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Fifty Years Among the Baptists
By David Benedict
Appendix Miscellaneous Articles
ON THE BAPTIST DEACONSHIP*
THE ORIGINAL BY HOWELL AND OTHERS. SOMETHING WRONG IN OUR DEACONSHIP. THE SCRIPTURE QUALIFICATIONS. CROWELL ON LIMITED APPOINTMENTS. MY FOUR YEARS' RULE. DEACON JONES IN THE SUNNY SIDE. ARGUMENTS. THE NUMBER 7. PROOFS FROM ANTIQUITY. DIALOGUE BETWEEN A PASTOR AND DEACON.
MY remarks on this subject will have respect only to our denomination. In my comments on church organizations, I do not propose any changes or revolutionary measures, but in the business of our deacon-ship, some modifications of our present practice, in my judgment, would be an improvement. I would go, in part, at least, for a younger, more active and efficient class of men for this office, than is now generally found in our churches. I would have them appointed for a limited time, instead of for life, with an eligibility for reappointment, and have seven the standard number for a full-grown church. Before I proceed to any discussions of these matters, I will give some definitions of the original terms
* I had prepared the largest chapter in this work, on the deaconship; in doing which I was assisted by able hands; but as it is among the missing MS., a shorter notice only can I now prepare.
pertaining to the service of deacons, and show the various ways it is performed. Howell, on The Deaconship, will, at present, be my principal guide.
"A deacon (diakonos*) is a minister or servant." The term, in its broadest sense, describes ministers or servants of all classes, whether their department be temporal or spiritual It has in its sense a similar indefiniteness with the word ecclesia, church, assembly or congregation.
The civil magistrate is called the diakonos, deacon or minister of God, for good. The apostles are frequently called deacons or ministers. Paul, speaking of himself and Apollos, says they were diakonoi, deacons or ministers, by whom the Corinthians believed the gospel. Tichicus is said to have been pistos diakonos, a faithful deacon or minister. Jesus Christ himself is called diakonos, a minister of the circumcision. "And the Son of man came not to be administered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many."
* I shall give the English version only of all the terms on this subject, I find the three following in the original Greek: Diakonos, a servant, waiting-man or woman, minister; diakonia, service, ministration; diakoneo, to wait on, serve, do service. Two of these terms are in the original, in the history of the seven men in Acts.
In this case, the passage might be rendered, He came not to be deaconized unto, but to deaconize and give his life, etc.
A deacon, then, is a minister or servant, whether the service be sacred or secular.
Doulos, also, means a servant, but generally, if not always, of a lower grade, and of a more menial character. Accordingly, where it is said of Jesus Christ that he took upon him the form of a servant, the term doulos, instead of diakonos, is employed.
To these general statements I will add, in the language of Dr. Howell, there is, however, a strict application of the term deacon to a specified class of officers in the church, who, in distinction from all others, bear this name.*
Here I would observe, that when I set about my enquiries many years since, respecting this class of church officers, I was a little disappointed to find them named but in two places, in our version of the New Testament, namely, in Philippians and Timothy; but our Dr. Johnson, formerly of South Carolina, now of Florida, in his work on Church Discipline, has stated that the original term occurs about thirty times in the New Testament. In one case, this term is applied to Phebe, a servant or deaconess of the church.
* Howell on the Deaconship, page 15 and onward.
But my main object, in these brief sketches, is to show that our churches need some important modifications in this business. In my extensive travels among them, for fifty years, in all parts of our own country, I have been very fully led to this conclusion. Very often I have seen churches suffer greatly for the want of better officers of this kind; and very frequently have I heard the remark, "There is something wrong in our deaconship, both in the character of the men, and their doings." And while this point is so generally conceded, I have been not a little surprised, that our strong men, and those who have written on the regulation of our church concerns, and who, moreover, have shown so much anxiety to set in order the things that are wanting, have said so little on this subject. They give the churches the same good advice that was given them when they were constituted, respecting the kind of men they should put in the deacons office, but in very few cases have I seen or heard of any suggestions, which would lead to any changes in the polity of our deaconship.
To be full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom was required of the first seven deacons; and Paul to Timothy says of these men, "They must be grave, not double-tongued; not given to much wine; not greedy
of filthy lucre; holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience."
