Elders and Deacons

You Can Listen to This Sermon Here.

1 Timothy 3:1-13 This saying is trustworthy: “If anyone aspires to be an overseer, he desires a noble work.” An overseer, therefore, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, self-controlled, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an able teacher, not addicted to wine, not a bully but gentle, not quarrelsome, not greedy – one who manages his own household competently, having his children under control with all dignity. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a new convert, or he might become conceited and fall into the condemnation of the Devil. Furthermore, he must have a good reputation among outsiders, so that he does not fall into disgrace and the Devil’s trap.

Deacons, likewise, should be worthy of respect, not hypocritical, not drinking a lot of wine, not greedy for money, holding the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And they must also be tested first; if they prove blameless, then they can serve as deacons. Wives, too, must be worthy of respect, not slanderers, self-controlled, faithful in everything. Deacons must be husbands of one wife, managing their children and their own households competently. For those who have served well as deacons acquire a good standing for themselves, and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

Paul begins and ends this passage with commendations for those who aspire to serve as elders or has served well as deacons; it is a privilege to serve in either role. He describes these two roles within the local fellowship of saints, both having very similar qualifications, but very different roles (which are explained elsewhere in Scripture). Both are described as servants with responsibility, not rulers with authority. The Bible has authority in the church; the men do not.

The Apostles, forerunner of church elders, were to devote themselves to prayer and the preaching of the Word; deacons are to tend to the physical needs of the dynamic and diverse body of Christ. In Acts 6 the people did not vote for who would serve as deacons; they nominated seven godly men to the Apostles, who appointed the men to serve. This passage does not show a democracy in action as many Baptists falsely believe. It shows the active participation of the members, recognizing the role of those God had appointed to lead them. As the church matured, the Scripture shows us that elders had oversight on all the church did and deacons provided much more service than “waiting tables.” As there are spiritual issues behind every temporal matter a deacon might be called upon to help with, these men must be qualified and there must be a good rapport between the deacons and elders, so the body of Christ gets the best care possible.

Deacon. The Greek (diaconos) and English words refer both to one who serves the local church in this capacity as well as those who are simply known for being servants to the body of Christ. Deacons are not required to be spiritual guides, feeders of the flock, or teachers; they are required to be trustworthy and of moral character as they deal with matters of temporal importance and the related spiritual foundations. The health of the church depends on deacons functioning well, which requires the cooperation of the elders and the people. It is painfully apparent that many of us have lost sight of the completeness of the wisdom our Lord has provided us and the reason for it. How we serve Him and one another is be to the glory of His name and the good of His people.

Robert Boyt C. Howell laments “much confusion and division of sentiment regarding the nature of the office”; and he points out how so many miss the Scriptural teachings that describe the role of those who hold the office of deacon.

Nearly all the churches have made them ministers of the gospel. In the Roman Catholic church he is an inferior ecclesiastic, the second in the sacred order, who, with the permission of the bishop, has authority to preach and baptize. In the English church the Deacons are clergymen, but of the lowest grade; who can perform all the offices of priests, except the consecration of the sacred elements and the pronouncing of the absolution. In the German Protestant churches, when more ministers than one in the same congregation are necessary, the second, or assistant minister, is called the Deacon; and if there are two assistants the first is called the Arch-Deacon. In the Presbyterian church, the office is commonly merged with that of ruling elder, and, therefore, mostly disused. Where it is still retained, it embraces, as among Congregationalists and others, merely the distribution of alms. The Methodist and Episcopal churches in this country adopt, substantially, the practice of the English church, of which they are descendants. In the Baptist churches, the Deacons are not ministers who preach, on the one hand, nor mere distributors of alms on the other, but serve in a different capacity. They are a board of directors, and have charge of all the secular affairs in the kingdom of Christ

It is not unusual for Baptist deacons to have hire & fire authority over elders (a corollary error in this circumstance is the absence of a plurality of elders). In the end, nobody escapes unscathed! This all-too-common Baptist practice is blatantly taken from the modern business world, and puts the lower office of deacon as overseers of those called of God to be overseers, turning Scripture on its head.

