All of my Southern Baptist life, each church where I have been a member had a staff of pastoral/leadership and a body of deacons. Church members served as bible study teachers and served in other areas of ministerial needs such as church-wide events, within the prayer ministry, homebound ministry, and evangelising. Other than the staff, the only area of “office” / leadership were the deacons. I also thought, (I can’t recall being taught anything any differently), that the position of “elders” was for other denominations – such as Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Methodist, and Presbyterian.
However, just in past 3-4 years, as Rip and I have been learning from the expositional preaching of several theologians, began to understand God’s instructions for the life of His church having both offices – a body of elders and a body of deacons. We are now members of a church where both elders and deacons are shepherding and serving in these offices, occupied by godly men within the church. So, let’s look at what the Bible says about this biblical pattern of church leadership.
The Lord was very clear in His Word about how He desires His church on earth to be organized and managed.
Second, the local church is to be free from any external authority or control, with the right of self-government and freedom from the interference of any hierarchy of individuals or organizations (Titus 1:5).
Third, the church is to be governed by spiritual leadership consisting of two main offices—elders and deacons.
1. First, the office of elders serve their people by leading, teaching, praying, counseling, etc.
“Elders” were a leading body among the Israelites since the time of Moses. We find them making political decisions (2 Samuel 5:3; 2 Samuel 17:4, 15), advising the king in later history (1 Kings 20:7), and representing the people concerning spiritual matters (Exodus 7:17; 24:1, 9; Numbers 11:16, 24-25).
The early Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, used the Greek word presbuteros for “elder.” This is the same Greek word used in the New Testament that is also translated “elder.”
The New Testament refers a number of times to elders who served in the role of church leadership (Acts 14:23, 15:2, 20:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14) and apparently each church had more than one, as the word is usually found in the plural. In the Jerusalem church, elders were part of the leadership along with the apostles (Acts 15:2-16:4).
It seems that the position of elder was equal to the position of episkopos, translated “overseer” or “bishop” (Acts 11:30; 1 Timothy 5:17). The term elder may refer to the dignity of the office, while the term bishop/overseer describes its authority and duties (1 Peter 2:25, 5:1-4). In Philippians 1:1, Paul greets the bishops and deacons but does not mention the elders, because the elders are the same as the bishops. Likewise, 1 Timothy 3:2, 8 gives the qualifications of bishops and deacons but not of elders. Titus 1:5-7 seems also to tie these two terms together. *GotQuestions
The following verses illustrate how the terms overlap and are used interchangeably:
In Acts 20:17–35, Paul is speaking to leaders from the Ephesian church. They are called “elders” in verse 17. Then in verse 28 he says, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God.” Here the elders are called “overseers” and their pastoral/shepherding duties are implied as the church is called the “flock.”
In Titus 1:5–9, Paul gives the qualifications of elders (verse 5) and says these qualifications are necessary because “an overseer must be above reproach” (verse 7). In 1 Timothy 3:1–7, Paul gives the qualifications for overseers, which are essentially the same as the qualifications for elders in Titus. In 1 Peter 5:1–4, Peter tells the elders to “shepherd the flock of God.” From these passages, we see that the office of elder/pastor-shepherd/overseer-bishop is one. Those who occupy this office are to lead, teach, and watch over the church like a shepherd.
It would seem from the above passages that there was always a “plurality” of elders (a body of elders), but this does not nullify God’s gifting particular elders with the teaching gifts while gifting others with the gift of administration, prayer, etc. (Romans 12:3-8; Ephesians 4:11). Nor does it invalidate God’s calling them into a ministry in which they will use those gifts (Acts 13:1). One elder may emerge as the “pastor,” another may do the majority of visiting members because he has the gift of compassion, while another may “rule” in the sense of handling the organizational details.
Some churches that are organized with a pastor and deacon board performing the functions of a body of elders in that they share the ministry load and work together in some decision making. In Scripture there was also much congregational input into decisions. A “dictator” leader who makes the decisions (whether called elder, or bishop, or pastor) is unscriptural (Acts 1:23, 26; 6:3, 5; 15:22, 30; 2 Corinthians 8:19). So, too, is a congregation-ruled church that does not give much weight to the elders’ or church leaders’ input.
