Author: Ron Graham
Shepherds Among the Sheep
—Eldership and Deaconry
Eldership is a very important topic, involving a number of issues, and this series is presented as food for thought. In these studies, some attention is also given to the deacons.
1 Implementing God’s Plan
In Australia, it is exceptional to find churches of Christ with elders and deacons. Even churches decades old, are still without elderships. In New Testament times and places, this was not the case. When Paul and Barnabas visited churches of Christ, "they appointed elders for them in every church" (Acts 14:23). When Paul left Titus on the island of Crete, it was "to set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city" (Titus 1:5).
Churches of Christ in Australia today plead for a restoration "of the New Testament order." In some cases however, they themselves may well need to be "set in order" if they are not complying with the New Testament pattern regarding elders and deacons. It is possible, of course, to be genuinely unable to conform to God's scheme of church government. However, it is quite another thing to be unwilling or neglectful.
We know the Lord wants more than mere lip-service to apostolic doctrine. He wants obedience to it. This is true of all things pertaining to our faith and its practice, including the appointment of elders and deacons to take charge of the church of God. If anyone resists the implementation of God's plan, isn't that person like the Pharisees who "resisted God's purpose for themselves" (Luke 7:30)?
2 Our Responsibilities Regarding Elders and Deacons
(1) Recognize them. "We urge you brethren to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake" (1Thessalonians 5:12-13). If anyone says, "We do not have qualified men," perhaps that person is refusing to give due recognition to God's men and is unwilling to entrust them with the charge of God's church. The right men will already be serving as deacons and elders to a large degree. Their work should be recognized for what it is. The lack of recognition does not dishonor the men so much as it dishonors God whose will is being rejected.
(2) Appoint them. "Brethren select from among you seven men of reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business" (Acts 6:3). "For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders..." (Titus 1:5). What reason is there to delay appointing deacons and elders, once we have recognized their work and character and suitability? No more reason than there is to delay baptizing people once we have recognized their belief and repentance. Delay, in such cases, is disobedience to God.
(3) Submit to them. "Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you" (Hebrews 13:17). Submission to the leadership of elders and deacons is not for their benefit, but for the benefit of the flock who follows them. Someone may say, "I follow only Jesus, not men." That is commendable. But a refusal to submit to elders appointed at the Lord's command, is rebellion against the Lord, and is not following him at all. He has decreed that certain men be recognized, appointed, and obeyed, and he should not be contradicted.
3 Terms and Titles
|Table of terms for elders and deacons|
|Titus 1:7, Philippians 1:1, Acts 20:28|
|Ephesians 4:11, 1Peter 2:25, 1Peter 5:1-4, Acts 20:28|
|1Peter 5:1, Titus 1:5, Acts 20:17, 1Timothy 4:14|
|1Thessalonians 5:12, 1Timothy 5:17|
|1Timothy 3:8, Philippians 1:1|
There are four Greek words rendered by seven English words:-
In the table, the Greek/English equivalents are given. Some translators, instead of the simpler English, use the words in brackets. Personally, I think the bracketed words (bishop, pastor, presbyter) are less suitable for general use in the church, because they need too much explaining and can be misleading because of denominational usage or rather misuse.
A comparison of these passages will show that the terms overseer, bishop, shepherd, pastor, elder, presbyter, and ruler, are synonymous and interchangeable. They are simply different words for the same thing. Notice in particular the following points:
- A. Whom Paul calls elders in Titus 1:5, he calls overseers/bishops in Titus 1:7.
- B. Acts 20:17,28 and 1Peter 5:1-4 call elders shepherds/pastors.
- C. According to 1Timothy 5:17, elders are to rule.
There is one Greek word rendered by three English words:- diakonos rendered as deacon, minister, or servant (see table).
The word "deacon" is really just the Greek word diakonos turned into an English word. As such it is rather meaningless to those who do not know Greek. The word diakonos, if actually translated (rather than merely transliterated) means servant. Most of the time it is rendered as servant, and it is questionable whether the use of "deacon" in the few instances is necessary or helpful.
These terms are are not titles, as in, "May I introduce Elder McDonald" or "Pastor Smith" or "Deacon Jones". The words are simply descriptive nouns, as in, "Meet Albert Smith, one of our pastors." So we may have a pastor named Smith, but we should not have a Smith called Pastor. We may have a deacon named Jones, but we should not have a Jones called Deacon. Someone will say, "But it's just like saying 'Farmer Jones'". Well if it is just like that, and understood that way, that's fine. However, the point remains that the terms should not be used as titles of rank like Sergeant Jones.
The terms we have studied are descriptive of services rendered to honor God. We will now look at what those services are. What do elders and deacons do? What is their special service or ministry? What is their role in the church and why do we need them?
