The Mysterious Case of the Vanishing Deacon
By J. Michael Shannon
They used to be found in large numbers. In some cases, they were the first church officers a visitor would meet. They were visible in church services and activities. Now they seem to be almost an endangered species.
I have the opportunity to visit all kinds of churches in various contexts. In an increasing number of those churches, it is extremely difficult to find a deacon. In churches where they do have them, it is difficult to figure out where they are. Why are they disappearing?
Sometimes the disappearance can be explained by the desire of churches to prevent open warfare among leaders. In churches with joint boards, elders and deacons sometimes fought for control of the agenda. Often the deacons outnumbered the elders and could overrule or unseat them. In addition, it was problematic because the younger, less-experienced leaders developed more influence than the spiritually mature leaders. This, of course, is not a healthy situation.
For years, churches had elders and deacons working together on a joint board. In churches where the joint board concept worked, there were clear distinctions concerning the duties of elder and deacon. The common idea that elders were involved in spiritual matters and the deacons in physical matters was reductionist and biblically inaccurate, but where the system worked, there was still a distinction.
While I am not advocating that the joint board always worked or is a biblical necessity, I am advocating that there is a valuable role for deacons, and they can work in harmony with the elders in a team relationship. Just because we have had difficulty in communicating the parameters of their relationship is no reason to eliminate the office of deacon.
This disappearance can be explained as an unintended consequence of the ministry leader system. In some churches, the deacons thought their job was to take up the offering and show up once a month to a meeting to vote “no.” To remedy that situation, some churches required each deacon to run a ministry. This system gave a ministry leader much authority over his particular area of service, but little input in other areas of church life.
This sometimes led to the unfair perception that this was a power grab by the elders. In reality, the ministry leader had much influence, but it was narrowly focused. There was still tension, even though one of the goals was to eliminate it.
In an attempt to open up areas of service to a wider group of people, some churches appointed ministry leaders who were not biblically qualified to be deacons. As this happened, church members could not see the difference between a ministry leader who was biblically qualified and one who was not. Therefore, what began as a noble attempt to increase service opportunities unintentionally contributed to the demise of the deacon. While all members should be servants, in Bible times there was a group charged with a specific and deeper level of service.
Perhaps there were other situations where church leaders found it cumbersome to navigate initiatives through deliberative bodies, and, therefore, thought they could streamline the process by eliminating deacons altogether.
I suggest church leaders revisit the office of deacon and restore it to a place of honor in the church.
The first reason to do so is because deacons were part of the New Testament church. It is one of the most specifically defined offices in Scripture. The qualifications for deacon were nearly as stringent as those for elder. We should not be content to eliminate the office of deacon any more than we would the office of elder.
The second reason for reemphasizing the position of deacon is, as churches get bigger, there is an even greater need for a training ground for eldership. A deacon may be seen as someone who is in training to become an elder (although there is nothing wrong with lifelong deacons). Finding areas of service for those who may not be biblically qualified to be a deacon does not necessitate eliminating the office of deacon.
Another valid reason for deacons is to serve as a bit of check and balance to the eldership. No one wants a constant civil war between elders and deacons, but neither is a dictatorial eldership beneficial. An eldership can benefit from feedback gleaned from people outside their own group.
We should reaffirm the importance of the office of deacon, clearly delineate their duties, give them an appropriate commissioning, and put them to work.
Come back deacons. We have missed you.
J. Michael Shannon is professor of preaching at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.