After what I went through in Miami about 10 – 12 months ago, this article by my dear friend, Charles Wood really struck home with me. I actually sat through the indignity of having a deacon/finance committee member who was a respected retired colonel in the army say to another deacon in a meeting where I was being micromanaged declare that if I didn’t do what I was told (I was functioning as the interim pastor in everything but title at the time) that he’d “be up [my] a**”. (And that was only one such example that I experienced there.)
My experience with multiple deacon boards over the years is that too often they want to act like “corporate boards” instead of servant boards. Of course, Pastors are to blame as well for allowing this to happen as we have failed to teach and organize the church according to Biblical example of administration. In addition, the constant flow of dishonest, unethical and unbiblical behavior from too many pastors also has driven the credibility of the office of pastor into the ditch and created a spirit of cynicism that sometimes borders on antagonism toward all pastors — even the honest and faithful ones. I’ll write more on this topic in the future. I do want to share some of Dr. Wood’s thoughts with you as they are words of wisdom from a veteran pastor and Biblical thinker.
The Bible is quite clear that there are two distinct categories of leadership in the local church. One is elders (which also includes pastors), and the other is deacons. The qualifications are distinctly different, with those of elders being significantly higher than those for deacon. Associated with the term elder are such things as decision-making, over-seeing, directing and other policy-setting and direction-determining matters. Deacons, on the other hand, appear strictly limited to what their name actually means in Greek (deacon is a transliteration rather than a translation of the original language). The proper translation would be - table servers. Succinctly, in the Biblical pattern, elders deal with authority and its various manifestations; deacons deal with service and its responsibilities.
Somewhere over the years (and this actually predates my ministry), the idea of a plurality of elders disappeared in Baptist and Baptistic churches, with the pastor becoming the single elder in the structure. This may have been a reaction to the church polity of the Reformed persuasion where elders and even elder governance is either established practice or very prominent, but I really don’t know enough of the history to declare that with any measure of authority. I do know that for many decades, the prevailing structure on the Baptist side of the issue was pastoral leadership and congregational governance.
Gradually over time, however, a change took place in that deacons began to be elevated (or to elevate themselves ) to elders and essentially granted all the prerogatives and responsibilities of that position without any change of name.. In many, if not most, Baptistic churches, deacons are still called deacons, but they operate as if they were elders. My earliest denominational associations were with the GARBC, where the pattern was “deacon run churches.” Actually, what had taken place in most of those churches is that the deacons had arrogated to themselves (or been assigned by pastors or congregations) a position that was not theirs and to which they had no right.
This won’t rank as “sour grapes” as I never experienced it, but there was a tendency for the deacons (now actually serving in the roles of elders) to assert authority that the Bible never assigned them and even to taking over and running the church, thus ignoring the congregation and rendering the pastor little more than their “hired hand.” This transition was made even worse and even more anti-Biblical in that many of the men now acting as elders were not even Biblically qualified to be deacons. Many such churches saw little, if any growth and development unless they had a pastor who happened to be a man of great strength, patience and ability to handle rebellion.
As a result, we have countless situations in which men who are not elders (and often not qualified to be such) viewing themselves as elders and even taking upon themselves the “responsibility” of telling the pastor what to do and how to do it. In three of my pastorates, I experienced the complications of making this switch that the Bible never authorized or even envisioned. In one church, the men involved were mostly men who would have qualified as elders anyway, in a second, the men made no attempt of any kind to give me anything but requested advice and prayer support, and in the third (and this just involved a handful of men), I simply ignored them and did what I believed the Lord would have done in most situations, but the “role change without a name change” caused trouble and consumed time that should have been devoted to other things)..
There is a relatively simple solution to this long-festering problem, but the first step may be the most difficult. There needs to be careful, Biblically-supported preaching on God’s order for the church with a clear emphasis on the difference between elders and deacons and the roles of each. Then, in the average church, the pastor can take about two-thirds of the description of the deacons in the church constitution, change the name of the category to elders and go about seeing to it by whatever means best or necessary that elders be selected, affirmed, etc., to do the work of elders and that deacons be required to do the Biblical work of deacons. There would likely be a lot of screeching and screaming, but in the end, most of the self-appointed elders would either settle down or leave, new men could be appointed to do the actual work of the deacons, and the church might well take a giant leap forward in a variety of areas. At least there would be some attention paid to the Biblical work of deacons. Church politicians rarely have much, if any, concern for the poor, the sick, the needy and hurting. Seeking power and control are hardly indications of the kind of compassion that the leaders of God’s church are supposed to exhibit.
[Lest this and other articles I have written lately be misunderstood, I am still deeply committed to strong pastoral leadership. I do not believe that the pastor should be a dictator, have absolute power or bypass the will of the congregation on most important decisions. I don’t even believe that the elders are to be an “accountability group” for the pastor - his accountability is to God, and he had better remember that. I believe the elders should serve as counselors and advisors, to be those in whom he can confide when he needs a listening ear, those who can help him decide which matters and issues need to be brought to the congregation, etc. I cannot conceive of myself acting against the best judgement of a group of godly men, but I would have no compunction whatever about doing so if I were convinced that the path I was following was one chosen of the Lord. I think the congregation should vote on most matters of importance (if they are going to pay for it, they at least ought to have some say regarding it). I believe the deacons should deal with benevolence and with those practices and concerns which would contribute to a church being known as a community and a place where there is genuine love and unity.. I don’t sense that I have made any basic changes in regard to what is discussed in this paragraph.]
- Dr. Charles Wood; South Bend, IN