Reforming the Deacons (Part 1):
Let’s Reform the Deacon Body

May 23, 2012

By Joe McKeever, Preacher, Cartoonist, Pastor, and retired Director of Missions at the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans.

The most confused group of people in the average Southern Baptist church is the deacons.

They have no idea what they are to be and do. Depending on the whims of the deacon chairman for that year, they become servants or managers, program heads or administrators. Helpers or bosses. Activists or inactive.

The church’s constitution and bylaws are usually vague on who they are, what they are to do, how they should function.

And, let us admit up front, Scripture does not give us a lot of guidance on this matter either. At every deacon ordination I’ve ever attended–and in a half century of ministry, that’s quite a few–Acts 6:1-7 has been read. But there’s not a word in that passage about those seven men being called deacons.

In fact, let’s quit calling them deacons and start calling them what the name means: servants.

Calling them “deacons” is sort of a hedge someone must have erected to prevent them from having to do what their name implies. The word diakonos literally means servant. Furthermore, in almost all the places where the New Testament uses that word, it refers only to servants, to people doing the lowliest jobs in a household or an estate, and not to a class of officers or leaders in the church.

We pause for a moment to list the places where diakonos refers to people simply serving: Matthew 20:26; 22:13; 23:11. Mark 9:35; 10:43. John 2:5,9; 12:26. Romans 13:4; 15:8;16:1. I Corinthians 3:5. II Corinthians 3:6;6:4;11:15,23. Galatians 2:17. Ephesians 3:7;6:21. Colossians 1:7,23,25;4:7. I Thessalonians 3:2. I Timothy 4:6.

Did you notice the omission of all the references in the Bible to diakonos as official positions in the church? There are three: Philippians 1:1 and I Timothy 3:8,12.

Rather overwhelming, wouldn’t you say?

In the well-known passage from I Timothy 3, Paul gives all kinds of qualifications for the church’s deacons, but not a single word concerning their specific assignment. Either all his readers knew what deacons were to do and did not need direction from him, or, more likely, their work was open-ended, whatever the church needed at the moment.

I think we are safe in concluding that the needs of the church at a given time will dictate what the deacons are to do.

In some churches too large for the congregation to keep up with all the various ministries, they turn the oversight to the deacons. If that works for them, who’s to say it’s wrong? Not me.

In my church, the bylaws specifically state that the deacons are not a program-oriented force, but servants of the congregation. (And my oldest son is the chairman of the deacons.)

The word diakonos itself, which literally means “through the dust,” carries a hint as to the work of deacons.

In the biblical world, homes which could employ servants frequently were built as rectangles surrounding an open courtyard, which allowed for air circulation to cool the rooms. When family members moved from one section of the house to another, they stayed inside the shaded areas. The servants, however, cut straight across the courtyard, hence the “through the dust” allusion.

From that, we may conclude that servants were those who did not mind getting dirty in fulfilling their tasks. They literally “did the dirty work,” and took care of the lowliest jobs.

The implications for deacons is strong.

Incidentally, even though Acts 6 does not use the word diakonos, for my money this is a wonderful picture of how a deacon group should function: at the request of the ministers, chosen by the church, problem-solving, people-ministering, proclamation-helping.

Here are further (and random) thoughts on this matter for your consideration….

1. Whether a church even has deacons or not (as an official group) is strictly its decision.

Scripture does not instruct churches to choose deacons in order to fulfill the work of the Gospel. There is no one-size-fits-all organization for the Lord’s churches. Jesus called His people to be “new wineskins,” and thus flexible, adaptable, with plenty of give and take, as opposed to rigid, unbending, stiff, inflexible.

2. What a church needs from its deacons may change from one year to the next. Thus, the body’s “official assignment” should not be carved in stone.

This may be expecting a lot from men who like their tasks clearly delineated so they can build on their accomplishments from year to year. But ideally, they should be sufficiently flexible to vary what they do according to the church’s situation. One year, they may be caring for widows, another year they are assigned to get the food pantry up and working, and the next to care for members in hospitals and nursing homes.

