On Deacons

Hey church family! We are finally nominating some of our members as deacons here in the church. Right now we are nominating those particular members who have already been serving in these roles for the last couple years, and we are recognizing that what they are doing is the work of a deacon or deaconess. The elders will be asking for a vote of affirmation from our membership on January 16 after the morning service.

As we get ready to do that, I wanted to remind everybody of how we understand the role and the purpose of deacons from Scripture. There are a lot of different church traditions surrounding the office of deacon, and since we have people from numerous different backgrounds here at Grace, we might have some different assumptions about who deacons are, and what they do in the church.

First, deacons do not lead the church and they are not a body within the church that has the authority to make decisions for the church. In a significant branch of the church, especially Southern Baptists, this is what the role of deacon has evolved into over the years. One major reason why that’s happened is because the biblical role of a plurality of elders leading the church has been lost. Instead, many churches hire a “lead pastor” who is supposed to drive the “ministry” of the church, and he’s answerable to the deacon board.

But consider all the passages about authority in the church, about being the shepherds of the flock, and especially about leading and submitting within the church (for example- 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Acts 20:17-3, Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 5:1-5) . All of those passages are directed towards elders, and none of them are directed towards deacons. Deacons do not lead the church as a whole.

Second, deacons serve the church by taking responsibility for the administration of the church. There are many things that go into keeping a community healthy and organized that go beyond the ministry of prayer, shepherding souls, and the ministry of the Word. They are connected however. The Ministry of the Word and Prayer drives everything else that happens within the community, and that’s why the elders are given the call to manage the household of God (1 Timothy 3:4). The ministry drives the administration and organization, not the other way around. Deacons are the hands and feet (and often the brains!) for the elders when it comes to the administrative needs, but the goal of the church is to always serve the ministry of the Word.

Acts 6 is a great example of this. These men are often call the proto-deacons, and they give us a picture of why deacons are necessary, and how they function. The Apostles were devoted to prayer and the Word, but a real need for some organization, clarity, and structure came about because of the Gentile widows. So what happened? Some gifted men were given responsibility over this particular need. Notice that: there was a particular need, and specific men were called to take responsibility for that need. Unlike today, where in many churches a person becomes a deacon and that means that they sit on a deacon board and handle and delegate all the business of the church, these men were set aside not for a general need, but for a specific one.

How is this playing out here at Grace? Well, Gene Mefferd is being nominated as our Deacon of Services because the set up and take down for all our services is his responsibility. But Robert Martin is being nominated as our Deacon of Finance because that’s the responsibility he carries for us, and Scott Harrison is being nominated as our Deacon of Online and Technology Needs because he has taken responsibility for that. Andrew Begin, Kevin Pine, and Paul Mefferd are all being nominated as Deacons of Admin because as a group, they take responsibility for aiding the elders in organizational and business aspects of managing the church. Mary Mefferd is being nominated as Deaconness of Hospitality because she consistently takes responsibility for that need. So for each need, there are individuals taking responsibility, allowing the elders to focus on the ministry of the Word and prayer.

Not all who serve are deacons though. In fact, that would be impossible, wouldn’t it, because every Christian is called to serve! The Deacons are specific individuals with godly character who can be trusted to take responsibility for a specific need of the church. This is why deacons have the requirements that they do in 1 Timothy 3.

For example, there will be people that Gene asks to help set up and take down each week. Those people aren’t deacons though. Gene is the deacon who, because of his character and his willingness, has responsibility over that area. The admin team might ask people to help them in different areas, but that doesn’t automatically mean those people they ask are deacons. Again, there’s a reason why 1 Timothy 3 lists out a standard for what kind of person a deacon needs to be. The question isn’t whether they can set up audio, or stream a service online, or balance a checkbook, or plan meals. The question is whether they can be given the trust and responsibility to take care of an area of church life that needs to be managed in a God glorifying way.

We believe this is a biblically faithful structure for deacons in the church, that accounts for their service, for the elders’ leadership and authority, and for the need to have people of godly character serving in deacon roles.

“The question isn’t whether they can set up audio, or stream a service online, or balance a checkbook, or plan meals. The question is whether they can be given the trust and responsibility to take care of an area of church life that needs to be managed in a God glorifying way.”

Can Women Be Deacons?

This is another question that we need to answer for everyone. Since we’re nominating a woman as a deacon, the answer is obviously yes, but we want to explain why. I’d like to give three reasons.

First, as was explained above, the deacon role in the New Testament is clearly not the role or office in the church that has authority over the church. No one is called to submit to the deacons in the New Testament. The church is called to submit to the elders, and the deacons are included in those who are called to submit. In churches where the deacons do act as a governing body who has the authority to make decisions for the church at large, we believe it would be wrong for a woman to serve as a deacon there because of God’s command in 1 Timothy 2:12. But if the role of deacons is understood as I described above, it would be appropriate for women to serve as “servants” of Grace Fellowship.

Second, we see a woman named Phoebe given the title of Deaconess of the church at Cenchreae in Romans 16:1. That, along with the numerous women that Paul names joyfully that serve alongside him or at various churches, would fit with a picture that women can serve the church in diaconal roles, even though Paul very clearly condemns the idea that women could serve as elders within the church.

Third, I believe that reading 1 Timothy 3:11 as “women” instead of “wives” is actually the correct interpretation of that passage. Let me give three quick reasons for that.

One, the word itself simply means women, and context must determine whether or not we interpret that word as wives. In passages like 1 Peter 3, or Ephesians 5, for example, it would make sense of the context to interpret this word as wife or wives, because marriage is obviously being discussed in those passages. But here? The context is the offices in the church, and the qualifications for those offices. Could this be talking about the deacon’s wife? Possibly. But it certainly does not have to be talking about a deacon’s wife. It could just as easily be talking about the qualifications specific to a woman who is a deacon, which I find more likely in light of everything else we’ve mentioned.

Two, I find it to be a more likely interpretation because interpreting 1 Timothy 3:11 as deacon’s wives begs an obvious and very important question: why say so much about deacon’s wives and their character, but say nothing at all about the character of elders’ wives? That would make no sense, considering that throughout the whole New Testament the role of elders is the more significant role. Paul doesn’t say, ‘not many should become deacons,’ but he does warn that not many should become elders. Is it not obvious that there would be a greater concern for that man’s wife than for the deacon’s wife? Since nothing at all is said about elder’s wives, it would make much more sense that Paul is speaking about the qualifications for a women who serves in a particular way in the church in verse 11.

Three, Paul and the other New Testament writers have clearly laid down God’s design for the roles of men and women in the home and within the church. As long as we hold fast to those, we need not fear that recognizing women can serve as deaconesses is a threat to the purity of our doctrine or practice. In marriage there are clear roles of submission and headship. Within the church, there are clear roles of authority. For instance, women should not ever be preachers or elders in a church because God has clearly laid that down in his Word. That’s his design, and we find our joy and identity in obeying his design. But from Jesus’ ministry on through the New Testament, women do play vital roles in the life of the church and in the growth of many godly people (Think of Phoebe, of Timothy’s grandmother, of Priscilla and so many others).

Just as we would with a husband or father that the church was considering for a deacon role, we must ask whether the responsibilities of a deaconness would interfere with the other God given responsibilities that rightly take priority in a woman’s life if God has given them to her- namely, being a wife and mother.

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