Elders and Deacons

Each congregation is charged with recognizing those whom God has raised up to lead the local church. It is therefore imperative that we understand what is expected of leaders in the church, as well as the biblical qualifications of those who are to serve as leaders.

Scripture allows for a great deal of flexibility in how a local congregation organizes itself. Throughout church history there have been examples of fruitful local church ministries with a wide variety of styles of application of the biblical principles of organization. The purpose of this paper is to declare how we at Grace Bible Church choose to apply those principles.

 

The Roles of Elders and Deacons

As you consider people you feel are qualified and whom you trust to lead you and as you consider accepting a leadership responsibility in this or any other church, consider these general descriptions of the tasks we expect our leaders to undertake.

Elders: As the shepherds of the flock of God, the elders collectively share the responsibility for overseeing the teaching and discipling ministries of the church. The Board of Elders is responsible to know the spiritual condition of the flock and to pursue the goal of seeing that each person who is part of this flock is being nurtured toward greater spiritual maturity. Part of their shepherding ministry is to oversee benevolence within the church.

With these goals in mind, it is expected that elders meet the qualifications mentioned in 1 Timothy and Titus and that each one have significant involvement in the lives of people in this flock. They will produce and update the Position Papers of the church (our stand on issues of importance). In each of these duties, elders will seek to train others to assume responsibility in the ministries they oversee.

Elders are also entrusted with the oversight of all other boards and committees in the church and with determining and maintaining the list of voting members of the church.

Deacons: The deacons assist the elders by assuming responsibility for overseeing facilities and physical needs within the church. The Board of Deacons will work closely with the Board of Elders and be accountable to the elders. It is expected that deacons likewise meet the scriptural qualifications and that they train others to assume responsibility in the ministries they oversee.

 

Qualifications of Elders and Deacons

In 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9 Paul listed qualities he wanted Timothy and Titus to look for in men they were to call as local church leaders. Qualifications for elders are in both epistles, and qualifications for deacons are listed in 1 Timothy.

 

How to Apply These Lists of Qualifications

It is important to understand that the qualifications were given to Timothy and Titus for them to recognize in others the kind of character and maturity necessary for church leaders. We believe that the primary application of these Scriptures for us is to use them as a basis for recognizing those in our midst who fit these general descriptions. The application of these passages is not primarily for personal introspection. Indeed, no honest man who is walking humbly before the Lord would claim that he has “arrived” in all these things.

While there is value in looking at these passages as ideals and goals for every Christian to pursue, we must recognize that as not-yet-glorified believers we will always struggle with our imperfect obedience and our personal sins.

Therefore we ever pursue growth and greater maturity, and we leave it to others in the church to recognize when we have established patterns of behavior that reveal sufficient maturity for us to be entrusted with leadership.

Thus without diminishing the importance of these scriptural qualifications, we must apply them realistically as we look among our congregation for men whom God is calling to lead us. Our task is to identify those who demonstrate the most maturity in these areas and who have the trust of others in the church. Don’t expect anyone to meet these qualifications at all times in an absolute sense, or you will forever be disappointed. Look for those who fit the general patterns, demonstrate faithfulness in ministry, are trusted, and are men you would prefer to see leading this flock.

 

Elders

Now consider the specific qualifications for elders (See Table on next page). The two lists are strikingly similar, though there are some differences. That they are so similar but not identical is an indication that it is the overall impression of a man that is more crucial than particular strengths and weaknesses. Notice also as you study the lists that there is nothing in either of them that refers to any particular spiritual gift. It seems logical and practical that it is good to have diversity of gifts, ministries, and even personalities among the elders.

Though not listed among the “character qualities,” 1 Timothy 3:1 mentions that before a man becomes an elder, he must have a desire for that ministry. This implies that we must recognize those qualified, and we must make sure they desire to serve in the role of elder. In both lists the general qualification is above reproach. There are different Greek words so translated in the two passages, but they both carry the idea of being irreproachable. This is not to say an elder will never be reproached but that no just ground will be found for an accusation to stick.

