Editor’s Note: You can read Part One of this article here.
Can a Church Operate Without Elders or Deacons?
At a panel discussion John MacArthur was asked, “When does a church that is being planted actually become a functioning church?” MacArthur responded, “When there is a plurality of elders.” He pointed to Paul’s instruction to Titus 1:5 and Acts 14:23 to appoint elders—plural—in their churches. In Paul’s letters, when he addressed the elders of a church, the office of elders was always in the plural form. It is clear from Scripture that Christ’s church is to have a plurality of spiritual leaders. So, a church plant may start with a single elder, but as Paul asserts, to operate properly, multiple elders are needed to serve his sheep.
Deacons serve the church body through elder-appointed tasks, so, by definition, the church and elders exist before deacons. As seen in the first church in Acts 1-6, the church began and was fully operational under the apostles (elders/spiritual leaders of the church). In Acts 1-5 there were no ordained servants to serve until a ministry (for widows) arose that began to take the apostles away from their primary task. It was then that the apostles appointed men to serve. So, a church must have elders to properly function, but it does not immediately require deacons. The apostle Paul asserted the same as he urged Titus to appoint elders in every church. Spiritual-leaders (elders) are required in every church. Servant-leaders (deacons) are appointed as elders as needed.
However, a church should not exist very long before it has need of deacons. The Jerusalem church was less than two years old before the apostles saw the need for qualified men to help serve. Churches have many needs that pull elders away from their spiritual oversight. Any church that is beyond its infancy should have deacons.
Dismissal of a Deacon
There are three reasons to dismiss a deacon from his office. The first is unrepentant sin. If anyone within the church—deacon or elder included—has been caught living in unrepentant sin, the proper way to address the sin is through the four-step process Christ gave in Matthew 18:15-20. If they do not repent through the first three steps—(1) v. 15 one-on-one confrontation; (2) v. 16 confrontation with two or more members; (3) v. 17a formal rebuke by the church—then if they don’t respond (v. 17b) the deacon shall be removed from the church and treated as a pagan or tax collector. These are Christ’s own words—his process for dealing with sin in the church. This first reason for dismissal is straightforward.
The second reason for dismissal is not as straightforward and requires much prayer and wisdom among the elders. If a deacon has lived in unrepentant sin for a period of time but somewhere in the Matthew 18 process there is repentance and restoration to the body, then a good thing has been accomplished. However, if the reputation of the man as viewed by the body or elders has been damaged, he may need to be dismissed as a deacon. I have seen deacons who had no previous issue with alcohol be overcome by the temptation, even one receiving a DUI. An issue with alcohol is not easily or quickly reversed. Setbacks are common. This is an example of when the elders need to pray and discuss what is most honoring to the Lord—even when the deacon repents and is working on the addiction. Dismissal needs to be considered in such circumstances, not because he sinned, but because he did not faithfully get help before the sin rose to the level of being out of control. This is an issue of faithfulness and staying “above reproach” (1 Tim 3:10). Elders need to consider how the circumstances will affect both the body and others in leadership.
The two offices of leadership have strict qualifications for character and holiness that are to be upheld and modeled to the body. Christ established these standards for his leaders. Christ knows well that as men we are not perfect, and we should not pretend to be. Such behavior is Pharisaical. All men are sinful, and, as leaders, elders, and deacons, we need to model holiness and deal with personal sin quickly (Matt 5:23-24), keeping short accounts and staying accountable to one another.
The third reason to dismiss a deacon is the loss of integrity in his service. This is when the deacon is no longer blameless in his service. This is when they are not properly fulfilling their duties or when they are lacking in one or more of their qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3:8-12. As an example, he could be undignified in how he is managing areas of service and the people in the body he serves; consistently responding in anger, or being demeaning, passive-aggressive, micro-managing, or other ungodly behavior. He could be wavering in his faith or he may be failing at managing his family. Christ wants men who will respond to the prompting of their conscience and the Holy Spirit when issues occur. If a pattern has become evident that questions the qualifications and character of a deacon, the elders need to confront him and confirm all details. The elders need to pray with and counsel the deacon, urging him to properly respond. Ultimately, elders need to do what is best for the congregation, which may require dismissal of the deacon but still caring for him as shepherds.
