The Roles of Elders and Deacons in the Church
Minister, First Presbyterian Church of Gulfport, MS
According to the New Testament, there are two perpetual offices within the church: the elder (or overseer) and the deacon. In Philippians 1:1, for example, Paul writes to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons, thus indicating a distinction exists between overseers and deacons, on the one hand, and the rest of the saints of the congregation, on the other. This distinction is further reinforced in 1 Timothy 3, in the specific and detailed qualifications listed by Paul for elders (overseers) and deacons. Whereas elders and deacons are required to meet a high standard of Christian character and maturity, so called saints (i.e., believers) are not required to do so in Scripture. The only qualification that the Bible gives for Christians in general is that they make profession of their faith in Jesus Christ.
The elder n.b., in Scripture, overseer or bishop is used interchangeably with elder (see Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5, 7), the former two referring to the function of the office, the latter referring to the office itself is charged with shepherding the flock of God or, in other words, with those things that pertain to the spiritual oversight and care of the church of God. Pay careful attention, Paul says to the elders at Ephesus, to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which He obtained with His own blood (Acts 20:28). The word that Paul uses here to describe the work of elder is poimainein in the original Greek, which literally means to shepherd or to care for. The point is clear: just as a shepherd seeks to provide for the needs of the sheep under his care and to protect them from all forms of danger, so the elder seeks to provide for the spiritual needs of the congregation and to protect them from anything that would harm them spiritually.
Two passages help us better to understand just what is involved in the work of shepherding the congregation of God. The first is John 10, in which Jesus presents Himself as the Good Shepherd and the prototype for all under-shepherds that will follow:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:11-16)
The second passage is John 21:15-19:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these? He said to him, Yes, Lord; you know that I love you. He said to him, Feed my lambs. He said to him a second time, Simon, son of John, do you love me? He said to him, Yes, Lord; you know that I love you. He said to him, Tend my sheep. He said to him the third time, Simon, son of John, do you love me? Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, Do you love me? and he said to him, Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you. Jesus said to him, Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go. (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, Follow me.
These passages teach us at least five important truths about what it means to be a shepherd:
- The shepherd takes ownership of and responsibility for the flock over which he has been appointed (John 10:12), whereas the hired hand works for a paycheck. In life, there is a big difference in the quality of work, the initiative, the effort, and, ultimately, in the impact made by the one who has ownership and the one who has nothing invested. John tells us that the elder takes responsibility for the flock, because he has something invested; in a sense, he has been appointed by the Father to run the family business. But more than this, the text makes it plain that ownership leads primarily to protection (10:12). When danger comes and the wolf is on the prowl, the shepherd stands fast in his determination to protect the sheep from all threat. This is the main reason why the elder must be able to teach, as Paul explains in 1 Timothy 3:2 (cf. Titus 1:9). He must know sound doctrine and be able to distinguish it from what is false and then to communicate it either for instruction or for rebuke, because fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock,[even] from among your own selves, Paul says, there will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20:29-30, emphasis added). The elder is to provide this protection for the flock. As much as he is able, he is to guard against any and every corruption in doctrine and behavior, so that not even the smallest lamb falls prey to the wolf or to the prowling lion (1 Peter 5:8).
- The shepherd cares for the sheep over which he has been appointed (John 10:13; 21:15-17). Here again is yet another difference between the shepherd and the hired hand: the former cares for the sheep, while the latter cares more for himself and his own comfort. The shepherd feeds them and tends them; he looks after them and attends to their needs, because they are precious in the sight of God (21:15-17). But, in order to care for the flock, the shepherd must first know his sheep and be known by them as well (10:14). Unless he knows his sheep, he will not be able to provide what they need (because he will not know it). The shepherd will also not be able to protect the sheep unless he first knows when they are in danger. As the shepherd of the church of God, the elder must know the people, and he must care for them. He must know their struggles, their needs, their temptations, their weaknesses, and their susceptibilities, so that he can provide for them and protect them. But not only must he know his sheep, the elder-shepherd must also be known by them before he will be able to lead them. Sheep will not follow someone that they do not know (10:4-5). How is this knowing and being known to be accomplished? Paul tells us how in Acts 20:18-20: You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house. If the people do not know you and do not know you care for them, they will not follow after you; your leadership will be significantly limited.