 

Qualifications of Elders

  

1 Timothy 3:1-7                                                                                      Titus 1:5-9

Above reproach Above reproach
One-woman man One-woman man
Temperate Self-controlled
Prudent Sensible
Respectable Hospitable
Hospitable Able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict
Able to teach Not addicted to wine
Not addicted to wine Not pugnacious
Not pugnacious Not quick-tempered
Gentle Not fond of sordid gain
Uncontentious Above reproach as God’s steward
Free from the love of money Having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion
Manages his own household well Not self-willed
Keeping children under control with all dignity Loving what is good
Not a new convert Just
Good reputation with those outside the church Devout

 

The personal qualifications demand high moral character. They begin with one-woman-man.1 This requires that a man (if married) be a loyal husband. Regardless of his marital status, it requires that the man be without immoral relationships or attitudes. Additional personal qualifications cover a number of character issues. Their basic meanings are rather obvious:

Temperate/prudent means self-controlled, enslaved to nothing, free from excesses.

Prudent/sensible implies that he must be sober, sensible, wise, balanced in judgment, not given to quick, superficial decisions based on immature thinking.

Respectable indicates a well-ordered life and honorable behavior.

Not self-willed indicates a proven willingness to serve others accompanied by a lack of compulsion to “come out on top.”

Just means fair and impartial. His judgments must be based on scriptural principle.

Devout indicates that he must be a devoted follower of Christ, seeking to be conformed to Christ’s image. He must be committed to prayer, worship, the study of Scripture, and guarding his own walk.

Free from the love of money/Not fond of sordid gain speaks against being stingy, greedy, or preoccupied with amassing material things.

Several of the descriptions of an elder have to do with his family life:

Ruling his household well is an indication of his ability to “rule” in the household of faith. The same word “rule” is used in both contexts, and it has to do with “standing before” which implies leadership and protection.

Above reproach as God’s steward refers to someone who does not take lightly the responsibility to manage spiritual truths and those whom God has put in His church. The “steward” understands that he serves on God’s behalf and is wholly accountable to Him.

Children under control with dignity (or) children who are not accused of dissipation or rebellion means that children in his home accept his leadership. This is an indication of the integrity and believability of the man. On one hand, unruly children might indicate immaturity in the man and be a good reason to prevent him from leading the church. On the other hand, unruly or rebellious children are in need of much parental attention and assuming a leadership position could jeopardize a man’s opportunity to provide extra attention to his children during a crucial time for them.

Children who believe is an indication his children should share his faith. Willful unbelief by a child in the home disqualifies a man from serving as an elder. It must be recognized, however, that “children who believe” is an interpretive translation. The most literal translation is “faithful children” or “children [who are] faithful.” This indicates that the children must be faithful to the parents, including their rules and the standards for conduct in the home.

Other characteristics qualify an elder in his relation to others. These have to do with personal habits and characteristics involved in interpersonal relationships:

Not addicted to wine is literally “not beside wine,” which implies spending too much time with it. This phrase also came to mean a quarrelsome person as a result of drunkenness.

Not pugnacious, uncontentious and not quick-tempered prohibit an easily-flared temper and all violence as an expression of temper.

Gentle is the opposite of the negative characteristics above. He should be a calming influence and one who turns away the wrath of others.

Hospitable refers to his concern for people. An elder should be unselfish with his personal resources, showing kindness to both strangers and believers alike.

Loving what is good was interpreted by the early church as the “unwearing activity of love”2 and involved devotion to good whenever it is found. The character of an elder causes him to want what is good for others.

Having a good reputation outside the church means an elder must be well respected by unbelievers and free from hypocrisy.

The remaining qualifications are relative to the faith:

Not a new convert literally means “not newly planted.” An elder must not be a new believer. He must have been a Christian long enough to demonstrate spiritual maturity

Able to teach is more thoroughly described as able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict. This is not a requirement that a man be gifted as an orator, nor does it require a reputation as a teacher in a public sense. It requires a sufficient grasp of Scripture that he is able to dispense and apply its truth accurately and that he is able to point out the error of false teaching.

 

Deacons

The term deacon literally means “servant.” It is used throughout the New Testament to denote various kinds of servants. But in addition to its general usage, it is also used to refer to the only office other than elder named in the Bible for the New Testament church. 1 Timothy 3:8-13 describes the qualifications of deacons in the same context as those of elders.

