Your Bible doesn’t say a great deal about deacons. (How’s that for a hook?)
But even though the treatment of deacons is sparse, it is sufficient. We have enough biblical material to judge between various approaches. And I’m convinced there are several common mindsets that fall short of God’s soaring vision for the office.
Here are five myths about deacons.
Myth 1: Deacons Are Elders-in-Training
“Heard they’re making you a deacon. How long, you think, before they make you an elder?”
Pete is used to such questions at church. He’s not bothered; if anything, he’s a bit flattered.
Let’s rewind the historical clock. In the fourth century and into the Middle Ages, the office of deacon calcified into an entry-level clergy role, a pit stop on the path to priesthood. (The priest-in-training model remains common in the Roman Catholic Church and, despite key differences, in much of the Anglican Communion as well.) But some low-church evangelicals have their own version of this approach: elders-in-training. To be sure, certain deacons should eventually become elders—but that’s assuming they meet the qualifications for elders (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9).
While the qualification lists for the two offices are similar, they are not the same. Deaconing is not training wheels for eldering. It is a different office with different aims requiring, in many cases, different gifts. To take just one example, a man could lack the ability to teach—and therefore be unfit for eldership (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9)—and yet be a truly spectacular deacon.
Deaconing is not training wheels for eldering. It is a different office with different aims requiring, in many cases, different gifts.
So, can Deacon Pete pursue pastoral ministry? Of course, but that shouldn’t be why he’s a deacon. Every shepherd must first be a servant, yes, but not every servant is meant to become a shepherd. Diaconal service is too significant—too glorious—to be a mere steppingstone toward anything else.
Myth 2: Deacons Are Spreadsheet Wizards or Handymen
“You’re good at fixing things. They should make you a deacon.”
Many days, Pastor Bill is glad to have Nick in the church. Nick is a successful general contractor who may own more tools than the rest of the small church combined. What did Bill do when the church water heater broke three winters ago? He called Nick. When the HVAC system sputtered out on that blistering Saturday in June? Called Nick.
Wouldn’t Nick make an ideal deacon? Not so fast. I haven’t yet told you whether he’s a mature believer. A deacon is far more than someone who knows their way around Home Depot. Do they know their way around their Bible?
A deacon is far more than someone who knows their way around Home Depot. Do they know their way around their Bible?
Or consider a church whose budget is a mess. They’re facing another financial shortfall and don’t have clear income projections for the next fiscal year. Why, some wonder, don’t we make Steve a deacon?
Steve’s weekday-morning routine is not complicated: he wakes up, brews some coffee, and checks the market before hopping into the shower and heading to work at his financial-planning firm. On Sundays, church members gingerly approach him for casual financial advice. When it comes to shrewd economic sense, Steve is unrivaled in the church.
Wouldn’t Steve make an ideal deacon? Again, not so fast. I haven’t yet told you whether he’s a mature believer. Spreadsheet wizardry is a welcome skill, but it’s not sufficient for holding an office in God’s home (1 Tim. 3:15).
Myth 3: Deacons Are Savvy Business Managers
“Seminaries may teach ancient languages, bless their heart, but they can’t teach executive skills. What this church really needs are some decisive deacons with business sense.”
Charles has been a member at Pinehill Community Church for 30 years and has served as a deacon for almost 20. Around the time he joined the church he started a company in his basement; now it operates out of a skyscraper downtown. It’s no secret Charles has done well for himself in the marketplace. He’s got scores of employees and decades of business savvy.
Isn’t Charles an ideal deacon? Once more, not so fast. I haven’t yet told you whether he’s a mature believer. Executive-leadership experience can be a serious asset, but it’s no indication of spiritual fitness.
Myth 4: Deacons Should Keep the Pastor Humble
“What’s the point of being deacons if we’re just ‘yes men’? Of course I tell Pastor Tim how it is—who else will? Besides, I just want to keep him humble. Last thing we need is a puffed-up pastor.”
Deacon Phil is nothing if not a contrarian. He’s not trying to make Pastor Tim’s life miserable, though he often succeeds. He has simply taken it upon himself to keep the pastor grounded. Frankly, Phil doesn’t want much about the church to change, but he can smell the desire for innovation wafting from the pastor’s office.
Just last week, Tim was “dreaming” of starting some pastoral internship and—voilà! just like that!—ending two longtime church programs in order to fund it. Phil likes to carefully bubble-wrap his complaints. “Some people are talking” is a favorite. (It’s important Pastor Tim knows it’s not just Phil’s concern.)
Isn’t Phil an ideal deacon? I think we can agree he’s not.
Myth 5: Deacons Should Run Things
“Welcome to First Baptist Church, where the pastors say things and the deacons run things. (Seriously, if you want to get something important done around here, you’ve got to convince those deacons.)”
Steve sits on the board of a few organizations; none gratifies him more than serving as a deacon at First Baptist. He loves the congregation and cares about its long-term health. Steve is fine with the pastor leading the way on spiritual things—a paper hanging in his office claims he mastered divinity, after all—but it’s the deacons’ job to oversee everything else, right?
This sort of approach is not rare. I think of how one pastor-friend described to me the mindset he inherited in his church:
Basically, elders and deacons have separate but equal spheres of authority: elders govern the “spiritual”; deacons govern the “physical.” What does this mean practically? Deacons can’t dictate what elders do with spiritual matters, since that’s their lane; and elders can’t dictate what deacons do with pragmatic matters, since that’s their lane.
When deacons start to function either as leading shepherds over the whole congregation, or as a board of directors overseeing various staff and committees, the Bible’s job description for the office has become blurred. Further, any structure that encourages deacons to function as a counterweight to the pastor or elders—a second house of legislature to “check and balance” pastoral decisions—has overstepped its biblical bounds.
Cavalry of Servants
Whether the role of deacons in your church has been wrongly inflated or wrongly reduced, the solution is not to swing from one extreme to another, but to restore deacons to their intended biblical purpose and irreplaceable biblical role.
Deacons are not the church’s spiritual council of directors, nor the executive board to whom the pastor answers. They are a cavalry of servants, deputized to execute the elders’ vision by coordinating various ministries. They are like a congregation’s Special Ops force, carrying out unseen assignments with fortitude and joy.
Thank God for faithful deacons.