Author: Ron Graham
Appointment of Elders and Deacons
—And the question of “holding office”
In this article we are concerned with the appointment of elders and deacons. In some people's minds there is a problem in thinking of any position in the church as an official position. So in this essay we give considerable attention to whether elders and deacons are appointed as "officers" in the church.
1 Holding Office: Greek and Common Sense
We occasionally hear it said that elders and deacons do not hold official positions in the church. Sometimes we hear an objection to the term "office" when it is used with regard to elders and deacons.
THE GREEK TEXT
The word "office" or "position" appears in some of our English translations of 1Timothy 3:1. Some translations avoid those words. For example...
- (1) The New American Standard Bible has: "...the office of overseer..."
- (2) The New King James Version has: "...the position of a bishop..."
- (3) The New International Version has: "...being an overseer..."
Some teachers, when comparing the translation "...office of a bishop..." with the Greek text, complain, like Vine, that "there is no word representing office" in the Greek. The word in the Greek is episkopee. The English equivalent, other than the transliteration "episcopacy", is "overseer-ship". Even Vine is happy with that. But, what is overseer-ship? Does it imply the holding of an office in the church?
The question is really, as the judge in Rumpole of the Bailey was fond of telling his court, just a matter of using your common sense.
To illustrate: If a person has been given "overseer-ship" in a factory, doesn't that person hold an official position? Aren't the factory workers supposed to recognize and respect that person's position and to be under that person's authority? Imagine that a newly appointed factory supervisor were told by the bosses, "You have the responsibility of overseer-ship in this factory. Both we and the workers on the factory floor expect a high standard of leadership and supervision from you. However, you have not been granted any official position or special authority over the other factory workers." Would that be a satisfactory factory or an unsatisfactory factory?
2 Are “Appointments” Official Positions?
We might now give some thought to the Greek word kathisteemi. This word means to ordain or appoint.
- The word kathisteemi first appears in certain parables of our Lord. The master appointed one of his slave-servants to be in charge over his household, possessions, and business (Matthew 24:43-51, Matthew 25:21-23).
- We again encounter kathisteemi in reference to appointing certain men to be in charge of the church's daily ministry to widows (Acts 6:1-7).
- Further on, we find kathisteemi in reference to ordaining elders in all the churches (Titus 1:5).
- Lastly, we come upon kathisteemi with reference to the high priest being ordained or appointed (Hebrews 5:1, Hebrews 8:3).
Now these observations raise some important and interesting questions: Were the servants in the parables appointed to an official position in their master's household? Were the high priests appointed to an official position in the temple? If the sensible answer to that is yes, then are not deacons and elders appointed to an official position in their congregation? If not, why not?
The same language is used regarding the appointment of deacons and elders as is used for the appointment of the head servants and the high priest. If the appointment of a head servant or a high priest may be regarded as constituting an official position, then surely so should the appointment of a deacon or elder.
3 God “Set Some in the Church”
Let's now look at 1Corinthians 12:28 and Ephesians 4:11. We find that "God has set in the church" such men as elders and deacons. The terms "helps" and "administrations" would appear to match the work of deacons, and we have seen that "pastors" are shepherds, that is to say elders. The expression "He gave some as pastors and teachers" is equivalent to saying "He set some in the church as pastors and teachers". Whilst this link is not a proof that elders and deacons are official appointments, it is strongly suggestive, and supportive of the stronger argument above, regarding kathisteemi.
Remember the point we made when we started thinking about official positions in the church. The Bible speaks of "ordaining" or "appointing" men, and it hardly makes sense to say that God "ordains" a man to an unofficial position in the church. In the same way, when God "sets" a man in the church in a certain capacity, or "gives" a man to a certain function in the church, then it seems strange, doesn't it, to say that the place the man fills is not an official one?
When deacons and elders are appointed in the church, these appointments are not merely human but divine. God has set the deacons and elders in the church by means of the members expediting God's instructions. What counts is how God views those appointments. They should be viewed exactly as God views them. If God regards them as "positions" and if God regards the men in those positions as holding "office" then we too should regard them as such. This is really just a matter of properly respecting a man's appointment, and not disparaging it out of fear that the man might exercise some sort of power in the church.
4 Are All Members Equal?
We've seen clearly say that God sets "some" and "not all" in the church, giving them special capacities (Ephesians 4:11 and 1Cor 12:28). In a related passage, however, it speaks of "each one" in the church having a special or distinctive gift from God (1Peter 4:10-11).
According to one line of argument, all members receive some special gift or function in the church. In other words, everyone has a special place and purpose, and no place or purpose is more special than any other. In this sense, some means all. Some are this, some are that, but all are something special, and none are to be regarded as more special than others. So the argument runs.
This is certainly an attractive ideal, especially to those of us who appreciate democracy (as opposed to anarchy). Fortunately this ideal is perfectly true when we see it in the proper perspective. As Jesus said, "He who is the least among you is the one who is great!" (Luke 9:48).
