In a fit of rage he took the Bible and threw it through the stained glass window. Such an outburst is certainly unbecoming of a Christian man, but especially for a deacon of the church. He, along with his fellow deacons, were outraged at the changes made by their new pastor and they took up their ministry of sabotage exercising often their spiritual gifts of discouragement. I heard this story as a young man in Bible college, but similar testimonies have mounted in the years following. I have spoken with exhausted pastors crushed by the opposition of their deacon boards. One dear friend and pastor of a church revitalization work recently commented that the most difficult task is not the revitalization of his church members, but rather the reforming of the church deacons. These testimonies, I am afraid, are not isolated. Local churches across the United States in the last century have often misunderstood the role of the deacon or have neglected the role altogether. For many, the office itself has become associated with painful experiences. Church splits, divisions, and pastor burn-out have been attributed to the work of the deacon and this has led to the neglect of the office especially in church plants and revitalizations where planters have the opportunity to start with a blank slate.
Throwing out of a Biblical concept, however, is not the solution. The abuses and distortions of a good thing cannot be reason for its abandonment. Just because there are those who preach twisted and unbiblical sermons does not mean that we should no longer preach, rather we should renew our resolve to preach God-honoring and Bible-saturated sermons. We must, likewise, renew our resolve to raise up and affirm offices of local church leadership that are God honoring and Biblically informed. If God has revealed the office of deacon as a fruitful role within the local church and he has defined it with this particular terminology, we need to pursue his plan. But what is that plan, and where did we go wrong?
I recently was told of a situation where a businessman had stopped coming to church. In response, the congregation voted to make him a deacon in hopes that he would become more faithful in his attendance. That last sentence should have caused you to gasp. The Bible provides us with character qualifications for those who would serve in official offices of the local church. We will look at these qualifications in detail in blog posts to come but for now its important to recognize the natural, slow, and dangerous drift away from Biblical principles. The world around us teaches that leaders must have capital investment, entrepreneurship, and the power of social status. Leadership in the world is less about servanthood and more about maintaining control and securing results. Since the church is made up of people who live and breathe in this world it is a constant battle to prioritize Biblical principles in contrast to worldly ones. Some churches have perhaps, even subconsciously, ordained individuals into office not based upon their spiritual qualifications of character, but upon their worldly resume of political, social, and financial success. This slow shift from God’s good design to our own has had a ripple effect of negative consequences. We must renew our appreciation for and commitment to the God-ordained qualifications for the deacon office. Having the right people in the right office is key.
A large community of people cannot be led by one individual. One leader cannot make all the decisions in a vacuum with no accountability or shared wisdom. This is why organizations have trustees and our government has checks and balances. Almost all churches naturally gravitate into some form of a leadership plurality whether formally or informally. These forms of leadership accountability in the last century have been formed in councils, trustees, or most commonly the deacon board. When one pastor leaves and a new pastor arrives, the remaining authority is the deacon board and over time the deacons wield more authority then the pastor himself. New pastors are often seen as the dispensable member of the church’s leadership. In this situation the pastor is limited to his preaching and counseling. If he strives to have more oversight over the decisions and direction of the church he can be easily replaced with another preacher, after all, the deacon board was there before him and will be there after him. The deacons, therefore, become a board of directors, and the pastoral office is given limited freedom to oversee the congregation. The deacon boards have stepped into this role of authoritative oversight by necessity due to the abandonment of another Biblical office – the elder. The New Testament models for us a leadership structure in which a plurality of qualified and affirmed pastors lead the church together. Since many churches have embraced a singular pastor model, it has created a leadership vacuum within the congregation thus leaving others to fill in the gaps. These misunderstandings coupled with the ordinations of unqualified men lead to potential disaster where neither the ministry of deacons, nor the ministry of pastors are actually fulfilled. When these ministries are not fulfilled in the church, the great commission is not fulfilled by the church.
Abandoning or avoiding the office of deacon altogether is not an option. If we believe that the apostles were operating under the leadership of the Holy Spirit as they established church polity, we must allow the Bible to reform our understanding and appreciation of that polity. If we believe the Bible is inspired, then deacons are in fact God’s idea. They are a gift of God to his beloved people when committed to and affirmed according to God’s design. When neglected or distorted, the whole church suffers.
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