I have great respect for Alexander Strauch. His book Biblical Eldership has not only been tremendously influential in my own life and ministry, it has helped to bring solid, healthy, biblical leadership structure to churches all over the world. I believe Biblical Eldership has had—and is still having—an historically significant impact on the evangelical church. (I recently reviewed it here.) I expect it to be remembered as a classic work of pastoral theology.
But that’s Biblical Eldership; I’m now reviewing The New Testament Deacon. And, I have to admit, despite my admiration for Alexander Strauch as a leader and a biblical exegete, I’m somewhat disappointed with this book.
Now, there is much of value included here. Strauch rightly counters the idea that deacons are ruling executives or building and property managers. He stresses the need for pastoral elders to devote themselves to the priorities of their ministry without being drawn into needs that are real but distracting. He notes the need for effective organization in the church.
He also gives us much helpful background information specifically regarding deacons. Discussions of the Greek wording, how deacons relate to overseers/elders, the scriptural qualifications for deacons, etc. are all illuminating (though many will disagree with his views concerning female deacons). Most of his exegesis of Acts 6 is sound, although he interjects a distinction between ministry of “word” and “deed” that isn’t really borne out by Scripture even considering the references he gives—certainly not enough to extrapolate the nature of church offices.
Practically everyone will agree that the office of deacon is normative for the church today. The problem is that Strauch goes to great length to define the specific, unvarying nature of this church office when Scripture decidedly does not. He does this on the basis of a single example from Acts 6. Is this conclusion warranted?
I agree with Strauch that this passage is likely showing the prototype for deacons. But we must tread carefully here because the text does not identify them as such. While we may agree that this passage shows an early example of deacons, some scholars do not, and there simply isn’t enough in the text here to allow us to be dogmatic in our insistence that these men are deacons.
But even assuming we could unquestionably establish these leaders in Acts 6 as deacons, does this one example define the nature of their ministry? Ironically, on page 43 Strauch cautions us that we are not to take this passage as a strict blueprint to be followed in every detail. He continues, “Thus a local church today has flexibility in how its deacons are chosen, how many are selected, and what they are specifically to do.” I completely agree. But then he later notes, “. . . as long as the deacons minister to the congregation’s welfare needs, they are doing their job.” So apparently we’re careful not to take Acts 6 as a strict blueprint—except for the fact that (in this lone example) these leaders saw to the distribution of food.
It’s clear from the rest of the book that Strauch sees this not as just one possible example of ‘deaconing,’ but as the primary, scriptural duty of all deacons. Unfortunately, in many key places in his argument he relies on conjecture. Perhaps his conjecture is correct, but it is conjecture nonetheless, and not supported through clear exegesis of the text. Many other scholars have concluded that the biblical principle illustrated in Acts 6 is simply that whenever a ministry need would take the elders away from their pastoral duties, then it is appropriate and healthy to appoint other leaders to meet this ministry need. This view seems to be much more careful with the text, and doesn’t go beyond what the Bible clearly teaches. This lack of definition need not be burdensome or confusing to deacons (or their elders); it actually frees churches to fill whatever non-elder ministry roles they have in their specific contexts. This will often include the care of the physical needs of the people, but also provides a model for the leadership of any church ministry that would tend to distract the elders from their primary pastoral ministry.
To so truncate the church office of deacon, based solely on a single example from a narrative passage of Scripture, does not seem to be the soundest of hermeneutics. It’s unfortunate that much of the content in the book rests on this conjecture and goes beyond what Scripture clearly teaches about deacons. While this book includes much of value and was written by an elder/pastor whom I highly respect, sadly, I cannot recommend it.