Elders and Deacons (oh, and Don’t Forget Trustees)

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Last week I offered some observations about the differences between the lists of the elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 and you can read that here. This week I want to look at the difference between the roles for “elders” and “deacons.” The resurgence of elders and elder-rule in evangelical churches in the last 40 years has led to a significant reconfiguration of the roles of elders and deacons.

There are two basic approaches in the relative roles of elders and deacons[1]: Traditionally, in Baptist and Congregational systems there is a single elder (the pastor) who is then supported by a group of deacons who form a governing board of some sort. Even in churches with multiple pastors or elders; the elders do the teaching and “spiritual” work while the deacons handle the practical matters of budget, building, and governance. In the plurality of elders or elder-rule, the pastors and a group of elders form the governing board and deacons often serve as the “trustees” (usually required by corporate law[2]) or become little more than a training and evaluation pool from which to draw future elders or simply an amorphous manpower pool.

In church history the former approach began to dominate fairly early. The separation of the “episcopate” and “diaconate” as classes of church leaders or orders appears early on. The single elder in each church was the norm. Those who affirm the “single-elder” philosophy will point out that the “plurality” of elders is explained by the fact that in the early church there would have multiple small congregations meeting in house. Philippians 1:1 for example, the plurality of elders is explained by the fact there wasn’t a single congregation in the city of Philippi, but rather multiple small congregations each of whom had an elder. At its root the word for deacon simply means a “table waiter,” “the servant of a master,” or in the larger sense, anyone who might perform the “discharge of service.” deaconsHowever, if Phil 1:1 is referring to the elders as an “office,” then certainly the deacons do as well. As church polity expanded and evolved, several categories of deacons began to emerge to distinguish deacons of varying importance or duty. These include sub-deacons and archdeacons.[3]

Elders need little explanation, other than to agree with Van Dam who states, “the office of elder in the New Testament cannot be fully understood without the background of the Old Testament local elder.”[4] The concept of an “elder” as a leader, ruler, and arbiter, was widely known in every ancient culture and the concept translated easily into the New Testament. In Israel and other cultures the elders exercised a secular authority while the priests held the spiritual or religious authority. Generally elders were not priests and priests were not elders. To some degree this is parallel to the single elder/deacon board system in church polity. The division of elders between “teaching” and “ruling” (1 Tim 5:17) is largely, I believe, a contrivance since the text isn’t making a comparative between what they do. The distinction is between those who do a very good job and those who do an average job at being an elder. Paul’s point is that some elders in Ephesus were apparently doing such a good job their personal finances were suffering and they needed the support of the church. Non-Presbyterian churches will often make reference to “lay” elders and “staff” or “pastoral” elders. But again, this isn’t a biblical distinction; it is just the distinction between those supported by the church and who isn’t. There is nothing wrong with these distinctions in and of themselves, as long as a church doesn’t begin to view one group as better or more important than another or create structures that favor one group over the other.[5]

The New Testament is clear that elders and deacons are to have the same character (public and private) qualities. As I mentioned last week, the only qualification distinction between elders and deacons is the “apt to teach” qualification mentioned in 1 Tim 3; but conversely the elder qualifications certainly don’t prohibit a deacon from teaching. I once worked with a church that had, ill advisedly in this case, switched to an “elder-rule” system. There were only three elders and they kept all the teaching to themselves. They told me they believed the Bible taught that “only elders were allowed to teach,” and I discovered quickly they were rather impervious to logic, biblical or otherwise. I was informed by a majority of the congregation that two of the deacons were probably the best teachers in the church. I was never able to get a clear answer on why they hadn’t been allowed to be elders. That story does have a happy ending, well, at least for the church. The three “elders” were ultimately dispatched and I was engaged to assist the church in undoing the polity and other changes and go back to the model they had previously enjoyed. The church continues to thrive to this day.

The Bible makes it clear that there are two offices within the local church: elders and deacons. Should the governing board of a church be an elder board or a deacon board? It depends on how you view early church history. If the plurality of elders, as in Phil 1:1 is explained as all the elders from the various house churches, then it is easy to see how the deacons evolved into the governing boards of local assemblies while the elders were the collective group of the entire city or region. This is not only a plausible position, it is unassailable in terms of church history: that’s exactly what happened and it began to happen almost immediately after the apostolic era.

The overall weight of biblical evidence is that there should be a plurality of elders in each local assembly and that they should make up the governing board. However, like the early church a small church or a new church plant probably is best served by “evolving.” If a small church, let’s say under 100 people, there is nothing wrong with structuring a system with a combination of elders and deacons on a board (remember the words of J. C. Ryle from last week). The key is that however you structure your church polity you have godly men doing it! And the Bible makes no distinction on the issue of godliness between elders and deacons. A small church can cripple itself by trying to adopt a structure best suited for a large church. Two or three elders by themselves cannot hope to adequately function as a “board” for a church of 100 people. As a church grows both spiritually and numerically you can add elders and rearrange the board if you want. Develop a structure or polity that is appropriate for your situation and more importantly have godly men doing it.

It always amazes me that some men think that the deacons and congregations who were apparently both spiritual and smart enough to call them to be their pastor should be replaced as soon as possible. Practically speaking to claim that it is unbiblical to have a governing board comprised of deacons or a combination of deacons and elders is simple nonsense. The New Testament makes no such assertion and church history will offer you no support. How many churches with just deacon boards can you think of that were good thriving substantial churches who made great impacts for the gospel? Charles Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle had deacons (and congregationalism) and as I recall they did pretty well.

 

Notes

[1] Just as a note I am purposely NOT dealing with the subject of “Deaconesses” in this essay. That’s for another time.

[2] Some churches mistakenly believe that a separate “Board of Trustees” is required, but this isn’t true. The deacons, or the elders for that matter, can be officially designated as the “trustees” of the corporation in the church constitution or bylaws. The idea of trustees as a separate office is slowly dying away.

[3] These categories are generally exclusive to episcopal polity systems. Within Catholicism, the category of sub-deacon has actually been discontinued.

[4] Cornelius Van Dam, “Elder” in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Baker Books, 1996), 198.

[5] I will say that in my experience it is unwise for churches to have a large number of pastoral staff also be on the elder board, it almost always leads to various intrigues.

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