A correspondent, whose comments I had sought on this subject, writes me thus:
"'Full of the Holy Ghost' men of eminent piety.
"'Of wisdom' sound, practical men, of acknowledged ability in counsel.
"'Grave, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre' of exemplary behavior in all their relations at home and abroad; not given to intrigue; simple-minded, sober, charitable; and able to speak for Christ, whenever occasion presents, as Stephen and Philip did.
"This, I think, is the New Testament view of this subject. Such are the men whom we should choose for deacons, and if those who were once such, have ceased to be such, a mode should be provided for their retirement, that their places may be filled by others."
In conversation, lately, with an ex-pastor of another community, whose deaconship is much like ours, I inquired of him if he ever knew of a deacon, of good moral character being dismissed from office on account of age or inefficiency. "No, never," was his quick reply. "I have known of a few resignations, but of no dismissions." The same statement, I presume, may be made relative to our denomination. As our deacons are all appointed for life, it is expected, as a matter
of course, that they will remain in office as long as they live, if they avoid church censures, however aged and infirm, or useless, faulty or displeasing they may become.
"A mode of retirement should be provided," says my correspondent; but no such provision exists in the church polity of the Baptists. Our churches would shrink from the attempt to dismiss from office a deacon of the above description. The man himself, also, would feel injured by such a move, and his family and friends would consider it a dishonor to his name. Indeed, I am inclined to think, that it would be difficult to find members, in almost any of our churches, who would be willing to approach a deacon on the subject of his voluntary resignation, however much they might wish for his retirement, and that a different man was in his place.
In all my conversations with our people, on matters of this kind, I have found very few who appear to have thought much about them, or to suppose that there can be any remedy for the evils, now under consideration.
In the beginning of this article I have suggested the idea of a limited time in the appointment of deacons, which idea I have entertained for many years; and I am pleased to see that Dr. Crowell, in his Church Member's Manual, recommends this plan in
the following terms: "As the office of deacon is not an exclusive calling, and as it can be changed without a violation of duty or personal inconvenience, there are some reasons for limiting the term of office to a shorter period than during life. It is impossible to foresee, how well a man may fill any office till he is placed in it; then, his health, his mental faculties, and even his piety may decline, or God may raise up better men in the church. If he becomes unfitted through age, or mental feebleness, or spiritual deadness, he is usually the last to find out the fact. If the church undertake to dismiss him by vote, an unpleasant excitement may be raised; if his brethren endeavor, privately, to persuade him to resign, jealousies may be aroused; if he, with the best of motives, reign voluntarity, false and injurious inferences may be drawn; all of which would be avoided, if his term of office expired by its own limitation. Besides, the church would have frequent opportunities to place her most active and pious men in this office."*
Dr. Crowell names five, six or seven years as the term of office.
Four years is the term I recommend for the appointment, not only of deacons, but for all officers of the churches, and all our benevolent institutions. Had
* Church Member's Manual, pages 202, 203.
this rule been adopted in the commencement of these bodies, much of the trouble which has been experienced by their managers, relative to men who turn out not to be of the right stamp, might have been avoided.
As yet, I am not fully decided about the application of this rule to church pastors, although I am inclined to think, there would be a gain in the duration of our pastorships; since four years is probably more than an average of pastoral longevity among our people, in more modern times, as the following statement will show: "During the four years ending April, 1852, in Massachusetts, out of one hundred and ninety Baptist pastors, one hundred and seventy had changed their places, and six had died. In New Hampshire, during the same time, sixty-one out of seventy-one had changed their locations, and three had died. In Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maine these pastoral changes had been equally great." This information was communicated by Rev. S. S. Leighton, a traveling agent.
