Dr. Arnold interviews Matt Smethurst about the role of deacons.
Topics of conversation include:
- The three ways deacons serve and assist elders
- Scripture passages where the office of deacon is mentioned, both implicitly and explicitly
- How we should understand a deacon’s role in regards to church leadership
- Whether women should serve as deacons
- Advice for structuring a healthy church government that includes godly, qualified deacons.
Matt Smethurst is managing editor of The Gospel Coalition. He is the author of several books, including Before You Open Your Bible: Nine Heart Postures For Approaching God’s Word (10Publishing, 2019), Before You Share Your Faith: Nine Ways to Be Evangelism Ready (10Publishing, 2022), and Deacons: How They Serve and Strengthen the Church (Crossway, 2021). Matt is in the process of planting River City Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:17):
Nearly 10 years ago, I became a pastor in Western Kentucky, and I was green. I had no vocational ministry experience and now I was leading a church. I’m not sure I could have done it without the faithful deacons that I got to serve alongside—Mike, Garrick, Kenny, Bubby, and Philip were God’s gifts to me. They were gentle, they were encouraging, and they were model servant leaders. But that’s not always the case. It’s no secret that there’s often friction between pastors and deacons. I’ve even had close friends fired by godless deacons, and others who’ve resigned their ministries because of deacons who wanted power. And this has led to undercutting the entire office of deacons…and some pastors would rather go without them altogether. But that’s not how the Bible sets forth a vision for this critical role in the church. Well, to help us understand more about deacons we have with us, Matt Smethurst, the managing editor of the Gospel Coalition and author of several books, including Before You Open Your Bible: Nine Heart Postures For Approaching God’s Word, Before You Share Your Faith: Nine Ways to Be Evangelism Ready, and the topic of our conversation today, Deacons: How They Serve and Strengthen the Church.
Brian Arnold (01:24):
He lives in Richmond, Virginia, where he’s in the process of planting River City Baptist Church. And if you’re in the Twittersphere, you should follow him. I’ve always found it to be uplifting, encouraging, and informing. Matt, welcome to the podcast.
Matt Smethurst (01:37):
Thanks for having me, Brian.
Brian Arnold (01:39):
Well, we always ask one big question of our guests, and today the question is—what are deacons? So let’s just dive right in. How would you define the word deacons?
Matt Smethurst (01:50):
Before I define it, I’ll just acknowledge out of the gate that the Bible actually doesn’t say a lot about deacons. And so in order to come up with a biblical definition, we have to pay extra careful attention to the places where the office is discussed in Scripture. And perhaps we can talk about some of those passages in a bit, but the way I would characterize deacons biblically is that they are model servants in the life of a congregation, who are installed to assist the elders. So I think that deacons are assistants to the elders, who do so—they assist the elders—in three broad ways. First, they spot and meet tangible needs. Second, they protect and promote church unity. And third, they serve and support the ministry of the Word. So assistants to the elders who do those three things—underneath which, there’s lots of room for flexibility and application. But I think that gets at the broad contours of the office.
Brian Arnold (02:56):
Well, I think that’s a really helpful way to kind of begin. Well, the word deacon itself is transliterated. That might be surprising to some people. That means we kind of took the Greek word diakonos and just made it English and said “deacon.” Which seems to have led to a lot of confusion. When I’m teaching theology, I tell our students, there’s two words in the New Testament I wish were translated and not transliterated, and that’s deacon and baptize. And so I like to poke a little fun at those who practice paedobaptism, infant baptism. This is all in fun, everyone. That the word baptize means to immerse. So if every time you read the word baptize in the New Testament, you read immerse, that would be helpful. And every time you read the word deacon, you’d read the word servant. So how do you think that, just even the fact that we’ve not translated that word led to some challenges in the church?
Matt Smethurst (03:51):
Yeah, well, I think it’s caused many churches in some traditions to just completely miss kind of what’s at the bullseye of what the Bible is getting at when it uses the word, diakonos, as you said. That word appears 29 times in the New Testament. The overwhelming majority of those times, it’s referring to all followers of Jesus. And it’s rightly translated in our Bibles as servants or ministers, but there are a handful…and I’ll point out that even in some really famous verses, if you sort of render them literally, we would hear Jesus saying things like, “if anyone would be first, he must be last of all and deacon of all.” Or Mark 10:45, “The Son of Man did not come to be deaconed, but to deacon and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Matt Smethurst (04:48):
But in Scripture, deacon is not just a term for a general servant-hearted person. It also becomes, in certain cases, a technical term, referring to an office in the local church. And there are three or four passages in the New Testament where this is in view. There’s one implicit, two explicit, and one debatable. The implicit one is actually the most famous passage relating to deacons, and that’s Acts chapter six. The reason I say it’s implicit is because the noun deacon never shows up, even though the verb does. The two explicit passages are Philippians 1:1, where Paul says, “to the saints in Philippi, together with the overseers—that is the elders—and the deacons.” There are those two offices in the church. And then, in 1 Timothy chapter three, Paul kind of double clicks on those two offices, and lists out qualifications.