4 The Work of Elders
The elders' work may be outlined as follows:
- Shepherd the sheep (1Peter 5:1-4).
- Teach sound doctrine (Titus 1:9 Hebrews 13:7)
- Encourage and warn (1Thessalonians 5:12-15)
- Guard (Hebrews 13:17, Acts 20:28-32)
- Nurture to maturity (Ephesians 4:12-16)
- Govern diligently (Romans 12:8)
The real charge of elders is simply stated in Hebrews 13:17. "They watch over your souls." Deacons are put in charge of practical matters, but the elders are put in charge of spiritual matters. The welfare of our souls is their responsibility (of course it is our own responsibility too!).
The elders control the spiritual environment of the church. They keep an eye on what is taught and how that teaching is exemplified and obeyed. They see that no member is allowed to wander from the truth or lead others away, whether by omission or commission. Of course, elders are not lords or dictators. They don't make church laws or lay down membership qualifications (other than what the scriptures lay down). They don't decide who will be their fellow elders, evangelists, deacons, and members. The congregation does that using God's law as the criterion. But elders give the church direction so that it will progress along fruitful lines.
5 The Work of Deacons
Deacons are simply special servants appointed to take charge of particular works of the church. The church is to be involved in good works both distributively and corporately, that is on a personal level and on a congregational level. To be successful, any worthwhile project needs somebody in charge to whom all the participants can look for leadership and direction. Deacons are able to "help the helpers" to work together harmoniously and efficiently.
The first church of Christ sets us an example. The Jerusalem church provided a daily ministry of assistance to its poor widows. This important work fell foul of the common problem: nobody was in charge. So, the apostles told the congregation to select seven suitable men who could take charge of the tables where the widows were served each day (Acts 6:1-7). The Greek words for "daily distribution" in verse 1, and for "serving tables" in verse 2, are diakoneo and diakonia. These are related to the word for servant, diakonos from which the term "deacon" is derived.
Deacons are therefore simply servants of the church specially appointed to take charge of certain practical tasks and functions. Other members may, of course, participate and help in various tasks, but when the church appoints deacons, it puts them in charge of those tasks.
6 Is Eldership Optional?
It is not unheard of to find a church with men qualified to be elders and deacons even by its own doctrine and standards, yet not having appointed them to the office. The reason for this is that they consider the church without elders and deacons to be no less scriptural than a church that has them. The idea is that if you are going to have an eldership it must be a scriptural one, but you can choose not to have an eldership at all. This is called "being scripturally unorganized."
The Lord does not like his sheep to be without shepherds. The sheep without shepherds should not like it either. The Lord wants the congregation to be governed, and governed under the system he designed. The New Testament pattern is to "appoint elders in every church." There is no alternative. The concept of being "scripturally unorganized" has no validity, and should not be espoused.
The congregation is responsible to seek out from its number those men who can serve under the Lord's system of leadership and government. The church should seek elders, deacons, and evangelists among its men, and appoint them to lead.
- Acts 15:2 (Jerusalem),
- Acts 20:17,28 (Ephesus),
- Philippians 1:1 (Philippi),
- 1Thessalonians 5:12-13 (Thessalonica),
- James 5:14 (Anywhere)
The last example on that list refers to whichever church the person happens to belong to. James assumes that any church of Christ will have elders.
We cannot find any examples at all of churches opting to forgo an eldership and be "scripturally unorganized." The concept is not exemplified in the New Testament, and therefore it cannot claim to be "after the new testament pattern."
THE PISIDIAN AND CRETAN CHURCHES
Someone will say, "But in Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5 we find examples of churches without elders. We know these churches had no elders, because it was not until the apostles arrived that they appointed elders in every church. When it says that they appointed elders in every church, there is a clear implication that previously the churches had no eldership. This means that there is a pattern authorizing a church to have no elders, just as there is a pattern authorizing a plurality of elders."
There are two things wrong with this reasoning:
- Firstly, in the fact that elders were appointed in every church, there is no necessary inference that every church or any church was without elders beforehand. It might simply have been a case of not having had enough elders, and so more elders were appointed in each church because each church was growing. To guess that any church had no elders is not good enough. We would have to know, not speculate, and there is no way of knowing.
- Secondly, and much more importantly, there is no suggestion that God was happy with the lack of elders. On the contrary, the Lord considered that something was "lacking" and needed to be "set in order" (Titus 1:5). How can we say that churches which lack something, and have not set things in order, are good examples and a pattern for us? Even if we allow that these churches lacked elders (as they may have done) these churches are only an example of what not to be. They are not examples of any option God has given us to be unorganized. If we are like them, then we are have "things that are lacking" and we must "set in order what is lacking" if we can.