The Board of Deacons?

Note (added 7/7/09): I have been told that the following article sounds like a negative attack on deacons in general. That was certainly not my intention!  Some of my best friends and some of the strongest Christian men I know are deacons! I realize that the Biblical office of deacon goes all the way back to the New Testament and is established by God for the well-being of His church! The article is meant to be a strong warning for churches and deacons to stick to the Biblical model! Many have not!

The Deacon Board.

Does that phrase sound strange to you?

Probably not… not if you were raised in a Baptist church as I was. The phrase just very easily rolls off our tongues as part of our Baptist vocabulary.

But if we are Biblically oriented it should sound strange. Where on earth did we get the word “board?” How did the concept of “the board” find its way into the church?

It certainly isn’t Biblical. That’s easy enough to check if you know how to use a concordance.

Actually, about a hundred years ago or so, the law began to recognize the legal power of the boards of directors of large companies. The job of the board of directors (also called the executive board, or the board of trustees, or the board of managers, or the board of governors) was to oversee the activities of the company or organization. The board governed the organization. It exercised control and management over the organization.

It was the responsibility of the board of directors to make decisions that would be financially beneficial to the company. And if the CEO did not seem to be doing his part to bring financial success to the company, it was the responsibility of the board to remove him and replace him with a better CEO.

Many churches, wrongly thinking that the business model was the best path for success in the church, simply adopted that model into the church. They chose as deacons the men in the church who seemed to be financially astute… men who perhaps had succeeded in the business world.  And they assumed the same name: the board.

Churches expected those men to act as other boards that they were familiar with in the business world. And the men on the board tended to act like men on a company board because that was the only way they knew how to act.

In the process, many simply forgot the Biblical model.

These boards began to make spiritual decisions about money and about leadership and about facilities and about people just as if they were the executive board of a company. Many of these men were good men. But if you asked them to discuss Biblical doctrine or Biblical models of leadership or Biblical principles of decision-making or Biblical teachings for handling interpersonal relationships, they would have very little of substance to say. They might be able to mouth platitudes. But they were not Bible students. Oh sure, they came to church every Sunday and listened dutifully. But they were not serious students of the Scriptures. They didn’t even know how to start studying the Bible seriously.

Of course, some churches continued to pay lip service to the Biblical model, but in reality they lived by the business model.

So very many churches (and the woods are full of them, as they say), began to allow and even expect their “boards” of deacons to make decisions that God never intended for them to make.

But, of course, decisions do have to be made in the church. So who is to make them? Well, if you look up a few words in a concordance [e.g., bishop(s), elder(s), shepherd(s),  deacon(s), submit, rule, overseer] and then run a few cross references, perhaps spending some extra time in 1 Timothy and Titus, it’s quite easy to check it out.

The Biblical model is pretty simple and straightforward. The church is to select a group of men (elders or bishops or pastors) who know the Scriptures well and who walk with God. They should be able to teach. They should know how to use doctrinal truth to exhort and convince those who deny that truth. This implies that they should be well-acquainted with Biblical principles for decision making. These men are to lead and oversee the church.

The church is also to select a group of men called deacons (the word means “servants”). These men serve the church under the leadership of the elders.

When churches decided to add the word “board” to the group of men who should be serving the church, but not overseeing the church, a role reversal took place in many churches.

Men who were not skilled at understanding and teaching the Scriptures began to make decisions that should have been made by elders. The deacons began to oversee the elders, turning the Biblical model on its head.

In many churches, as long as the elders did a good job (in the opinion of the deacons!) they were held in high esteem. But if (in the opinion of the deacons!), they were not doing a good job, then it was up to the “board” to get rid of them and replace them with someone who would perhaps do a better job (again, in the opinion of the deacons).

A typical scenario might be for a church member to be dissatisfied with an elder (or other church member). The elder has done something with which the member disapproves. Now the Bible is ABUNDANTLY CLEAR about the way to handle this problem. But my experience in Baptist churches has been that VERY FEW trust God enough to simply handle it His way. (If you are a Christian and you have to ask “What is the Bible way?” Then shame on you! That is, unless you happen to be a brand new Christian.)   But if you wish, you may read all about it in posts beginning here.

Instead, most dissatisfied members start telling others why they are dissatisfied. (Normally they do not go to the person with whom they are dissatisfied, as we are clearly instructed to do in the Scriptures.) In choosing this course of action, the dissatisfied member is in sin and is rebelling against God’s clear command. Eventually the dissatisfied member may try to convince the “board” that they need to take some action to correct or perhaps get rid of the elder with whom they are dissatisfied.

It is ungodly. It is unbiblical. It is disgusting. A godly deacon would immediately reply, “No way! You shouldn’t be talking with me about this! The Bible says you should have immediately gone to the pastor (or whoever you are unhappy about)! You should do that now!  But I will not take up your grudge! And, for the record, you are in sin!” (Perhaps that is not quite clear enough, but you get the idea. :))

Perhaps you are wondering, “Well, then, what are we to do in the case of elders who sin? Are they exempt from accountability?” Of course not! The Bible tells us very clearly how to deal with any Christian who sins (including an elder). (Again, if you like, you may read what I have written about this issue beginning here.) But there is also some specific instruction for dealing with elders who sin. You can read it in 1 Timothy 5. Suffice it to say, that the Bible gives no authority to deacons to get rid of an elder because they perceive him to be doing a poor job!

If an elder is not doing his job as well as the church feels he should be doing it, there are several possibilities. For example, he may be trying to carry out responsibilities for which he is not spiritually gifted. There should probably be other elders (perhaps paid, perhaps unpaid)  or deacons or other members selected by the church to carry out different responsiblities based on their gifts. Perhaps he needs training opportunities, or opportunites to be mentored by a more experienced elder. If he is lazy or unteachable, the church should deal with it Biblically. But the church (and in particular, the deacons) must not simply overturn God’s patterns of authority to suit their desires.

Meanwhile, let us be very thankful to God for those many deacons out there who have been selected by their churches and who, with great determination, do follow God’s design for the role of a deacon and refuse to bow to the pressure to do it the world’s way.

One of the great tragedies of many churches of the last 100 years is that they have accepted the world’s wisdom and rejected God’s wisdom.  In so doing, these churches have become impotent. They are powerless shells. They have a form of godliness only–not the real thing. They are pitifully weak imitations of the great secular companies of the world. And they are scorned and spurned by people of the world who see them as little more than little self-protective pockets of hypocrisy.

The ways of the world are not the ways of God.

If the church is once again to become ablaze with the passion and power of Christ, we will have to utterly reject and jettison the ways of the world.

Instead, by faith, churches must say, “Lord, sink or swim, live or die, we will follow You and we will live by Your Word!”

If we will dare to do that, God will restore His power to His true church. And that will be a truly awesome thing to behold!

Stay in the battle!

Steve Hall

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