All organizations need leaders. The church of Jesus Christ is no different. While there are a variety of church government structures, most churches in the Protestant, Reformed tradition see church leadership arranged around Elders and Deacons.
Deacons in Scripture
While the Scriptures have a quite a bit to say about the role of elder (see Acts 20:17-35; 1 Timothy 3:1-7, 5:1720; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-4), there is less explanation concerning the role and responsibilities of deacons. What is clear from the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 is that, like elders, there is a high bar for those who serve as deacons. They too are called to be mature men of faith, with an exemplary homelife, and godly character.
The role of deacon originated in the Jerusalem church which was first led by the Twelve Apostles. The church was sharing food and resources, but the Hellenist Jews felt that their widows were being overlooked by the Hebrew Jews in the daily distribution of food. The Apostles responded in Acts 6:2-4: “‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’”
This sets the pattern for the role of elders and deacons in the church (admittedly this account is a prelude to the leadership structure of the church since neither the official word for “elder” or “deacon” is used in this account). Elders hold primary responsibility to lead, teach, and care for the church, and deacons support the elders in managing the ministry of the church. We can summarize the two roles this way: elders lead by shepherding, and deacons lead by serving.
In the book Deacons, published by 9Marks, Matt Smethurst says,
“[Deacons] are model servants who excel in being attentive and responsive to tangible needs in the life of the church. In what ways do they serve? By assisting the elders, guarding the ministry of the Word, organizing service, caring for the needy, preserving unity, mobilizing ministry, and more.” (p. 21)
With this foundation in mind (and building off some of the concepts from Smethurst’s book), let’s flesh out more specifically what deacons are, and what deacons are not, in the church.
What Deacons are Not
- Elders-in-Training: The deacon role is not a stepping-stone to the elder role. Some are called to serve as deacons; some are called to serve as elders. While they are both essential leadership roles in the church that require Christian maturity, they are separate callings with separate giftings.
- Handymen: While the nature of deacon ministry is more practical, deacons are not just glorified janitors, handymen, or errand-boys. They are true, mature, gifted leaders! So, while they often oversee more practical areas of church ministry, as leaders they should be raising up volunteers, delegating responsibilities, and overseeing teams.
- Businessmen: While part of the deacons’ responsibility is to assist the elders in managing the organization, logistics, and budget, deacons are more than just financial consultants or business leaders. They are spiritual leaders.
- Checks-and-Balance: Deacons are not in leadership to challenge, criticize, or keep the elders in check. This is not like two houses of government that balance each other out. Elders and deacons have different types of authority, responsibility, and ministry, but they work together as a team toward a common vision and goal.
What Deacons Are
- Christian Examples: Qualified deacons are mature, godly Christians who serve and lead the congregation through their example, pointing people to Christ.
- Elder Supporters: Effective deacons take responsibility for whatever areas of church ministry that could distract the elders from their primary calling. Deacons free up the elders and enable them to focus on teaching the Word, facilitate the vision and mission, and care for the congregation.
- Ministry Managers: Deacons are actively involved in essential church ministry. Given the responsibility the deacons take on in Acts 6, and given that deacons are called to be good managers of their households, we can see that deacons are called not just to be doers but managers and equippers of other believers. At Living Hope Church, deacons are assigned to coordinate a specific area of church ministry.
- Proactive Guards: Deacons shouldn’t just handle assigned tasks (though they do). Deacons shouldn’t just respond to crises, address problems, or put out fires (though they do). Deacons should be proactive leaders who look ahead, anticipate pressure points, and take initiative to resolve potential distractions, conflicts, or challenges before they occur.
- Care Givers: Since the time deacons were established in the early church, they were involved in showing mercy and caring for those in need in the church. Beyond just practical tasks, deacons care for and serve people. While we may be able to generalize that elders care for spiritual needs and deacons care for practical needs, in real life, it is rarely that cut-and-dry. Often those who are facing hardships related to health, finances, or other household issues are also dealing with struggles in their faith. Deacons need to work with the elders to offer prayer, support, mercy, and encouragement to those in need.
- Unity Builders: Deacons build and protect the unity of the church. They stand with the elders in carrying the church vision to the people. Deacons represent the church leadership in the ministries and small groups where they serve. They function as additional eyes and ears in the congregation to help the elders assess the health and needs of the church.
- Church Leaders: Given the godly qualifications and high calling Scripture assigns to deacons, at Living Hope Church deacons serve alongside the elders as the decision-making body of the church. Elders and deacons together form the Leadership Team of the church – imitating Christ, living out the Gospel, loving people, setting direction, caring for the finances, and overseeing ministry.
Thank God for faithful deacons who serve the church and minister the Gospel in reflection of Jesus!
“But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” | Mark 10:43-45