Sometimes, deacons are trouble-shooters within congregations. When dissension arises, they deal with it.

3. I strongly suggest tossing out the name “deacons” and going with “servants” to clear up all confusion as to their identity and purpose. Strictly speaking, we could call them “the lowliest of servants,” this being the thrust of servanthood given us by the Lord Jesus all through the Gospels. Doubters should read the first half of John 13. (Explanation: scholars tell us the task of washing the feet of guests who have just arrived fell to the lowest servant on the household staff. And yet, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples and then commanded that they follow His example.)

4. If a church chooses to have a deacon body, because of the multitude of abuses of their role over the years, it should be spelled out in the constitution and bylaws that they have no authority over anyone in the church. They are servants or nothing.

To be sure, many calling themselves deacons who take pride in their prominence will take offense at the notion of servanthood and leave in a huff. When that happens, the church is vastly better off. Only those with a heart for Christ and a desire to serve His people should be deacons.

It’s high time we began taking Jesus seriously when He said, “Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). We either believe it or we don’t. Let those who do not decline the “honor” of election as deacons.

5. Some will insist that the church needs an accountability group of one type or other to deal with the pastor and staff. I agree. But not the deacons.

Let the church select a small group of the most mature and Christlike men and women–do not miss that!–who are willing to rotate regularly. Let them meet with the pastor from time to time in a priestly function.

Say what?

In Bible times, the priests represented God before the people (proclamation, witness) and represented the people before God (intercession). A small accountability group– Christlike men and women, rotating annually–will represent the congregation to the ministers and then, as needed, will speak to the congregation on behalf of the ministers.

Such a task force will have no authority to do anything. They are helpers for both groups.

6. There must be written guidelines for the deacons. But they cannot write them themselves.

In one church I served, when the deacons wanted to draw the requirements tighter as to who was eligible for service on their “board,” they proceeded to amend their own bylaws. I insisted that they were “deacons of the church,” and that only the congregation should make such decisions. Finally, over my objections–I did not like the new rules they were enacting–they took their plan to the congregation.

The members were not happy with what they had done, and told them so.

A deacon said to me afterwards, “I’m upset with the congregation. They didn’t support their deacons.” I said, “What do you think about the deacons not supporting their pastor? I told you not to do it, and you did it anyway.” He had no answer. In time, he and I became great friends in Christ.

Did you notice that he expected the congregation to support the deacons, instead of the other way around?

To repeat: the deacons are a body selected by the church to do whatever the church decides is needed. Therefore, the church itself (meaning, those it selects) will write the bylaws for deacons, then bring it back to the congregation for approval.

7. Let the deacons work in anonymity. It will do them good. (It does us all good!)

There’s not a word in Scripture that says deacons take up the offerings or serve the Lord’s Supper or lead in prayer before passing the plate.

In a typical Baptist church, if you took away those three tasks–prayer before the offering, passing the plates, and serving the Lord’s Supper–the deacons would have nothing to do.

And that tells us how they get into trouble. With nothing to do, one or more deacons begin looking around for something to occupy their time and fill their monthly meetings. Sooner or later, they begin to focus on someone’s complaints about the preacher. (There are ALWAYS complaints about the preacher if he is doing anything! Never, ever lose sight of that, friend.) Before long, they have turned the monthly deacons’ meeting into a call-the-preacher-on-the-carpet session. One thing leads to another, and well-meaning deacons soon find themselves caught up in a power struggle between the pastor and a few deacons. Nothing good will come from this.

This could have been averted had the deacons been assigned specific serving jobs in the congregation and been busy doing them. They would not have had the time or energy or inclination to meddle in the preacher’s work.

8. There is a great way to put a stop to a church’s deacons who, instead of being trouble-shooters, have become the source of the trouble themselves: disband them.

