Book Review: The New Testament Deacon: The Church’s Minister of Mercy, by Alexander Strauch
What are deacons supposed to do? Are they to serve as the church’s executive board to whom the Pastor-CEO reports? Are they to be the church’s spiritual leaders?
Who should be a deacon? Is a deacon simply a long-serving member whom the church honors with a title, like a politician receiving an honorary doctorate?
If these questions were merely hypothetical, Alexander Strauch’s book The New Testament Deacon: The Church’s Minister of Mercy would be wholly unnecessary. But given that in many churches the role of deacon is defined more by tradition or corporate culture than by Scripture, Strauch’s solid treatment of the biblical teaching on deacons is more necessary than many church leaders may realize.
SOLID, EVEN-HANDED EXPOSITION
In this book Strauch simply walks verse-by-verse through Acts 6:1-7, Philippians 1:1, and 1 Timothy 3:8-13. The latter two passages are the only passages in the Bible where the term “deacon” is used of an office in the church (except possibly Romans 16:1). Acts 6 is generally regarded as setting forth a prototype of deacons, since the same division of labor between the ministry of the Word and caring for the church’s practical needs seems to apply to both the apostles and the seven and to elders and deacons.
Strauch’s book is filled with straightforward, even-handed exposition. He shows through Scripture that deacons are not a board of directors or the church’s spiritual leaders. Rather, deacons are to care for the “needy, poor, and suffering” members of our churches (11) and relieve the church’s elders of “many practical needs…so that the shepherds can attend more fully to teaching, guarding, and leading the whole flock” (12). In the first part of the book, Strauch highlights the division of labor between the ministry of the Word and caring for the church’s physical needs which Acts 6 and the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3 seem to imply. Then, after discussing the two offices seen in Philippians 1:1, he amply expounds both the meaning and importance of the qualifications for deacons Paul lays down in 1 Timothy 3.
Pastor, are you looking for a biblical primer on the role, responsibilities, and qualifications of deacons? Strauch’s book is a good place to start.
If you’re not looking for a biblical primer on deacons—and who is, really?—let me ask you, are your deacons more like a corporate board or like the biblically qualified servants of the church’s physical needs? Could it be that the biblical teaching on deacons is something that deserves further study for the sake of your own church’s health? If so, I commend Strauch’s book to you.
A FEW MINOR DISAGREEMENTS
That said, I’ve got just a few minor disagreements to register.
The first is that Strauch slightly reduces the biblical picture of deacons by referring to them as “ministers of mercy.” He speaks of the work of deacons almost entirely in terms of caring for the poor and needy within the church. His basis for this: the seven in Acts 6 were put in charge of the daily distribution of food, which apparently was the Jerusalem church’s benevolence ministry to its needy members. This left the apostles free to devote themselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer (see Acts 6:2-4). And Strauch argues that the division of labor between the apostles and the seven also applies to elders and deacons today, which seems legitimate in view of the differences in their titles and qualifications.
Yet Strauch seems to go just slightly astray here by assuming that because the seven in Acts 6 were put in charge of benevolence, caring for poor members is more or less the only responsibility deacons should have.
But what happens in a contemporary church in which there are many more time-consuming administrative matters than distributing food to poor members? Does the same division of labor apply? Can deacons be put in charge of sound systems and child care? If not, what protects the elders ability to devote themselves to the Word and prayer? The rationale of using Acts 6 as instructive for an elder/deacon division of labor seems to be lost. If the deacons are to handle the church’s physical needs, the job descriptions of deacons in many churches will need to extend far beyond caring for poor church members.
While Strauch doesn’t explicitly argue that deacons shouldn’t have more responsibilities than simply caring for the poor, his label “ministers of mercy” and his discussion of the role of deacons seem to limit deacons’ work to something narrower than what Scripture warrants. If the office of deacon was born (or at least foreshadowed) when a need arose that saddled the Apostles with too much administrative responsibility, it seems best to view deacons as servants who should handle all such administrative matters, rather than simply as “ministers of mercy.”
A second, related matter is that Strauch frequently treats Acts 6 as if it provides an exact description of the office of deacon. While I agree with Strauch that the seven in Acts 6 were prototypes of deacons, I think that we should be careful about seeing a one-to-one correspondence between them and the biblical office of deacon.
One final matter is that Strauch’s arguments against women deacons are not entirely persuasive. In part this is because he fails to make a compelling case that Paul’s prohibition of a woman exercising authority over a man in 1 Timothy 2:12 applies to the work of deacons.
A GOOD PLACE TO START
These minor disagreements aside, Strauch’s book is a solid overview of the Bible’s teaching on deacons. If you want to understand the Bible’s teaching on deacons, this is a great place to start.