- The shepherd sacrifices on behalf of the sheep (John 10:15); he lays down his life on their behalf. Quite obviously, this passage is explicitly referring to Jesus' own death on the cross for the sins of His people. But it is interesting that Jesus speaks in the same way about Peter in John 21. After calling Peter to serve as a shepherd of His people, Jesus says to Peter: you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go. And, then, so that we are sure not to miss what is being said here, John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, explains that Jesus spoke this to show by what kind of death he [Peter] was to glorify God. Just like Jesus, Peter's career as a shepherd was to be marked by sacrificial service on behalf of the flock of God. Now, this should not suggest that all shepherds are to die the martyr's death on behalf of the people they serve. But it is fair to say especially when we consider Christ's words about how the Christian life is to be one of self-denial (Matthew 16:24) that the job of the shepherd will necessarily be one of sacrificial service. The elder should never expect (nor should he look for) an easy and trouble-free tenure in office. He should, instead, seek to pour himself out in fulfilling his duties, following the example of Christ and the Apostle Paul: You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials. I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, It is more blessed to give than to receive. (Acts 20:18-19, 24, 31, 35) There are at least two implications of this type of sacrificial service: one, the elder will be an incarnational example (1 Corinthians 11:1; Colossians 1:24-5) i.e., his life will be a tangible expression of the love of Christ for the flock, which will be the means of saving many (Titus 1:1-5; Acts 20:18-35); and, two, such an expression of love will endear the elder to his flock by showing them the greatest possible care for them.
- The shepherd searches intently and relentlessly to find lost and missing sheep (John 10:16). For all the above reasons, the shepherd will seek to find those of the flock who have gone astray and to return them to the sheep fold (Luke 15:4-6). In every occasion, because the shepherd loves and cares for the sheep, he will be only as drastic as necessary and as gentle as possible in restoring them to the fold sometimes, however, this may require elders to be as shrewd as serpents, Matthew 10:16. But the shepherd will do more than look for straying sheep. He will also dedicate himself to seeking those other sheep that are not of this fold (John 10:16). These are not sheep who have wandered from the fold; these are sheep that have not yet been in the fold. They are not lost, because they have not yet been found. They are missing sheep. This means that the elder-shepherd must be committed to outreach, to evangelism and missions. Romans 10:13-15 tells us how these missing sheep will be placed within the fold: For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!
- The shepherd serves as such because he loves Christ (John 21:15-17). Here we see the motivation for the shepherd's sacrificial service to the flock of God. It is because he loves Christ that he pours himself out on behalf of the sheep of the congregation. But why does the shepherd love Christ? Quite simply, it is because his life has been changed by Him. The elder has had his heart of stone exchanged for a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26ff); he has had his sins forgiven all of them, past, present, and future; he has been given the Spirit of life. How? Through the life and death of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. Thus, Christ serves not merely as the example the elder-shepherd is to follow but also as the motivation for his future sacrificial service. Such is the function of the office of elder. He is to be a shepherd overseeing God's flock. Let us pray that the Lord will continue in fulfillment of His promise in Jeremiah 3:15, And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding to provide men who shepherd His flock according to the above guidelines with wisdom and love.
The nature of the office of elder can be seen even more graphically when one considers it in distinction to the office of deacon. Whereas the office of elder is chiefly concerned with the spiritual oversight of the congregation, the office of deacon is principally concerned with their physical needs. That this is the case can be seen most clearly in Acts 6, the only passage in Scripture that details the specific nature of the office of deacon, especially as it compares with that of elder.