We need to ask, is the Bible so unclear on the nature and duties of the office of deacon? Brothers, this is not the case! It is sin that keeps God’s people from seeing clearly, not a lack of clarity in God’s Holy Word. We must abide by what the Book reveals, and guard against traditions not found therein. If Scripture is not our guide, we are adrift on the sea of man’s wisdom; and that is dangerous.

The qualifications of deacons differ from those of elders on the single requirement of elders, but not deacons, being able to teach the Word of God. Deacons are to be men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit, holding the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. These bedrock character traits often neglected when selecting deacons, as people focus on the man’s record of financial giving, business acumen, and abstinence from alcohol. While those traits can be easily measured, they cannot be found in the Bible as qualification for this office. The traits found in Scripture are not so easily quantified. It takes serious thought and hard work to determine if a man has a good reputation among his neighbors and work colleagues. It takes time and discernment to see if there be evidence of the Holy Spirit in a man. Who wants to put a man on the spot and see if he holds the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience? Can you even explain this requirement, much less investigate it? Installing men to serve the local church as deacons is sober work, not to be taken lightly or without serious prayer and reflection.

A deacon must be the husband of one wife. The literal meaning of the text is “a one woman man” – which means that if there was a biblical divorce and subsequent marriage, the man is not disqualified. If one holds that no divorce is biblical, the on-going sin in a second marriage becomes an on-going problem within the body. I see 2 reasons in Scripture wherein YHWH permits divorce, for unrepentant adultery or for abandonment by an unbelieving spouse. The goal of marriage is for each to last until death parts the couple. But even redeemed saints can fall into sin and be stiff-necked for a season; and the One Who knows our frailty has provided a narrow window – much narrower than in the Mosaic Covenant.

The requirement that deacons be tested first gives us a hint that we should invest the time and energy in examining would-be deacons; and not merely assuming these traits be theirs. This testing also provides the opportunity to see if his wife is sober minded and faithful, if his children are “managed well”. We must exercise the full measure of the biblical text to prove the men who would serve as deacons; they are care-takers of God’s sheep and co-laborers with His under-shepherds. This is a high calling (those who serve well gain a good standing) and we cannot allow our lazy human minds to rest on our own wisdom, or the taking of shortcuts or reliance on the traditions handed to us by other men. Finding men who tithe and do not frequent bars is wrong-headed and too low a bar for the office our Lord established for the temporal care of His redeemed.

As we desire our men to provide for their families, spiritually as well as physically, our deacons are to help families in each arena, with boundaries in both. Neither the church nor either office therein can unreasonably meddle with a family. God has established three spheres in this age, with specific roles and limits. It’s been said that to the state God gave the sword, to the church He gave the keys to the kingdom, and to the family He gave the rod of correction. We should not cross these boundaries without a clear biblical basis. Wisdom and care is needed if we are to tend to God’s people without ruling over them as “Gentiles” tend to do.

Healthy church members let their deacons know ahead of time when they will miss, and explain why. They will be more inclined to assemble with another local body while away if they properly understand church membership. This exercise of membership responsibilities is representative of any number of other earthly matters that deacons are likely to get involved with, each of which most often reflects the spiritual condition of the person. Lack of attendance and interest in church life, neglecting to worship in giving money, and many other concerns can be prompted by earthly things: illness, loss of work, death in the family, etc. In order to be wise stewards of the office, deacons must not presume to know the cause without investigating it, learning from Job who investigated the cause of what he did not know (Job 29:16). This keeps us from the sin of presumption and all that tends to follow closely behind.

As we examine men who would and do serve in our churches as deacons; as we consider how we determine the role of the office and how we select these men, let us humbly petition our God for wisdom and grace to do what is right in His sight – aligned with His scriptures and not resting on our own wisdom.

