“Deacon”: Sorry, That Definition Has Already Been Taken!

cher finger on scale

“Wait On”
“Weigh In On”




What Are The Dynamics Operating?

Authority and power are rightfully invested in leadership ranging from the secular to the sacred, from presidents of Christian institutions or a local church pastor. As with any effective organization, it is foundational and necessary that there be leadership, and leadership, which has authority. That truth is seen on every level of society worldwide. All manner of organizations exemplifies it — from evil (Al Qaeda) – to – righteous ( Samaritan’s Purse) — and every kind of organization in-between.

The need for leadership is uncontested by sinners and saints. What is often at issue is not authority, but accountability. “Accountability” is where the discussion on authority all changes. The issue is not the need for leadership, but “accountability.” Few dispute the need for strong leaders and agencies that protect American citizens’ security, but there is much dispute because of such leaders’ lack of accountability. It revolves around the improper use of authority, and/or even moves into the realm of the “corrupt” use of authority.

You have probably heard individuals in the political world say, “I take full responsibility for what has happened.” As we have learned, that means nothing. There is little to no accountability in the world of political power. That lack of accountability is what corrupts all kinds of institutions and levels of power! Anyone who does not acknowledge that reality has not read about Falwell Jr., James Mac Donald, John Ortberg, Tullian Tchividjian, Ravi Z., or…or….or…or. One only needs to read the accounts reported by Julie Roys just in 2020.

Once someone gains power in a broken system, then, they enter an elite subgroup within that system. Their fellow power-holders will do everything in their power to protect them. (This is why it was so important that Ortberg and Strobel spoke out against their former master Bill Hybels. It’d become perfectly safe to do so. He was radioactive by then, impossible to help or save. )

“A broken system contains almost no provisions for reining in wrongdoers or removing them from power — because then all of these power-holders’ positions would land on the chopping block. None of the leaders in these systems really deserve to be there, and most of them behave in ways that would get them instantly removed from power in more functional systems. Not so, in broken systems.

Perhaps Ortberg sought counsel, but if he did, the counsel was misguided or went unheeded. If the counsel came primarily from loving friends, did their love discount the severity of the danger? Friendly counsel often supplies more support and even rationalization than the confrontation and rebuke that may be required. This is why I think it’s always good to check in with a few detractors. They care less about your feelings and tend to shell out truth with no sugar (another reason to love your enemies—Luke 6:27). — CToday on John Ortberg

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What are some of the dynamics
which play into this lack of accountability
and even blight decisions-making and actions?


The Number #1 Dynamic:
Number one, and number one in its causality, is the structure of leadership within the local church. “Church polity” is a structural element. Tell me how your church governs its affairs, and I can likely forecast where the problems will occur.

Church governance is so foundational that churches are even defined by their “polity” . . . .

  • hierarchical
  • single elder
  • plurality of elders, or
  • congregational rule.

The decision-making process, vision (or lack thereof), outreach, evangelism, hiring (or firing), staffing, salaries, direction, and the handling (or mishandling) of “people problems” all change based on which form of government is followed.

However, even within those basic forms for church government there are variations. Those variations revolve around the “power-dynamics” which are also at play. For instance, even in congregational church government, where the power is centered in “the church” body, that may not be the reality of the situation — and we are all well aware of that fact.

Some “congregational rule” churches are pastor, or deacon, or long-time family, or pastor-deacons, or pastor-deacon, or long-time clique run.    The power structure in place generally determines . . . .

  • What happens and does not happen
  • What is allowed and what is not allowed
  • What is promoted and not promoted
  • Who is in and who is out
  • Who is employed and who is not employed
  • What the salary is or is not
  • Who is disciplined, or (more likely) who is not
  • What can be said, and what cannot be said
  • What missionary is and what missionary is not supported
  • What ministries are important and unimportant
  • etc . . . . . etc. . . . . [1]

Sadly, that is more often true than we honestly want to acknowledge.

However, not acknowledging it leads to its continuance.  It does not lead to a healthy church, or needed healthy change.

Where some of the change needs to begin is with a proper understanding of the role of deacon. Deacons may see themselves as the co-leadership team within the local church. They see themselves, along with the pastor, as co-leaders of the church, its ministries, and the policy decisions. In such a situation, it is the deacons, along with the pastor(s) who are the final gatekeepers of the church. Most all, and maybe all, actions, decisions, policies, changes, direction, finances, salaries, officer selections, etc. are filtered through them. [2]

waiterIn contrast, Acts 6 establishes them as servants of the church, dealing with the temporal life of “the church.” They were selected to insure fairness and equity in the distribution of the resources. Their activity was separated from that of the apostles, not connected to the apostles’ work and ministry.

And if Stephen is a biblical example of what it means to be a deacon, being a vocal Gospel witness is one of the primary traits of being a deacon. The reasons for the spiritual qualities stated I Timothy was their biblical knowledge and their boldness to speak the Gospel — as did Stephen.