Matt Smethurst (05:52):
So first he gives qualifications for the office of elder, and then he turns his attention in 1 Timothy 3:8 to qualifications for the office of deacon. And then the debatable passage is Romans 16:1, relating to Phoebe. And that gets into the discussion of whether women may serve as deacons. And so really that’s all there is. Which is why I said earlier, we should take seriously what the Bible does say about deacons, but also I think, Brian, a lesson we can draw is that we should have an extra dose of humility and generosity toward those who might do deacons a little differently than we do. Because again, none of us is drawing from a very deep well.
Brian Arnold (06:31):
Well, there’s a lot of places to go there, I think. I do want to hit the Roman 16 passage a little bit later on. Well, let’s maybe just dive into Acts 6. This is what a lot of theologians see as the genesis of the office of deacon. So maybe walk us through that passage.
Matt Smethurst (06:47):
Yeah, it’s the first church in history, the new covenant church there in Jerusalem. And things are going really well. Satan has tried to undermine the church through persecution from the outside in chapter four, and through deception from the inside in chapter five. He’s failed on both fronts. And so when we enter chapter six, it’s almost like the final, last gasp, ploy in this three-front satanic assault. And he goes from persecution, which failed, to deception, which failed, to now distraction. And he seizes on this conflict that is arising within the Jerusalem church over the daily distribution of food. Specifically, the Greek-speaking, Greek-cultured widows. The Hellenistic widows were feeling overlooked and marginalized in the daily distribution of food. And so, the Hellenistic Christians in the church file a formal complaint. And it’s interesting that the Apostles don’t just kind of dismiss them as, you know, angsty malcontents, but they take seriously the complaint and tell the congregation, “Hey, choose from among yourselves seven men, who can create a permanent, ongoing solution to this problem.”
Matt Smethurst (08:17):
Brian, I think it’s easy in Acts 6 to think that this is just a mere food squabble, but it was anything but. This…the food was the occasion, but the issue was a sudden threat to the church’s unity, the very unity for which Jesus bled and died. And so this was an emergency situation, and that’s where the seven are raised up to solve this problem. And I think the seven in Acts 6 are kind of like forerunners to deacons. And when I was giving you the definition earlier, that middle one, I think…that middle role is, I think, the most overlooked thing in the office of deacon. And that’s being a protector and promoter of church unity. And I’m largely getting that from Acts 6, because those seven were raised up to safeguard the unity of the church.
Brian Arnold (09:12):
And playing that critical role of even freeing up the elders. And it’s not the elders are not called to serve, or to love the congregation, or to shepherd them well. Obviously the New Testament is replete with examples of them doing just that. But here, to free up the elders to preach, to teach and to pray. So the role of deacon is critical in a church if you want elders doing what they’ve been biblically called to do.
Matt Smethurst (09:41):
That’s right. And it would be wrong to conclude from a passage like Acts 6 that well, spiritual ministry is what’s really important, and that’s why the Apostles give themselves to that. And physical ministry or tangible ministry is less important. And there’s this kind of varsity and JV distinction. But that’s not what’s going on at all. Rather, the Apostles—who I think in many ways are kind of like forerunners to elders in this scenario—they are recognizing a fundamental truth: a church whose pastors are chained to the tyranny of the urgent, which of course so often is going to show up in kind of tangible problems, that’s a church that is removing its heart in order to strengthen its arm. It’s kind of a slow motion suicide. So actually, the elders are best serving the whole church—holistically—by giving their best energy and attention to the very thing that makes a church, a church. And that’s the preaching of the Word of God.
Brian Arnold (10:42):
I think that’s really helpful. Let’s set that even in context, if we can. Of those two church offices…I just had a recent conversation with a friend of yours, Dr. Bobby Jamieson, who has written a book about pastoring and the aspiring to ministry. So 1 Timothy 3, beginning off with, “if anyone aspires the office of overseer, or elder, he aspires a good thing,” and it lists the qualifications of elders. And then, like you mentioned before, it shifts to start talking about deacons. So is this also an office you think people in the church should aspire to? Is it something that they should kind of humbly sit back and be chosen for? How do you counsel even pastors and churches and people in your own congregation to think through that issue?
