Elders, Deacons and the Church
In the previous chapter we looked at the role of leaders in the church. They were to be mature married men who were experienced Christians with virtuous characters focused on spiritual, not worldly things.
We examined the terms by which these men were called and what these words meant: bishop (authority), elder (maturity), pastor (ministry).
We also reviewed the work of these leaders:
- Guard the flock against false teaching and false teachers.
- Promote unity, peace and growth.
- Minister to those who were weak spiritually and physically (sick).
Finally, we touched on how these men were chosen for their leadership positions: they were trained and appointed by a missionary, evangelist or by other elders in churches where leaders were already in place.
In the present section we will review the responsibility the church has in response to its leaders and follow up by looking at another group of servants in the church referred to as "deacons."
Response of the Church to the Leaders
There are several passages that deal with the question of how to treat those who lead or minister in the church.
12But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, 13and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another.
- I Thessalonians 5:12-13
- To appreciate their work does not simply mean to be thankful. The point Paul is making is that the church should be aware of the work that elders perform on behalf of the congregation. The brethren should realize what, exactly, the elders are doing specifically for them. This knowledge will naturally lead to appreciation and a greater valuation of the elders' service. To esteem or consider them highly does not mean "in reverence" (bowing down, kissing the ring). It means that the congregation respects them for what they do, not just for the special role that God has given them.
- Note two things Paul mentions about the elders:
- They oversee, have charge and are responsible in the Lord. God gives them real authority in the local church.
- Paul refers to more than one elder since there is always a plurality of men in church leadership.
- They oversee, have charge and are responsible in the Lord. God gives them real authority in the local church.
- How are esteem and respect in love demonstrated? The Apostle says that the congregation shows its esteem and respect by responding to the elders with kindness, cooperation and encouragement. Respect also includes the idea that we realize that these men are human, like us, and have a great task to do so we need to be careful not to criticize them unjustly since elders need God's grace and the church's patience at times.
Respect, therefore, is the first response of the church towards its leaders.
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
The church must also submit to their teachings in Christ. As individuals with free will we still have the responsibility for knowing and following the truth. The main task of elders, therefore, is to maintain and teach the truth of the Scriptures to the church that submits to their teaching willingly and respectfully.
- If a church leader accurately teaches the Bible, we are bound to obey.
- First, because it is God's truth we are hearing.
- Second, because God's legitimate church leader is the one teaching or preaching this Word to us.
Of course, obedience and respect are given on the condition that they are leading according to the Spirit and the word of God because the Lord will hold them accountable for the church. The writer also adds a word of warning to the church not to make a leader's life difficult (by disobedience, laziness, indifference, rebellion, etc.) because those who do so will be punished.
Leaders have a responsibility to lead and the church has a responsibility to follow when that leadership is in Christ.
Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.
- Hebrews 13:7
A. Remember Them
- This is done when we pray for our leaders.
- We also remember them by implementing their teachings.
- Obedience, attention and submission are passive forms of respect.
- Prayer and implementation of their teachings in our lives are active forms of respect.
B. Imitate Them
- Look at their lives (their conduct) and see the fruit they have produced (the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, etc. - Galatians 5).
- Imitate what they have done in order to produce the same in your own life.
- Imitation is the system Christians use to learn and to grow.
- We imitate God in Christ - Ephesians 5:1-2
- We imitate the Apostles - I Corinthians 11:1
- We imitate the elders/leaders in the church - Hebrews 13:7
- We imitate other churches - I Thessalonians 2:13
- We learn and grow by observing and imitating the various examples that God has given us for this very purpose.
Elders are usually the first ones we observe in order to help us reach our full potential in Christ.
19Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. 20Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. 21I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality. 22Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin.
- I Timothy 5:19-22
Hold Them Accountable
Sometimes there are conflicts between leaders and members, or the leaders do not act appropriately. Paul touches on this in his letter to Timothy:
- No gossiping. It is easy to get together and criticize our leaders, but this does not profit them or the church.
- If there is a true problem, sin or offense, let at least two individuals approach the elder in question. It has to be a sin or an offense, not just something you do not like or disagree with.
- Try to bring the matter to his attention. If there is no repentance, bring the matter before the church. This approach also serves as a warning to others that sin will be dealt with, no matter who in the church is guilty of it. Do not favor one man over another. Treat all with respect and discipline all who sin.