This four years' rule I learned from the present policy of our national government, with the working of which the people seem well pleased.* Thus far the
* There is a tradition, which I believe is well founded, that while Jefferson was studying out the principles of our national Constitution, he was accustomed to attend the meetings of a small Baptist church near him, which according to their custom, sat with open doors. In witnessing the doings of this free, self-operating body, he caught some of the leading ideas of the important document which came from his pen. The government which thus arose, and which was unlike any other in the world, at any period, was an experiment in free principles, some of which have since been slightly modified. When I became connected with the Post Office Department, more than a quarter of a century ago, all the postmasters in our country, of all grades, were appointed without any limit of time, and so it was in all other departments. But by a law of 18__, the terms of all official appointments, except some judges, foreign ministers and consuls, were made to correspond with that of the President and his cabinet, namely, four years. In this way the complaints of proscription are avoided. All go out of office with the head of the nation. Their term of office expires by its own limitation. If they can get a reappointment, it is their good fortune; if not, a new man is installed. In this way the wheels are kept in motion, and there is no cause of complaint of unfair dealing by the man who accepts an office on such terms and whoever heard of any one's declining it?
teaching of the Baptists in constitutional principles; and I see no impropriety in learning, in our turn, a useful lesson in official appointments, which is briefly explained in the note below. Appointment for life is an aristocratic idea; a republican one, is of a limited duration, so that there may be rotation in offices among men qualified to fill them. In all cases I would have, the old incumbents eligible for reappointment. This might have a beneficial effect on such as are prone to inactivity and negligence, and, as Crowell well observes, the new men who arise in the churches, by this method, might be brought into more active service. There is another idea of Crowell's
worthy of very serious consideration, namely, the uncertainty attending new appointments in the deaconship. And should any one decline an appointment on the plan proposed, instead of having any argument with him, the better way, in my judgment, would be for the church to let him slide.
I have lately given a pleasing view of the character of deacons in Scripture language, and I am sometimes led to inquire, How large a proportion of the great number of our men in this office are full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, are grave, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre, holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience, ruling their children and their own houses well?
I am led to suppose that in the more than fifteen thousand churches of Baptists* in all North America, there are at least twenty thousand deacons.+
What a vast amount of good could be accomplished by such a host of official men, if all of them were of the right stamp and copied after the gospel model!
In a little work called the Sunny Side, the scenes of which are laid in another denomination, whose
* In this number I include all the associated Baptists, the Freewill, Six Principle, and Seventh Day orders.
+ Two is the rule in most cases; some churches have but one, and a few none, while a few of the churches in the cities and large towns go a good deal beyond the old orthodox duality rule. On the whole I think my estimate is within bounds.
deaconship is much like our own, is the following description of a Deacon Jones, who was styled a peculiar man. "A good man he was generally believed to be, yet no one liked him. There seemed to be some curious twist in his make which nothing would fit. If the church started any movement, it was almost morally certain he would oppose it. He helped along no plan which did not originate with himself. Notwithstanding his goodness, he made so much trouble at, that in a fit of desperation they chose him to the deaconship, thinking this would enlist his energies on the side of good order. It was jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. He so "magnified his office," that the pulpit went for sometime begging. Yet, after all, there was no one in the parish who was so kind to the poor, so attentive to the sick, lived so simply, and gave away so generously as Deacon Jones. It seemed as if the church could neither do without him or with him.
* * * "Ah me!" sighed Mr. (a candidate for settlement) "I am afraid I shall find a thorn there." The last conversation the young minister had with one of his elderly friends occurred to him, which was to this effect: If when you are settled, you find a crooked stick in your parish, in the shape of an unruly deacon, dont hope to get rid of the trouble by running away. You may find one everywhere."
It would not be altogether strange if there should be found some Deacon Joneses in our numerous churches; and it is to be feared that we have too many men in our extensive diaconate of whom not so much could be said in their favor, as of the ill-esteemed deacon in the Sunny Side.
Discrepancies in our Treatment of Deacons and Ministers
We treat deacons like real estate, but ministers like personal property, and precarious at that.
With us young men are eligible for the ministry, but not for the deaconship.
We dismiss ministers from their stations for almost any cause in the midst of usefulness, while we retain our deacons in office, when their usefulness is over. In early times there was a set of men called archdeacons, who kept so close to the bishops that they were called their hands, their ears, their eyes, etc.; but the bishops, now, are generally the first men modern archdeacons fall out with, and seek to undermine.
We consider a good deal of special training needful for ministers and pastors, but where do we find any treatise or set discourse to guide our deacons in their employment? How meager are all our instructions on this subject?
