In The New Testament Deacon, Alexander Strauch provides an excellent companion volume to his more widely read Biblical Eldership. The office of deacon is often an afterthought, both practically and theologically and this work treats the subject with the gravity it deserves, examining every text on the subject of the deaconate.
The author’s basic premise is that deacon is an official office of the church, the discharge of which involves solely caring for the needy within the body of Christ, and all other duties are extemporaneous (11).
He begins his discussion with a thorough examination of Acts 6, and arguing for the importance of the separation of the function of the deaconate from the overseers (elders), and notes the importance of both the preaching and prayer ministry of the authoritative leaders in the church to the health and vitality of the church. This is a needed perspective, and rather than merely arguing for the need for deacons, he argues for the need for a division of the labor in the official ministry of the church. The tendency of some pastors (or elder boards) is to attempt to do everything themselves, and this opening section provides a needed corrective. Strauch’s assertion that a pastor’s neglect of preparation for preaching in favor of doing the work of a deacon leaves the flock vulnerable to false teaching and teachers (19) is both insightful and wise. Although this introductory discussion is brief it is impactful and should be read by all pastors.
Having laid this groundwork, the author delves into Acts chapter 6, which he clearly views as normative for the office of deacon, noting that it was an official office, that the dichotomy between “the twelve” and “the seven” was one of function, not as some propose one of Hebrew and Hellenist, that the twelve appointed the seven (as opposed to them being elected or selected by the congregation), that the congregation was nevertheless involved in the selection process and that the sole responsibility of the seven was to provide for the needs of the poor of the flock.
While I would affirm much of what is written in this section of the discussion, I think that the author at times presses the normative authority of Acts 6 too far, especially as it relates to the function of deacons. The situation of the apostolic church in Jerusalem was unique and while there are many principles to draw from this narrative, I am concerned that he is unnecessarily limiting the official function of the deaconate. While I wholeheartedly agree with the author’s contention that the deaconate should not be an executive committee, nor should it be relegated to near janitorial status, as unfortunately is often the case, his narrowing of the task of deacons to mercy ministry seems to go a bit too far. He correctly, in my view, narrows the purview of deacons to the stewardship and distribution of the churches resources, but to limit the understanding of these resources to financial and food stuffs seems to go too far and not allow for the full application of the principles in Acts 6 in the 21st century church. He states that a companion guide book is available to understand the practical outworkings of his exposition of Scripture (12), and perhaps this issue is addressed there, but at least a brief mention of how stewardship and the resources of a typical church have changed over the millennia would be helpful.
The second part of The New Testament Deacon is a discussion of the church as a two office entity, with overseer/elder and deacon as the only two legitimate offices within the church. Although brief, this is one of the most helpful parts of the book. He stresses the different function of the offices, and offers a diachronic word study (how the use of a word changes and morphs over time) of episkopos and to a lesser extent diakonos showing that both stress function and that both are used extrabiblically to describe official office. He uses this discussion of terms and roles as a springboard for a brief but needed exploration of the relationship between deacons and elders, and the frequency of power struggles between the deaconate and the elder board in churches where the appropriate roles for each office are not maintained and thoroughly defined. This is a needed discussion about a commonly observable situation that seems to be taboo to discuss (I have never read so frank a discussion on the matter). Particularly helpful was his caution that when deacons have authority over the finances of the church, they may think they have the right to wield that authority to control the church. The danger of deacon’s misunderstanding their role in the church, building “ministry kingdoms” in the church and then seeking to advance and protect their own kingdoms in disregard of, or open opposition to, the elders is real, and I appreciated the author dealing directly with the issue.
I am thankful for Strauch’s broaching of this important topic, but would have appreciated a fuller discussion of it, although I realize that a discussion of divisiveness among leadership is beyond the scope of this book. However I would have liked to see him tie the issue to the qualifications for deacon, as a divisive deacon is biblically unqualified to serve in that office.
The biblical qualifications for deacon are where the author next turns his attention, and it is a very thorough and helpful discussion. Strauch helpfully compares the character qualifications for overseer to those for deacon in a helpful chart (89-90), stressing the high character standards for both offices, yet highlighting the differences in the qualifications, and thus underscoring the differences in the offices.
He does at times seem to press beyond the textual qualifications for deacon though. He argues that wisdom is qualification for deacon (96) on the basis of Acts 6:3, and the apostles’ command to select men full of the Spirit and wisdom. While I agree with the principle that deacons should be wise, it does not seem to be an explicit qualification, and a misuse of narrative. Also he comes perilously close to arguing that marriage is a qualification for deacon (123-4) although he later explicitly states that singleness does not disqualify a man from serving as a deacon (138). While I appreciate his zeal for high character standards, by pressing beyond the explicit textual requirements he muddies the waters.
A helpful addition to his discussion of the qualifications for deacon is his thorough discussion of the meaning of 1 Timothy 3:11. I agree with his conclusion that the wives of deacons are in view, but I hold it with more openness than Strauch. What I appreciate most about his discussion on this matter, is the gravity with which he treats the question of women in the deaconate. Too often this text is ignored entirely, or a conclusion is offered with virtually no exegetical discussion or acknowledgement of the opposing views.
I deeply appreciated Strauch’s extended discussion of the necessity of testing deacons before appointing them to the office. His important reminder that only biblical objections should disqualify a potential deacon (107) seems obvious, but it is an important point. Too often interpersonal disputes can impact church leadership decisions and rob God’s people of qualified and competent servants. I also thought it was a needed corrective the common practice of not observing the ministry of deacons before appointing them or officially installing them in the office, especially at large churches.
These few concerns aside The New Testament Deacon is an excellent work, and should be read not just by deacons or potential deacons, but is also a very useful resource for elders and pastors as they consider the role and identity of the deaconate in the church.