Deacons are the guys who fire the pastor when he does something stupid, right?
Are deacons just glorified janitors?
Does our church even have deacons? Who cares?
Depending on what church you are a part of you might have very different perspectives on what a “deacon” is. Whatever your view is, if you are tempted to think that the role of deacons is something relatively yawn-worthy, something on par with organizing church yard sales or pointless committee meetings, Matt Smethurst would like to change your mind.
In his new book, Deacons: How They Serve and Strengthen the Church, Smethurst wants to open your eyes to this sobering and encouraging reality: “Deacons wrongly deployed can halve your ministry, but deacons rightly deployed can double it…For better or for worse, deacons are difference makers,” (p. 20).
Smethurst, who is now an elder at his church, first served for years as a deacon himself. Serving in both roles provides him a unique perspective on what a deacon is and isn’t, and how faithful deacons can enhance and focus the work of the elders. Central to Smethurst’s argument in the book is what deacons must be and what deacons must do: deacons must be Christ-like servants, and deacons must do Christ-like service.
What a Deacon Must Be
Our English word “deacon” is simply a transliterated form of the Greek word diakonos, “servant.” A deacon, quite literally, is a servant. Smethurst demonstrates that this means that a deacon is to be what all Christians are to be: servants. A quick search of the use of diakonos in the gospels shows us that the call to be a “servant” is not limited to an elite few, but universal for all Christ-followers (cf. Matt 23:11; Mark 9:35).
“If you’ve put your trust in Christ,” Smethurst writes, “you are already a deacon in a broad sense,” (p. 16). Of course, the Bible does begin to use the noun “deacon” in a more technical sense as one of the two ordained offices in the church, as the epistles of Paul show us (cf. Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8-12). But even as we examine the qualifications of a deacon in 1 Timothy, we should be struck with just how ordinary these requirements are. Deacons are not called to leap over tall buildings in a single bound or stop proverbial trains with their bare hands. The requirements for the diaconate are none other than the same requirements all Christians are called to submit to: speak the truth, abstain from drunkenness, do not be greedy for dishonest gain, be faithful in marriage, etc.
Smethurst explains: “Deacons must embody the kind of character expected of all Christians. But they should be exemplary in the ordinary. Deacons are the people in your church of whom you should be able to say, ‘Brother, do you desire to foster unity? Sister, do you wish to grow as a servant? Watch them,” (p. 71).
This is why character always matters more than competency when it comes to selecting a deacon. Deacons, like elders, are to be living-breathing examples of godliness for the church to model themselves after.
The temptation for many churches is to view the diaconate as the junior varsity team to the elders when it comes to spiritual maturity. Sure, he doesn’t really know his Bible and has a bad temper, but he is really handy and is willing to mow the church lawn, so we should make Ted a deacon. Finding competent deacons who can organize ministries is crucial—but competency never outweighs character (see pgs. 32-36). And when we rightly understand what deacons are called to do, the importance of what they must be becomes even clearer.
What a Deacon Must Do
Acts 6:1-7 is an important starting place for understanding what deacons must do. The early church is threatened with serious divisions that are occurring across ethnic lines: Hellenistic Jews are ignored in the daily distribution of bread. Jesus taught that the church would be formed from peoples from every nation (Matt 28:18-20) and the Jerusalem church is the first petri-dish in which this multi-cultural community is growing. These divisions contradict Jesus’ vision of what the church is to be. So, what do the apostles do?
Although Acts 6:1-7 never uses the noun diakonos the way Paul uses it in Timothy, we do get the verbal form of it (diakoneō) when the apostles explain, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve (diakoneō) tables,” (Acts 6:2). So the apostles call on the entire congregation to select seven men, “of good repute, full of Spirit and wisdom,” (Acts 6:3, note the importance of character!) who can serve the church. The apostles conclude, “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word,” (Acts 6:4). So the church chooses seven men to serve the church (Acts 6:5-6).
And what happens? We are told, “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith,” (Acts 6:7). These seven men didn’t just slow down the infestation of division in the church—their service led the church to explode in health and evangelism!
From this story we glean many insights into what a deacon’s ministry should do:
Prioritize the ministry of Word and Prayer
The apostles are reluctant to forego their ministry of the Word and prayer to wait on tables, but not because they find the service below them or the problem to be unimportant. There’s actually a play on words with diakonos in Acts 6:2, 4, which becomes apparent if we just use our English word “deacon”:
“It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to deacon tables… But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the deacon-ing of the word.”
The word used in verse 4 for “ministry” comes from the same word group as diakonos: diakonia. The apostles are not unwilling to be servants—they just know that the unique service they have been called to cannot be neglected.
