Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Deacons: Keep Hold of the Faith

I have a ritual when visiting restaurants, especially restaurants I don't know very well. From time to time, I like to have the waiter surprise me with whatever he or she thinks I will enjoy eating. This got started one day when some co-workers and I went to a restaurant following an excruciatingly long day of meetings and decision-making. I simply didn't have another decision left in me. So, I handed the beautiful menu with all its mouth-watering fare to the waiter and asked, "Could you order something for me? I'm an omnivore, so there isn't much probability of disappointing me." The waiter returned with a scrumptious meal and I was spared the agony of another decision that day.

In the 10 years or so that I've been doing this, I can only count about two instances where a waiter brought back something disappointing. Once, on a day much like the first day when this ritual developed, after telling a young man that I was quite hungry and preferred meat, he brought me a large plate of shrimp and grits! Now, I know that's a S.C. low-country delicacy, but there's no way to fuel this tank with shrimp and grits. My jaw nearly hit the table when he returned with this meal. My bargain with the waiters, so they aren't laboring under too much pressure, is that I will eat whatever they bring and be content. So, I gave thanks to the Lord and enjoyed the shrimp and grits.

This entire ordering philosophy rests on one simple fact: the waiter or waitress should know the menu and the kitchen far better than I can or do. Their knowledge of what the chef cooks well, what customers appreciate, and the ingredients available to make a delicious meal either makes this a great strategy or a grand adventure in culinary tomfoolery. As I said, only twice did I leave feeling like I wore a dunce cap during my meal. Waiters and waitresses generally know their product.

Well, what is true for table servers in restaurants is truer still for table servers in the Lord's church. Deacons must know their "product." In the words of the Apostle Paul, deacons "must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience" (1 Tim. 3:9).

The practical "table server" aspects of deaconal ministry may inadvertently obscure or come to de-emphasize the utter necessity that deacons be people sound in the faith. Because we understand deacons to be people who care for the practical needs of the body, perhaps even being assigned a specific area of service, we may run the risk of thinking of deacons as technocrats, people with specialized skills but little or no theological requirements.

To "keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience" is to grip or possess the gospel of Jesus Christ with full assent. First, the prospective deacon needs to have embraced the faith him or herself. Deacons are not to be unbelievers, people unsound in the faith, or who cannot give a credible profession of faith and knowledge of the gospel. Second, they must know what they have embraced. There is a cognitive requirement here. They must know "the deep truths of the faith." Articulating and explaining the cardinal points of the gospel and of Christianity is a requirement. How else can deacons be the kind of servants that point others to Jesus as they serve? Third, the deacon must hold these truths "with a clear conscience," that is, his life and conscience must conform to the faith he professes. It's not merely that he holds the truth of the gospel without doubt or mental reserve, but that he also lives a life worthy of the Christian calling (Eph. 4:1).

What are we looking for in spiritual table servers? People who know the truth of God's word in their own converting experience and with sufficient understanding to live it out and model it for others. This is important because deacons will inevitably find themselves in gospel conversations, applying the truth of the faith to their ministries and the lives of the people, and modeling the faith to those who look to them. That they "keep hold" is then a must, a necessity.

Some questions to ask:
1. Does the prospective deacon give a credible profession of personal saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ? If the church practices some form of membership interview as part of its membership process, they will likely have heard the person's testimony of conversion at some point. But it's good practice, as part of considering a person for service as a deacon, to set apart some time for first the leaders and subsequently the congregation to hear and discuss the potential deacon's testimony. This is not an inquisition. But it is an opportunity to search for and affirm evidences of God's grace in a person's life.

2. Does the prospective deacon understand the gospel? Part of hearing the person's testimony should include a statement of the gospel itself. What has the person believed about God, man, Jesus Christ, repentance and faith? Can they articulate and defend the biblical truth about the triune nature of God, about the creation and fall of man, the Person and work of Jesus Christ, and the nature of true conversion?

