Deacon MinistryThe Biblical Pattern for Deacons Seen in Church History
In the second through fifth centuries, deacons were the real agents of the charity provided through the church, providing for widows and orphans. They visited the sick and, as early as the third century, had deacon family ministry plans. They visited the martyrs in prison. Deacons helped to train new converts. They kept watch over the church members, reporting to the bishop any who seemed about to fall away. They attempted to restore the excommunicated. Deacons carried out administrative assignments given them by their bishops and met daily to receive instructions from him. Failure to carry out their assignments was cause for removal. If they had the authority from a bishop and a presbyter or bishop were present, they could baptize. They also assisted with the Lord's Supper. (Compiled from Charles W. Deweese, The Emerging Role of Deacons, Broadman Press, 1979, pages 12-15)
During the Middle Ages the Office of Deacon came to less resemble the New Testament Model
"Later, medieval deacons assumed an increasingly ecclesiastical role, and their tendency to become candidates for the priesthood became more pronounced than ever. Almost no one was ordained to the diaconate unless he intended to advance to the priesthood."
(Deweese, Page 18)
During the Reformation the Return to Scripture Resulted in a Return to the Biblical Role of Deacons
"The diaconate is the ministry, not of reading the Gospel or the Epistle, as is the present practice, but of distributing the church's aid to the poor"
"Scripture specifically designates as deacons those whom the church has appointed to distribute alms and take care of the poor, and serve as stewards of the common chest for the poor."
"Here, then, is the kind of deacons the apostolic church had, and which we, after their example should have."
(Deweese, page 19)
Timothy George summarizies Calvins' view of the biblical role of deacons:
"Calvin did in fact hold the office of deacon in high esteem. Deacons were public officers in the church entrusted with the care of the poor. He urged that they be skilled in the Christian faith since, in the course of their ministry, ‘they will often have to give advice and comfort.' Indeed, the deacons in Calvin's Geneva should have experts in what we call today social work as well as pastoral care."
(Theology of the Reformers, Broadman Press, 1988, page 241)
In the early 1600's early Baptists such as John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, saw the primary role of deacons as that of carrying out the benevolence ministry of the church.
In 1654, in what would become an often repeated description, Thomas Collier pictured the work of deacons as that of serving tables: the table of the Lord, the table of the minister, and the table of the poor (Deweese, page 20). Later Southern Baptist leaders would later utilize this description to describe the work of the deacon. Southwestern Seminary founding president B.H. Carroll recalled hearing a sermon delivered by S. S. Lattimore with this very outline and stated that he "thought it a very ingenious division of the table question" (Commentary on the English Bible, Volume IV, page 135). As recently as 1997, former SBC president Jim Henry used this outline as part of his materials in Deacons: Partners in Ministry and Growth.
The Drift Among Baptists From the Biblical Model
"In the later half of the eighteenth century, a new concept of Baptist deacons emerged and continues to exist in many churches today. This was the view of deacons as church business managers. This view stressed to a seemingly excessive degree the administrative function of deacons and tended to distract from other areas of service previously given equally strong attention"
(Charles W. Deweese, The Emerging Role of Deacons, Broadman Press, 1979, page 34).
The drift started as an effort to "Relieve the minister from the secular concerns of the church" (a treatise on church discipline, Charleston Association, S.C., 1774 cited by Deweese).
But by 1846, R. B. C. Howell was using new terminology, saying that deacons are, "A board of directors, and have charge of the all the secular affairs in the kingdom of Christ" (The Deaconship, Judson Press, page 11). "...The deacons in their own peculiar department are, as we have said, a BOARD OF OFFICERS, or the executive board of the church, for her temporal department..." (Pages 112-113). This is when and how in Baptist life deacons came to be called a board. This term has no bibical rooting in word or concept.
Howell regarded the spiritual ministry of the pastor and the temporal ministry of the deacon as separate areas, or departments: "...The pastor has supervision of all the spiritualities of the church, and is therefore bishop or overseer in that department; so the deacons are overseers of all her temporalities, of which they have full control" page 12). He stated, however, that, "It is not, lastly, the duty of deacons to rule in the church" (page 66), explaining that, "Deacons are not ruling elders" (page 69).
There were those, at the time, who saw this trend as a cause of concern. In 1852, one New York pastor/historian warned against the concept of the deacon as being a person, "Of so much importance and ecclesiastical consequence in the Church, that all the membership, and all the affairs in the Church, and the Pastor, must be dictated, and ruled and governed by him." In 1897, Edwin C. Dargan, professor of homiletics and ecclesiology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, warned of the tendency of deacons to act as "a sort of ruling presbytery" (both quotes cited by Deweese, pages 47-48)
How to Know if Your Church is Off Track
Howard Foshee listed three evidences that deacons are operating under the concept of a board:
(1) When all major recommendations from church operations and church committees are screened by the deacons whether they should go to the congregation.
(2) When the pastor and staff members are directly responsible to the deacons rather than to the church.
(3) When the use or expenditure of major church resources, such as facilities and fiances, must first be approved by the deacons.