The rumor once spread that Spurgeon had said, “a deacon is worse than a devil, for if you resist the devil he will flee from you, but if you resist a deacon he will fly at you.” It was common in those days for pastors to complain about their deacons. Spurgeon once observed that “many of our ministering brethren bitterly rate them, others tremble at the mention of their very name, and a few put on their armour and prepare to do battle with them wherever they go, as if they were the dragons of ministerial life.”
But Spurgeon took a different approach. He firmly denied that he ever said such a thing to disparage deacons. Rather, he defended them as a gift from Christ to the church.
Whatever there may be here and there of mistake, infirmity, and even wrong, we are assured from wide and close observation, that the greater number of our deacons are an honour to our faith, and we may style them as the apostle did his brethren, the “glory of Christ” … Deprive the church of her deacons, and she would be bereaved of her most valiant sons; their loss would be the shaking of the pillars of our spiritual house, and would cause a desolation on every side. Thanks be to God such a calamity is not likely to befall us, for the great Head of the church in mercy to her, will always raise up a succession of faithful men, who will use the office well, and earn unto themselves a good degree and much boldness in the faith.
Spurgeon could say this because of his own pastoral experience with deacons both in Waterbeach and London.
Deacons at the Waterbeach Chapel
In his pastorate at Waterbeach, Spurgeon found his deacons to be indispensable for the work of the ministry. Spurgeon was a solo, bi-vocational pastor of a village church that grew from a few dozen to over four hundred members. How did he manage the care of the church? Only with the help of his deacons.
The deacons of my first village pastorate were in my esteem the excellent of the earth, in whom I took great delight. Hard-working men on the week-day, they spared no toil for their Lord on the Sabbath; I loved them sincerely, and do love them still. In my opinion, they were as nearly the perfection of deacons of a country church as the kingdom could afford.
Coming alongside Spurgeon, these deacons not only served the church, but they also mentored their teenage pastor in the ministry, often encouraging him, but at times rebuking him. On one occasion, a deacon wisely confronted Spurgeon on his careless choice of words in the pulpit.
Mr. King once gave me a kindly hint in a very delicate manner. He did not tell me that I should speak more guardedly in the pulpit; but when I left his house, one Monday morning, I found a pin in my Bible, stuck through Titus 1. 8: “Sound speech, that cannot be condemned; that he that is of the contrary part may be ashamed, having no evil thing to say of you.” Nothing could have been in better taste. The wise rebuke was well deserved and lovingly taken. It was so deftly given that its value was thereby increased indefinitely. Mr. King was a deacon of deacons to me, and to the Waterbeach Church.
These wise deacons proved to be instrumental in Spurgeon’s growth and maturation as a pastor, preparing him for a much larger sphere of ministry.
Deacons at the New Park Street Chapel
When he took up the pastorate in London at the New Park Street Chapel, he found similarly faithful deacons. Of course, this is not to say that everything always went smoothly. There were at times disagreements between the headstrong young pastor and the aged, experienced deacons, especially early on. Before he even arrived in London, a disagreement arose over the issue of ordination. The deacons wanted their new pastor to be ordained by the association and to take the title of “Reverend.” Spurgeon, however, believed that his ordination came from the congregation and was content simply to be known as their pastor. He was willing to submit to their wishes but expressed his disapproval of these extra-biblical traditions.
Later, as crowds flocked to hear Spurgeon, the auditorium grew dangerously crowded and unbearably hot. He pressed his deacons to open the windows to allow for more fresh air and to make plans for expansion, but they dragged their feet on any changes to their historic building. At times, Spurgeon lost his patience with his deacons.
One night, in 1854, while preaching there, he exclaimed, “By faith, the walls of Jericho fell down; and by faith, this wall at the back shall come down, too.” An aged and prudent deacon, in somewhat domineering terms, observed to me, at the close of the sermon, “Let us never hear of that again.” “What do you mean?” I inquired; “you will hear no more about it when it is done, and therefore the sooner you set about doing it, the better.”
As the solo elder of the church, Spurgeon knew that he was responsible to lead, and sometimes this meant leading forcefully. Though he may have been right, he didn’t always communicate with perfect wisdom and patience. But despite these challenges, as Spurgeon reflected on his ministry, he knew that his deacons were a great blessing to him and to the church. Their wisdom brought balance to his zeal. Without them, he would not have been able to care for the church and would have been left without a great source of comfort. “At every remembrance of these brethren we thank God. Some ministers have found their trials in their deacons; it is but right to say that we find in them our greatest comfort, and we earnestly desire that every church should share in an equal blessing.”