Elder. This role can only be fulfilled by a qualified man who is called and equipped by God for this service. There is no possible interpretation that allows self-identified or unconverted men, or women to serve in this capacity; and yet many churches do just this. This latter error is always the first big step to total apostasy for a church, preferring fallen man’s view of order over creator God’s declared view.

As mentioned earlier, the only different qualification for this role is that an elder must be able to teach. In our English Bibles we see the words Elder/Presbyter, Overseer/Bishop, Shepherd/Pastor. Each pair of these words comes from one Greek word; Elder/Presbyter is from presbyteros; Overseer/Bishop from episkope; and Shepherd/Pastor from poimen. They are used interchangeably and they all refer to a single office in the church which has several important functions, each of which is designed by the Lord to insure the health of each local church. The terms elder and presbyter refer to a man’s experience; in the Word and in the church. Overseer and bishop convey the act of being a spiritual guardian or protector, while pastor and shepherd refer to the spiritual care and feeding of God’s flock. We see overlap among these three functions in 1 Peter 5:1-5, where elders are exhorted by the Apostle Peter to shepherd God’s people with the right motive and attitude, serving as examples for the less mature Christians. In Acts 20:28, elders are instructed by the Apostle Paul to pay careful attention to themselves and the flock of God, in which the Holy Spirit made you overseers, to care for the church. One aspect of being a faithful elder that is implicit in these passages is that of being among the saints, knowing them as a shepherd knows his flock and being known as the shepherd is by the sheep. A man who does not live among his church members, who lives at a higher station of life, who spends all his time with other preachers is not faithful to his call. The elder must be an able teacher of the Word (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 3:1-8) and a diligent servant of God’s people (1 Timothy 5:17 & 18).  He must also be able and willing to rebuke those who contradict the Word of God within the local church (Titus 1:7-9), and he must be about training others to work alongside him as under-shepherds of Christ (2 Timothy 2:1-3). One who would hold this office must lead the church, serving as a proper example (2 Thessalonians 2:11 & 12; 2 Timothy 2:15), and the saints are commanded to submit to them, not being burdensome for them (Hebrews 13:17). Elders were given to the church, by God, to equip the saints for the work of the church, bringing them to maturity and the fullness of Christ so they would not be vulnerable to the deceptive schemes of the enemy (Ephesians 4:11-14). This means the biblical elder must feed God’s sheep the whole counsel of His Word, not trusting his opinion or theirs as to what is true nor picking some Scriptures from which to teach and ignoring others. His teaching is to be tested in light of Scripture; not accepted nor rejected by personal whimsy or blind friendship. All of these responsibilities of elders are beyond any man’s abilities, so the Bible reminds us that elders, like the Apostles who preceded them, must be men of prayer (Acts 6:4).

There is another requirement of the man who would serve as an elder. While some read 1 Timothy 3:2 to mean a single man cannot serve as an elder, the view most compatible with Scripture is that an elder who is married must be in a biblical marriage and work at keeping it. Elders must be one-woman men, and they must lead their churches to defend marriage in the face of reprobates. 1 Timothy 3 goes on to say the elder must be sober minded and not quarrelsome; all the more so in defending God’s people from unrighteous men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth (Romans 1:18).

Being God’s spokesman is no job for a new convert, one who is unsure of God’s Word, unwilling to proclaim God’s Word, unable to rebuke those who contradict God’s Word, or unworthy of being followed as God’s servant. The times in which we live are treacherous, with many professing Christians embracing abominable sin in order to be well thought of by those outside the camp of Christ. Christians are never to compromise God’s truth for the applause of men (Galatians 1:10) and elders must be held to a high standard so that the Lord’s name not be disgraced among the pagans and the local church not be led astray.

