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Podcast: The Meaningful Work of Church Deacons (Matt Smethurst)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

What Is a Deacon’s God-Given Role?

In this episode, Matt Smethurst discusses the important role that deacons—model servants—should play in the life of a local church. He walks us through the biblical basis for viewing the diaconate as a formal office; he explains the proper relationship between deacons and a church’s pastors and elders; and he answers the often asked question, “Can women be deacons?”

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.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

02:00 - What Nazis Have to Do with Deacons

Matt Tully
Matt, thank you so much for joining me on The Crossway Podcast.

Matt Smethurst
Thanks for having me. Glad to be here.

Matt Tully
You open your new book with a sentence that puts two words together that I don’t think I’ve ever heard put together before in a single sentence. You write, “The Nazis, it turns out, did not like deacons.” That has to be one of the most surprising opening lines to a book I’ve ever read. Help us understand what the connection is between Nazis and deacons.

Matt Smethurst
It’s a fascinating little anecdote that I came across. In 1940, when the Netherlands fell to Germany, deacons in the Dutch Reformed Church rose up to care for the politically oppressed. They gave them food and offered secret refuge, and the Nazis caught wind of this. When they realized what was happening, they actually had the audacity to decree that the office of deacon should be eliminated. The Dutch believers responded in a synod in 1941 (I think) and they said something to the effect of, Whoever interferes and touches the diaconate touches the task of the church. Whoever lays hands on the deacon lays hands on worship. So, the Germans, the historians tell us, backed down.

Matt Tully
Wow. So they actually called off the decree?

Matt Smethurst
That’s right.

Matt Tully
That’s amazing. Did the same thing happen with pastors in Germany, or was there something unique about the diaconate that was particularly strong against the Nazis?

Matt Smethurst
Of course, if you know the story of folks like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, there certainly was opposition to confessing church pastors who refused to bow the knee to the Third Reich. But at least in the Netherlands, as far as I know, the Nazis did not try to eliminate the office of pastor, but they did try to eliminate the office of deacon.

04:08 - Key Passages on Deacons

Matt Tully
That’s so interesting. It’s fascinating. That does raise this topic of deacons, which is a topic that for some people can be a little bit confusing. We’re probably all familiar with the term, and we may even be in churches that have deacons. And yet there can be confusion or misunderstanding about what deacons are actually called to do and how they function in the life of a local church relative to other roles in the church. Sometimes I think the end result of that is we don’t actually see them as being as important as they truly are. Could you start us off by concisely summarizing how you would define a deacon?

Matt Smethurst
I would say a deacon is a model servant, or an exemplary servant, that is recognized by a congregation and who is installed into an office in order to assist the elders or pastors by spotting and meeting tangible needs, protecting and promoting church unity, and helping to facilitate the ministry of the Word.

Matt Tully
There are a lot of components to that definition that I think we’ll unpack as we keep going, but one of the things that you note in your new book is, “Even though the Bible’s treatment of deacons is sparse, it is sufficient.” Can you help us walk through a few of the key passages that speak to this idea of deacons in the local church?

Matt Smethurst
One note that I sound early in the book, which is worth mentioning here, is that precisely because the Bible doesn’t say a lot about deacons, we ought to approach this topic with a commensurate degree of humility. In other words, we ought to be big-hearted and generous toward those who might lean or land in a slightly different place than we do when it comes to how they understand deacons. Nevertheless, the Bible is not silent on the matter. It does give us guardrails. I think that oftentimes what we see is churches either unduly elevating the role of deacon or unduly reducing the role of deacon. Some churches will unduly elevate the role of deacon to that of de facto elders; but other churches will wrongly reduce the diaconal role to essentially a building and grounds team, or a group of glorified janitors. Both extremes fall short of the Bible’s vision for this office. You asked about the relevant passages. There are two explicit passages about the office of deacon, one implicit passage, and one debated one. I’ll try to just give you a very brief thumbnail sketch. The two explicit passages are Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8–13. Philippians 1:1 is just a passing reference at the beginning of Paul’s letter where he’s greeting the church at Philippi and he says, “To the elders and deacons.” And then 1 Timothy 3 is Paul’s list of qualifications for the office. In the first seven verses he’s giving qualifications for elders, and then he turns his attention in verse 8 to qualifications for deacons. It’s interesting that it’s not so much a job description or a skill set as it is a profile of a person’s character. The implicit passage about deacons, which probably is most famously associated with the office, would be Acts 6. The reason I say it’s implicit is because the noun deacon never shows up. And yet, throughout church history Christians have always found that particular story to be relevant for the office of deacon because it’s the story of the apostles and the seven, and how the seven are raised up to deal with a brewing crisis in the church of Jerusalem in order to free the apostles to give their best energy and attention to the ministry of the Word and prayer. I don’t believe Acts 6 is necessarily establishing the office of deacon, but I do believe it’s setting in motion a pattern that becomes the position. By the time we get a little later on in the New Testament, we see the role of the apostles and the seven in Acts 6 being worked out and paralleled in the respective relationship between elders and deacons. And then the fourth passage in the Bible is debated because it touches on the question of whether women may serve as deacons, and that’s Romans 16:1 where Phoebe is referred to as a deacon. Some will say that’s just the general word for servant; others will argue that’s an official church position. But that’s it. That’s all the New Testament has to say about the office.

