[Continued from 9/2 post, found here]
Church leadership structure may not be a particularly crucial area of Christian doctrine, but it is worthy of consideration as a practical matter. In my personal history, most churches have had deacons. This last installment will deal a bit with these church servants.
The word “deacon” is a transliteration of a Greek antecedent—a word that may also be translated “minister” or “servant,” depending on context. Sometimes, a designate-role seems implied; other times, not so much. It might well be deduced that, in terms of function within the Body, a staff minister such as a youth minister is the same as a deacon who isn’t paid but who, say, takes care of the building and grounds:
One has one job; the other has another.
One gets paid; the other doesn’t.
I suggested this idea once and lost a friend and (staff minister) collaborator soon after. Not that my assertion was the only cause of the separation, but the professional hierarchy of an institutional church does have its pitfalls.
Where churches have elders and deacons (and also where one or both of those subsets don’t exist), there is most almost always a man who stands and preaches sermons, along with various other roles assigned to him. This man may be called “preacher” or “minister” or “evangelist.” The last term, evangelist, while perhaps somewhat more intentionally biblical, rarely corresponds to actual evangelization in the biblical sense.
A few churches, including one whose website I recently browsed, have “ministry leaders” that include Christians of both genders. Never have I known personally of a church who used the word “deaconess” to refer to someone within its midst, but the case against doing so is not strong. If one is designated as a mere “ministry leader,” s/he is probably not paid and probably will not be respected as much as a staff person would be, yet there is much to be said for authentic ministry that is unfettered by denominational dogma, employment agreements, and the need for a salary.
Sometimes, after a few years of languishing with less ept leaders, the well-meaning preaching minister—and there are many like this—will begin to conclude that, after all, I have a gift with administration and spiritual leadership, and, yeah, I also have a degree in ministry, so doesn’t it make sense that I can serve this church better if I am recognized as an elder, too (or [muffled choking sounds from this writer] “senior pastor”)? After all, Timothy and Titus did this kind of thing in the 1st century, sort of, so it’s justifiable, isn’t it?
It’s not entirely fair to find fault with the staff minister/preacher who reasons this way. It’s more the people’s fault than his; they have abdicated their kingly, priestly roles in deference to a dubiously authorized high priest, a/k/a “pastor.”
The above is not by any stretch a thorough treatment of the organizational roles in churches. It has been a mere glimpse into roles in a subset or two within Christendom. Additional time could be spent on the nature of “membership” in an “organization,” but even using those words sours my stomach a bit. I renounced the practice of “placing membership” a couple decades ago, preferring to let my intentions be made known by action rather than registration.
I might just mention the curiosity of being “in” but not “of” a congregation: one relatively small denomination, an Ohio nondenominational church I visited once, and a larger denomination that friends attend in Missouri, all have at least two “levels” of membership:
“covenant members” who buy in to everything
“community members” who attend and generally support but who take exception to one or more tenets and/or who aren’t as committed to the whole program
On the one hand, having two levels of membership begs the question of why one would choose to be a second-level member if s/he doesn’t buy in to the whole she-bang. On the other hand, with all the superimposed dogma to which one is subjected in an institutional church, having a less committal version of membership may be the only way for said churches to survive.
When it comes down to it, I’m not sure that patterns of church organization seen (or hinted at) in the scant records of the primitive church were intended to be standardized. Whatever organizational structure exists, or doesn’t exist, within a local church, I’d say two things, in order of increasing importance:
- A local church should use whatever organization and identified roles work for it, regardless of any larger denominational structure. For the moment, and only for a moment, let us accede to the perverse reality that churches are businesses. I would assert this truth for any business: there is little validity to be found in people’s making decisions from four levels up in the off-white tower, unless they live where the people live on a regular basis.
- A local church should manifest the clear knowledge that no believers are in any sense to be set above any other believers. All Christians are ministers; all Christians are priests; all Christians are saints. There is no place for positional hierarchy within a church. The subtle effects of the blind acceptance of de facto clergy/laity systems (on the part of blurry-visioned, lame sheep) may be more insidious in this regard than de jure hierarchies boldly emblazoned on signs and imprinted on letterhead.