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists [i.e., Greek-speaking Jews] arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve [apostles] summoned the full number of the disciples [the saints] and said, It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, 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. And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:1-6)
Five things bear mentioning in connection with this passage:
- The principal function of the deacon is to serve tables (v. 2). The word that is here rendered serve tables is diaconein in the original Greek, which literally means to wait on or to serve or minister. In the context of this passage, it specifically refers to the activity of serving food to the widows of the congregation (v. 1) and, thus, to the meeting of their physical needs. Although it is true that the passage does not explicitly call these men deacons who are elected to serve tables, it is clear that this is what is meant. The same verb (diaconein) is used by Paul in 1 Timothy 3:10 and 13, when he lists the qualifications for the office of deacon. And, although it is also true that diaconein is used generically in the Bible to refer to the activity of serving or ministering (e.g, Matthew 25:44; 27:55; Mark 1:13; etc.), it should be obvious that something special and official is going on in Acts 6. Something beyond generic ministry is in mind here. These men who will be serving as deacons are nominated by the congregation (v. 3), for a specific task (vv. 1-2), to work alongside the apostles and elders (v. 2), so that the apostles and elders can devote themselves ?to prayer and to the ministry of the word i.e., to the spiritual oversight of the congregation. In many cases, the church today has come to place second what the Bible places first, that is, it has come to regard the principal function of the deacon as managing the church?s finances and the secondary function as meeting the physical needs of the congregation. But Acts 6 gives a helpful corrective to this misperception. The office of deacon is first and foremost instituted to meet the physical needs of the church and, secondarily, in order better to meet these needs, to manage the church?s finances.
- The office of deacon is a spiritual office (v. 3). The men elected to this office are more than ?men of good repute, although they are certainly not less; they are also full of the Spirit and of wisdom. Moreover, as we saw above, the office of deacon is instituted as one that functions alongside the office of elder (although ultimately under the latter's jurisdiction), for the express purpose of alleviating the burden of those who work as the spiritual overseers of the congregation. While the deacons do concentrate primarily on the physical needs of the flock, this service is still spiritual in nature, because it operates under the umbrella of the elders responsibilities, because it is part and parcel of what it means to care for all the needs of the sheep, and because it helps to facilitate the elder's ministry of the Word and prayer. That physical care and spiritual care are, thus, integrally related should be no novelty to those of us who have worked and ministered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The church has had numerous opportunities to reach out with the gospel simply because we have been able to meet the tremendous physical needs of folks in our community. The Apostle John links the physical and the spiritual in his first epistle: By this we know love, that he [i.e., Christ] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk [merely] but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18)
- Deacons are not elders-in-training (vv. 2-5; 1 Timothy 3:8-13). There are different responsibilities for the two offices of elder and deacon and, correspondingly, different gifts that are required for service in each. Whereas the elder is to be able to teach, so that he can give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9), the deacon is nowhere required to meet such a qualification. This means that it is quite probable that someone would serve as a deacon and never be elected as an elder and that someone would serve as elder having never first served as a deacon. The gifts for the two offices are different, because their roles are different. That being said, there is biblical warrant for men serving as deacon who, because they were also ?able to teach, went on to serve as elders afterwards (see, e.g., the cases of Stephen and Philip).
- Both deacons and elders are indispensable to the healthy functioning of the church (vv. 2-4). If there are no deacons within the church or if the deacons that are in office do not deacon i.e., if they do not fulfill their responsibilities as deacons?then the church cannot function as it is intended to function; it will limp along, because the elders will have to sacrifice time from their work in Word and prayer to take care of the physical needs of the congregation. This, as Luke reminds us in verse 2, is not right. What is more, as has previously been mentioned, if the deacons do not fulfill their responsibilities as deacons, the credibility of the church's witness can be significantly hampered. First John 3:16-18 reminds us that the church must put its money where its mouth is, so to speak. Otherwise, it does the opposite of love and, thus, contradicts with its actions what it preaches with its words.
- Deacons must know the flock in order to fulfill their official duties. Just as was the case with the elder-shepherd, so also the deacon cannot fulfill the duties of his office by meeting the physical needs of the congregation until and unless he knows the congregation well enough to know those needs. He must be proactive in discerning the needs of the church and the best way to meet those needs.
Such is the function of the office of deacon, an office that is equally as vital to the overall mission of the church as the office of elder. While it is true that not every act of charity needs to be organized by the deacons, it is also true that an attentive, diligent, conscientious, proactive board of deacons can be a spur not only to motivate the congregation to acts of charity but also to foster a gospel spirit outside the church as well. Let us pray that the Lord will grant us deacons who are truly full of the Spirit and of wisdom. Amen. Let it be.
All Scripture quotations are cited from English Standard Version, © 2001, 2002.