Matt Tully
I want to return to that question of women and their potential service in that capacity in just a minute, but many one of the first questions someone might have is, If there are only two passages that we all acknowledge would explicitly speak to this question of this office in the church—and that’s really it—can we really be confident that this is something that is that important? Is this something that we really need to be that concerned about, or is there maybe some room here for saying it’s not that big of a deal?

Matt Smethurst
It’s the flip side to what I said earlier. On the one hand, we ought to hold our position humbly, understanding that the Bible doesn’t say much about it. But the flip side of that is realizing that we should pay all the more attention to what it does say because we don’t have that much material. I think that any church that assumes that mere human wisdom or pragmatic innovation or denominational tradition is sufficient to define the diaconate is doing a disservice to the all-sufficient Word of God. We do have passages like Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 3, which are meant to provide for us not only boundaries and guardrails but also a high and lofty vision for how this particular office in a church can cause the mission of the church to be accelerated.

11:25 - Key Responsibilities of a Deacon

Matt Tully
You mentioned four passages that perhaps refer to a formal office or role of deacons in the local church. Some of our listeners might be familiar with the Greek word behind the English word deacon, which actually does appear in the New Testament over thirty times. One question that is often asked is, How confident should we be that there was a formal office or role called deacon? Could all those references simply refer to an informal way that people were serving in the church or ministering in the church? How do we know it was also an office?

Matt Smethurst
It’s true that the vast majority of the time that diákonos, or some of these other words, appear it’s referring, in general, to service or ministry or, as more recent scholarship has demonstrated, even acting with delegated authority at the behest of a superior. But the reason Christians have, for 2,000 years, also seen a formal office is because that word pretty clearly takes on a technical meaning in 1 Timothy 3 and Philippians 1:1. Paul says, “To the elders and deacons in the church at Philippi.” If deacon simply means servant-hearted people, it wouldn’t make sense for him to say “To the elders and to the servant-hearted people.” He’s referring to the two established offices in the church. And the same can be said about 1 Timothy 3: he’s giving specific standards for the character of those who would be installed into these two offices.

Matt Tully
What are some of the things that deacons do, especially with Scripture not having a ton of content explaining exactly what their role should look like? Many churches view these things a little bit differently, so what would you say are some of the key responsibilities of a deacon?

Matt Smethurst
The way I frame it in the book is that at the broadest level diaconal work encompasses three things in the life of the church; three big buckets (and of course, there’s overlap). First, there’s the spotting and meeting tangible needs. We certainly see precedent for that in a passage like Acts 6. Also in Acts 6, we see another very vital role of deacons which I think is often overlooked, and that is protecting and promoting church unity. The very crisis that the seven in Acts 6 were raised up to resolve was a crisis of unity. There was mistrust; there was conflict brewing in that congregation. The deacons, or the seven, are deputized in order to solve that problem which was threatening to fracture the very unity for which Christ died to achieve. So, I talk about deacons as shock absorbers in the life of a congregation. Your deacons should not be your most contentious members. Your deacons should be those who relieve conflict, not accelerate it. The other major category would be serving and supporting the ministry of the elders. Of course, we’re drawing that not only from Acts 6 but also the logical order that you see in the passages I mentioned earlier. To the elders first, and deacons. It seems like the diaconal office is subordinate to that of elders. It’s the same thing in 1 Timothy 3: first you have qualifications for elders—one of which that an elder must be able to teach—and then you have qualifications for deacons, which are very similar except that it doesn’t say they must be able to teach. So it seems like perhaps the latter office is meant to serve and support the ministry of the Word, which characterizes the former office, that of elder.