Sadly, we do not even hold up that expectation and requirement very highly (as demonstrated in Stephen’s life). What deacon do you know who has a testimony of sharing the Gospel week after week? I’m not speaking of results, but passion!

If they are not doing that, or doing that poorly, surely, thereis no reasonable justification for allowing them to make any recommendations, or allowing them to share their thinking and vantages with the pastor(s). I might suggest that if the deacons are not serving and are not passionate about sharing the Gospel, they have no reasonable right to be part of the decision-making process. Bad decisions come from those who don’t know God’s people and their needs. A weak sense of direction comes from those who are not personally involved in sharing the Gospel with those who need Christ! Start sharing the Gospel, and as a deacon, you will not only support the church in its outreach, but you will be urging the church to do more to reach those who need Christ.

Nevertheless, there is no biblical support for the deacons being anything more than “servants” who address the church’s temporal needs and issues (Acts 6; I Timothy 3:8) and a passionate vocal Gospel witness. Their qualifications for office match their responsibility as caring people-persons/servants and “evangelists.”

There is nothing in the Scriptures that supports the position that deacons are an official or unofficial decision-making body that discusses, evaluates, or recommends actions and/or policies to the church body. That is also why some churches and/or pastors see the “deacons’ role” as what others would call “trustees,” dealing with the ministry’s physical needs.

Interestingly, most pastors recognize and acknowledge that deacon’s primary biblical role is that of a servant — not a decision-maker. One of the proofs of that is the adoption of a “The Deacon’s Caring Program.” That program is a decades-old program that sought to get back to that recognized biblical position. It made its rounds across the church spectrum. It was headed up by and taught by Howard Bixby (Haven’t heard that name in a while.).

Obviously, a pastor can listen to any group of men (and women –“even so must their wives”) he wishes to for advice or vantage. He can meet with, talk to, and ask any individual or group for their viewpoints, opinions, or final judgments. But in the end, the deacons’ biblical role is “serving” God’s people in making sure the needs of God’s people are addressed in an equitable manner.

I am not here to argue elder rule versus congregational rule.  Nevertheless, churches which operate with an “elder rule polity” again make the argument as to the biblical role of deacon.  The obvious and clear biblical role of deacons is precisely why some churches and pastors adopt the polity position of “elder rule.”  Biblically, they do not see the role of the deacon as part of the church’s leadership. They sincerely believe that the decisions of the church are not part of the responsibilities delegated to the deacons or any other individual or group. Instead, they see the church’s leadership and decision-making to be the primary, if not sole, responsibility of the “elders.”

Let me frame the argument another way. If the pastor were to set up an “Org-Chart,” would he place himself under the deacons, or under the Great Shepherd? That establishes the fact that most pastors, if pushed to express their actual position on the role of deacons in the local church, would conclude that the deacons are not a decision-making body.

I well imagine that I can not reverse the decade’s old practice of allowing the deacons to be part of the official decision-making process — since Howard Bixby never accomplished that goal after decades of making the biblical argument, neither can I. I am fairly certain that I will not be able to persuade the deacon board to relinquish their role and power within the local church willingly.  I have little hope that most pastors will abandon a pastor-deacon decision-making polity.

Nevertheless, continuing to allow the deacons
to be part of the church’s leadership,
or party to the officially or unofficially leadership decision-making process,
has significant implications for church practice, decision-making, control, and operation.

Example: The Matthew 18 process involves three to a maximum of four people only [3], and then the third party, identified as “the church!” There is no basis in word, spirit, or biblical principle to insert those serving as deacons into this three-step process [5]. These “servants” are not biblically designated to be grand jury members recommending an indictment, nor to be adjudicators of a matter. Inserting the deacons into the church discipline three-step process creates a deeper and more dangerous power structure within the local church.  Why?  Because now we are not only dealing with the nature of membership, but the subtle control of God’s people.

The fact is that the deacons have no biblical or Scriptural part to play, or authority to exercise, in that process. There is nothing in the Scriptures which inserts them into that process, or any other process other than serving the physical needs of “the church,” and a passion for evangelism.

Let me accept reality. I understand that most congregational ruled churches operate with a pastor-deacon leadership structure. In most cases, the group “pastor-deacons” is the official and/or unofficial decision-making body ahead of “the church.”  Nevertheless, the potential for problems occurs when the deacons see themselves as anything else than the representatives of “the church.” They are not the pastor’s deacons; they have been chosen by “the church” to represent their best interest! They are there representing their brothers and sisters in Christ.

To allow any action to move forward, to permit decisions to be made without a sincere and meaningful input from the fellowship of believers, to disregard the thoughts and thinking of the brothers and sisters in Christ who they serve, is indicative of just such a grave misunderstanding of what their role was in Acts 6 — servants of God’s people, who are there there to promote fairness and equity.