Matt Smethurst (11:30):
I don’t think it’s wrong to desire to serve the church in this way, but we do not read anything in the New Testament which describes it in those kind of elder-like terms. We never read a verse like, you know, “if anyone aspires to the office of deacon, he desires a noble task.” But as you mentioned, we do have that verse in relation to elders. And so I think…actually, what I hear most from pastors, Brian, is humble folks, whose pastors think they would serve well in the office of deacon, but they shrink back from it because they say, “Oh, no, I don’t want the formal title. I’m not qualified.” And to them, I would actually say, “Hey, there’s a chance, you know something about your life, your pastors don’t. And if that’s the case, let them know.”
Matt Smethurst (12:25):
Maybe you’re just in a crazy, busy season, maybe there’s an area of spiritual immaturity which you think renders you unfit for the office. But I think your default posture as a church member should be to trust the collective wisdom of your elders. And so, if your elders are coming to you and saying, “Hey, we would love for you to consider serving in this office,” I think that your instinct should be to say, “You know what—they must see something in me that I don’t. And if they think, with their kind of bird’s eye view on the life of the church, that I would help, then I’m going to actually defer to their wisdom and do it, even if it’s not been a lifelong dream.”
Brian Arnold (13:09):
And of course, it doesn’t alleviate the responsibility of everyone in the church to be maybe small “D” deacons. Like you mentioned before, there’s a lot of places in the New Testament where it is kind of the role of the Christian to be a servant of all. And then some being called specifically to this office. And you say in your book, you know, deacons rightly deployed are indispensable for the church. And so, how can we understand their role even in terms of leadership? So just to give some context, where I was pastoring in the South—and maybe you’ve experienced this as well, I noticed it especially there—deacons kind of function like elders. And they were seen as leaders in the church. And a lot of churches didn’t have elder-led congregations. So how could we think about church structure biblically, which seems to have those two offices in particular, and in that case, how are deacons functioning in terms of leadership?
Matt Smethurst (14:14):
Yeah, so I’m happy you asked that question, the first part of that question, because there is an aspect of leadership to diaconal ministry, even though it’s not the primary office of oversight and shepherding in the church. Unavoidably, some measure of influence is going to accrue to a faithful deacon. And I would actually say that when you’re looking for qualified deacons in your church, don’t just look for the workhorses—people who will do everything themselves. You want to look for those who can organize, and coordinate service, and actually mobilize others to serve. So it’s been said that elders lead ministry, deacons facilitate ministry, but the congregation does ministry. So you want to look for someone who can be a facilitator of ministry. In other words, not a cul-de-sac, where everything kind of comes to die, but a conduit for ministry.
Matt Smethurst (15:14):
And to get at the second part of your question, I think what’s happened, particularly in Baptist life over the last hundred or so years, is that there has been a kind of withering away of an understanding of elder. Elders have been…have come to be seen as kind of a Presbyterian thing, rather than a biblical thing. And when you lose the office of elder…well, then something functionally has to fill that vacuum. And so I think that’s where you get a lot of deacon-led churches. But it’s really a tragedy, because when your deacons are functioning like elders, you actually don’t have anyone functioning like deacons. So you lose out on what the Bible visualizes for both offices. And I think that in a lot of ways…I mean, this is perhaps a little simplistic, but I think in a lot of ways, churches get deacons wrong in one of two directions. Either they kind of wrongly elevate the office to that of defacto elders, as you’re describing. Or sometimes, in an overreaction to that, they wrongly reduce the role to that of just glorified janitors, you know, people who know their way around Home Depot. But I think that the vision of Scripture is far more glorious than either of those alternatives capture.
Brian Arnold (16:38):
And it does take that New Testament, fully-orbed understanding of the various offices of the church to get it right. Like you said, if something is not there in terms of eldership, it will be replaced with something else. And then the biblical conception of the diaconate shrivels up. But to see these both flourishing in their own perspective ways…and so I want to ask another question in terms of the offices. So I am a committed complementarian, believing that God has just so ordained that men will lead in the church and in the home. So when it comes to eldership in the church, I think that’s an office reserved for men. And I think there’s been a lot of confusion about whether or not women then can serve in the diaconate or not. So help us think through that issue, maybe with Romans 16 in mind.
