may also want to take charge of the benevolence fund and propose policies for the disbursement of these funds. Since the coffee shop is a ministry of benevolence or good-will to the community it would be natural for some deacons to have a role in facilitating this ministry as well. Probably not essential, but certainly appropriate.
That’s probably plenty to chew on for now. As the year continues I have no doubt the Lord will lead and give us a clarified vision for how we can appropriately apply the New Testament model of elders and deacons to Discovery Church.
PS: Additional Resources
When it comes to the organization of a church according to Biblical standards there is no one out there that is as helpful and clear as 9marks.org. Here are some links to a few helpful articles and books if you’re interested in digging in.
The Committee-Free, Task Specific Deacon (A Note Here: I’m not suggesting this article because I agree with everything in it. I’m suggesting it because it’s provocative in a good way and because it could give us an imagination for how to get some things done more efficiently or organize ministry teams under the deacons’ leadership).