Elders should be overseeing deacons and their ministry, keeping them accountable. This is a practical reason why deacons are to be tested first before being installed (1 Tim 3:10).
Leave of Absence
A leave of absence is not a dismissal from office due to sin or failure to meet the character qualifications. Rather, this is when issues of life demand the deacon to turn his full attention away from church service for a period of time. These are typically family or practical personal issues. In our church a deacon’s wife had life-threatening cancer. They had two children—one in high school, and one in middle school. He took a leave of absence to care for his wife and family. Another one of our deacons helped care for his sister-in-law who suffered from a debilitating disease. When that disease reached its later stages, he took a leave to help with the added needs surrounding her care. Others have taken leave when dealing with serious career or business issues that required an extended amount of time and focused attention.
A good deacon knows his ministry and knows the proper balance it has with his other life duties. When life becomes unbalanced, there are times that God will provide the strength to continue forward (Eph 3:14-19). There are also times the Holy Spirit will guide a man to rebalance by taking things off the scales.
Elders may need to help deacons assess and pray about a leave of absence. Many times, deacons are reluctant to take a needed leave, believing in their call and that God will provide the needed strength and the ability to continue their service. Though this could be true, it could also be true that it is best for the man to reprioritize and take a leave for a period of time. This is another reason elders must oversee the ministry of their deacons, helping to watch and pray for them and their ministry.
Teach Biblical Leadership
In Judges 2:10, we see the importance of a father instructing his children in the Lord: “There arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.” This principle of fathers modeling spiritual leadership by instructing their children also applies to the church. If biblical leadership is to be understood and valued, then it has to be taught. Paul had five “trustworthy sayings” he taught in his churches. These five things were regularly repeated as constant reminders of the core of the gospel, doctrine, and leadership. The apostle Paul taught his churches biblical leadership. Paul instructed his young pastors, Timothy and Titus, who were ministering after him, to teach biblical leadership (2 Tim 3:14).
Today, we have numerous church leadership structures, roles, practices, and traditions that do not match what Christ prescribed for his churches. Christ’s structure is elegant and simple which brings harmony to the body when implemented correctly as seen in Acts 6:7. A revival of New Testament leadership structure is needed in our churches worldwide.
Deacons should be qualified, Spirit-filled men established to manage and serve the body, all for the glory of God through delegated tasks from the elders. Acts 6 initiated the office of deacon, with servants dedicated to serving widows. First Timothy 3 universalized the office, providing elders tremendous autonomy to determine the scope of a deacon’s ministry.
Some ask, “If a deacon’s role is simply service, then why aren’t all church servants considered deacons?” This is best answered with the situation in Acts 6. The issue was not the lack of people willing to serve. Acts 4:4 tells us the church was in excess of 5,000 men (probably over 12-15,000) total people with women and children) who were serving and sacrificing for one another. There were people helping to serve the widows. The issue had to do with the need for wise, Spirit-filled management and fairness. This occasion required a specialized need of exceptional and mature service for a unique task for a problem that confronted the young church on a broad scale. The church was vulnerable to wholesale division. Hence, the qualifications established by the apostles.
There are many men and women who serve their local church faithfully across a large range of needs. God gifts and talents his people to serve one another, teach, preach, train, disciple, sing, play instruments, and much more. All believers are called to serve in their local church. However, not all servants are called to formal church leadership.
There are three reasons to dismiss a deacon. The first is for unrepentant sin that should be confronted with the process Christ established in Matthew 18. The second and third are not as straightforward and need deep thought and prayer by the elders. Both of these are not necessarily based in sin but deal with the qualifications of maintaining a good reputation and being blameless in carrying out their duties. Deacons may also take a leave of absence to focus on personal, work, or family matters that require their undivided attention.
Note: This article has been adapted from Deacons: Clarifying the Biblical Role by J. Robert Douglas.