The objectionable thing is that this lovely truth is misused by inferring a therefore which is not really implied. The therefore runs something like this: "Therefore there are no official positions in the church and elders and deacons are no more officials or officers in the church than are all the other members with all their other special gifts".
The far more reasonable inference is that the deacons and elders, though officially appointed to be in charge, are not lords over the flock but take charge with humility treating every member as special, and being respected and recognized as leaders more because of the example they set than because of the authority vested in them (1Peter 5:1-4). This does not deny their official position of authority; it simply puts it in perspective and is a comment on the correct use of their office.
The more important question is not whether elders and deacons have authority or position in the church, but how they exercise their authority; in other words, not whether they hold office, but how well they have used the official position entrusted to them.
Any good elders or deacons couldn't care less that they "hold office". What they care about is that they have a charge to keep and a service to render. They are not interested in defending their office for its own sake. They rightly think of themselves as servants not masters of the church. However, they are determined to get on with their task for the congregation's sake. They do care if they are being frustrated by an element within the congregation that wants to cut them down to size, undermine their rightful position, and keep them serving in an unofficial capacity without the recognition and respect necessary for the mature and fruitful fulfillment of their task.
5 Service Does Not Exclude Office
Some people might say that we would do better to think of elders and deacons as performing a special service for the church, rather than as holding an office in the church. That is a fine viewpoint, so long as it is just a point of emphasis. However, some go past the point of emphasis to the point of exclusion.
From that more extreme viewpoint, elders and deacons are expected to render a service, but they are not recognized as holding an official position or special authority. If you exclude an overseer from holding office in the church, what sort of overseer-ship does he have? If the answer is "unofficial overseer-ship" what does that mean, and how does it function? Things have to make sense, and "unofficial overseer-ship" cannot be sensibly described or explained. Remember what we said above about the satisfactory factory.
6 Aspiring to the Office
"One may have faith in this word: If any man aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a good work" (1Tim 3:1).This, by implication, requires three things of the congregation.
- (1) Respect for the man. The desire to be one of the shepherds in the congregation is a commendable desire, and we should not look down our nose at any man who has that desire. It is easy to label men as proud or pushy, because they press forward to leadership. It requires maturity and grace, however, to "esteem them very highly in love" who labour as leaders and to recognise and appoint (and even pay) them as such (1Thessalonians 5:12-13).
- (2) Obedience to God. The work of a shepherd is a good work and it behoves the congregation to encourage it. The congregation which neglects to appoint overseers, is obstructing good men from doing a good work. When God calls something a good work, he expects the congregation to have faith in his word and act upon it (James 2:20).
- (3) Submission to oversight. The obedience and submission of a congregation to its leadership (Hebrews 13:17) is a sign of maturity in the congregation. Unwillingness to do this is a sign of weakness and rebellion. The new testament pattern has no optional elements, and it is high time that any neglectful congregations lived up to their restoration plea and treated as mandatory that attitude of submission to scriptural government.
7 Who Appoints Elders and Deacons?
Now lastly on this page, we briefly address the question of who appoints elders and deacons? There are some who say that evangelists should do so. Timothy and Titus were appointing elders in the churches. Paul told Titus to "ordain (appoint) elders in every city" (Titus 1:5). Paul and Barnabas also "appointed elders for them in every church" (Acts 14:23). They were travelling as evangelists and apostles among the churches. So it is clear that the preachers who teach the churches about eldership also may appoint the elders. However we must notice carefully how this was done.
For this we turn to (Acts 6:1-7). This is about the appointment of deacons in the Jerusalem church by the twelve apostles. The principle however is applicable to the appointment of both elders and deacons by anyone.
- First the congregation was told to "select from among you" a number of men with certain qualifications. Those appointing the elders and deacons did not select them(Acts 6:3).
- Second, "the saying found approval with the whole multitude" (Acts 6:5).
- Third the chosen men were "brought before" those who were appointing them, and the appointment was made in the sight of the whole congregation (Acts 6:6).
It is clear that the appointment was a matter in which the whole assembled congregation had the role of approving the appointments and selecting the men to be appointed. The twelve apostles had the role of teaching the church what should be done, and performing the necessary ceremony —a role which a preacher could certainly fill just as he might preach on baptism and perform the ceremony, or preach on marriage and perform the ceremony. But he does not make the decisions. That is not his role. His role is doctrinal and ceremonial only. Nor is it essential that the preacher take this role. Any man or group of men capable of it might just as well do it.
The usual reasons for looking to the preacher for this role are just common sense...
- Preachers usually exercise a certain amount of leadership. By performing the appointment before the church, they allow the church to understand that leadership has been lovingly transferred to the elders rather than usurped by them, and that the preachers' leadership role continues as a cooperative role under the oversight of the elders.
- Preachers are men of the word and so it is appropriate that, in such an important matter, they should instruct and exhort the congregation.
So we see that there is no issue about who should ordain elders, whether the congregations or the preachers. It is not an "either/or" matter but a "both/and" one. Both take part in the process. Most especially, the whole congregation takes part in approving and selecting those who are to be appointed as elders and deacons.