SBC Life Articles

A New Look at the Ministry of Deacons

"Mom, my knees ache!" I can still remember what my mother called "growing pains." Like most early teens, my physical growth was not gradual and manageable, it was sudden and explosive. For mom and dad the pain of my rapid growth was felt in the wallet as I outgrew my clothes before I would break them in. Yet I can still recall with painful detail the physical pain that kept me from sleeping as my stretching joints and muscles cried out for relief. Dad's salve for my pain was the simple promise that I would be bigger in the morning. For an aspiring athlete this was sufficient and I naively marked the door jam to record my "overnight" growth.

Growth is always a two-sided coin. It is a sign of health and vitality, and thus desirable. Nonetheless, it is painful. The same is true about growth in the church. Growth creates physical symptoms such as the lack of parking or space. It may mean that people must adjust their schedule to accommodate a second service. It may mean that the pastor and staff will often be stretched beyond their ability in their attempt to care for the needs of the congregation. I pray that we all want growth. No one wants their church to die! What most of us want to know is: Can a church grow and yet maintain a personal, caring connection to all its members?

Everything we read about the church in God's Word makes it clear that God designed the church to be the primary instrument for Kingdom advancement until the Good News of the King penetrates the darkness to the ends of the earth. Can we be faithful to this task and still nurture those whom God has placed in our immediate care? Good news, God has biblical solutions for our growth pains — one is called "deacons."

As the Disciples Were Increasing in Number

An inaugural baptismal service of about three thousand persons was a pretty good beginning for a new church. It is likely that many of those persons baptized on the Day of Pentecost returned to their homeland. Yet, the Acts account makes it clear that the disciples that remained in Jerusalem continued to grow. And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved (Acts 2:47). I love verse 14 of chapter 5: Believers were added to the Lord in increasing numbers — crowds of both men and women. With around 80 percent of churches plateaued or declining, we have become so accustomed to "no growth" that we think it is the norm. God designed your church with the potential to invade the earth with the Gospel.

Exponential growth did not dilute the deep level of fellowship experienced by the early believers. And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers (Acts 2:42). Great fellowship creates a natural climate for evangelistic outreach. The depth of fellowship need not be diluted by the numerical growth that naturally occurs when the church becomes Kingdom-centered.

A Complaint Arose

It is no surprise that the impetus for the expansion of the ministry structure of the early church was "growth pains." In those days, as the number of disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint by the Hellenistic Jews against the Hebraic Jews that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution (Acts 6:1).

If you have been in church for more than a few months, you may have heard a few complaints. When complaints occur because of growth, our natural reaction is to ease the pain at all costs. This application of a shallow topical ointment may give temporary pain, but it fails to address the underlying problem in a biblical way. This will lead to compromise and often result in stagnancy as the church loses its focus and its vitality.

The particular issue that caused growth pains in the early church was the inability of the apostles to meet the pressing needs of providing for the widows and still maintain the quality of the ministry of the Word and lead the church in prayer. The specific issue was the distribution of food provided for by the common funds generously given by the early believers (Acts 4:34ff). The Jewish community placed a premium on ministry to the widows and orphans (Psalm 82:1-4), and this same concern was embraced by the early church. It is possible that the cause of the initial complaint was a simple oversight caused by too much work and too few hours. But then the prejudice card was played and tempers flared. Fingers were pointed and the harmony of the church was threatened. Sound familiar?

A Solution Offered

The apostles neither ignored the complaint nor allowed it to deter the church from fulfilling its mission. They sought a solution that would resolve the tension, preserve the fellowship of the church, and allow the church to continue unabated in its Kingdom agenda. The solution had to be one that would not require the apostles to ignore their God-given tasks. Growth had created a situation where it would have been physically impossible for the apostles to be faithful to their own calling and give hands-on attention to the distribution of food.