- Do not put a man in a leadership position too quickly. If he is not ready, he will fall and those who put him there will share in the responsibility for the errors that he makes because of inexperience.
Elders are ordinary men who are weak and sinful at times so there has to be a mechanism to correct or remove them if they are not fit to lead. Paul explains what that is in the brief passage we have just reviewed.
17The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. 18For the Scripture says, "You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing," and "The laborer is worthy of his wages."
- I Timothy 5:17-18
In the early church the evangelists went from place to place establishing churches or teaching and preaching at congregations that were already established.
The elders, bishops, pastors were the men who remained and led in the local churches. Paul encourages the church to highly value these men (double honor). Their hard work and great spiritual responsibilities were to be honored in the proper way just as an ox receives food for his work and a laborer receives his pay.
Leaders are worthy of double honor, the honor we give to all brothers and sisters in Christ as well as the additional honor due to those who lead well in the Lord's church.
- Here are some of the common questions asked when teaching about church leaders: "How long can they serve as elders? Do they have to retire at a certain age? Should the church review their work and renew them every year?" The Bible gives no specific answers to these questions. It only provides us with the qualifications and work to be done as well as the proper response of the church to these men.
- Based on the information we do have about elders, however, we can say that as long as a man remains qualified and continues to do the work properly, he can remain in leadership.
Word Study: Deacon/Deacons
8Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, 9but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach. 11Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things. 12Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households. 13For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
- I Timothy 3:8-13
Another role that is described in the Bible is that of the deacon. Let's look at the word "deacon" and see what it reveals concerning those who serve the church in this capacity.
- Although the idea and example of serving is prevalent throughout the New Testament, the word "deacon" in reference to a person only appears five times, is used by Paul and mostly in one letter. There is one other instance (Acts 6) where there is reference to particular service that could be referred to as "deacon's" work, but the text does not use the pronoun for deacon in reference to the person carrying out the service. Instead, they are referred to using the word that described the service they were rendering (i.e. instead of saying that the waiters were serving tables, the text says that the men were "waitering").
Most words in the New Testament were in the Greek language of the time and eventually translated into other languages including English. Some words, however, were not translated but transliterated, meaning that a word was made up in the new language to represent the one in the original (Greek), usually a word that was spelled or sounded similar:
- The most common example of this was the Greek word baptizo, when translated this word meant to dip, plunge or to immerse in water. The word baptizo, however, was transliterated into the word baptize, a new word in English created to represent the word in Greek that was spelled and sounded similar (baptizo - baptize).
- In the same way, the Greek word diakonos, when translated meant servant or waiter in English. It, however, was transliterated into the word deacon in biblical texts (diakonos - deacon).
There is a reason, however, why this particular word was chosen to describe this person and his ministry. There were several words in the Greek that referred to those who served:
- Referred to a slave taken in war or purchased.
- It was translated slave or bond-servant.
- The word emphasized the idea of subordination and forced or obligatory service without personal freedom.
- Youth or the children of slaves, or a youthful slave.
- A household servant (today we would say a butler or a maid).
- A hired servant or worker for hire.
- A manual laborer, tradesman, seaman.
- A public servant, priestly service, a minister.
- Meant to wait upon (waiter), to be an attendant, to render service, to minister.
A brief look at the history of this particular word (diakonos) will help us understand why the Bible writers chose to use it more than any other (and there are more than just these seven) to describe the general service rendered in the church and the special servants called "deacons" in particular.
Words in any language go through changes in meaning and it is no different for the Greek language.
- The word diakonos originally referred to the meal attendant (hence the idea of waiter) in Greek society. In this context it was also used to describe the one who prepared the food for cultist or religious meals and feasts. In Jewish life, there was a strong emphasis on the importance of food (ceremonial offerings as well as food restrictions because of religious conviction). The Jews had a sense of benevolence and it was custom to collect and distribute food among the poor, even in pre-Christian times, as an act of service.
When Jesus came, however, He elevated what was common (servanthood) to a new level, making it a defining mark of discipleship and identification with Himself (contrary to social custom of that time that saw service as demeaning).
- Philippians 2:7 ...but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. - Doulos
- Jesus injected the element of love into the act of service and re-cast what was a shameful thing in pagan society into a virtue for members of His church. In this sense we are all servants in the service of Christ.