This distinction in service correlates to the distinction between elders and deacons in 1 Timothy, where the only substantive difference between the two is the requirement for elders to be “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2). Pastors must devote themselves to the ministry of the Word. It can be tempting for pastors to get entangled in many problems in the life of the church either from a lack of help or a lack of trust in others and begin to neglect the prayer and ministry of the word—but this comes with a cost. Smethurst notes:
“By prioritizing Scripture and prayer, the apostles are choosing to stay focused on the whole church’s spiritual welfare, even as they affirm the Hellenists’ physical needs…a church whose ministers are chained to the tyranny of the urgent—which so often shows up in “tangible problems”—is a church removing its heart to strengthen its arm. It’s a kind of slow-motion suicide,” (p. 47).
Deacons thus are to work and care for the needs within the church so that the elders may be free to prioritize prayer and the ministry of the Word.
Promote and Prioritize Unity in the Church
Unity was threatened in Acts 6 and the seven stepped up to protect the unity. “Deacons should be those who muffle shockwaves,” writes Smethurst, “not make them reverberate further,” (p. 54). Deacons are those who labor to prioritize and implement the priorities of the elders and to free the elders to devote themselves to what will bring the most unity: prayer and Word. Deacons are not those who use their position of authority to battle others or cudgel the elders. In fact, Smethurst points out that while there are several passages where elders are called to exercise oversight and members are called to submit to them (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim 3:1-2; 5:17; 1 Pet 5:2; Heb 13:17), there is no such parallel with deacons. “Members…are called to emulate deacons; they are never told to obey them,” (p. 84).
Smethurst cites Mark Dever’s helpful analogy,
“If the elders say, ‘Let’s drive to Pittsburgh,’ it’s not up to the deacons to come back and say, ‘No, let’s drive to Philadelphia instead.’ They can legitimately come back and say, ‘Our engine won’t get us to Pittsburgh. Perhaps we should reconsider.’ That’s very helpful. But in general their job is to support the destination set by the elders,” (p. 83).
Smethurst concludes, “A contentious Christian…will make a poor deacon. So what should mark a deacon? Palpable humility. A spirit of gentleness. A willingness to be flexible. The ability to stand on conviction without being combative,” (pgs. 76-77). This is so critical when many churches (particularly in the Baptist tradition) view the deacon board as a kind of adversary to the pastor, there to check him if he moves the church in a direction they don’t like. It is the role of the elders to lead the ministry; it is the responsibility of the deacons to help facilitate the ministry, not provide an alternative direction.
Deacons can promote and protect the unity of the church by responding to opportunities for division in the church, supporting the ministry of the elders, and exhibiting humility in their own character.
Care for the Physical Needs of the Church
Since deacons are to work on “anything in a church’s life that threatens to distract and derail elders from their primary responsibilities,” (p. 75), this often means that deacons should be working to identify and meet tangible needs within the church. In Acts 6, that was an equitable distribution of bread. In churches today that may look like caring for the physical needs of widows, care for the church facilities, oversight of the church’s technology, budgets, hospitality, outreach opportunities, benevolence ministries, and so on and so forth.
It is interesting to note that we are never told exactly how the seven in Acts fixed the dilemma. Nor are we told that the apostles dictated what needed to be done. After the congregation had agreed that they were qualified and competent (why they must be “full of wisdom”), the apostles simply trusted them to figure out how to solve the problem. When addressing physical needs within the church, deacons are to be creative problem solvers. Their desire to guard the unity of the church compels them to this, “An ideal deacon candidate should have a track record of: sees a problem → wants to safeguard unity → thinks creatively → solves the problem,” (pgs. 55-56).
At one point, the church I now pastor had a board of deacons who oversaw the pastor and had authority over him. Later on, the church changed its model of governance and, while not eliminating the office entirely, had all deacons vacate the office and simply left it empty. Apparently, no one thought the job was important enough to be filled. Smethurst’s book shines like a lighthouse blazing through the fog of that kind of indifference. The work of deacons is not an optional quirk; it is a difference-maker in the life of a church.
There is so much more in this book that should be commended. The appendix on the issue of whether or not women can serve as deacons is worth the price of the book alone! Smethurst has packed the book with good exegesis, enlightening history, careful theology, and oodles and oodles of practical wisdom and refreshing encouragement.
He closes his book with these words of encouragement to all laboring in the diaconal ministry: “I want to reiterate that diaconal work is not glorious because it is always seen (it often isn’t). Nor is it glorious because it always gratifies (it often doesn’t). Ultimately, the work is glorious because of what it mirrors,” (p. 118). That mirrored reality is none other than the Deacon of all Deacons, the Servant of the Lord: Jesus Christ.
Editor’s Note: You can purchase Deacons: How They Serve And Strengthen The Church here or wherever books are sold.