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Elders, Deacons and the Church

Part 1

By Mike Mazzalongo     Posted: Wed. Nov 7th 2018
In this lesson, Mike reviews the attitude that the church should have towards their leaders, and begins explaining the role and qualifications for those who want to serve as deacons.

In our last lesson we looked at the role of the leaders in the church. Mature married men, experienced Christians with virtuous characters who are focused on spiritual things and not worldly things.

We examined what we called these men: 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, growth.
  • Minister to the weak and the sick.

Finally we touched on how these men come into their positions of leadership: they are trained and appointed by a missionary or an evangelist or by other elders when there are some already appointed.

Today we are going to study what responsibility the church has in response to the 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 scriptures that deal with this very subject. How are we 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 being thankful. The point is more to "know" their work. Realize what it is they are doing on your behalf. This will naturally lead to appreciation, to value their work.
  • To esteem or consider them highly does not mean "in reverence" (bowing, kissing the ring). It means respect them for what they do, not just for the special role that God has given them.
  • Note two things:
    • They oversee, they have charge, they are responsible in the Lord. God gives them authority.
    • Paul refers to more than one - always a plurality in church leadership.
  • How are esteem and respect in love demonstrated? With kindness, cooperation, encouragement.
  • Respect also includes the idea that we realize that they are human, like us, but have a great task to do so we need to be careful not to criticize unjustly - even elders need God's grace and the church's patience at times.

And so, in a word: respect is the first response of the church towards 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
  • Submit to their teachings in Christ.
  • As individuals with free will, we still retain individual responsibilities for knowing and following the truth.
  • The main task of elders is to maintain and teach the truth of Scriptures.
  • If a church leader accurately teaches the Bible, we are bound to obey.
    • First, because it is God's truth we are hearing.
    • Secondly because God's legitimate church leader is the one teaching or preaching this Word to us.
  • Of course, obedience and submission are conditional on the fact that they are leading according to the Spirit and the Word of God.
  • And leaders have to lead because God will hold them accountable for the church.
  • The writer also adds a word of warning not to make a leader's life difficult (by disobedience, laziness, indifference, rebellion) because those who do will be punished.

Leaders have a responsibility to lead, 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 in an actual manner when we pray for our leaders.
  • Also we 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 what it has produced in their lives (the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, etc. - Galatians 5).
  • Imitate what they have done in faith in order to produce the same in your own lives.
  • Imitation is a key principle in the Christian life and in the Bible.
  • It is the system we use to learn and to grow.
  • We learn and grow by observing and imitating all of the examples God has left for us for this very purpose.

Elders are usually the first ones we see and observe to help us know what we want to become.

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 concerning leaders and members, or the leaders do not act appropriately. Paul touches on this in Timothy.

  1. No gossiping. It is easy to get together and criticize our leaders but this does no good to them or to the church.
  2. If there is a true problem, a true sin, a true offense, let it be done by at least two individuals who can be witnesses. It has to be a sin or an offense, not just something you do not like.
  3. Try to bring it to his attention, if no repentance, bring the matter before the church. This also warns others about sinning.
  4. Do not favor one man over another. Treat all with respect; rebuke and discipline all who sin.
  5. 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 ware weak and sinful so there has to be a mechanism to correct them or to remove them if they are not fit to lead. Paul explains what that is in this brief passage.

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

Honor Them

  • In the early church, the evangelists went from place to place establishing churches, teaching and preaching at ones that were already established, preaching publicly from place to place.
  • The elders, bishops, pastors were the men who led in the local churches as permanent members who remained with the same church.
  • 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 like 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.

Summary

  • Some questions that come up about elders are: "How long can they hold their position? Do they have to retire at a certain age? Should the church review their work and renew them every year?"
  • The Bible gives no information here.
  • It gives us the qualifications and the work to be done as well as the response of the church.

So as long as a man remains qualified and continues to do the work, 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

Let's look at the word "deacon" and see if it reveals some information about who this person is.

  • Although the idea of service and example of serving is prevalent throughout the New Testament, the word deacon in reference to a person only appears five times, used by Paul, mostly in one letter.
  • There is one other instance where there is reference to particular service that could be referred to as "deacon's" work without using the pronoun for deacon but uses the verb and noun derived from this word is in Acts 6.
  • Now the Greek word in the New Testament that is transliterated into the English word "deacon" literally means "waiter."
  • Some words were translated into other languages.
    • (e.g. the Greek word homologeo is translated into English "to declare" and is neither spelled nor sound alike at all).
  • Some words were transliterated, meaning that a word was made up in the new language to represent the one in the original, usually one that was spelled or sounded similar.
    • (The most common example is the Greek word baptizo which translated means to dip or to immerse or wash in water. This word was transliterated into the English word baptize, a new word in English to represent the word in Greek that was spelled and sounded similar).
    • In the same way, the Greek word diakonos translated meant servant or waiter in English. It was transliterated into the word deacon in Biblical texts.
  • 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 to refer to those who served.
  1. Doulos
    - 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.
  2. Pais
    - Youth or the children of slaves, or a youthful slave.
  3. Oiketes
    - A household servant (today we would say a butler or a maid).
  4. Latrevo
    - A hired servant or worker for hire.
  5. Hupereteo
    - A manual laborer, tradesman, seaman.
  6. Leitourgos
    - A public servant, priestly service, a minister.
  7. Diakonos
    - meant to wait upon, to be an attendant, to render service, to minister.

Now, a 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 service in the church in general, and the special servants called deacons in particular.

Words in any language go through changes in meanings and it is no different in the Greek language.

  • The work 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 also 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 art of service.

When Jesus came, He elevated what was common (servant-hood) to a new level making it a defining mark of discipleship and identification with Himself (contrary to social custom 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 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 the particular need, their special qualifications, the blessing of the elders, were appointed to a specific ministry in the church.
  • With time, the word diakonos/deacon referring to the person 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).
    • They did not use doulos/pais/oiketes/latrevo/hupereteo/leitourgos... they used diakonos.

Like many other words that had multiple meanings (I.e.: apostle/messenger [Barnabas - Acts 14:14] sent by an official or THE Apostle or messenger sent specifically by Christ [Matthew 10:2], the word diakonos or deacon 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 fulfill, the blessing of the elders, serve 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 referred to 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

Paul describes specific roles for specific people here in the church. These people receive these "offices" or "ministries" based on the abilities God gave them; their spiritual qualifications; the blessing of the church leadership and each of these is explained further in other parts of the New Testament.

But each of these roles is 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 predict the future and 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 or preachers or missionaries.
  • We should all provide leadership and be an example of 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 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 specific ministry. Again, that depends on context.

Summary

In our next lesson we will look at the qualifications of deacons and also tackle the question, "Can women serve as deacons?" There are many opinions about this and we will see what the letter of Timothy says about this.

One last question for today: What is the essential difference between between elders and deacons?

  • Many of the qualifications are the same.
  • Both serve the church.
  1. Authority - Elders are given authority to lead the congregation (to oversee) and deacons are not.
  2. Ministry - Elders serve primarily by teaching and giving direction; deacons serve in carrying out tasks.
  3. Appointed - Elders are appointed by evangelists, deacons selected by the church and confirmed by the elders and the evangelist.

"Excellent resources for Bible class teachers, preachers and students."


Chris Hill
Minister, Luther Church of Christ