In its initial stage, the first organized act of service in the church was the need to feed the Grecian widows in Jerusalem for which seven men were chosen. It is interesting to note that the words used in Acts 6 to describe the serving of these widows is the verb form of the word diakonos. The reason for this is that when it was food being served, distributed or managed, the word for serving or for the servant was diakonos or one of its forms.
The link, therefore, is here:
- When selecting a word that described the workers and the work done in loving service on behalf of the church by its members, the Apostles chose a word for "servant" that had always been connected with the personal, attentive and in some cases benevolent or loving service of food.
- With time the meaning of this word expanded to include two other things:
- All service done by Christians was loving service, for food or for anything else.
- Those special servants who by virtue of their special qualifications and the blessing of the elders, were appointed to a specific ministry in the church.
- With time, the word diakonos/deacon and all the words derived from this word referring to various kinds of service would be primarily used to describe church workers and church work (unlike the other words for service).
- For service in the church, therefore, they did not use the usual words for servants common at that time doulos/pais/oiketes/latrevo/hupereteo/leitourgos... they used the word diakonos.
Like many other words that had multiple meanings (e.g. apostle/messenger - someone sent by an official [Barnabas - Acts 14:14] or THE Apostle or messenger - someone specifically sent by Christ [Peter, James, John, etc. - Matthew 10:2]) the word diakonos or deacon, like the word Apostle, would have different meanings based on the context:
1. For example, any servant in the church rendering a service of some kind in Christ was a diakonos:
- Epaphras - " just as you learned it from Epaphras, our beloved fellow bond-servant, who is a faithful servant of Christ on our behalf," (Colossians 1:7)
- Phoebe - "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea;" (Romans 16:1)
2. The appointed servants who because of their qualifications, the ministry they fulfilled and the blessing of the elders, served as appointed servants in an office or ministry.
Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons:
- Philippians 1:1
- Bond-servants - Doulos = Apostles
- Saints - called out = all the saved
- Overseers - elders = appointed leaders
- Deacons - diakonos = appointed servants
The way to determine when the writers were describing a servant rendering a service or an appointed servant carrying out an office or a ministry was "CONTEXT."
11And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.
- Ephesians 4:11-13
Here, Paul describes specific roles for specific people in the church. These people received these "offices" or "ministries" based on the abilities given them by God, their spiritual qualifications and the blessing of the church leadership. We also note that each of these ministries was further explained in other parts of the New Testament.
However, each of these roles was defined in "context."
- All members of the church should prophesy (speak forth God's word) but only a few had, in those days, the ability and the anointing by the Spirit to prophecy concerning the future or speak directly from God.
- In today's church, all members are responsible to evangelize their homes and their community, but not all are called, qualified and sent by the elders as evangelists, preachers or missionaries.
- We should all provide leadership and be an example for our faith to the world but not every member is qualified and called to serve as an elder.
- Every member should learn and teach each other the word of God, but not all have the skill and the confirmation from the church leaders to teach classes on Bible subjects.
In the same way, we all serve the body as Christians in one way or another, but not all are qualified spiritually and technically to serve as appointed servants or deacons with a specific ministry or office. Paul does not describe this here in Ephesians 4 but he does so in I Timothy 3.
And so, the word deacon can mean any servant in the church, but most times it refers to those who have been selected by the church and appointed by the elders to carry out a specific ministry. Again, determining the exact meaning depends on the context of the passage where the words are located.
In the following chapter we will look at the qualifications of deacons and also address the issue of women serving as appointed deacons (deaconess) in the church. There are many opinions about this and we will see what Paul teaches Timothy on this matter.
One last question for this chapter: what is the essential difference between elders and deacons?
- Many of the qualifications are the same.
- Both serve the church.
- Both are men.
- Authority - Elders are given authority to lead the congregation (to oversee) and deacons are not.
- Ministry - Elders serve primarily by teaching and giving direction; deacons serve in carrying out tasks.
- Appointed - Elders are appointed by evangelists; deacons are selected by the church and confirmed by the elders.
- What ways should members of a congregation respond to leaders?
- What are some practical lessons we can learn about the role of elders that help us grow spiritually?
- What does the word "deacon" mean and how does it describe this role in the church?
- What is the history of the word "Diakonos" that we use today to describe a deacon?
- What are ways that the work of elders and deacons are similar and different?
- How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?