The Work of Deacons
For the first five years of his pastorate, Spurgeon relied heavily on his deacons. As the solo pastor, he counted on his deacons to help not only with administrative tasks, but also with the spiritual care of the church. Even as the church grew rapidly, these deacons interviewed prospective members, helped with visitation, acted as messengers to associational meetings, examined cases of church discipline, and more. But as the church continued to grow, Spurgeon believed that more help was needed. So in 1859, he led the congregation in calling men to serve in the office of elder. Initially, some deacons would serve in both offices of elder and deacon, but over time, the two offices became more distinct with the spiritual care of the church given to the elders and the practical care of the church given to the deacons
With this division of labor set in place, the deacons now divided the various administrative tasks among themselves.
The work is divided so as to secure the services of all, and prevent the neglect of anything through uncertainty as to the person responsible for its performance. One honored brother is general treasurer, and has been so for many years — long may he be spared to us; another takes all out-door work, repairs of the exterior, keeping the gates, appointing doorkeepers, etc.; another has all indoor repairs; while others watch over the interests of the new churches which are springing from our loins; and one brother as a good steward sees to the arrangement and provision of the weekly communion, and the elements required for the Lord’s table; thus with a common council we have separate duties.
Though Spurgeon’s deacons regularly met to coordinate their work, their responsibilities were largely carried out individually. Some of these responsibilities involved recruiting members of the congregation to serve as “doorkeepers” or assisting with the Lord’s table. One of the deacons worked with the elders in facilitating church plants “which are springing from our loins.” The deacon who served as general treasurer interacted with many portions of the church as he organized the church’s finances. In these and many other practical ways, the deacons’ selfless service kept this large church and all her institutions running smoothly.
The Character of Deacons
While deacons needed to be skilled in administration, Spurgeon believed that character was even more important. 1 Timothy 3 lays out the qualifications of a deacon, and Spurgeon saw all these qualifications as non-negotiable. At the same time, in his experience of ministry, Spurgeon saw additional characteristics that were especially important for deacons.
At the top of the list was that deacons to be men of peace, working for the unity of the church, rather than division. Deacons characterized by such grace
would be sure to rule well, and reduce chaos to order by the mere force of Christian patience. Few men believe in the power of non-resistance, but our faith in it is unbounded: he who can yield will conquer, and he who will suffer most for the sake of love will wield the greatest power if he will but bide his time.
Of course, this didn’t mean that such a deacon would allow people to take advantage of the church, or “allow the minister to draw twice the amount of his salary.” This would be a perversion of the qualification. At times, a deacon must confront and speak firmly. Yet, at the same time, “the kind, gentle, but earnest deacon is invaluable. He is as an angel in the church, and does more than angel’s service. Excellent man!”
Additionally, while the elders were tasked with the responsibility of teaching, deacons also had opportunities for discipleship and other kinds of Word ministry. After all, deacons are required to “keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.” Therefore, Spurgeon encouraged his deacons to use their teaching gifts in their diaconal ministry and beyond. Deacons should not be pure administrators. Rather, their practical ministries provided a platform for the gospel.
We like a [deacon] all the more if, like Stephen, he can both care for the widows and preach the gospel. It would be well for our country churches if more of the deacons would exercise their gifts, and keep the village stations supplied with sound doctrine.
Though Spurgeon had plurality of elders, this was unusual among Baptists of his day (though not among the earliest Baptists). He was aware that many fellow Baptist pastors still labored as the solo elder with a board of deacons. Especially in such churches, Spurgeon recognized the importance of these deacons holding on to the deep truths of the faith and laboring alongside their pastor in the ministry of the Word.
Finally, Spurgeon believed that deacons must be characterized by humble, persevering faithfulness. After all, “seldom are their names mentioned in public, and yet they are the mainstay of the church, the regulators of her order, and the guardians of her interests. Some of them have held the fort in troublous times: they have seen a dozen pastors come and go, but they abide at their posts, faithful under discouragement, hopeful under difficulty. They deserve great praise…” Perhaps in writing such a description, Spurgeon had in mind a particular group of deacons very dear to his heart.
When Spurgeon first came to the New Park Street Chapel in December 1853, the church was in serious decline. A previous pastor had relocated the congregation to an awful part of town. The church had been through several successive short pastorates. Now, only a few dozen gathered in the cavernous hall each week. One of the deacons had just written to the Baptist association reporting no growth in the membership and asking for their prayers.
Yet, among those who stayed were faithful deacons like William Olney and James Low. These men continued to “[hold] the fort in troublous times,” serving, shepherding, and praying for God’s grace. And in His providence, it was Olney who heard from a friend about a boy-preacher out in Cambridge who was causing a stir. It was Olney who invited him to supply the pulpit, despite his youthfulness and countrified manners. And because of these deacons’ humble perseverance and faithfulness, the history of their church would be forever changed.