Matt Smethurst (17:31):
Yeah. Well, admittedly, this is an issue where reasonable minds can differ. I think that there are good arguments for both sides. That’s why I reserved this for an appendix in the book. I emphatically didn’t want this to be a book about women deacons. But having studied, you know, church history and Scripture extensively on the matter, I am convinced that qualified sisters can serve the Lord and churches in this role, so long as that church understands the distinction between elders and deacons. So again, if you’re in a church where your deacons are functioning like elders, well, then you should not install women into the office. You first need to figure out what an elder is, and what a deacon is. But for me, it kind of comes down to…frankly, just exegetical conclusions from 1 Timothy 3:11.
Matt Smethurst (18:32):
And from the fact that Scripture nowhere forbids women deacons. So you never in Scripture find a statement like, “Be subject to the deacons.” But you do have 1 Peter 5:2, “Be subject to the elders.” Never do we read, you know, “Deacons need to stand ready to give instruction in sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it,” or “Obey your deacons and submit to them,” but we do have those passages in relation to elders. And so I don’t think there’s a 1 Timothy 2:12 equivalent for deacons, in other words. And so I’m left with the question—why forbid what the Bible doesn’t? And lastly, on Romans 16:1, again, there are arguments in both directions. I don’t think Phoebe is a mere emissary, or envoy, or letter carrier, or servant-hearted person.
Matt Smethurst (19:27):
I think she holds an office in the church at Cenchreae. And I think that the way that the terminology is applied there…in fact, it’s the only time in the New Testament that diakonos…put it this way—if she is not a deacon, then it would be the only time in the New Testament when the term diakonos is applied to a specific local church, and it not be referring to the formal office. We see statements all the time in the New Testament like “a servant of Christ” or “a servant of the saints.” But here she’s called a diakonos of this local church, which I think implies it’s talking about a formal position there.
Brian Arnold (20:11):
Well, for what it’s worth, I couldn’t agree more. I think that’s exactly right. If elders are elders and deacons are deacons, it does seem like the office of the diaconate is open to our sisters in the church. Let me kind of…as we’re winding down, let me ask you—for pastors who may be listening, and one of the challenges I’ve seen for some, especially younger pastors entering the ministry, who want to go in and get these offices right in the church, they kind of blow up the church that they’re called to pastor. When they get in, and there’s no elders, and there’s deacons who are kind of acting like elders, and so there’s no functional diaconate. And they move to strike right away. What advice would you give them on how to kind of bring about a healthier form of church government?
Matt Smethurst (20:57):
You can have a true, gospel-preaching church that doesn’t have deacons. I think that, you know, theologians have spoken about the esse, the essence of a church, and the bene esse, the wellbeing of a church. And I think deacons fall into that second bucket. I think they have to do with the health or the wellbeing of a church, but the most important thing as a pastor is that you make sure that the gospel is being preached, and that membership is understood. And as complexity…as things become more complex in the life of your church, and needs start to arise, and you feel kind of pulled as a pastor in multiple directions…well, then you’re probably starting to feel the need for what the Bible would say is a deacon position, to help relieve some of that practical focus.
Matt Smethurst (21:51):
And I just think, the one other note I want to sound here is—when you’re looking for deacons…it’s so sad to me that in a lot of churches, deacons have been the ones who have created conflict, who view it as their job to keep the pastor humble, to hold the pastor’s feet to the fire, to be the counterweight, you know, the check and balance. When really it’s the exact opposite in Scripture. It’s the job of deacons to figure out how to be a joy and not a burden. Deacons should be the people in the church where gossip and conflict go to die. Deacons should be the the shock absorbers, who muffle shockwaves—not make them reverberate further. So when you’re looking for qualified deacons, look for those in your church who are the encouragers, and who will help to facilitate that kind of culture of joy and love.
Brian Arnold (22:50):
Matt, that is a tremendous word, as we wind down. Thinking the Lord Jesus Christ even gave his life for his bride, which is the church—it’s the mission of God for the world. There’s nothing more needed, brothers and sisters, than healthy churches. And to see God’s offices for the church, and the ways that churches can flourish in these things is of utmost importance. And so thank you for taking the time, not only to be here today, but to write a book like this. There’s not many of those out there, and it’s much needed in our day.
Matt Smethurst (23:23):
Thanks, Brian. Thanks for all the great work you’re doing at Phoenix Seminary. God bless you.
Brian Arnold (23:27):
Yeah. Appreciate you being on. Thanks.
Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at ps.edu.