3. Does the prospective deacon bring the truth of the gospel and the Scripture to bear on his life and ministry? Is the person known among leaders and others as someone who thinks from the cross outward? Does the Person and work of Christ govern their perspective on service, or are they motivated by other philosophies and ideas? Does the manner in which they now live and think give confidence that their service would be informed by the Word of God? Are they known to open the Bible with others when thinking through issues, or are they mostly reliant on their own understanding? Are they known to live the faith inside and outside the church?

4. Does the prospective deacon hold the deep truths of the faith without reservation? The plethora of rival "Christianities" makes it necessary that the servant-leaders of the church be committed to the truth revealed in Scripture. Does the deacon profess any major doubts or even disagreements with the church's statement of faith? Are they able to sign it in good conscience, indicating their complete agreement and willingness to defend? Are they committed to immediately informing the elders should they find themselves out of agreement with the church's statement of faith? Does the deacon also support and uphold with clear conscience the biblical distinctives of the church? This might include things like baptism, the church's position on women in ministry, gender roles, etc. In so far as a position is shown to be biblical, does the prospective deacon support these positions?

5. Is the prospective deacon someone who perseveres in the faith? This I think is somewhat implicit, but needs to be brought out. The deacon will be someone who often enters into difficulty with the goal of bringing peace, stability, order, and fruit in an otherwise chaotic area. To do that, they must persevere in the faith and in the truth of the faith, applying God's word and patiently awaiting fruit. There may not be, and often will not be, immediate fruit from the labor. So, a patient abiding and persevering are necessary to faithfulness in this ministry.

In many churches, deacons serve in the teaching ministry of the church. That's a good thing where the men have gifts for teaching. But whether a deacon leads a Sunday school class or not, they will inevitably be in a position of professing, living, and modeling the deep truths of the faith. And it's necessary for the God-glorifying and healthy functioning of the church that the deacons be mastered by and be committed to mastering the truth of God's word and the gospel it reveals.


Unknown said...

Thank you for your post. It saddens me when I see people take the role of deacon lightly, and this is a refreshing view that I rarely see.

I'm in the process of becoming a deacon at the church I attend (Mars Hill Church in Seattle). In addition to a bunch of books to read (and papers to write based on those books), we have to answer the following in a page for each point

How I Found Mars Hill Church
Theological Issues;

* The Gospel
* God the Father
* The Holy Spirit
* Jesus Christ
* Relationship of the Trinity
* Creation
* Sin
* Salvation
* Sanctification
* The Bible
* The Church
* Relationship of the Gospel, Church and Culture

After which we sit down and talk with our sponsor--who is usually an elder, but not always--and discuss all these in greater detail.

Until I came to Mars Hill I hadn't seen anything like this. A deacon was someone voted in by some odd means that served as little more than another person on a board slightly under an elder/pastor.

Again, thanks for this article. I'm sharing it with my friends that I work with.


Anonymous said...

Thankfully our pastor takes both the offices of Deacon and Elder very seriously. Everyone who is elected to server must go thru an 8 week class. We cover basic church and denomination history, the Westminster Catechism, our denomination bylaws, areas the create schisms from infant baptism to styles of music and ultimately end in a discussion on church discipline. Once we've covered all this ground and made sure that each appointee has had any of their questions/concerns discussed we then individually meet with a number of the current elders who then go thru a number of questions before giving their final approval.
And we do this everytime - even if you've been a deacon or elder before.
As the current deacon of the inside maintenance of our small church, my main area of concern may be the need for room 301 to be repainted, but that doesn't in some way minimize or lessen my role in the spiritual growth of our church members.
The fact that some churches look at the role of deacon as being nothing more than a handyman/janitor/mr. do-all is a sad disservice to the office.

Thanks for a great post.

ST said...

'Intriguing post. I'd be interested in hearing your (and others') comments about the requirements and practices for an elder, too.



FellowElder said...

Hi Steve,
Thanks for stopping by. My comments on elders can be found in a couple series of blog posts:
Finding Reliable Men, and
What a Good Pastor Is to Do.

Check out the the "catalog of series" link over on the right. You'll see the links for each post in the series.

Grace and peace,