This article was written by Wyman Lewis Richardson, pastor at Central Baptist Church in North Little Rock .
The church historian Jaroslav Pelikan once said that tradition is “the living faith of the dead” whereas traditionalism is “the dead faith of the living.” Tradition, in other words, respectfully asks and carefully considers the validity of the ways that those who have come before us thought and approached being the body of Christ. Traditionalism, however, is an enslavement to the past. In a healthy sense, tradition means stewarding what has been given to us: keeping what is useful and discarding what needs to be left behind. But traditionalism means saying, “But we ain’t ever done it that way before!” whenever we are encountered with something that seems new or strange to us.
As Baptist Christians, the Bible is our supreme, God-breathed guide for judging the validity of any and every proposal concerning how to be the church. But if a proposal does not violate Scripture, we are free to consider its usefulness. And, with this healthy sense of tradition in mind (while avoiding cold, dead traditionalism!), we might even say that we should at least give serious consideration to what those faithful brothers and sisters of yesteryear thought was important concerning the body of Christ. We can and should disagree with those who came before us when they were wrong (and, of course, they were at times, sometimes spectacularly so!), but respect for the fact that God was speaking to them as well as to us should lead us to say no to them only when it is clear that they were wrong.
Take deacon ministry, for instance. When you go back and read the way that earlier Baptists spoke about deacon ministry, you see a phrase popping up time and time again: “three tables.” Simply put, earlier Baptists spoke of deacons as serving three tables:
- The Table of the Lord (assisting with the Lord’s Supper)
- The Table of the Poor (assisting with the benevolence ministry of the church)
- The Table of the Pastor (assisting the pastor in various ways)
Twelve years ago, when I began serving as the pastor of Central Baptist Church in North Little Rock, we decided to listen to what our forefathers had said about deacons when we were considering whether or not we were organized and operating in the most biblically faithful and effective manner. So, we took that older model—The Three Tables—and adopted and adapted it to fit our context.
Now our deacons are divided into three teams, with each team serving one of these tables. Every four months, the tables rotate. This means that every year, our deacons will serve at all three tables. Beneath these three tables are all the ministries that our deacons handle: overseeing and assisting with the Lord’s Supper, care for those in need, caring for the families of our church through our Authentic Family Ministry (what we used to call Deacon Family Ministry), being available to help and assist and advise me, turning on the lights of the church on Sunday mornings, and numerous other ministries and helps. Some table aspects do not rotate (i.e., our deacons serve their assigned families all year long, for instance), but most do.
Over the years, we have come to find this model to be very helpful. Out of this journey, I have created a course to help churches consider this model for themselves: The Three Tables: Reclaiming an Early Baptist Model for Deacon Ministry Today. I would like to invite you to go to www.thethreetables.com and take a look at the various resources available there. You will find a leader’s guide and student workbook as well as videos where I teach through the workbook, slides to be used in teaching the material should you want to teach it yourself, and a growing collection of articles that dive further into each of the tables. The study looks at Scripture and Baptist history and has a number of exercises and conversation prompts.
The beauty of this model is that while it does establish parameters for deacon ministry (i.e., it rules out any sort of top-down authoritarian model and calls deacon bodies to service), it leaves room for adaptability and creativity. Each Baptist church is a little bit different from every other Baptist church, though “Jesus is Lord!” binds us all together as one! I wonder if this model might be helpful to you and your church? By all means check it out and see!
Great article Wyman! Good advice on refocusing our Deacon ministries.