Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Elders & Deacons

View the updated and more complete version here and the downloadable take-home version here.

What are Deacons & Elders?

Deacons and elders are two distinct and different offices of the church. If this were not true then why would Paul, in Philippians 1:1, makes an address to the elders (ἐπίσκοπος; also translated as overseers or bishops) and deacons (διάκονος; also translated as servant or minister)? And why would Paul, in 1 Timothy 3:1-13, list off qualification for elders (v.1-7) and then the qualifications for a deacon (v.8-13)? The answer is simple, and should be obvious, they are two different offices within the church.

What Makes Deacons & Elders Different?
There are a few places in scripture that give us some indication to the difference between of deacons and elders. To begin with, let's just look at what's available through looking at the qualifications of each in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 (click on the image to the right to see the qualifications compared).

Notice what they have in common and then look at what's different. Also, notice how they're very similar in some way with a few key differences. For example, both have to be able to manage their homes well, but for elders it adds that if he can not manage his home how would he manage the church; and elders aren't allowed to be a new convert, but deacons simply must be tested first.

So why do the two share some qualifications? I think everyone would agree that whether we're talking about deacons or elders they are both a type of leader in the church and both should be godly individual. Those seen in both are simply the basic qualifications that should be seen in the leaders of the church.

So why do the two have some different qualifications? In short, because they're supposed to be doing different things in the church. The qualifications are God's ways of having the right kind of people for the kind of role He desires for them to have in His church.

The Whole Deacon & Elder Thing
Before I continue there's an important point I have to make. There is an amazing amount of controversy over this subject. So many denominations have different takes on the subject and even my own denomination (Southern Baptist) is showing division on the subject.

So what's the problem? We're all following the Word of God right? Well, yes and no.

The problem is churches/denominations that take, or have taken, far too many liberties with God's Word. It makes sense when we as believers have to "fill in the blanks" when God's Word isn't specific about a subject, like dating. But we're supposed to take what God has given us and make use of it for what He left open. He left things a little open so that we would have freedom to adapt ministries, not so that we could argue over it's exact meaning and somehow end up not following at all the part He did make clear.

I know within my own denomination when I hear the arguments over elders and deacons so many of the stances are based on historical accounts and tradition. Why isn't it based on a simple re-examining of God's Word?

Looking Deeper: The Roles of Deacons & Elders
What if God designed deacons and elders to have two different functions in the church? It should be obvious that there's a good deal of truth to that just by looking at the qualifications of each. This is how deacons came to be created:
"Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, 'It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.'" (Acts 6:1-3, NASB)
The office of deacon was created to free the apostles, who functioned as the first pastors/elders, to pray and prepare to minister the Word. The Apostle became overwhelmed with trying to tend to everyone, so much so that their ability to preach, teach, and disciple was being hindered. They needed servant-hearted men.

The office of deacon was created for the purpose of handling the benevolence ministry of the church. Even the word deacon means servant.

Now let's look at some places that give us insight into the role of an elder:
"From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church. And when they had come to him, he said to them, '. . .Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers , to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.'" (Acts 20:17-18a,28, NASB)
"The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching." (1 Timothy 5:17, NASB)
"Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you." (Hebrews 13:17, NASB)
"Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory." (1 Peter 5:1-4, NASB)
It's clear that elders are to rule their flock and even more clear that deacons are supposed to take weight off their shoulders by handling the benevolence ministries of the church.

What About Deacon Boards?
Are deacons boards unbiblical? What we do know is that deacons should not be ruling the church. That's the function of an elder or elder team/board. How do you know when the deacons are doing far more than just handling the benevolence of the church and beginning to rule the church? Consider these 3 items by Howard B. Foshee in The Ministry of a Deacon:
  1. When all major recommendations from church operations and church committees are screened by the deacons whether they should go to the congregation.
  2. When the pastor and staff members are directly responsible to the deacons rather than to the church.
  3. When the use or expenditure of major church resources, such as facilities and fiances, must first be approved by the deacons.
Also see Elders & Deacons (Part 2) or Elders & Deacons (Part 3).