The misuse and even abuse of position and power are incredibly substantial when the deacons see themselves as anything else than the representatives of “the church.”

They are not the pastor’s deacons; they have been chosen by “the church” to represent their best interest! If they see themselves as the protectors of the pastor(s), or the hedge between leadership and those in the pew, the situation is exponentially even more problematic.

What is Scripture’s Definition Of “Deacon?”

Screen Shot 2020-10-14 at 11.59.06 AM

No one gets to pull out their “Bible Dictionary”
and redefine “deacon.” 
Sorry, that term is already taken and defined by the Lord.



An Even More Menacing Situation:

Add to that — the very real possibility — that if the deacons are complicit in any wrong-doing along with the pastor(s), the likelihood of successfully calling-out that wrong-doing or the wrong-doers actions is near nil. Just as in Acts 6, it was a confidence in the first deacons’ fairness and equity, which gave God’s people assurance that there would be a “godly-just-appropriate-resolution” of the problem.

Imagine a situation where the pastor(s) has been called out for wrong-doing, and for the sake of illustration the wrong-doing has indeed occurred. And for the sake of illustration, at least two people have made the same assertion as to the wrong-doing. Nevertheless, the deacons step in and summarily discharge the issue. I know that some might not be able to imagine such a possibility. But I can assure you that it happens.

That is the potential when deacons see themselves as protectors and not servants of God’s people. When they assume powers never biblical given to them, or are given the authority to operate as the decision-makers, or operate as the gatekeepers of the decisions, actions, and policies of “the church,” all kinds of confusing and upsetting dynamics begin to play out.

I have always been committed to “congregational church government” throughout my years in the pew and behind the pulpit. It is because I know that it is vital that pastor(s) answer to the people, and that the deacons are there to represent God’s people. In fact, when they fail to represent the people, I have called them out for that as well!

Without a check on power within the church, whether it be a check exerted by the deacon board in representing the best interest of their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and/or the check exerted directly by the congregation through genuine elections and free discussion and debate, the dynamics operating are menacing! [4]

The menacing currents which begin to operate in such an atmosphere can be even more damaging to a member(s) who is willing to call-out the wrong-doing of pastors and deacons!   The result — a conjoined or complicit defensive agenda may be put into place, in order to prevent “the church” from ever hearing the facts of the situation and/or wrong-doing!

It is unhealthy and pernicious when the deacons . . . .

  • assume authority, which is not theirs.
  • assume decision-making powers in place of the church.
  • have the authority to stop a matter from ever getting to “the church.
  • presume that they can operate unilaterally, without “the church.”
  • insert themselves into the three-step process of Matthew 18.
  • refuse to allow step three to take place = “tell it to the church.”
  • act as far more than servants.
  • not act as caring servants and “evangelist.”
  • think they are “the church.”
  • usurp the right and authority given only to “the church.”

They have then far-exceeded their right, authority, or position!

You are now approaching the “political elite” mentality who believe that they know better than the people — and worse — a corruption of the biblical process.

When this happens, a clearly worded biblical process is now usurped by preventing the church from hearing “what has taken place,” — from at least a different perspective. Only as God’s-people refuse to relinquish their right and responsibility to carry out the biblical process, will this kind of corrupt process be prevented and corrected.

When ministry leadership refuses transparency
and/or access to “the church,”
believe them.
As with most in power,
they do not want to relinquish
the power and authority
that they do not even rightfully or biblically possess.

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were called to
Wait On
their brothers and sisters in Christ,
Not To Weigh In On
some of the most consequential decisions of church life.

The deacons are to model fairness and equity
in handling their brothers and sisters in Christ. 
To do anything less than that is to
break trust with God’s people!

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1. Some congregational ruled churches have no power to nominate its own church officers and/or deacons.

Some congregational ruled churches have limited ability to chose or remove a pastor, nomination a deacon, propose the support of a missionary, decide on the salary of its pastor(s), hire or fire staff — or to even know when or as to why, or meaningfully participate in any of the above.

2. Sometimes actions, decisions, policies, changes, direction, finances, salaries, officer selections, etc. never even get to the congregation if the “pastor-deacon gate” disallows it.  Some ministries control the information which is appropriately, necessarily, and/or is rightfully that which should be made at least available to the congregation.

3. I am taking the Matthew 18 scenario — I understand that it could involve more than two people if the offended and offenders are a larger group. One person who is the offended. One person who is the offender. One or two other people as witnesses in step two. The total is max four.

Obviously, it is possible that the deacons can become party to the dispute. They could be, along with even the pastor, called-out for wrong-doing. Then, they would be involved, but involved only as potential offenders or the claimed offended and therefore greater in number than max four.

4. I might make the easy argument that when a “the church” body is divided on this-or-that matter, and the deacons are united on the same decision, they do not reflect, and/or do not know, or haven’t spoken to, or are willfully ignorant of the congregation, or believe they know better than their brothers or sister who serve and worship with them.

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