Almost every week, I receive a phone call or email or Facebook message from pastors telling me how the church was flourishing, new people were joining their congregation, and they were so happy–and then a delegation from the deacons came calling to straighten him out on a few things they found objectional. They threaten the preacher with termination (explicit or implied) if he does not adapt to their wishes.

One pastor was told by the deacon chairman, “We want you to preach from the King James Version of the Bible.” The pastor said, “When the church interviewed me, I told you then the Scripture versions I use and you said there would be no problem.” The chairman said, “Well, that’s changed. You see, we have these expensive pew Bibles in the KJV and they need to be put to good use.”


At any business meeting of a Southern Baptist church, a member may stand and make a motion that “Since the deacons of this church are no longer fulfilling their assignment to serve the body, and since they are in violation of their promise to support the pastor, I move that the deacon body in this church be dissolved.”

It has happened before. And when it is done, the congregation will usually make several discoveries:

a) There is peace within the fellowship, the first time in a long time.

b) They will lose a few members. The disgruntled power-brokers cannot take the humbling the congregation hands them. Few things reveal their spiritual immaturity more than how they handle this comeuppance.

c) The church will finally be able to keep a good pastor for years.

I am not anti-deacon. I am for deacons living up to their names. Period.

For that to happen, the typical deacon group will need a complete overhaul.

Let the conversation begin.

This article was posted earlier from, and is reposted here by permission of the author.

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Adam B. Embry

Brother McKeever, you had a number of wise points throughout. I can tell you’ve thought long and hard about deacon/servant ministry. I did have two questions that I thought you could shed light on. First, if Acts 6 is any sort of paradigm or example of deacons/servants, then should the pastor decide what tasks the deacons should fill? It seems as if the congregation in Acts 6 was already given the tasks for the seven men to perform by the apostles (I’m obviously not saying pastors are apostolic in authority, but pastors do fulfill a Word & prayer based ministry in similar fashion). Second, you recommend an accountability group for the pastor & staff. Since we know New Testament churches had a plurality of pastors/elders, do you see a plurality of pastors/elders fulfilling this accountability role? Again, thanks for your thoughts on this subject. Blessings!

Bart Barber

Lots of good information here. Thanks for that. I do, however, believe that a biblical church ought to have the biblical offices for the well-being of the church.

Bill Mac

This is good.


From what I read in the NT, the office of Deacon is a part of a NT Church. They seem to be picked out because they’re some of the most spiritually minded men in the Church. Thus, the example to the rest of the Church aspect should be seen. Also, they helped the Pastors make sure that they rest of the Church was being ministered to, and they helped to solve problems.

I agree that they are not, and should not be a Deacon Board. They should not act as a Board of Elders. Sadly, they do function that way in a too many Churches, instead of being the servants of the Church that they’re called upon to be. But still, the office, or position of Deacon, is still a very important one in the NT Church.


SBC Layman

I agree that Biblical deacons should serve the church and not run it. Your post, however, highlights what I see as big issue in Baptist churches – the staff/laity leadership divide. From my perspective of serving in every lay leadership role possible in both small and mega-churches, some things seem clear to me. Some pastors and staff view lay leadership as hindrances to what they are trying to do. Some pastors get very frustrated when lay people intrude into areas of direction or vision. Pastors sometimes see laypeople and lay leaders as necessary evils (and they can be) to be managed. Lay people (sometimes rightly so) can be seen as slow-moving, undependable, unable to comprehend, and unable to grasp a vision.

Lay leaders can see pastors and staff as aloof, condescending, authoritarian, controlling and unaccountable. Lay leaders get frustrated when pastors focus on authority more than servant-leadership. Lay leaders may raise an eyebrow when a pastor emphasizes that deacons are to be exclusively servants but then opposes other checks and balances to his authority. Sometimes deacons are just downright nasty and hard to work with, but sometimes so are pastors.