Ezekiel 33 & 34 describes watchman appointed by God with responsibilities to warn, guard, and care for the people of God. In these two chapters we see a contrast of the watchman with the shepherd: the watchman warns, the shepherd tends. In each passage, unfaithful watchmen and shepherds are contrasted with those who are faithful. Ezekiel 34:1-10 describes the failures of the leaders of Israel, showing what shepherds are supposed to fulfill. Shepherds are supposed to care for the flock. These men were feeding on the sheep; fleecing the sheep. These men had all the appearance of shepherds, but they were wolves. Pastoral ministry is hard work, not glamorous. Those who pose as celebrities, living the high life, are not pastors. Pastors should smell like sheep, walking in the mud and mess, scarred by the teeth of biting sheep. This is difficult but rewarding work. Every man should aspire to be a commendable man who leads his family as a shepherd leads the flock. He must diagnose and treat appropriately – you don’t strengthen the stray, you strengthen the weak; you don’t bind up the lost – you search for the lost. Each spiritual condition requires the correct spiritual remedy. The pastor must know illnesses and the people, else he cannot properly treat the sheep. Verse 10 in Ezekiel 34 shows the omnipotent hand of God rescuing His sheep from the teeth of the wolves. A true pastor will watch the flock like a man who must give an account to the God who has purchased the sheep with the blood of His own son. Because that is what God’s Word tells us the truth about those who would call themselves “pastor”.

Even with the best of intentions, we can go astray from the narrow path of biblical truth. Over time, man has developed unbiblical structures, imagining that Bishop is more honorific and must carry more responsibility (by which they mean fame). Most men who preach call themselves “pastor” regardless of whether they shepherd the flock God has gathered there or not. One who preaches but does not work to know and care for the saints the Lord has put under his watch cannot rightly call himself pastor; he is merely a preacher. These words are not titles by which the men who serve are to be called, but descriptions of service they provide within the local church. Because God has given these terms to describe the roles of men He calls to the office, we must be careful to use them correctly.

Plurality of elders. Most churches in every denomination and across the spectrum of Baptists miss the point of Scripture on this point. The Bible repeatedly shows us that even the early churches that met in houses had two or more men serving as elders, a plurality of elders.

Acts 14:22&23 – Paul and Barnabas had traveled to Antioch, Derbe, Iconium, & Lystra, where they strengthened the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

Acts 20:17 – Paul passed by Ephesus to Miletus. Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.

James – Was written to the churches resulting from Saul’s scattering of the saints (1:1), this letter shows elders in the local church (5:14).

Philippians is addressed (1:1) to overseers (elders) and deacons in that church, in addition to the entire congregation.

Hebrews recognizes leaders (elders) in that congregation (13:7, 17, 24).

1 Tim – Timothy was recognized by the elders of his church for his calling as an elder (1 Tim 4:14) and a plurality of elders is seen again in 5:17.

In large and small fellowships, having only one elder can lead to a kind of “cult of personality” as a solitary man is seen as the public face and voice of that church. One man alone, coping with a job, his family, and the ministry is vulnerable to being drawn aside by pragmatism in what may start as an innocent desire to do all things well and unto the Lord but which soon go astray. If the saints YHWH has gathered and gifted in the local church (1 Corinthians 12:4-11) are encouraged to serve the body, those serving as elders and deacons will have a much lighter load and the local church will marvel to see the Lord working in their midst!

Having two or more men who preach and teach provides several benefits, in addition to aligning with the examples and teachings from Scripture (Acts 11:27-30; 14:21-23; 20:7; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; et. al.). Two or more men can sharpen one another and hold each other accountable, while the church sees the true Shepherd more clearly when they see Him work through more than one man. The church will see strengths and weaknesses in each man and those men will have the opportunity to be examples of how to serve in unity without letting egos derail the ministry. As they seek to identify others and train them for this service, more men will have opportunity to serve the saints in myriad ways. This is part of life in the body of Christ that is vital and often undervalued. It is not, as one man said to me, a matter of money. It’s a matter of caring for the people of God as He has shown us.

Baptists used to be known as “people of the Book.” This topic of deacons and elders is one where many Baptists discard the Book and cling to traditions handed down by men. Brothers, this should not be so! We are servants with responsibility. The Bible is our only authority for life and godliness. We are to seek His will, revealed in Scripture, and not rely on our own wisdom or traditions.

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