The origin of the office of deacon is not clearly stated in the New Testament. Unlike the office of elder, it lacks precedent in the Jewish community. While it is not universally accepted that the office of deacon originated with the appointment of seven men to serve tables as recorded in Acts 6:1-6, we believe it is best to view those men as the first official deacons.3

History has shown broad diversity in the functions of deacons in local churches. The silence of Scripture leaves room for that diversity. The beginning of this paper outlines how deacons are expected to function within this local church.

The standards are equally high for deacons as for elders, with stronger expressions in certain cases. The primary difference in the qualifications is that the ability to teach, the qualification of hospitality and general contact with others, including “outsiders” are not considered in the case of deacons. This is an indication that those things are not part of the general work of deacons.

 

Qualifications of Deacons

Personal qualifications:

Dignified requires seriousness of mind and character. Dignity and decorum are important as one serves on behalf of the Lord and His people.

Not double-tongued means he must not tell one person one thing and another something different. Since deacons might know the problems of various members, and since they handle money, this is crucial.

Not addicted to much wine and not fond of sordid gain are stated more strongly for deacons than for elders. This is probably an indication that the original tasks for deacons exposed them to greater temptation in those areas.

Qualifications with respect to the faith are straight-forward:

Holds to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. While he is not required to be able to articulate it as an elder, a deacon must live the truth of the Christian faith. If he is to attend to material things, he must bring the proper spiritual perspective to his work.

He must first be tested, which requires that he not be a new convert, and that he must have demonstrated maturity and faithfulness in whatever service he has undertaken. This phrase is a strong justification for each deacon (and elder) to assume responsibility for training others in their work as they do it.

Deacons must be men with their family life in order.

Husband of one wife and good managers of their children and households are the same as the requirements for elders.

 

The Responsibilities of Deacons

Based on the New Testament, the role of the deacon is mainly to be a servant. The church needs deacons to provide logistical and material support so that the elders can focus on the teaching of the Word of God and prayer.

The word, diakonos, which is transliterated in our English Bibles, “deacon”, is simply the Greek word “servant.” The New Testament gives examples of both “appointed” servants elected by the church to specific tasks and of “unelected” servants who served the Lord in a general sense in a local church. The noun diakonos is used thirty times in the New Testament and in only five of those does it refer to a specifically appointed servant (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 10, 12, 13).

The New Testament does not provide much information concerning the role of deacons. The requirements given in 1 Timothy 3:8-12 focus on the deacon’s character and family life. There are, however, some clues as to the function of deacons when their requirements are compared with those of the elders. Although many of the qualifications are the same or very similar, there are some notable differences.

Perhaps the most noticeable distinction between elders and deacons is that deacons do not need to be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). Deacons are called to “hold” to the faith with a clear conscience, but they are not called to “teach” that faith (1 Tim. 3:9). This suggests that the deacons do not have an official teaching role in the church.

Like elders, deacons must manage their house and children well (1 Tim. 3:4, 12). But when referring to deacons, Paul omits the section where he compares managing one’s household to taking care of God’s church (1 Tim. 3:5). The reason for this omission is most likely due to the fact that deacons are not given a ruling or leading position in the church – that function belongs to the elders.

Although Paul indicates that a person must be tested before he can hold the office of deacon (1 Tim. 3:10), the requirement that he cannot be a new convert is not included. Paul notes that if an elder is a recent convert “he may become puffed up with conceit” (1 Tim. 3:6). One implication concerning this distinction could be that those who hold the office of elder are more susceptible to pride because they possess leadership over the church. On the contrary, it is not as likely for a deacon, who is in more of a servant role, to fall into this same sin. Finally, the title “overseer” (1 Tim. 3:2) implies general oversight over the spiritual well-being of the congregation, whereas the title “deacon” implies one who has a service-oriented ministry.

Beyond what we can glean from these differences in qualifications, the Bible does not clearly indicate the function of deacons. Yet based on the pattern established in Acts 6 with the apostles and the seven, it seems best to view deacons as servants who do whatever is necessary to allow the elders to accomplish their God-given calling of shepherding and teaching the church. Just as the apostles delegated administrative responsibilities to the seven, so the elders are to delegate certain responsibilities to the deacons so that the elders can focus their efforts elsewhere. As a result, each local church is free to define the tasks of deacons based on their particular needs.

