There’s an entire generation of conservative evangelical churches where one would be more likely to find an unfrozen caveman in the congregation than a biblically-functioning deacon.
Some churches have known little more than a “board” of deacons making decisions for the church. Some have, at worst, a thugocracy in which the meanest and most aggressive men in the church intimidate the rest of the Body through verbal bullying or the threat of a loss of financial support.
God’s Spirit seems to be, as he almost always does, shaking things back into order in Christ’s church. Congregations across the world are rethinking deacons, and reclaiming the old pattern of deacons as servants, the pattern laid down by Scripture itself.
As with almost anything else, there’s a danger of being reactionary, and over-correcting the problem. We could swing from a corporate board model to a non-profit volunteer co-op model, and miss the biblical pattern just as surely (though, admittedly, without all the wreckage).
Some have asked if I believe deacons are “just to be servants,” not leaders in the congregation. Now, first of all, there’s no such thing for followers of Christ as a category of “just a servant.” Servanthood is not menial. Our Lord Jesus himself is the servant of all, and is thus Emperor of the universe.
Beyond that, the “just a servant” question misses a key point. The question is not whether a deacon serves (the very meaning of the word, along with the biblical task assigned, makes that clear). The question is how he serves. When deacons appear in the biblical narrative, it is because the Spirit prompts the apostles to ask the congregation to choose men who meet certain qualifications. They don’t simply place a title on those who are currently serving. Instead, the Spirit mandates men who are “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3).
The qualifications for deacon are likewise meticulous about spiritual and leadership characteristics in Paul’s letter to Timothy about the matter (1 Tim 3:1-13). Like pastors, they must “manage” their households well, with the assumption being that, like pastors, they’ll be called upon to “care for God’s church” (1 Tim 3:5) as a leader.
The question is not whether deacons serve or lead. Leadership, scripturally defined, is servanthood. The question is in what way do deacons lead. Deacons maintain the unity of the Body by giving leadership to the serving of temporal needs. They’re not a corporate board, nor are they a spiritual council of directors. They serve the Body by removing potential obstacles to unity by meeting human needs.
The acrimony in the Jerusalem congregation was the perceived slight to the Grecian widows. By organizing, with wisdom and Spirit, the care of those widows, the first deacons were empowering the Body to keep its mandate from its Head to care for widows and orphans (James 1:27), while at the same time maintaining the gospel witness of Jew-Gentile unity in the Messiah (Eph 3:6).
If deacon were simply a synonym for “servant,” then every member of the church would be a “deacon,” because every member of the church is called and gifted to serve one another (Eph 4:1-16; 1 Cor 12:4-27). Deacons serve, but as they do so they equip the rest of the Body to serve.
Pastors and teachers can’t give up “prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:2), but they certainly are not the only Christians who pray or proclaim the Scriptures. Every Christian is called to interpret and explain the Scripture, to exhort unbelievers to know Christ and to build up the rest of the church with the Word of God. Pastors are uniquely given over to lead the Body in these gifts, to equip the rest of the Body to take the gospel everywhere (Eph 4:12). The office of pastor is unique because the pastor is, week-by week, teaching his people to “preach,” to their families, to their neighbors, to themselves.
In the same way, deacons organize servant ministry, whether by serving at the Lord’s Table, or setting up a shut-in ministry or by supervising a children’s neighborhood immunization clinic, in order to equip the saints to serve, and to ensure that the service being done results in the unity of the faith and the advance of the gospel.
That kind of servant leadership is more significant than any corporate board, congregational or otherwise.
A deacon is to be a just servant, to be sure, and wise, and holy. But “just a servant”? There’s no such thing.