5 Myths about Deacons

This article is part of the 5 Myths series.

Myth #1: Deacons are elders in training.

“Heard they’re making you a deacon. How long, you think, before they make you an elder?”

Peter is used to such questions at church. He’s not bothered; if anything, he’s a bit flattered. We’ve already seen how, in the fourth century and into the Middle Ages, the diaconate had calcified into a mere entry-level clergy role, a pit stop on the path to priesthood.

The priest-in-training model remains common in the Roman Catholic Church and, despite key differences, in much of the Anglican communion as well. But some low-church evangelicals have their own version of this approach: elders in training. To be sure, certain deacons should eventually become elders—but that’s assuming they meet the qualifications for elders (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9).

While the qualification lists for the two offices are similar, they are not the same. Deaconing is not training wheels for eldering. It is a different office with different aims requiring, in many cases, different gifts. To take just one example, a man could lack the ability to teach—and therefore be unfit for eldership (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9)—and yet nonetheless be a truly spectacular deacon.

So, can Deacon Peter pursue pastoral ministry? Of course, but that should not be why he’s a deacon. Every shepherd must first be a servant, yes, but not every servant is meant to become a formal shepherd. Diaconal service is too significant—too glorious—to be a mere stepping-stone toward anything else.

Myth #2: Deacons are spreadsheet wizards or handymen.

“You’re good at fixing things. They should make you a deacon.”

Many days, Pastor Jim is glad to have Terrance in the church. Terrance is a successful general contractor who may own more tools than the rest of the small church combined. What did Jim do when the church water heater broke three winters ago? He called Terrance. When the HVAC system sputtered out on that blistering Saturday in June? He called Terrance.

Deacons

Matt Smethurst

In Deacons: How They Serve and Strengthen the Church, Matt Smethurst makes the case that deacons are model servants who rise to meet tangible needs in congregational life.

There is seemingly nothing Terrance can’t find a way to fix. When it comes to tending the church’s building and grounds, his know-how is unmatched. Wouldn’t Terrance make an ideal deacon? Not so fast. I haven’t yet told you whether he’s a mature believer. A deacon is far more than someone who knows his way around Home Depot. Does he know his way around his Bible?

Or, our church budget is a mess; we’re looking at another financial shortfall and don’t have any clear income projections for the next fiscal year. Why don’t we make Sam a deacon—doesn’t he fix people’s money problems for a living?” Sam’s weekday-morning routine is not complicated: he wakes up, brews some coffee, and checks the market before hopping into the shower and heading to work at his financial-planning firm.

On Sundays, it’s not uncommon for church members to gingerly approach him for some casual financial advice. When it comes to shrewd economic sense, Sam is unrivaled in the church. Wouldn’t Sam make an ideal deacon? Again, not so fast. I haven’t yet told you whether he’s a mature believer. Spreadsheet wizardry is a welcome skill, but it’s not sufficient for holding an office in God’s home (1 Tim. 3:15).

Myth #3: Deacons are savvy business managers.

“Seminaries may teach ancient languages, bless their heart, but they can’t teach executive skills. What this church really needs are some decisive deacons with business sense.”

Cliff has been a member at Pinehill Community Church for thirty years and has served as a deacon for almost twenty. Around the time he joined the church he started a company in his basement; now it operates out of a skyscraper downtown. It’s no secret Cliff has done well for himself in the marketplace. He’s got scores of employees and decades of business savvy.

Isn’t Cliff an ideal deacon? Once more, not so fast. I haven’t yet told you whether he’s a mature believer. Executive leadership experience can be a serious asset, but it’s no indication of spiritual fitness.

Myth #4: Deacons should keep the pastor humble.

“What’s the point of being deacons if we’re just ‘yes men’? Of course, I tell Pastor Dave how it is—who else will? Besides, I only want to keep him humble. Last thing we need is a puffed-up pastor.”

