What are deacons (not)

I’ve just took part in an interesting conversation with other pastors which started out with a question about how we train deacons in the church. This led to further questions about what exactly is a deacon? Fascinatingly there didn’t seem to be a uniform opinion on this.  So, I thought it might be worth thinking about this a bit more.

It is probably worth saying at this stage that It is some time since I have been part of a church where the title deacon is used.  At Bearwood Chapel we have a leadership team that consists of elders, trustees and co-opted members. For the past 5 or six years, the non-elders have met together to look at practical issues and so they are probably seen as equivalent to a diaconate in other churches.  I was part of a church whilst studying at Oak Hill where there were elders and ministry leaders.  So, I have to go back to my other student church experience in Halling and also at a Baptist church in London to find examples of deacons carrying the title.

Before we go any further and attempt to describe what a deacon and a diaconate are, it is worth saying what they are not. So here goes.

  1. The deacons are not a kind of “second chamber” put in place to keep the elders in check and filter out ideas before they reach the church members. 
  2. The deacons are not trainee/junior elders. This does not mean that you can’t move from being a deacon to being an elder. It simply means that we should not assume either that deacons will become elders or that an elder must be a deacon first. Indeed, we should not be afraid of movement the other way. It may be appropriate for someone who is an elder to become a deacon for a period of time
  3. The deacons are not a means to smuggle women onto your church leadership without having to engage with what you think about women and leadership.

What I mean by the last point, is that I think some churches have added women to the diaconate/wider leadership team so that they interact with church decisions but the church does not then have to think through its position on women elders. I think this lacks transparency and is likely to cause upset to all sides of the debate. In fact, if you currently do not have women deacons and are considering appointing them, I would not simply ask the question “can women be deacons” in isolation. I would look at the whole question of what it means for men and women to be made equal and co-heirs with Christ, whilst being different. What implications does that have for how men and women should engage in the life of the church, how they use their gifts and how they are involved in discernment and decision making.

Having done some ground clearing, we are probably ready to start looking at what deacons are.

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