On the Number Seven for the Deaconship
On examining the early history of the diaconate among the Pilgrims, and Puritans, and Baptists, in this country, I find that the number two was the maximum in all churches, however large, until ruling elders went out of use, and for a long time after.
In my early day, in meeting-houses of the old class, there might be seen two grave-looking, gray-headed old men, in the deacons' seat, directly under the pulpit. This, as an old Puritan author observes, was accounted a seat of honor, or good degree. It was a little elevated so that the occupants might be more easily seen by all in the house. Here this venerable pair of church officers might be seen, not only at communion seasons, but it was their privileged location in the sanctuary at all times.
In process of time large city churches enlarged the number of church officers, but by no settled rule, some going beyond, but most of them falling short of the number mentioned in Acts.
The old church in Providence, which for more than fifty years that I have known it, and which has always contained from four to five hundred members, and sometimes a good deal more than the highest number named, has never had but four deacons at a time.
This church, and also many other churches in New
England, have standing committees, composed partly of deacons, and partly of other members, to perform the deacons' service, and under such a compound motion the principal part of church business is managed.
The plan of having seven good deacons, ready for every good work, would render this modern system of committees needless, and obviate the serious objections which now exist in the minds of many old-fashioned Baptists.
Among our writers, and those of other parties, with whom deacons are not regarded as a preaching order, it is rather a modern idea that we are to look to the sixth of Acts, for the origin of the Christian deaconship. The comments of old writers are rather vague on this subject; the general tenor of them, however, has been, that the men in question, had but a temporary appointment. But no one to my knowledge has ever named the time, or the place, when deacons were first set apart to the office.
It must be conceded in favor of our own writers, and some others, that they have taken more decided ground than formerly in this matter, but still they do not come up to seven as the standard. They generally concur with Crowell "that the Scriptures give no rule respecting the number of deacons, A church, therefore, may elect as many as it seems necessary."
In some cases, as one of our ministers informed me, churches go by the number of their aisles.
Other churches go by the amount of their deacon timber, to use a familiar phrase. But a great majority of our churches have but two.
If the deaconship was instituted by the direction of the apostles as reported in Acts, I see no reason why the number then fixed upon, out of the vast multitude in the great church, who might have been chosen, should not be standard at all times. Seven was a sacred number among the ancients, which often occurs in the Scripture narratives, and this might have had influence on the minds of the apostles in their order, Look ye out seven men, etc. At any rate, as we find the number of deacons specified in the account of the origin of the order, in my opinion, we have a safe rule, or at least a good model in this business. No more, and no less, was the doctrine of some of the oldest and largest churches of antiquity, as we learn from antiquarian authors.
"In some churches," says Bingham, "they were very precise to the number seven, in imitation of the first church of Jerusalem. The council of Neocaesarea enacted it into a canon, that there should be but seven deacons in any city, though it was never so great, because this was according to the rule suggested in the Acts of the Apostles. And the church of
Rome, both before and after this Council, seems to have looked upon that as a binding rule also. For it is evident from the epistles of Cornelius, written in the middle of the third century, that there were then but seven deacons in the church of Rome, although there were forty-six presbyters at the same time."*
In Alexandria, in Egypt, at Milan and other places, this rule was strictly adhered to in early times, long before the rise of the papacy, and while Christianity maintained in a good degree its primitive principles.
When great churches needed more officers, instead of adding to the list of deacons, they instituted a new order called sub-deacons, and here, again, they strictly adhered to the number seven.
But as ages rolled on this early rule was disregarded by many, and the number of deacons was greatly augmented, so that about three centuries after the period lately under consideration, namely, in the time of Justinian, who built the church of St. Sophia in Constantinople, now a Mohammedan mosque, there were one hundred deacons for that great establishment.+
My views in this business apply to full grown churches; all must see that small and feeble bodies can not conform to this rule. They can live with but
* Christian Antiquities, vol. 1.
+ Three other churches were connected with the metropolitan church. Justinian died 565, aged 83.
one deacon, or none at all. So they can without pastors, or houses of worship, which they obtain as soon as they are able, and so they should manage in filling up their deaconships, which may be done much sooner than some would suppose by using due diligence with their members,* and by putting into the office a younger class of men than formerly.