I don’t believe the New Testament model or early church practice ever envisioned a CEO style role for a single pastor. I see a pattern of interdependence – not subservience. Should the deacons be servants? Absolutely! But there should be a proper authority structure and congregational accountability of leadership to the church elsewhere. In most Baptist churches, the deacons serve that dual role. In fact in most Baptist churches, I believe the deacons serve the role of Deacon/Elder.

I am convinced the NT model is that of a plurality of elders leading the church. I am not convinced the title of elder/bishop/presbyter/pastor is interchangeable, nor am I convinced it applies exclusively to paid positions. Baptist pastors frequently equate the plurality of elders with the pastor and staff. This just doesn’t make any practical (or I think Biblical) sense. The way our churches are structured, the staff reports to the Pastor. The Pastor is typically the primary recruiter, appraiser, salary-setter and supervisor of the staff. My experience is that most staff do not see themselves as primarily elders of the church – they, as well as the Pastor, see themselves primarily as extensions of the Pastor. This creates an inherent conflict of interest where staff members are never really free to serve as elders with only the interests of the church in mind. They have to advance the interests of the pastor, or risk damage to their own position. This is just a reality that every staff person understands, even if they don’t voice it.

Pastors often point to their staff as their accountability structure. Again, this just doesn’t hold. When a staff position depends on a pastor’s approval, how much real accountability can there be? For true mutual accountability in the church, there has to be lay involvement. I wish that every staff position could be unpaid. This is impractical, but I would love to take away the impact on one’s livelihood when it comes to church decision making. Am I saying that only the lay leaders have true altruistic motives for the church, since their livelihood does not depend on it? No, but Paul was onto something when he said in 1 Corinthians 9:15 that he would rather die than be deprived of serving without compensation. I believe it is an absolute essential that lay leadership is involved at high decision-making status for accountability as well as for Biblical fidelity.

Should the deacons be exclusively servants? It depends. As you point out, the word “deacon” isn’t used in Acts 6. The title is less important than the role. We need true church servants who take the load off those who teach and preach to free them up for the ministry of the Word. But we must not, we cannot, make the mistake of equating the pastor and paid staff with being the exclusive leadership of the church. If there is no other accountability structure, this role may fall to what we typically call the deacons in Baptist churches. Leadership is a function as given by Holy Spirit and confirmed by the church. It does not fall exclusively to paid positions. I think this is the root of many of our struggles in the church, and I realize that at least for the last 2000 years, there have been no easy answers.

That’s my 2 cents for what it’s worth (about 2 cents).

John Wylie

While my deacons do not constitute a board, I do utilize them as my advisors. I do this because they are some of the best men I’ve ever known. These men love the Lord, His church, and their pastor. They are the epitomy of servanthood and they are faithful to tell me even the things I don’t want to hear.

Todd Nelson

Joe, wise advice. And definitely radical for some Baptists.

Bart, what labels would you give the people holding ‘biblical’ offices? Apostle, pastor, bishop, elder, minister, prophet, deacon, servant, teacher, evangelist, administrator? Seems to me that any and all of these are ‘biblical’.

Bart Barber


They’re all biblical, but are they all “offices”?

1. Apostle: The apostolic ministry is still with us in the form of the New Testament, the Apostolic witness. Any church operating without the benefit of apostolic (New Testament) authority is not well-formed.

2. Pastor/Overseer/Elder: These three titles refer to the same office. The well-being of churches depends upon the biblical functioning of those serving in this office.

3. Deacon: Another biblical office. The well-being of churches depends upon the biblical functioning of those serving in this office.

4. Minister: A broad term encompassing, at least, #s 1 & 2.

5. Prophet, Teacher, Evangelist, Administrator: There’s a difference between an office and a spiritual gift. Biblical offices have qualifications listed in scripture and are set apart in the New Testament by the laying on of hands.

6. You missed “Widows,” but don’t feel bad about that—most do. ;-) I think perhaps churches are well-served by considering the role of this office.

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