The Bible teaches: A church leadership consisting of a body of elders (bishops/overseers) along with a group of deacons who serve the church. But it is not contrary to this body of elders to have one of the elders serving in the major “pastoral” role. God calls some as “pastor/teachers” (even as He called some to be missionaries in Acts 13) and gives them as gifts to the church (Ephesians 4:11). A church may have many elders, but not all elders are called to teach and preach (1 Timothy 5:17). But, as one of the elders, the pastor or “teaching elder” has no more authority in decision-making than does any other elder. We also see that every church has elders to rule/govern and teach (1 Timothy 5:17). The biblical pattern is that a group of men (and elders are always men) is responsible for the spiritual leadership and ministry of the church. There is no mention of a church with a single elder/pastor who is in charge of everything, nor is there any mention of congregational rule (although the congregation plays a part).
2. The office of deacon focuses on the more physical needs of the church.
While the elders are responsible for teaching and leading the flock, there is still much that needs to be done on the physical level. In Acts 6, the church in Jerusalem was meeting the physical needs of many people in the church by distributing food. Some of the widows came to the apostles because they were not getting what they needed. The apostles responded, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2). To relieve the apostles, the people were told “pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3–4). Although the men chosen here are not called deacons, most Bible scholars see them as the first deacons, or at least prototypical of the position. The word deacon simply means “servant.”
Deacons are appointed church officials who minister to the more physical needs of the church, relieving the elders to attend to more spiritual ministry.
Deacons are to be spiritually fit, and the qualifications of deacons are given in 1 Timothy 3:8–13. The office of deacon was developed to deal with a practical issue in the church: “So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables’” (Acts 6:2). The word translated “wait on” is the Greek word diakonein, which comes from a word meaning “attendant, waiter, or one who ministers to another.” To “deacon” is to serve. The first deacons were a group of seven men in the Jerusalem church who were appointed to work in the daily food distribution. A deacon, therefore, is one who serves others in an official capacity in the church.
The qualifications of a deacon are similar to those of a bishop/elder/pastor. “In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons. In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything. A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 3:8–13).
The position of “deacon,” from diakonos, meaning “through the dirt,” was one of servant leadership to the church. Deacons are separate from elders, while having qualifications that are in many ways similar to those of elders (1 Timothy 3:8-13). Deacons assist the church in whatever is needed, as recorded in Acts chapter 6.
Just To Be Clear…
The basic pattern found in the New Testament is that every church should have a plurality of godly male elders who are responsible for leading and teaching the church and godly deacons who are responsible for facilitating the more physical aspects of church ministry. As long as this basic pattern is followed, the church is operating according to the biblical pattern. Having a sole pastor who controls the church is not the biblical pattern, and neither is an arrangement in which the pastor works for the deacons who really run the church. The congregation is to follow the leading of the shepherds who follow Christ; and not the shepherds following the leading of the congregation.
In their wisdom, the elders may request congregational approval of major decisions, but the congregation should not be the final authority. The buck stops with the elders/pastors/overseers, who answer to Christ.
These qualifications are simple and straightforward. Both the deacon and the bishop/elder/pastor should be a male, the husband of one wife, of sterling character, and one who rules his own home in a biblical way. These qualifications also presuppose that one seeking such an office is a born-again believer and walks in submission to God’s Word. The only substantial difference between the two sets of qualifications is that the bishop/elder/pastor must be “able to teach,” whereas teaching is not mentioned as necessary for deacons.
Elders lead and deacons serve. These categories are not mutually exclusive. Elders serve their people by leading, teaching, praying, counseling, etc.; and deacons may lead others in service. In fact, deacons might be the leaders of service teams within the church. Still, there is the basic distinction between those responsible for spiritual leadership of the church and those responsible for service.
So, where does the congregation fit into the pattern of church leadership?
In Acts 6, it was the congregation who chose the deacons – so many churches today will have the congregation nominate and agree to the deacons of the church. And, of course, the members of the congregation are to be the primary evangelists reaching out to a lost world. The idea that the congregation hires professional ministers to do the work of the church is unbiblical.
If your church does not have both a body of elders and a body of deacons, maybe prayerfully consider sharing with the church leadership these helpful resources:
** Feature Image is from one of Rip and Tucker’s hunting trips