In more than a handful of Baptist churches, it's the "board of deacons" that seems to rule the roost at business meetings — no longer waiting tables, instead exercising great authority in the midst of congregational rule.
"What this means is that all the recommendations of the church have to come back through (the deacons) before they go to the congregation:' says Robert Sheffield, deacon ministry consultant at the Baptist Sunday School Board."They basically are the financial managers of the church. Out of 40,000 churches, it's hard to know how many are still operating like that, but there are thousands."
Ironically, this managerial model insures the church will not grow, says Gary L. McIntosh, associate professor at the Talbot School of Theology. Rather than developing a "culture of service" and meeting the needs of people, the church's strategies become "technical, intellectual and sterile: they do not appeal to the heart of the issue — sacrificial service," McIntosh writes in The Exodus Principle.
The New Testament Model
On the other hand, McIntosh notes the deacon model found in Acts 6 is based on service. When these seven original deacons accepted their ministry, four church goals were met: conflict was settled, the apostles were freed to focus on prayer and preaching, those in need were served, and many were saved. (Acts 6:7)
And the core of church growth is spiritual, not technical, says McIntosh. "All experience shows that even a superbly organized and planned ministry will eventually fail without the active care, love and service of people toward others."
Which is why there is no such thing as a rapidly growing congregation that is solely committee-led or deacon-led, warns Paige Patterson, Southeastern Seminary president, and for 19 years a local church pastor. "When we made a move in our churches from the servanthood motif of the deacon to the concept of a board, we made a move that was in total violation of the New Testament principle," Patterson says.
Adds William Bell Jr., professor at Dallas Baptist University: "There is absolutely nothing in the New Testament to indicate that the deacons were ever to have anything other than a servant capacity. The deacons were to serve the elders or pastors. They were to have no ruling function whatsoever."
Deacons as servant ministers Patterson cites deacon bodies at FBC-Jacksonville, FL, and Second Baptist Church, Houston, TX, as evidence that a New Testament perspective of deacons can be an asset, not a problem: "These deacons lead in spiritual ministries, particularly in evangelism. They have virtually nothing to do with the business of the church, except as they function as individual church members."
FBC-Jax Deacon Chairman Edmond Whittaker says, "Deacons (in this church) are not nominated on the basis of their being prime business men; they are nominated based on their spiritual walk. We only meet when we have something to meet for; and when we do, we get down on our knees and pray."
The selection of deacons for their business acumen or popularity is a "perversion" of the early church's model, DBU Professor Bell says. "It is an honor to be a deacon … but it isn't something which is given to all worthy and mature Christians just in recognition of their service. We don't have honorary Sunday school teachers. We don't have honorary janitors. We don't have honorary choir members."
"If a need exists, then let's appoint some people to meet it; if a need doesn't exist, then don't appoint them. I am thoroughly convinced that most Baptist churches have way too many deacons," Bell explains.
Tradition Over Biblical Truth
The Sunday School Board's Sheffield suggests the Southern Baptist "board of deacons" is a tradition developed outside of Scriptural truth. "We as Southern Baptists sometimes lapse into our traditions without checking them by Scripture. The Scriptures are to inform our traditions, not our traditions interpreting Scripture for us."
Southeastern's Patterson concurs, "What may have happened in Baptist life is that we went to seed on concepts such as democracy, church autonomy, priesthood of the believers all of which are concepts that are absolutely biblical. I fear that what we have created in our Baptist churches is a fierce individualism that is so autonomous that it is autonomous from the Holy Spirit."
James Merritt, pastor of FBC-Snellville, GA, says the drift to a corporate style "board of deacons" can be traced to a lack of biblical expository teaching in the church. "Many in the church have gotten away from New Testament concerns such as evangelism. There has been a compromise with culture and a de-emphasis of biblical holiness."
The current state of deacon affairs is a clear sign that "we have too much of the world in the church and not enough of the church in the world," Merritt claims.
Baptist Polity Calls for Member Responsibility
Congregation members have to step up to the plate and be open to accept more responsibilities in the church, says BSSB's Sheffield. He notes this will free the deacons from being the church's clearinghouse for business matters.
"We all are actually servants of the Lord to and through the church, not servants of the church first. If we don't get the vertical relationship straight, we're gonna have trouble with the horizontal relationships," he says.
There is a way for errant deacons to get back on track, according to DBU's Bell. "Instead of having retreats, trying to figure out what exactly they're supposed to be doing — they really ought to just go to the pastor and say, "How can we help?"
Deacon Debate Among Baptists is Not New
Herschel Hobbs in, What Baptists Believe, states, "The original function of the deacons was to 'serve tables' (Acts 6:2). It was to relieve the apostles from this work that they might give themselves 'continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4).'" Hobbs adds, "There is no specific Scripture passage in which the present-day authoritative function is found …."
Baptist historian and pastor Thomas Armitage in, A History of the Baptists, says that the calling of the seven in Acts 6 was not to an official ecclesiastical order. "In modern parlance they were 'laymen' before their election and they remained so after …. One set of ministers was not created to help another to do the same work, but duties that were not ministerial or pastoral were separated from those that were and given into other hands."
Armitage cites Paul and Barnabas' delivery of the gift to the "elders" (not the deacons) among the Jerusalem believers as evidence that "even in matters relating to the relief of the poor, (deacons) were not supreme." Armitage also notes in Paul's letter to Titus, written around AD 66, that he makes no mention of the deacons, but says much to the "elders."
It was some 1,800 years later, when J.M. Pendleton released his Church Manual (1867), that the role of deacons in Southern Baptist life apparently changed dramatically. Pendleton called for deacons to be heavily involved in the business affairs of the church.
Yet Pendleton, leader of the Landmark Movement, was only looking back to The Deaconship, authored by R.B.C. Howell in 1846. Howell, pastor of FBC-Nashville, TN and editor of The Baptist, wrote that deacons were to serve as "the financial officers of the church:' This may be the first mention in Baptist history of deacons as "a board of officers, or the executive board of the church, for her temporal department."
"The deacons, therefore, were originally not preachers, nor merely conservators for the poor, but had the administration of the property of the church, which they conducted, as the divinely authorized agents …," writes Howell.
Moving into the modern era, Southern Baptists were taught that the model for deacons was an executive board, says Robert Sheffield, deacon ministry consultant at the Baptist Sunday School Board. He cites P.E. Burrough's book, Honoring the Deaconship, used in training unions across the SBC from the 1920's through the 1950's, as a study book for educating new deacons. The book teaches deacons must share with the pastor "some measure of authority."
The 1929 BSSB publication further states: "In the division of labor and the assignment of a place to the deacon, a fairly clear line was drawn as to the relation of the deacon to the church …. On one side is the deacon, standing next to the pastor, and entrusted with the care of the material interests of the church …. He is to direct and safeguard the financial side of its ministry!"
Hobbs, in an article this year in the Baptist Standard, says, "Unfortunately we have come to use the term 'Board of Deacons.' It is a short step from that to the idea that this group is a 'Board of Directors,' at times acting without the leadership of the bishop or the authority of the congregation!"
He insists such an outcome would be damaging to the spirit and cooperative work of any church body. "If a church chooses to follow such a pattern, it should recognize that it is by tradition — not by New Testament authority." Hobbs adds.
Pastor and D.Min. student Waylan Payne, of Coalfield, TN, contributed to these articles.
Four Goals Met by First Deacons
1. Conflict was I resolved
2. Apostles were freed to focus on prayer and preaching
3. Those in need were served
4. Many were saved