Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Elders & Deacons

This is a revision of a three posts made in Nov. '07. Since those were the most popular posts visited and read, I cleaned it up, made a few comments clearer, and now submit it for your thoughts, comments, and questions.

The common questions of the church today is “who should be running the church?” and “what should our leadership look like?”

The Offices Of Deacon & Elder
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?
(CLICK ON THE IMAGE ON THE RIGHT TO SEE DIFFERENCES IN SCRIPTURE; you can also right click it and open it in a new window so you can keep reading here and refer back to the image)

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.

Notice what they have in common and then look at what's different. Also, notice how they're very similar in some ways 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 could 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 held by godly individuals. The qualifications seen in both are simply the basic qualifications that should be seen in any leader of the church.

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

The Debate Over Leadership

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 divided 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 its exact meaning and somehow find ourselves at a conclusion where we’re not at all following the parts 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.

Here 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)

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 apostles 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)

“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)

“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)

“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)

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.

By and large many pastors have been turned into deacons, spending 80% of their time doing acts of benevolence, while deacon boards are acting as elders, when they're not biblically qualified to do so, ruling the church and rarely attending to their God-given role of benevolence.

So far we’ve learned that deacons and elders are two different offices; one was designed to rule and one was designed to serve. Now I want to take a very light look into the roles of elders and deacons just by looking at their name.

The Name 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)

This is not the only passage that contains defining points of what the role of an elder is, but this passage makes it clear that the elder is an overseer and a shepherd. So let's start by looking at the Greek to see what the meaning of these words are and what it tells us about the functions of an elder:
  1. Elder, πρεσβύτερος (transliterated as presbuteros), simply means someone advanced in years, an old man.
  2. Overseer, ἐπίσκοπος (transliterated as episkopos), sometimes translated as bishop, means a superintendent and guardian.
  3. Shepherd, ποιμαίνω (transliterated as poimainô), means to act as a shepherd, to care, to rule, and to tend.

The Name Of A Deacon
Unlike elder, the word deacon is not given multiple names that define it's role, but it has one that is very powerful:
  1. Deacon, διάκονος (transliterated as diakonos), mean a servant or minister.
What Does A Name Teach Us?
Practically everything! We learned that an elder means:
  1. an old man because older men are supposed to be respected, wise, and full of experience (something not always true of today; but certainly true of an older man who has devoted himself to Christ)
  2. a superintendent because they're supposed to direct and manage the work of the church
  3. a guardian because they need to be able to shoot wolves
  4. a shepherd because they need to huddle the sheep together, watch over them, and guard them
  5. care and tend for the people because people are hurt and broken, and this especially means going to the places no one else wants to go
  6. and rule over the people because God loves us enough to send some who are gifted through His Spirit in such ways to direct us to places in our relationship with Christ that we could have never imagined; we need to be ruled (Hebrews 13:17).
We learned that an deacon means:
  1. a servant because they're in service to someone else, in submission to other leadership, a heart to wash the feet of others
  2. and a minister because they are the representatives of Christ, the hands and feet.
Service is something the church must do more of. One of the church's primary functions is supposed to be about serving one another. But the work of serving is extremely time-consuming and if done properly by the church it is a never ending demand. This is why deacons were created so that elders would be free to do their other obligations (Acts 6:4) such as teaching and discipleship.

In Closing. . .
Let's look at one last important part concerning elders, what exactly does scripture say they're supposed to do? What does scripture say concerning how the church should treat the elders?

Duties, Responsibilities, and Cautions of Elders
  1. Those who are living in unrepentant sin within the church let the elders publicly rebuke them in the presence of the church. (1 Timothy 5:20-21; this goes along with Matthew 18)
  2. Elders should not be quick to appoint any person to ministry. (1 Timothy 5:22,24-25)
  3. Elders must realize they are caring for God's flock, not their own. (1 Peter 5:2)
  4. They are to lead out of eagerness to serve, not out of obligation. (1 Peter 5:2)
  5. Elders are concerned for what they can give, not for what they can get. (1 Peter 5:2)
  6. They lead by example, not force. (1 Peter 5: 3)
  7. Elder are to mediate great (not little) debates. (Acts 15:2)
  8. They are to guard themselves and all of the church members. (Acts 20:28)
  9. They are managers of the church. (Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 5:17)
  10. Elders are to care and tend to the physical and spiritual needs of people. (Acts 20:28; James 5:14)
Treatment and Caring for Elders
  1. Pay your elders well, a high wage. (1 Timothy 5:17-18)
  2. Don't give attention to accusations brought up against elders unless it's been brought up by 2 or more. (1 Timothy 5:19; this goes along with Matthew 18)
  3. Young men don't be prideful and think you know better than the elders. (1 Peter 5:5)
After Thought: What About Deacon Boards?
Are deacon 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 finances, must first be approved by the deacons.


Rick Lawrenson said...

So if a church does not have elders and/or deacons is that church unbiblical?

If yes, does that then mean God is less likely to be part of what they are doing?

TerryKM said...

Those are definitely two questions I don't think churches today are even considering.

And I have a feeling you know the answers already, since you're the veteran and. . .well I'm not.

Is a church without elders and/or deacons unbiblical? Yes and no. A church without biblical leadership (elder(s)), yes it's unbiblical. A church without deacons, no it's not unbiblical. You need elders and you need servant-hearted people to carry the work of the church. Those servant-hearted people do not necessarily have to be deacons.

Does an unbiblical church mean God is less likely to be a part of what they're doing? I have no hesitation in saying yes. God will bless whom He will bless, but it goes against His character for Him to bless those who desire to govern themselves in their own way and refuse to follow Him.

Churches today trust in democracy and committees to govern their churches more than God's own Spirit within the believer and the church.

God says to trust in the Him with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3:5-6)