Diaconal service is too significant—too glorious—to be a mere stepping-stone toward anything else.

Deacon Vinnie is nothing if not a contrarian. He’s not trying to make Pastor Dave’s life miserable, though he often succeeds. He has simply taken it upon himself to keep the pastor grounded. Frankly, Vinnie doesn’t want much about the church to change, but he can smell the desire for innovation wafting from the pastor’s office.

Just last week, Dave was “dreaming” of starting some pastoral internship and—voilà! just like that!—ending two longtime church programs in order to fund it. Vinnie likes to carefully bubble-wrap his complaints. “Some people are talking” is a favorite. (It’s important Pastor Dave knows it’s not just Vinnie’s concern.)

Isn’t Vinnie an ideal deacon? I think we can agree he’s not.

Myth #5: Deacons should run things.

“Welcome to First Baptist Church, where the pastors say things and the deacons run things. (Seriously, though, if you want to get something important done around here, you’ve got to convince those deacons.)”

Steve sits on the board of a few organizations; none gratifies him more than serving as a deacon at First Baptist. He loves the congregation and cares deeply about its long-term health. Steve is fine with the pastor leading the way on spiritual things—a paper hanging in his office claims he mastered divinity, after all—but it’s the deacons’ job to oversee everything else, right?

This sort of approach is not rare. I think of how one pastor-friend described to me the mindset he inherited in his church: “Basically, elders and deacons have separate but equal spheres of authority: elders govern the ‘spiritual’; deacons govern the ‘physical.’ What does this mean practically? Deacons can’t dictate what elders do with spiritual matters, since that’s their lane; and elders can’t dictate what deacons do with pragmatic matters, since that’s their lane.”

When deacons start to function either as leading shepherds over the whole congregation, or as a board of directors overseeing various staff and committees, the Bible’s job description for deacons has become blurred. Further, any structure that encourages deacons to function as a counterweight to the pastor or elders—a second house of legislature to “check and balance” pastoral decisions—has overstepped its biblical bounds.1 Though this may not have been the intention, far too often it is the effect.

A Calvary of Servants

Whether the role of deacons in your church has been wrongly inflated or wrongly reduced, the solution is not to swing from one extreme to another, but to restore deacons to their intended biblical purpose and irreplaceable biblical role. Deacons are not the church’s spiritual council of directors, nor the executive board to whom the pastor-CEO answers. They are the cavalry of servants, deputized to execute the elders’ vision by coordinating various ministries. Deacons are like a congregation’s Special Ops force, carrying out unseen assignments with fortitude and joy.

Notes:

  1. This model remains especially common in the Southern Baptist Convention—America’s largest Protestant denomination, representing more than forty-seven thousand churches—despite decades of internal critique. Writing to Southern Baptists in the mid-twentieth century, Robert Naylor warned, “There is a ‘board’ complex and a general feeling that deacons are ‘directors’ of the church. Nothing could be farther from the Baptist genius or the New Testament plan” (Robert E. Naylor, The Baptist Deacon: From a Pastor with a Special Heart for Deacons [Nashville: B&H, 1955], 3). Howard Foshee, in his influential 1975 book Now That You’re a Deacon, writes: “As a new deacon, you must understand that you have not been elected to an ‘official board’ to exercise authority in the life of the church. The office of deacon is not an office of authority but of service” (Howard B. Foshee, Now That You’re a Deacon [Nashville: B&H, 1975], 13). Likewise, Henry Webb’s Deacons: Servant Models in the Church—probably the most influential Southern Baptist book on deacons in the past forty years—details what will occur in a mature church: “The deacons will reject the role of the board of directors who are ultimately in charge of running everything, including telling the pastor what to do” (Henry Webb, Deacons: Servant Models in the Church, rev. ed. [Nashville: 1980; repr., B&H, 2001], 61).

This article is adapted from Deacons: How They Serve and Strengthen the Church by Matt Smethurst.



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