Appreciating the Problem: The Deacon's Definition
So far in this series, we've looked at what deacons are for and how they are to be qualified. This week, we’re going to begin the third part of this series, one reviewing the process by which deacons are identified, examined, and appointed to office. We’ll begin, then, at the very first point in such a process.
Before a deacon can be appointed, before a deacon candidate can be selected or examined, the very first step is one of definition. The problem confronting the church, which the deacon will be responsible to solve, must be defined. Furthermore, the specific expectations and responsibilities of that deacon need to be articulated. It’s interesting that, while the specific responsibilities of elders are quite clearly laid out in Scripture—preaching, teaching, oversight, shepherding, rebuking the errant, guarding against false doctrine, caring for the household, etc.—the specific responsibilities of deacons seem absent from Paul’s discussion and are presented only descriptively, not prescriptively, in Acts. In light of the deacon’s (broad) objective to free up elders for their vital work, in light of the deacon’s (broad) mission to care for practical needs in the church, and in light of the (broad) intent of the deacon’s office to foster unity in the church, and in light of the lack of explicit biblical details about deacons’ day-to-day responsibilities, it would seem that local churches have similarly broad freedom under Scripture to define, more specifically and in light of their local context, which particular problems and needs require a deacon’s attention. In short, beyond the over-arching qualifications of all deacons and the general intent, mission, and objective of the diaconate, there really can’t be a “one-size-fits-all” job description of a deacon because the practical needs and problems each church faces will look different.
In other words, then, each church needs to take the time and effort to define what each of its deacons will be appointed to do. How is that done? Two principles we’ve already seen, plus a biblical example, help us answer that question. First, since deacons are tasked with fostering unity and caring for practical needs in the church, definition therefore has to begin by examining the unity and health of the congregation and identifying challenges and obstacles that might exist. And second, since deacons are to guard the elders from being overwhelmed by those problems, each deacon’s responsibilities need to be defined in a way that not only addresses the practical problem but also adequately understands how it threatens the elders’ ministry of Word and prayer. Who in the congregation is best situated to assess the overall state of the congregation and to gauge the elders’ level of distraction by matters not pertaining to Word and prayer? The Jerusalem church’s way of defining the deacon’s tasks in Acts 6 makes this clear. There, it was the apostles—those functioning as the elders or pastors of the church—who recognized the threat to unity, who perceived the ramifications for their own ministry, who summoned the church to meet, and who presented both the problem and the way forward. Elders, the “overseers” of the congregation, who are charged to “care for God’s church” as those able to manage a household well (1 Tim. 3:5), must be careful to guard both the health of the church and the health of their own ministry by watching constantly for practical challenges to them and then delegating, with the help of the whole church, the management of those challenges to others. And when they identify such a need, it is the role of the elders to summon the congregation and call for deacons to be appointed.
Before we finish looking at this question of definition, we need to note one further implication that flows from what we’ve discussed. If the role of a specific deacon is to be tailored to meet a specific task, this suggests that the office only exists as long as the need is present. If the need were to disappear, the deacon’s role does as well, and his office should cease. This further suggests that a wise eldership and a healthy congregation will periodically review the need for, and be willing to consolidate or end, each diaconal role when needed. And it further underlines the need for deacons to be mature and humble, since if the elders make this decision, it is vital that the deacon not take it personally but step down in the very same unity-fostering manner which he displayed while doing his duties.
Deacons, again, are to guard the unity of the church and the ministry of the elders from the demands of practical problems. Appreciating such problems requires the careful definition of each deacon’s role.