The church elected seven Spirit-filled men to handle the task of serving the widows. The meeting of the practical needs of the congregation was vital and, thus, it was brought to the attention of the church as a whole. The issue here is not one of status or authority; it is one of calling and function. The apostles (pastoral leaders) of the Jerusalem church could not do everything — nor should they have. A law of diminishing return affects any leader who attempts to spread himself too thin. Unless ministry is shared, dissension reigns and Kingdom growth is halted.

We generally look to this text for the beginning of the ministry of the deacons. The English word "deacons" is virtually a transliteration of the Greek noun diakonos. The original idea was "waiting on tables," but this meaning was extended to mean "serving" in a general sense. I think it is likely that this particular word was chosen for these early "growth ministers" because of Jesus' emphasis of greatness through servanthood. It is not clear from Scripture when these words were used to speak of the office of deacon, but 1 Timothy 3:8 refers to an order of deacons who were clearly recognized for their service. This passage should be carefully studied to determine the qualifications for diaconate service.

Do We Want Tradition of Scripture?

What is the role of the deacons in the church? At this point, tradition may create a problem for some churches. We may have grown up with the idea that the pastor and staff are called to do the ministry and the deacons are elected to administrate the church. This has led many churches to refer to the deacons as a "board" and look to them for all administrative decisions. We have actually reversed the biblical order, and it has adversely affected many churches.

It may have caused the mistaken idea among laity that one must have seminary training to effectively minister to people's needs. Thus, most ministry roles and opportunities have been assigned to the professional clergy. This, in turn, led the deacons to assume more of the administrative tasks of setting the direction and vision of the church.

This reversal of roles can have many detrimental effects on the life and health of the church. First, the pastor who feels compelled to do the entire ministry will neglect his God-given priority of preaching and leading the church to become a praying community. The pulpit ministry will suffer and the discipling power of the Word from the pulpit will be diluted.

Second, the reversal of roles between pastor and deacons often creates a situation where the pastor is given no freedom to lead the church in developing a strategy for ministry. A fine line of balance must be maintained between pastoral leadership and congregational polity. The pastor is not a dictator who drives his people, but a servant who leads his people. Pastors must earn the right to lead by their consistent walk with God and service to the people. The members must encourage the pastor to lead, be willing to follow, and support his leadership through successes and failures. We often lose sight of the truth that we are on the same team and working for the same goal.

Third, and perhaps the most disconcerting effect of the pastor/staff doing all the work of ministry, is the loss of opportunity for the laity to serve according to their gifts. All believers are gifted for service, and thus, when deacons are deprived of the privilege of ministering according to their gifts, the church suffers. It stands to reason that churches should elect deacons who demonstrate gifts for service and then provide training and organize them to serve the body.

A Practical Suggestion

What is the biblical role of the deacon and how does the church organize itself to allow the deacons to accomplish their God-given ministry? Many would say, and I agree, that the Acts model and the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3 indicate the primary role is ministry, such as visiting the shut-ins and caring for church families. The ministry to the widows did require that the deacons have administrative ability since they were to oversee the allocation of food. Churches grow and the deacon ministry flourishes when deacons assume their biblical role as partners with the pastor in ministering to the congregation.

Many churches have found it helpful to organize their deacon ministry through the Sunday school or small group ministry. Each deacon would serve alongside the small group leader to provide for the ministry needs of a specific class. For this model to be effective it is important to ensure that everyone is enrolled in a small group Bible study unit and that deacons are assigned to each group. From my own personal experience, small groups that have deacons who take seriously their family ministry grow rapidly and maintain a high percentage of attendance to enrollment.

The Dramatic Results

I know that some of the changes suggested may require radical changes in our thinking, structure, and priorities. Will it be worth it? Luke tells us the results in the early church: So the preaching about God flourished, the number of disciples in Jerusalem multiplied greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith (Acts 6:7).

To please the King and advance His Kingdom is worth all the pain!

    About the Author

  • Kenneth S. Hemphill