Studies in Free Will Baptist Theology: Deacons

By Dustin Walters

Introduction

Jesus provided the early apostles with a foundation for establishing a Gospel-centered community known as the church. The study of the church is known as ecclesiology. [1] Mark Dever said,

“If you start looking in the New Testament for how we should organize as a church, you won’t find a straightforward manual of church government; there is no ideal constitution for a church. But that doesn’t mean that the Bible has nothing to say about how we are to organize ourselves.” [2]

 An important consideration in ecclesiology is the category of church polity or leadership. John Calvin said, “There is nothing in which order should be more diligently observed than in establishing government; for nowhere is there greater peril if anything be done irregularly.” [3] 

We must be careful not to confuse our understanding on the offices in the church today with what the Bible teaches. Jesus nor his apostles provided us with a manual on how to organize the church, yet as Justo Gonzalez points out, “It is clear that early in the second century there were three distinct positions of leadership in the church: bishop, presbyter or elder, and deacon.”[4] Gonzales also observes that the “emphasis on the authority of bishops and on apostolic succession was in response to the challenge of heresy in the late second and early third centuries.” [5]

In this essay, we will consider the leadership role of deacons and how that works itself out in a congregationally governed church with Free Will Baptist distinctives. While this post is not intended to be a formal work of biblical exegesis, we must turn our attention first to the Biblical foundation for the office of deacon.

Biblical Foundations for the Deacon Ministry

The earliest mention of the office of deacon appears in Acts 6:1-7, even though the word deacon does not appear in the text. You will recall that as the church grew, the need for leadership in ministry increased. A dispute developed between the Hellenistic or Greek Jewish widows and the Hebrew widows. The Hellenistic widows were receiving less than their share of the meal distribution which created a problem in the growing church. The apostles were notified of this interpersonal conflict and threat to the church’s unity, so they addressed the issue by instructing the congregation to select seven men to serve in the role to alleviate the burden from the preaching and teaching elders. Notice that the church accepted this recommendation.

The church recognized a problem, empowered leadership to create a solution, and as a result the ministry increased.

Every time the local church grows, there will be growing pains, just as we experience in our physical and emotional development. True biblical leaders do not run away from problems like these. They address them in humility and the power of the Holy Spirit.

While the passage in Acts does not describe the role and function of deacons, it served as a foundation for Paul’s later development in the first letter to Timothy. 1 Timothy 3:8-13 lists the qualifications for deacons, a list similar to the qualifications for pastors. The word deacon (διακονος) is a noun derived from the verb which meant, “to be at one’s service, to function as an intermediary”. (BDAG, διακονέω) The early church understood that deacons were essentially lay ministry servants. We can imply, based on what we see in Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 3 that deacons were expected to aid the pastors in leading the local congregations. They do this best by serving in practical roles such as in mercy ministry. We clearly see at least two distinct offices in the New Testament church: the pastor/elder and the deacon.

Power or Presence: Getting the Right Balance

One of the greatest threats to an effective deacon ministry involves the human element. Deacons exist as co-laborers with pastors and other church staff members. Deacons must recognize that their ministry is one mostly of presence in which they are entrusted with some authority. The deacon ministry should never exercise complete oversight over any congregation. It is imperative for pastors to disciple their deacons in a way that equips them for ministry. Deacons must get the priority right. The priority is maintaining a ministry of presence alongside the pastoral staff, not lording decisions over the congregation.

In some congregations today, deacons are entrusted with almost exclusive authority. This has happened as a result of a decrease in pastoral longevity, shifting congregational needs, and and church documents that no longer represent or serve the church the way they once did.

In addition to the qualifications for the office of deacon listed in 1 Timothy 3, one of the most important characteristics for any leader in the church is that which is depicted in Philippians 2. That passage is relevant for several reasons in the local church, but most importantly because it clearly describes the leadership style of Jesus as a servant-leader.

Deacons who apply Philippians 2:4-8 in their ministry will thrive and so will the local church.

Free Will Baptist Distinctives of the Deacon Ministry

Free Will Baptist churches follow a congregational method of government. This means that all officers of the church are voted on by the membership of the congregation. Part IV, chapter 1, section IV of the Treatise lists the essential offices in the local church which are the pastor, deacons, secretary and or treasurer, and trustees. Consider what the Treatise says about the office of deacon.

“Deacons are ordained—usually by the local church—to
minister to the congregation and exercise general spiritual leadership. They assist the pastor in administering the ordinances, and
may have to conduct worship services in the pastor’s absence.
Regular practice insists that deacons be men who meet the qualifications outlined in 1 Timothy 3:8-13.”

A cursory glance at that statement reflects congregational church polity, the importance of the ordinances, and the emphasis on personal holiness in the life of the deacon. In a future post, we hope to consider how the deacon ministry is similar and different across various denominational lines.

Conclusion 

Ben expressed it this way in his post on elders. He said, “I can think of no better way to please the Lord than to govern His Church in the ways He has set forth in His Word.” We must pursue leaders for tomorrows church and invest in them today, whatever role they might currently have. Getting the deacon ministry right enables the pastor and pastoral staff to focus on preaching and teaching in addition to strategic leadership and vision casting. We must view deacons as vital ministry servants, not the powerful board of authority in a church. We must empower deacons to assist pastors in member care and even accountability. May more men answer the call to serve as deacons in the local church, for the glory of God!


[1] Stanley Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, (Downers Grove, IL, 1999), 42. “Ecclesiology seeks to set forth the nature and function of the church. It also investigates issues such as the mission, ministry, and structure of the church, as well as its role in the overall plan of God.”

[2] Mark Dever, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, (Crossway: Nashville, TN, 2004), 221.

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, Chapter 3.

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Reformation, vol.1, (Harper One: New York, NY, 2010), 113.

[5] Gonzalez, 114.

 

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