The first church in Pawtucket began with two deacons, then they had four, and now seven. The last ones were appointed for four years. Those who were appointed for life, under the old rule, remain as they were, to serve out their time.
The following discourse relates to the dealings of some deacons with ministers; the facts were gathered mostly from a report in a public print:
A Dialogue between a Pastor and one of his Deacons, who wished him to resign his post.
Deacon. I am sorry to say it, Elder A., but I have come with rather a disagreeable message.
Minister. Well, what is it, Deacon B.?
Deacon. I have been talking with some of our folks, and we think it is about time for us to be looking out for another minister. You have been with us nearly three years, if I remember right.
Minister. This is news to me, Deacon. Has there been any
* An eccentric minister once said to a member, "we want to make a deacon of you." "O, no," said the man, "I am not good enough." "Well, we want to make a better man of you."
meeting on the subject? What are the reasons you give, Brother B.?
Deacon. There hasnt been any church meeting; only I have spoken to two or three members, and they pretty much agree with me. The most I have to say about it, I am not edified with your preaching.
Minister. That does not surprise me at all. I do not think much of my preaching myself, and I sincerely wish it was a good deal better
Deacon. No doubt you can easily find another good place. Ministers often do better by changing, and the people too. I am a little particular about preaching.
Minister. Perhaps, Deacon B., you had better join some other church. You can no doubt have a letter by asking. You may then hear such preaching as you want.
Deacon. O no I have no idea of that. This is my home.
Minister. This is my home, too, and why should I leave it?
Deacon. But my property is here.
Minister. And I can say the same, Deacon B.
Deacon. But your property is small, compared with mine.
Minister. That is true, but still it is my all.
Deacon. But you know, Elder A., that deacons dont move about like ministers. It would make a public talk if I was to take your advice; besides, ministers are bound to go where they can do the most good.
Minister. I admit that; but are not deacons bound to do the same? There ought not to be one law for ministers and another for deacons. There are many churches that need more members like you, who are able to help. It is no uncommon thing for deacons and other church members to remove theirrelation for that purpose. You could do a feeble church more good by going to it,
than I could. You would be a help. I should be a burden. Besides, you are able to make sacrifices.
Deacon. You dont view the matter right, Elder A. I didnt come to talk about my leaving the church. You dont understand me, Elder.
Minister. Your meaning is very plain, Deacon B. A man with half an eye can see it.
Deacon. But how is your salary coming out, if you stay? You know I have a good deal to do about it. I myself shall not
Minister. I fully understand this hint, Deacon B. This is an old argument in such cases. As to that matter, I shall trust to God and my friends.
Deacon. As for friends, Elder A., you have not a better one in the place than I am. Friendship is not the question in this case. We have changed pastors a number of times since I have been a deacon; but I have always been friendly to them all, and so I am to you, Elder A. It is the good of the church that I look at; that is always uppermost in my mind, in all I do.
Minister. I think we may as well draw this conversation to a close, and permit me, Deacon B., to say, that as I view the matter, the main question before us is, which of us shall ask for a dismission from the church.
Deacon. I must say, Elder A., this is a new way for a minister to talk to a deacon, especially one who has done so much for the minister, the church, the poor and all around, and who is able still to keep on doing and giving, if I can have such preaching as I like.
Minister. I mean to treat you with due respect, Deacon B., but you must consider that ministers have the right of judgment and of speech as well as deacons. Thus far, no one of my people has given me any hint about my leaving them, but you alone. I
hope you will not press matters on your own account. When you show me an official document from the church, respecting my vacating my pastorship, I will take it under consideration, and, in the meantime, I will keep on performing my pastoral duties.
At this point, the deacon, in a thoughtful mood and with a disappointed look, began to make preparations to take his leave; and by the last account from the place the minister was still at his post.
If more ministers, in similar situations, would meet their deacons of this class on their own ground, and if more churches would take a stand independent of such men, well formed pastoral relations would not so often be broken up. But in most cases heretofore, if one, or at least a majority of deacons, turn against a pastor, the whole body gives up in despair, and these officious managers have the regulation of pastorships all their own way.
[David Benedict, Fifty Years Among the Baptists, 1860; rpt. 1977, pp. 339-358. -- jrd]
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