16:00 - The Relationship between Deacons and Elders

Matt Tully
I want to dig into that a little bit. Speaking more practically, what should that relationship look like between deacons and elders? Is it always the case that it’s going to be a position of authority and submission where the elders are kind of saying, Hey deacons, we notice this needs to be addressed, so why don’t you go over there and handle that. Oh, this just came up; you need to go take care of that and figure out a plan for that. Is that the way it should always function, or are there any other dynamics there that you would note?

Matt Smethurst
I think churches have freedom to structure the diaconate in different ways, so long as the diaconate is marching to the beat of the elders. In other words, what is disastrous in churches is when you have two separate power blocks in which you have a deacon board that is attempting to check and balance the decisions of the elders. Sometimes you hear the work of pastors or elders described as spiritual work and then the role of deacons to be physical work. There can almost become this turfy, territorial mentality where it’s like, Okay, if there’s a spiritual issue, that’s your purview, elders, and we can’t speak into it. And if there’s a tangible, practical problem, that’s our purview, and don’t you dare speak into it. I think that, again, really misses Scripture’s vision for both offices. To answer your question specifically, whether or not you have a deacon board where the deacons all meet together or not—like in my own church, we just have individual, role-specific diaconates. Our deacons are not a board; they’re not a deliberative body. They don’t meet together. But each deacon who has been installed into one of those roles is essentially overseeing an aspect of church life and they’re leading teams of volunteers. But they are reporting directly to the elders. I think there’s wisdom in that model, but regardless of what your church does, the important thing is that the deacons are not competing with the elders for authority in the church, but that they are seeking to come alongside and serve and support. I think it was H. B. Charles who said that deacons lead by serving, and elders serve by leading. It’s not that deacons have no leadership whatsoever, but their leadership—unlike that of elders—is not the authoritative exercise of oversight over the whole congregation. It’s more just the natural leadership that accrues to someone who has influence over a subset of church life.

Matt Tully
Would you say then that deacons’ authority, when and if they have it, is always delegated from the elders and it always flows from the elders’ decision and delegation?

Matt Smethurst
Yes. Of course, theologically it’s all downstream from King Jesus. I’m a Congregationalist, so I even believe that deacons only have authority insofar that the congregation has recognized them and installed them into the office. But yes, to your point, it is deacons who are being delegated and deputized by the elders to fulfill certain functions in the life of the church. Again, in my church, we will create diaconates and dissolve them according to the needs of the congregation at the time. Sometimes we’ll create a diaconate for a couple of years if it can relieve pressure from the staff pastors or the elders in a certain way. We have a diaconate of foster care because there was a period in the life of our church a couple of years ago where there were a lot of families interested in fostering to adopt, and it was starting to drain the staff pastors, so we created a diaconate for it. But we’ve also dissolved diaconates when they’ve no longer served their original purpose. So I think there’s freedom there.

Matt Tully
That’s really helpful. What would you say to the pastor, or maybe church planter, who doesn’t currently have elders or deacons—he’s kind of a one-man show? What would be the priority for him to pursue? Should he pursue finding some people who can serve as deacons? Or should he pursue, first and foremost, finding other men who could serve alongside him as elders?

Matt Smethurst
Definitely elders. Paul says to Titus in Titus 1:6, “I instruct you to appoint elders in every town,” not to appoint deacons in every town. I think there is a logical priority to the office of elder. Once a church has established a plurality of elders, pastors—I understand those words to be interchangeable and referring to the same office—then you can raise up deacons to come alongside them and prioritize tangible needs so that the elders can prioritize the spiritual well-being of the whole congregation. Again, it’s not that deacons don’t have a spiritual ministry. It is a spiritual ministry, but it’s focused on practical needs.

