It is the time of year once more in our church where the members will prayerfully nominate biblically qualified, faithful men to serve in the office of deacon. We recognize two offices within the church - pastors (elders) and deacons.
It is at this time of the year I sometimes feel like Bill Murray in the movie "Groundhog Day." We have been nominating deacons to serve in our church for decades. This is something that has occurred every single year that I have been here (the past 25 years) and for many years prior. Yet, every year the same questions come up regarding qualifications, expectations, and responsibilities of the men who serve.
Each year, the answers remain the same. At least the core answers do, for those are based on the only passage in Scripture where qualifications of deacons is given (1 Timothy 3.)
So, as we prepare for this time once more, we must go back to Scripture to ensure we understand what is required for men who answer this high calling for the lowly position.
Often when looking at the qualifications for deacons, we begin reading in verse 8 of chapter 3 while ignoring the qualifications for pastors (elders) listed in the first portion of the chapter. While these are two distinct offices, there is a connecting phrase in verse 8 that leads the reader to see that which is required of pastors is true for deacons as well. That phrase is "Deacons likewise must be..."
While the offices of pastor/elder and deacon have been affirmed in the modern church, the roles of the offices have often been misunderstood, if not fully modified. Based on the New Testament, the pastor/elders are the primary spiritual leaders of the local church. Pastors are to teach or preach the Word and shepherd the souls of those under their care (Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1:9; Heb. 13:17).
Deacons are to serve. The church needs deacons to offer practical, logistical support and service to the pastors and the church body so that the pastors may focus on the study of the Word of God and prayer.
The Similarities of Offices
It is clear as one reads through the passage that character counts. Men who serve as pastors and men who serve as deacons are held to high standards of character. They are to be proven, Christian men who are dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy, holding to sound faith and doctrine, and blameless. They are expected to lead their families well and, if married, to have wives who are above reproach as well. Clearly, if a moral character qualification is listed for elders, it is expected of deacons as well.
The Differences of Offices
The character qualifications are similar, but the roles and expectations of the offices do differ in some significant ways. The most distinguishing difference in the passage is found in 1 Timothy 3:2 where pastors are required to be "apt to teach."
This has caused confusion for some in that some churches have required their deacons to be serving in a teaching capacity in the church. What deacons are called to do is "hold" to the faith (1 Tim. 3:9). The office requirement is clear on holding strongly to the doctrines and mysteries of the faith. The passage clearly suggest that deacons do not have an official teaching role in the church.
Nevertheless, while a deacon may not actually be leading a small group or Bible study in the church, he must have the capacity to answer questions regarding biblical truth and doctrine. He must be able to share this truth with others. He should also be willing to serve where needed in the local church...and that may be in a teaching capacity (for various age groups.)
Character & Doctrine Matters
The deacon is an office of necessity so that the members of the church are served well. The pastor ensures they are taught well. God has positioned these offices in his church for his glory and the good of the church.
So, as the questions come, the answers remain consistent. There are interpretative variances on some of the qualifications. For example, while "husband of one wife" literally means "a one-woman man" some churches have read this to mean that a divorced man is not qualified for the office (this is our church's understanding.) Other churches have held this to mean a man should be married to only one woman at a time, which was an issue in the day it was written and will likely be again as marriage laws and redefinitions of acceptable relations continue to occur. Some hold that if a man became a believer after a remarriage, he qualifies.
Our church also has chosen to refrain from the drinking of alcoholic beverages for all pastors and deacons. While we concur that drinking alcoholic beverages is not a sin, we acknowledge that in our culture the command to ensure we not be stumbling blocks to newer believers has led to the continuation of this guideline.
While the "Groundhog Day" feeling continues, there are things that come up during this season of "deacon nomination" that causes me to reevaluate our guidelines, processes, and roles in our church.
Things We Need To Reconsider
- GET RID OF THE TERM LIMIT - We have "inactive deacons" and I keep looking in Scripture to see where that is validated. Our practice, as with many legacy churches, is to call a man to serve for a "term" as a deacon. In our case, it's for three years. It seems to me the concept of "inactive" is wrong. Now, there are cases where a man should step down from service. Obviously, the abandonment of solid doctrine, immorality, divisiveness, or opposition to pastors (who are leading biblically) would be reasons for a removal from office. However, a year off after three years on seems to be nothing more than a passive way to remove men from office without having to address personality conflicts or more importantly, issues such as those listed above.
- STOP NOMINATING THE UNQUALIFIED - The process of nomination is challenging. Yet, there are men nominated by well-meaning church members each year who are not qualified for the office.
- STOP TRYING TO FILL A QUOTA - We have abandoned this, but many churches still are focused on having the right number of men as deacons a required by their by-laws. The church is better off having the right men, even if it's a smaller number, than a large group of men who do not qualify.
- SELECT QUALIFIED DEACONS WHO ALREADY SERVE IN THE CHURCH - Calling a man who does nothing in the church with the hopes he will once he is called as a deacon is akin to giving a person who never attends small group a teaching position in hopes that he/she will start attending regularly. It's futile. It's wrong. It lowers the bar.
- CALL TO REPENTANCE THOSE THOSE WHO HAVE SERVED, BUT WON'T NOW - There are some who do not serve actively due to health or serious familial reasons. Then there are the men who refuse to serve for reasons that are less than godly. A deacon who has served in the past but won't currently due to differences with pastoral leadership, anger, laziness, or simply a desire to not serve within the church, must be called to repentance. Why? Because this is sin. If the man has disqualified himself from the office, that too must be addressed. However, it seems that at times, certain men are begged by other church members to serve again as they did prior to their refusal to be "active" once more, but to do so without calling them to repentance is to affirm the sin keeping them out of the office.
The Bible charges pastors with the tasks of teaching and leading the church. The deacons role is more service-oriented. By handling such issues within the church, the pastors are freed up to focus on shepherding the spiritual needs of the church. Deacons are a blessing. They honor God through their service to him and his church.