My first church had two deacons, and meetings with them were an afterthought. They graciously took action, quietly and without fanfare. My second church had eight deacons, most biblically qualified, led by one of the finest deacons I’ve ever been around.
But in 1982, my third pastorate was another story.
A few of the deacons showed grace; the rest exposed an edge—and not a spiritually sharpened edge. They met for one purpose: to joust for control. The seesawing conversations reflected pent-up anger. A relational fracture in the church had taken place shortly before I arrived (a detail the search committee seemingly forgot to mention). Steely eyes, squinted glances, and sharp tones let me know that I had walked into a brawl masquerading as a deacons’ meeting. I felt the “us versus them” tension. And now I was to try to lead them.
No doubt, at that stage I needed a really good book on deacons, not just to train the deacons but to train myself in what a healthy diaconate looked like. I suffered from impoverished perceptions, too. The few books available to me neglected the complementary role of elder plurality. I’m convinced TGC editor and church planter Matt Smethurst is the kind of man qualified to write Deacons: How They Serve and Strengthen the Church.
Deacons as the Church’s Servants
Smethurst writes not just out of a rigorous theological understanding of deacons (he has that), but out of his own experience in the diaconate (he’s lived in it) coupled with deep love for the local church. He has also served as an elder in a healthy church for several years. He understands the complementary exercise of faithful deacons and elders strengthening the fabric of Christian community.
Deacons: How They Serve and Strengthen the Church
Deacons are essential to church health—yet there is no clear consensus about their biblical job description. In this book, Matt Smethurst makes the case that they are model servants called to meet tangible needs, organize and mobilize service, preserve the unity of the flock, support the ministry of the elders, and further the mission of the church. Relying on Scripture to clear the confusion, Smethurst details—in an engaging and practical way—how deacons can be deployed as healthy models of service to help congregations flourish.
Unfortunately, as Smethurst shows, many deacons fail to embrace their role because they misunderstand the Bible’s vision for it. Pastors may fail at leading them for the same reason. But while congregations without biblically functioning deacons are “impoverished,” congregations with them are “incalculably rich” (18). The early church gives us the model of deacon prototypes in Acts 6, and character qualifications in 1 Timothy 3, but beyond that “the Bible doesn’t say a great deal about deacons,” Smethurst admits.
Many deacons fail to embrace their role because they misunderstand the Bible’s vision. Pastors may fail at leading them for the same reason.
That leaves us with every incentive to pay careful attention to what Scripture does teach on the subject, while treating with “a special dose of generosity” those who may see the diaconate differently (26). Evaluating the role of deacons in light of the servant heart of Jesus, and the apostolic call to serve one another, chips away at misconceptions of how deacons ought to function.
I think Smethurst captures well this servant motif, in contrast to a board of directors or ersatz elders attempting to pass for the biblical office: “Deacons are not the church’s spiritual council of directors, nor the executive board to whom the pastor-CEO answers. They are the cavalry of servants, deputized to execute the elders’ vision by coordinating various ministries” (33). Through biblical explanation, historical foundation, and abundant examples, he unpacks this biblical office. In a readable, sometimes humorous, and always respectful way, he answers the most common questions about deacon ministry.
Painting a True Picture
Sometimes woeful tales of deacon/pastor conflicts erect barriers against building a healthy deacon/elder community of servant leaders. How, then, do deacons and pastors make course corrections to turn flawed practices into the roles of shepherding and serving the church? First, churches must embrace and establish the biblical polity of plural elders who shepherd and plural deacons who serve. Smethurst summarizes:
- Elders lead ministry.
- Deacons facilitate ministry.
- The congregation does ministry. (79)
Second, servant-hearted pastors (elders) must patiently lead the way in exemplifying and teaching on the healthy model of deacons as mercy ministers, leading servants, and role-specific ministry mobilizers (79–85). Patiently means just that. Bad traditions must be slowly but surely changed to biblical practices.
Bad traditions must be slowly but surely changed to biblical practices.
Third, the servant model of the Lord Jesus must affect the way elders and deacons understand their roles in ministry (see chapter 6). Smethurst encourages deacons: “The entire shape of diaconal service finds its model and its mission in the life of your Savior” (121). While elders focus more on teaching, equipping, and shepherding, and deacons more on serving and facilitating, both offices should mirror Jesus heart of service. The more that elders and deacons serve the body, the stronger it grows and the more effective its members become in serving one another. When that happens, the community sees love that points to Jesus Christ.
Final Entry in 9Marks Series
Matt Smethurst’s Deacons serves as the finale to the incredibly helpful 9Marks Building Healthy Churches series, 14 books for which I’m deeply grateful. From Biblical Theology to The Gospel to Conversion to, most recently, Corporate Worship, each book offers biblical explanation and application to church life—all written by practitioners who understand the challenges in leading a church to health. My congregation and I have profited from this series, with numerous titles aiding small-group discussion.
Deacons may be last in the series, but it’s not least in helping churches toward good health. I could’ve used this book in 1982. I still need it now. Pastors will be well-served by picking up Deacons, along with the whole series.