Matt Tully
Some churches seem to use the role of a deacon as a kind of first step for guys who are interested in becoming elders and who desire to be a pastor, whether paid or lay. What do you think about that? Is that a healthy way to view the diaconate?

Matt Smethurst
No. It’s certainly the case, and I think it’s a well-intentioned model. I don’t want to just dismiss it outright. I should also add, Matt, that some deacons will and should eventually become elders. I served in two diaconal roles before I became an elder. But the diaconate is not a pit stop on the path to the pastorate. I think when it’s reduced to that, when it’s reduced to just training wheels for the next thing, that actually it’s a disservice to both offices.

22:58 - Can Women Be Deacons?


Matt Tully
Let’s get to that question that’s probably been looming out there in many people’s minds thus far in our conversation: What’s your thought on whether or not women can and should be deacons in the local church?

Matt Smethurst
I reserved the question for an appendix because I don’t want this particular topic to be the focus of this book. I think there are strong and valid arguments for both positions, so I open the appendix by saying something like, If you flipped here before reading the rest of the book, shame on you! Return to the table of contents and try again. But, I understand why people are going to do that. Not only are we just naturally curious about a hot-button question like that, but it’s also practically unavoidable because your church will either have women deacons or not. What I think is that Christ does open the office of deacon to qualified women. In the book I list several reasons for that after listing several reasons why folks argue it’s not open to them. I try to make the best case for both sides and only really tip my hand at the end. But yes, I do believe that not only may qualified women serve as deacons but churches who forbid that are, with the best of intentions, impoverishing themselves because I think it’s something that God has designed for the good of not just the women of the church but the men as well.

Matt Tully
If you could, just briefly, what would you say is the best, concise argument for women serving in this office? And then on the flip side, if you could jump into the shoes of someone who would see things a little differently, what’s the best argument against that idea?

Matt Smethurst
Let me actually take your question in reverse order. I think that the best argument against women serving as deacons is that there’s no explicit example of it that is undisputed. In 1 Timothy 3:11, the debate surrounds whether the word there should be translated wives—as in deacons’ wives—or women—as in women deacons. I think there are valid arguments for both sides. It’s the same with Romans 16:1 when we’re talking about Phoebe. Is that referring to an official church office or not? You’ve heard me many times in this interview quote from Acts 6 and appeal to Acts 6 as precedent, and yet the apostles told the congregation to appoint from among yourselves seven men. So, some would say, Shouldn’t we also take our cues from that precedent? You asked me for one, but I just ticked off a few. Sorry. The reason I’m not finally persuaded by those arguments is admittedly because of exegetical detail in some of these passages that would probably be a little cumbersome to get into in a podcast interview, but I’ll just simply say Scripture nowhere forbids women deacons. I think that if a church understands the office rightly—in other words, not as an office of authority, not as an office of teaching authority, but as an office of service—then I think the burden of proof is on the person who would say that women may not hold that office because we should not forbid what the Bible doesn’t. You’ll never find a verse that says, Be subject to the deacons. But we do have, in 1 Peter 5:5: “Be subject to the elders.” You never find a verse like, Obey your deacons and submit to them. But we do have a verse to that effect about elders in Hebrews 13:17. So, for me it’s a matter of why forbid what the Bible doesn’t? And then in 1 Timothy 3:11 and Romans 16 and other places, I just think that the more I personally studied the texts themselves and read arguments from both sides, the more I was persuaded that the best understanding here is that women may serve in the office. I’ll just give you one example. In 1 Timothy 3, those who argue that the word in that passage should be translated wives—as in these are qualifications for male deacons and then there’s one sentence where he’s talking about what their wives must be like—to me it raises the question, Why is there not a similar sentence in the passage immediately prior about elders? If it’s important enough to talk about what a servant’s wife must be like, shouldn’t it also be important enough to talk about what a leader’s wife must be like? But there’s nothing to that effect in the list of qualifications for elders. So I think it’s more natural to take that reference in verse 11 as referring to female deacons. Some will say, Well, that’s whiplash. He’s going from talking about male deacons, then you’re saying he’s going to female deacons, and then suddenly back to male deacons. But I actually think if you zoom out and look at the structure of that passage, it makes a lot of sense. In verses 8 to 10 he’s giving you qualifications, generally, for deacons, and then verse 11 is about specific qualifications for female deacons, verse 12 is specific qualifications for male deacons, and then verse 13 is kind of a summary for all deacons. So, again, I respect people who land in a different place than me, but that’s where I’m at.

