By: Rev. Ed Schneider
Maybe it’s my memory playing tricks on me, but when I was being spiritually raised inside the walls of my “home” Church, I don’t have a single recollection of any major conflicts between my pastor and the deacons. Even as I grew, learned, and eventually became a licensed preacher, “the pastor” and “the deacons” still seemed to openly support each other while working for the common good of the Gospel. Why do I bring this memory to light? Well, it seems there are far too many churches and their deacons who find themselves in open conflict….no what I meant to say was….battle….with their local congregation’s pastor. These on-going conflicts are tearing apart churches of every size all across the American landscape of Christianity. It has got to stop!
As many of you already know, I have been preaching and/or teaching God’s word since I have been 14 years old. With the exception of a few wayward years, that adds up to a lot of Sunday mornings dividing The Divine’s Holy Scriptures. During many of those early years I have a vivid memory of a typical Sunday morning routine of my first pastor and all of the deacons of the congregation cloistering themselves in the “ready room” about 40 minutes before the 10:45 devotional period and they would fervently pray together. We had a great Deacon Board that absolutely worked together with the pastor, and it propelled the rest of us to do the same for the whole church. Unfortunately, because many local congregations have not had this experience of a healthy and productive relationship between pastor and deacons, it seems logical this lack of a positive model of shared ministry has triggered a sense of assumed negativity.
Stating the obvious can’t be helped when I say that faulty, conflicted, and sophomoric “leadership” is killing any opportunity for sustainable kingdom building outcomes.
Even though I serve with pleasure as a committed Minister of Word and Sacrament within the Reformed Church in America, let me say I adore much of my Baptist upbringing. It continues to be the foundation of many of my religious expressions and my faithful service to the cause of Christ. Now that I have said this, some of my brothers and sisters – not only in the Baptist church, but all other congregation polities – are far too often watching their local congregations ripped to shreds spiritually, numerically, and financially because of;
- an inappropriate understanding of both offices found within the context of a congregational style of governance,
- their Biblical call to shared ministry, and
- the authority and godly infused empowerment each carries and doesn’t carry.
Let’s take a quick look at a few foundational beliefs all congregationally-based local churches have in common:
- The Bible itself is the final authority in all questions of church direction, discipline, the expression of ministry and the practical discipleship of each believer.
- The congregation is the decision-making authority of each local church membership – not the pastor, the deacons, the trustees, nor the personnel committee – just the membership.
- All expressions of Christian ministry – lay or clergy, public or private, even celebrated or mundane – is primarily one of personal sacrifice and service, not to the local church membership, but to the greater cause of Christ.
QUESTION…. So, what has caused this environment of conflict, frustration and confusion? ANSWER…. We have left the above foundational beliefs behind and replaced them with a self-serving, prideful and non-Biblical display of power politics vs. Christian service. Please review Acts 6:1-7
6 Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. 2 Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. 3 Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; 4 but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, 6 whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them. 7 Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.
Many interpreters of the Bible and other ancient texts view the account in the sixth chapter of Acts as describing the process of choosing the first “deacons.” This section of Scripture clearly shares the rationale for the initiation of the original group of seven men. Their purpose was to eliminate tension, confusion and the feeling of unfair treatment to a segment of the congregation. Their function of service was to take the worry of “lower levels” of the practical applications of ministry away from “the twelve” so they could be free to delve into the higher aspects of their calling. The twelve initiated the seven. Since the problem was identified within the community of believers, the twelve decided to allow the congregation as a whole to help in the process of choosing those who would serve them. After the congregation had suggested who they thought could do the job, the twelve got together and approved the new team of ministerial support for their office. Later, in a public ceremony, the twelve “laid hands on” the seven in a sign of their approval and their authority being designated within the seven’s service.
Notice that nowhere do we see “the seven” (what we now recognize as deacons) having authority over the congregation.
These new appointed deacons were presented as an instrument of service to others so confusion and conflict could be reduced or eliminated. Somehow, many churches have gotten far off track of the original intentions and direction regarding their understanding of who, what and how deacons are to be experienced. In some extreme cases it is severely and quite publicly tearing down the walls of Christian service and mutual cooperation for the cause of Christ. The first and foremost principle of Christianity is to offer God’s people a humble and self-sacrificial attitude along with a heart that’s able to discern the difference between “being served” and “to serve.” Tenderness, humility, generosity, inclusiveness and passion for the support of higher ministry functions, as well as the dedication to the care of those left out, are the innate blessings of having a healthy and Biblically based deacon ministry.
Where did this ridiculous notion of deacons being “in charge” of the local church come from?
Whatever genius let this terrible manmade tradition start should be taken out to the proverbial woodshed and reminded God’s way is good enough and God’s gift of Scripture will supply all the necessary provisions to accomplish the task of effectively expressing the ministry of Christ. Beloved, if you are a member of a church that has a Deacon Board which reflects the first paragraph of this written offering, I suspect you have a healthy and growing place of worship and service. However, if your church’s pastoral and deacon “team” is more reflective of the end of this column, then you have two choices:
- Stop the nonsense with one congregational meeting and a bold vote to get things back in order as God intended them to be, or
- Do nothing and continue to let Christ’s church – not your church – slide down the path of conflict and ineffectiveness toward the very cause that brought it to life.
All of us must work together under the banner of a sacrificial Savior, and stop all the political intrigue and inappropriate power grabbing.
Christ’s church deserve a lot better than what has been experienced too many in every kind of local congregational setting. This type of intentionally toxic behavior has to be dealt with in a direct way. Every church, open in the name of Jesus, is foundationally an extension of Jesus himself. We are all sinners saved by grace. None of us deserve the overwhelming love that Christ supplies, and yet, it has been given. We are only empowered to work TOGETHER for the cause of Christ. We are only empowered to work TOGETHER to glorify God Almighty. We are only empowered to work TOGETHER to share God’s grace every chance that arises. This understanding can only happen when AND IF we stop thinking too highly of ourselves outside of the context of Christ WHILE WORKING AS A DIVINELY INSPIRED TEAM of faithful followers.
I pray that I could tell each of you reading this posting that only Baptist churches have these kind of conflicts, but that would be untrue. Far too many churches, from every polity and form of church governance, have “leaders” fighting overtly and covertly with each other over things…that in the end….don’t matter at all.
If we can’t….or won’t…..work together, then not much will be accomplished for God’s kingdom. The heart of God, the empowering of the Holy Spirit….even the “Blessed Assurance” of God is not sustained through a spirit of confusion, conflict, or personal gain. It must stop!