As we look to install deacons at City Church in the near future, we talked this past Sunday about their role. While there are several ways we can describe how deacons serve the local church, the best illustration is that deacons serve as shock absorbers. (This illustration is not original to me).
Without shock absorbers, your tires would constantly be bouncing up off the pavement. And every second your tire is not on the road, you lose the ability to brake and steer.
Keeping your tires on the road is not just for a comfortable ride, it keeps you alive. Imagine trying to drive through a curvy mountain pass without the ability to brake or steer. It won’t end well.
Elders, on the other hand, are like a steering wheel. They set a vision for how we accomplish our mission and work to be sure we keep moving forward. The deacons keep the tires on the road so the elders can steer, brake, and accelerate to get the church where she’s headed. (Here’s an important video on why it’s so important to have elders who steer well and deacons who keep tires on the road.)
Over the last century, the role of elders and deacons has become somewhat muddy. If you grew up in church, you might think of deacons as either the guys who disagree with everything in a business meeting or you see them as the people charged with keeping the Senior Pastor in line. As we look to install deacons, it’s important that we make clear the difference between them. Elders and deacons work together in complementary roles to keep the church on mission.
So to prepare you for next week’s recommendation of six deacons, here are some of the major ways each serves the church.
Elders are supposed to lead the church spiritually, particularly leading the church in the ministry of the Word. That means that in their preaching and leadership, they are helping everyone take the Word of God and use it to root out sin in our lives, and to help each other and the world understand the gospel of Jesus.
In 1 Timothy 3:1-7, the list of qualifications for an elder (“overseer/pastor/elder” are synonymous terms) is full of character qualifications like being humble and sober-minded, faithful to his wife and hospitable toward outsiders. Anyone who wants to be an elder is held to a high standard of character.
But there are practical commands, too. Elders are called to “manage God’s household” (Titus 1:7), teach the Word and guard the truth (John 21:15-19), and “keep watch over [the church’s souls] as ones who will give an account.” So elders aren’t cold, detached steering wheels—their church-driving mission is rooted in love of God and love of people.
Deacons Absorb Shock
The word “deacon” literally means “servant.” But deacons don’t simply serve physical needs…they serve physical needs to preserve unity in the church.
In Acts 6, the deacons are appointed to help feed the widows because it had become too much for the apostles to do. But, the deeper problem here was the Hellenists complaining about the Hebrews overlooking their widows. This was a complaint that cast the church not in the light of a unified people, but as two separate groups who happened to worship the same God. It was one group assuming the worst of both the apostles and the Hebrews in the church. But God’s design for the church is to be one people, one race, one nation, one body with many parts that work together. (1 Peter 2:9; Eph. 4:1-16). Unity is a big deal to God, so he sets servants up in the church to preserve it.
In other words, deacons serve in a caring, supporting role for the church. They ensure that practical needs are being met (like serving widows) so that the congregation’s unity is preserved (by squashing opportunities for people to complain). The twelve apostles couldn’t manage all of the conflicts and needs while also driving the mission of the church, so the deacons came alongside them to absorb the shock and keep the wheels on the road.
In the second half of 1 Timothy 3, deacons are given similar character standards. Just like a good car manufacturer sets high standards of safety for their vehicles, God has called elders and deacons to a high standard of safety—they have to steer and absorb shock in a way that keeps the people in the car from flying through the windshield. (Toonses watch out!- seriously, did you even watch this video yet?)
Jesus Came to Lead and Serve
For elders and deacons, Jesus is the true model.
Jesus is a better elder, the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). He oversees his people with the care of a shepherd, steering us away from danger and showing us the right way to go. He was and is always pointing us toward God’s mission of taking the gospel deep into our hearts and to the ends of the earth.
Jesus is a better deacon. He came to serve (Mark 10:45). On the greatest mission trip of all-time, the Son of God stepped out of Heaven and into our mess. He came to be our shock absorber, to keep us on a road we’d careen off in a second without him. (Again, you need to watch this video)
Without Jesus, elders can’t lead. Without Jesus, deacons can’t serve. Our church will only appoint elders and deacons that believe that truth to their core.