Jerome said...

Consider that elder in the scripture encompasses both bishop and deacon.

Note that no church in the Bible is described as having "elders and deacons". Philippi had "bishops and deacons" (Phil. 1:1); when Paul wrote to Timothy, at Ephesus, he uses the terms "bishop" and "deacons" again (I Tim. 3). Elsewhere, including I Tim. 5:17, we see church officers referred to collectively as "elders".

Comparing Acts 6:4, "we will give ourselves continually to prayer and the ministry of the word", and I Tim. 5:17, some elders "labor in the word and doctrine", suggests that one church office is to assist the other so that the latter may be dedicated to the ministry of the word. The common Baptist polity of a pastor and deacons follows scripture in this regard.

Deacons may be called on to help the church's ministry in many ways, not just physical needs. The spiritual/physical dichotomy concept of the two church officers is, I believe, what has led to the deacon downgrade of recent times. I Tim. 3:14 says that deacons are to have "great boldness in the faith", and the examples of Stephen and Philip in Acts counsel against a limitation of the ministry of deacons to the physical.

T. F. Torrance laments a similar unbiblical marginalization of deacons that has occurred in his denomination:

"So far as deacons themselves are concerned, there was never any suggestion in the New Testament or in the Early Church that their office was restricted to the ministry of alms and social care. Yet that is what the Church of Scotland unfortunately came to hold, when it transferred many of the functions of deacons to elders. Those functions became distorted in the process. The eldership as such was left without biblical support as an evangelical office, while room was made for deacons only in a very attenuated form. This is largely, I believe, why the diaconate thus conceived has constantly given ground for so much confusion and why it has been so difficult to resurrect and maintain in its wholeness within the Church of Scotland. Much of that confusion might be done away if we frankly acknowledge that we have misread the Holy Scriptures through the distorting lenses of a Presbyterian Tradition. It is imperative that we set about once again to reform our church polity in accordance with the revealed Word of God."

TerryKM said...

In an attempt to avoid another long post I'm not going to go into all the details. Maybe I'll blog about it later. . .but. . .

It's clear to me that the separation between elders and deacons and scripture is the question of who is ruling the church. Never in scripture is a deacon listed as someone who leads or rules the church.

The office of elder never means they have to keep their hands out of benevolence because that's the job of the deacons. The office of deacon was actually created to help them with that, not to take over it.

Steven was a deacon gifted in evangelism. Since when is evangelism restricted to elders or deacons? It's a trait every believer should do (of course the Spirit chooses who it gifts in this area). Philip was also gifted by the Holy Spirit (every believer is gifted in some way) and he used his gifts. The point was not who is allowed to proclaim God's good news but who may rule the church.

Maybe I didn't make that clear in my post.

nathanhyde.com said...

Good discussion. I wouldn't say that deacons are "marginalized" or "downgraded" just because they're not governing the church.

Serving in a capacity that meets physical needs is not unspiritual. Even our ushers should be filled with the Spirit!

Jerome said...

Please explain:

"Never in scripture is a deacon listed as someone who leads or rules the church."

"I think everyone would agree that whether we're talking about deacons or elders they are both a type of leader in the church and both should be godly individual. Those seen in both are simply the basic qualifications that should be seen in the leaders of the church."

TerryKM said...

By "leader", there are two forms that I was making use of. One is that is the one who commands (like a general would lead his army) and the other is the one who is foremost of the church (like a runner being upfront, so he has become the lead runner, but he's not commanding or directing the other runners).

When I said, "Never in scripture is a deacon listed as someone who leads or rules the church," I was referring to the commanding/directing type of lead.

When I said, "the leaders of the church," I was referring to the foremost of the church.

Rick Lawrenson said...

A little Bible study will reveal that "elder/bishop/pastor" are synonymous in their office. Three different words to describe the multiple functions of the role.

Deacons are a separate office. The primary difference, for example in their qualifications is that bishops are required to be able teachers. Deacons have no teaching requirement. Bishops "rule" (lead) the church as superintendents. Deacons serve the church.