Matt Tully
I’ve heard that response that to take that one verse—I think it was verse 12—in reference specifically to female deacons, then the question is, Why does he have so much to say about male deacons and then relatively little to say about female deacons? But you’re saying that actually some of those verses you would see applying to both genders of deacons, not just men.

Matt Smethurst
That’s right, because most of what is already said would apply to men and women. Even if he primarily has male deacons in view when he says “and the women”, I don’t think what he means is, And here are the only things they have to be concerned with. I think it’s just saying, And also, the women deacons must be dignified and not slanderers. Peter said in 2 Peter 3 that Paul can be hard to understand. His flow of thought is not always easy to track with, but I think the more I studied 1 Timothy 3: 8–13, the more clear his operating logic became, at least from my perspective.

30:40 - Can Deacons Be Elders?

Matt Tully
Matt, you’re a Baptist, and I, too, am a Baptist, and I’m sure many of our Baptist listeners right now will resonate with this question. It’s not uncommon among Baptist churches to find the leadership structure set up around a single pastor, or maybe a couple of staff pastors, and then they don’t have an elder board, but they do have a deacon board that serves in this dual capacity as elders and deacons. People sometimes jokingly refer to them as “delders.” Again, all the baptists know what we’re talking about here. Could you speak to that? What’s behind that? If that’s not the model that Scripture seems to pretty clearly teach, why is that so common among some churches today?

Matt Smethurst
One point that I make in the book that is very important to establish is that the reason this model exists in many churches is because of leadership crises. It can be easy for someone who cares about deacons and has studied the office to want to go and slap the hand of any church who has deacons functioning in a pseudo elder capacity. But I think we just have to recognize that this kind of pseudo elder, executive board model of deacons is a configuration that is often downstream from emergency situations where a church’s deacons were left scrambling for solutions and had to step up and into a leadership vacuum in the wake of a departing pastor. So, I genuinely want to say that if there’s a deacon listening to this in that kind of model, if you haven’t been grasping for power but have rather risen to take responsibility in an unstable leadership situation, then I am very grateful for you. But I still think that that model not only is unbiblical but has yielded some pretty bad fruit in churches because it creates confusion at the highest level of leadership in the church. It’s not always clear who’s really in charge. There are deacon boards that really can hold a pastor’s feet to the fire if he doesn’t sort of march to the beat of their drum. Oftentimes it can become an issue of territorial, self-protecting power, and that’s just a very ugly thing. One of the purposes of this book, Matt, is to say to deacons who are in that kind of model and who are functioning as de facto elders actually, I’m not trying to demote you from the varsity team to the JV team. Rather, when you function as an elder, no one in your church is functioning as a deacon. That’s part of the problem is that your church is missing out on the Bible’s glorious vision for the office of deacon and what it’s meant to accomplish when you don’t stay in your lane. So, those are just a few thoughts on a perennially vexing question.

Matt Tully
Both roles are so important, and they both compliment each other in this ideal sense. It’s not as if one is fundamentally necessary and the other one is just sort of optional.

Matt Smethurst
That’s right. I mentioned earlier that some churches wrongly elevate the role, some wrongly reduce the role. In those that wrongly reduce the role, folks who become deacons are often those who are handymen who can fix things. But in churches where the role is wrongly elevated, the qualifications for deacon aren’t really 1 Timothy 3, but often they can become, Does this person have a good business mind? Is he a wizard with an Excel spreadsheet? Again, those can be welcomed assets that a guy or gal can bring to the table, but that is not what qualifies someone to serve the church of God as a deacon.

Matt Tully
Matt, thank you so much for taking some time today to talk with us and help us understand this biblical idea, this role, of deacons a little bit better, and hopefully help us to pursue a more biblical vision of what the local church is supposed to look like and how it’s supposed to function.

Matt Smethurst
Thanks, Matt. It’s an honor to talk with you, and it’s an honor to have gotten to write the book for Crossway. Thank you, brother.


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