Author: Ron Graham
Serving a Purpose
—and purposing to serve
The phrase "serving the purpose" conveys two essential elements of eldership and deaconry: purpose and servant-hood. It is important, early in our study of eldership, that we understand why elders serve. So this page is devoted to the idea of purpose as it relates to the eldership and deaconry.
1 Purpose of Servanthood
It is hard to imagine anything more important in religion than servant-hood. The Christian heart is essentially the heart of the servant. Anything that promotes servant-hood is good. Anything that diminishes servant-hood is bad. These are truisms. However, it is hard to imagine also that servant-hood could be valuable and important for its own sake. Surely it must have a purpose, and that purpose is what makes servant-hood essential.
Would we really appreciate the selfless servanthood of Jesus, "who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant," if there were no point or purpose in it?(Philippians 2:5-8). We honour his acts, because his purpose in being "obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross," was that he might provide us with the means of salvation, which we could not provide for ourselves. He served with a purpose. He served as Saviour. That made his service noble (1Peter 2:21-25).
2 Purpose of Elders and Deacons
Elders and deacons are servants with a purpose. The church needs people in charge. Without people in charge the church lacks direction, it is frustrated by confusion.
The church in Jerusalem needed seven deacons (servants) to take charge of the ministry (service) to its poor widows (Acts 6:1-7).
- When that necessary leadership was neglected, "there arose a murmuring."
- When that necessary leadership was respected, "the word of God spread and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly."
The church in Ephesus needed elders "to shepherd the church of God." These shepherds were charged to "take heed to yourselves and to all the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers." (Acts 20:17, Acts 28-32).
- When that necessary leadership was neglected, "savage wolves" came in "not sparing the flock".
- When that necessary leadership was respected, they were built up by the word of God's grace and given "an inheritance among all those who are sanctified."
3 Purposing to Serve
In 1 Peter 5:3, we find three "not this but that" statements by which Peter characterises the nature of the church shepherd:
- Not serving by compulsion but voluntarily. A man should desire the office of a bishop, and serve from that desire, not merely out of a reluctant sense of duty. The man who is needed to serve should want to serve.
- Not after dishonest gain but eagerly. Elders should be so eager to serve that they don't look to the financial support as the reason for their service, but simply as the means of making more service possible.
- Not as lords but as examples. Elders are not masters who order their slaves around. They are shepherds who nurture and guide, not kings who have dominion over their subjects.
The overseer is a servant. Peter prefaces his three characterisations with the term "serving as overseers". Here is the concept of the servant-leader. The good elder is ten times the servant that he is the overseer. In other words, his emphasis is in ministry not in oversight. Or to put it a better way, his oversight is characterised by ministry. He is a servant first, and an overseer second.
This provides us with a simple formula for choosing good elders and deacons. Find a servant first, then see if he is qualified in other ways to be an elder or deacon.
- Who, in the congregation, serves well?
- Who serves without having to be asked or pushed?
- Who serves whether they get properly paid for it or not?
- Who serves as a leader by example rather than by enforcing burdensome rules?
This find-a-servant-first procedure greatly simplifies and expedites the business of selecting and appointing elders.
4 Purpose of Qualifications
God has regulated the appointment of elders and deacons (1Timothy 3, Titus 1). not to prevent them being appointed, but to make the appointments effective for their purpose. We must approach the scriptural qualifications for elders and deacons in the light of that purpose. If we lose sight of the purpose, we get bogged down in the qualifications for their own sake.
Sometimes the qualifications for elders and deacons are interpreted and applied in a way that seems to lose sight of their purpose. Let me illustrate what I mean.
Imagine you are a strict vegetarian. You are hungry, and you see the sign on a cafe proclaiming "VEGETARIAN MEALS" . When you read the menu, indeed there is a delightful array of vegetarian meals some of which make your mouth water. However, at the bottom of the menu, you see a section labelled "Non-vegetarian Dishes." You could stalk from the restaurant in high dudgeon, muttering, "It claims to be a vegetarian restaurant yet it has the nerve to serve up fried chicken!" But you sit down to eat thinking, "This restaurant will serve my purpose very well."
On the other hand, imagine that the tyres on your motor car do not have sufficient tread. All four tyres are getting bald. If you braked hard on the wet roads, perhaps the grip would not be sufficient. If a police inspection caught you in its net, perhaps your vehicle would be declared unroadworthy. How many tyres would you want to be safe and roadworthy? All of them of course. Nothing less would serve the purpose of making the car safe and legal.
Certain qualifications of elders and deacons are sometimes treated in the manner of the bald tyres rather than in the manner of the vegetarian restaurant. Later in our study we will look (for example) at the qualification that an elder must have faithful children. How will we apply this? Will we insist that all his children be faithful like we insist that all tyres be roadworthy? Or will we say that not all his children have to be faithful just like not all the restaurant meals had to be vegetarian? Obviously the issue is decided according to purpose. When we discover the purpose for an elder having faithful children, then we will know whether all of them must be faithful. The same principle of purpose helps us decide other qualification issues as well.
5 God’s Purpose
On the day of Pentecost, Peter said that Christ was delivered up "by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God" for crucifixion (Acts 2:23). Paul speaks of "the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 3:11). Paul goes on in this vein to speak of the surpassing "love of Christ" and then concludes, "to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever" (Ephesians 3:11-21).
Churches of Christ, whether in New Testament times or in Australia today, are instruments of God's purpose in Christ. Everything the church does is centered upon and reflects that purpose of God. As Christ served us at Calvary, so we serve him. The service of elders and deacons is identified with God's great purpose in Jesus Christ. So long as we remember that, we will be more likely to appoint the eldership and deaconry God wants.