 

Conclusion

Whereas the Bible charges elders with the tasks of teaching and leading the church, the deacons’ role is more service-oriented. That is, they are to care for the physical or temporal concerns of the church as instructed and lead by the elders. By handling such matters, deacons free up the elders to focus on shepherding the spiritual needs of the congregation. The responsibilities of the deacons are not specifically listed in scripture because they will vary from church to church. As seen in the book of Acts, their main purpose was to provide relief to the elders from various responsibilities as deemed necessary by the elders, enabling them to focus on the other aspects of ministry.

Though deacons are not the congregation’s spiritual leaders, their character is of utmost importance, which is why deacons should be examined and held to the biblical qualifications laid down in 1 Timothy 3.

 

Number of Elders and Deacons and Terms of Office

All the evidence in the New Testament is for a plurality of elders in each church. Each time the word appears in reference to a local congregation it is plural. Saucy points out that this was also true in early church literature and that it was not until the second century that the concept arose of a single bishop, elder, or pastor in a local church.4 Similarly, all the New Testament evidence on the number of deacons is for a plurality. No fixed number is indicated for either office.

Several reasons for a plurality of leaders can be suggested in addition to the biblical evidence: The impact of the sinfulness of man is best minimized in leadership when there are several leaders accountable to one another. The incomplete knowledge and wisdom of an individual is best overcome when there are several mature leaders praying and studying an issue before a decision is made. A plurality of leaders (ideally, even teachers) is better able to edify the body through a diversity of spiritual gifts and emphases in ministry. Finally, shared leadership responsibility minimizes autonomy and undue responsibility on the part of any individual.

The New Testament is silent on the term of office. We believe that once a man is qualified, he is to be regarded as an elder or deacon unless he becomes disqualified. Term of office on boards of this church is two years.

 

Selection of Elders and Deacons

The selection process begins with the Board of Elders soliciting recommendations from the congregation along with their own recommendations. The reason for this is that those men most qualified will currently be serving, either in an official or unofficial role in the body of Christ, and that those whom these men serve should be given the opportunity to recognize this service in the form of a recommendation for office.

The current Boards of Elders and Deacons will then review the qualifications of the individuals to be considered, verifying that each is a voting member and evaluating their worthiness as outlined in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5. It should be noted that not every man who meets the biblical qualifications will necessarily be selected for confirmation by the congregation. The elders and deacons will also take into consideration unity and personal circumstances. In the area of unity, he must agree with the current spiritual direction of the church and be able to work with others in an understanding way. Personal circumstances may include his physical or mental health or his ability to meet on a regular basis.

 

Confirmation of Board Members

One month prior to the confirmation of these men by the elder and deacon boards, the elders will provide a list of men whom they recommend as those who meet the above requirements for either elder or deacon. The purpose of this is twofold: 1) it is a time for the congregation to get to know any of these men they may not already know, 2) it is a time for those in the congregation who know these men well to consider if they meet the biblical qualifications mentioned in scripture. If anyone in the congregation has a biblical concern about a particular man, it is their responsibility as a member of the church to present their concern to a current elder or deacon. The purpose of this is to ensure that we are not placing any man in a position of leadership that would both hurt the church and his own walk with the Lord. If it is an issue of sin, then it becomes the perfect opportunity to win a brother back into fellowship with the Lord and his church. If it is an issue of need, then it becomes a great opportunity to meet this need.

At the end of one month, the Elder and Deacon Boards will meet to confirm each man to his position. A list of the confirmed elders and deacons will then be distributed to the congregation.

 

Notes:

  1. This is usually translated “husband of one wife,” but that translation can create unnecessary confusion. Since the general tenor of the lists is character qualities rather than specific life-situations, it is better to use the literal translation “one-woman-man” which describes something of his moral character.
  2. Saucy, p. 147
  3. See Saucy, p. 154 for a good explanation for this interpretation. He notes that a form of the word is used there, the tasks match our earliest historical records of deacons’ work, it appears significant that Luke recorded that event, very early tradition refers to these men as deacons, the spiritual qualifications match 1 Timothy 3, and this incident best explains the origin of deacons.
  4. Saucy, p. 148.