Observing Elders and Deacons

Uncategorized // January 23, 2022 //

On January 28-29 our pastors and deacons will come together for a time of fellowship, training and ministry development. We’ve done this type of retreat for several years now, typically on a Friday-Saturday type schedule. (Bojangles breakfast is always a hit!)

During these times, we seek to grow in our understanding of church polity; that is, how the Bible teaches the church to be led, governed and structured. Ultimately, polity serves to protect and propagate the gospel in the life of the church.

Christians understand the New Testament (NT) puts forth two offices of the church—the pastor and the deacon. For example, Paul wrote to the Philippians,

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons. (Phil. 1:1)

These two offices are God’s good gifts to his church, one focused on leadership and the other focused on service. How each functions and relates to the other is a worthy topic of study. After all, these two offices are God’s appointed means of leading ministry.

Pastors (1 Timothy 3:1-7), are servant leaders who serve the church through their leadership. Deacons (1 Timothy 3:8-13), however, are lead servants who lead the church in their service in ministry. They set the example by modeling exemplary service to the congregation.

So, as your pastors and deacons study “pastors and deacons” next weekend, I want to invite you to study along with us in your own time, for your own benefit. Here are a few general observations on the biblical text that may help you along as you study.


General observations on elders:

1. The NT uses three terms to describe the same pastoral office.

ἐπισκοπή (episkopē)              overseer/bishop, cf. 1 Timothy 3:1; Titus 1:7

πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros)    elder/teacher, cf. 1 Timothy 5:19; 1 Peter 5:1

ποιμήν (poimēn)                      pastor/shepherd, cf. Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 5:2

Three terms, one office. Elders wear three hats. They are all, at the same time, overseers, teachers and pastors.

We typically refer to this office as “pastor.” No problem. However, the term for “pastor” is the least frequently used term to cite this office. So, I will opt to use the term “elder” (which is used the most of the three) to be consistent with the biblical text. Thus, when I write “elder,” I’m referring to the one pastoral office represented by three NT terms.

2. When elders are referenced, they are almost always in the plural.

There is power in plurality. Benefits abound. Strength, protection, discernment and so forth all come to light when brothers come together. God in his wisdom has designed the office of elder (or that of deacon) to be a team effort, not a one man show (see Acts 20:17, James 5:14; Titus 1:5).

3. Elders have requirements of both character and competency.

What distinguishes the elder from the deacon? It’s not their character. Scripture sets a high bar for both. For the elder however, he is required to be “able to teach” (see 1 Tim. 3:2; cf. Titus 1:9). The elder is a teacher and thus a leader. He is therefore responsible for the teaching ministry of the local church, its confessional and doctrinal positions, and the overall spiritual welfare of the saints.

Note – It is not that deacons cannot teach. We see Stephen and Philip doing so in Acts 7 and 8. Rather, it is that deacons are not required to “be able to teach” in order to serve in the office of deacon.

4. Some elders are paid, others are not.

Compensation should never be an elder’s expectation. However, the NT does assume the church to give “wages” to those elders who “labor in teaching and preaching” (1 Timothy 5:17).

Contrary to my Presbyterian friends, I do not understand Paul as bifurcating the office of elder into “ruling” and “teaching” elders. Rather, he is speaking of one office but emphasizing that some of the brothers according to their giftings labor in teaching whereas others do not.

The application for the local church is that not all of the elders must be paid. A compensated pastoral staff is not equivalent to a plurality of elders. As Scripture indicates, qualified men can serve as elders without adding a financial expense to their local church.


General observations on deacons:

1. The term “deacon” is a transliterated word for the term “servant.”

There is no Greek word for “deacon.” It is a transliteration of the word that is more often translated “servant.” For example, when Jesus spoke in Matthew 20:26, “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,” he used the word diakonos.

Notice the similarities between the Greek διάκονος (that is, diakonos) and our English word, deacon. Which brings up a good question: How do we know when the Greek word diakonos should be translated “servant” or “deacon.” Short answer — context.

2. The office of deacon is not cited as much as the office of elder.

The English word “deacon” only occurs five times in the New Testament. (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8, 10, 12, 13)

By no means does this undervalue the office of deacon. The deacons can provide great help to the elders and the overall program of the church. They are assistants to the elders. Deacons are model men and exemplary servants who are recognized by the congregation.

However, the lack of biblical reference to deacons does show where the NT places the greater emphasis — on the office of elder.

As a note of exegesis, the Greek word used in Romans 16:1 is, you guessed it—διάκονος. The translation question again is context. Was Phoebe a servant of the church (in a general sense) or did she hold the office of deacon? I am persuaded towards the former; however, those of the latter position translate the word as “deaconess” (cf. 1 Timothy 3:11).

3. Deacons aren’t referenced in Acts 6:1-7

Correct. Good observation. Furthermore, only the verb form of διάκονος (διακονέω) is used. No office is mentioned, only worthy men are selected to be appointed to a specific duty.

However, these verses have been commonly understood as establishing a pattern that will become a position in Philippians 1 and 1 Timothy 3. We can think of Luke, the author of Acts, as giving us an early prototype of the office of deacon. Remember, the church was very early at this point in history. Years later, the office was formalized in 1 Tim. 3:8-13. It’s been said that Paul is “double clicking” on Luke’s words in Acts 6.

The NT represents a healthy relationship between pastors and deacons. One to be leveraged for the success of gospel ministry. Both offices work together, each in their own roles and responsibilities. It is God’s good and healthy design for the church.

So as you think with us about polity, let me encourage you to follow your pastors and deacons, and start with the Bible. Yes, we want to be feasible and functional, but we must first be biblical. Stay there and you’ll be on safe ground.

May the Lord bless you as you study, and think biblically about the local church and those who lead it. I thank God for you and our pastors and deacons.

About Neal Thornton