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.
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.”