How are the Offices of the New Testament Understood?
Jesus Christ is the head of the Church and the Chief Shepherd (Eph. 4:15, 5:23-24; 1 Peter 5:4). Under his headship, there are two main offices described in the New Testament church: elders and deacons. Paul addresses this when he writes, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons” (Philippians 1:1). The Greek word episkopḗ is used to describe overseers, bishops, and elders. In the evangelical church today, many use the term pastor to describe this office. The Greek word diákonos (deacon) can also be translated as minister or servant. While there is a range of uses for each of these terms in the evangelical church today, I will refer to the office of elder as those who oversee the church, and to the office of deacon as servants who care for the practical needs of the church. The above discussion addressed the qualifications of elders and deacons in 1 Timothy 3:1-13, yet there are a number of other Scriptures that give insight to the roles and responsibilities of each office. The following discussion will consider four sections: The Qualifications of Elders; The Role of Elders and Six Areas of Responsibility; The Qualifications of Deacons; and The Role of Deacons and Areas of Responsibility.
Qualifications of Elders (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9)
Paul wrote to Timothy that elders are to be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money, one who manages his own household well, not a new convert, and have a good reputation with those outside the church (1 Tim. 3:1-7). He also wrote qualifications for Titus to appoint elders:
If anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:5-9).
In both passages, Paul describes the character of those who can be elders in the church. He also indicates some of the responsibilities of elders in these descriptions: be hospitable; able to teach; a good manager of their household; able to give instruction; and able to rebuke those who contradict sound doctrine. The New Testament provides additional insight to the role of elders which will now be discussed.
Role of Elders: Six Areas of Responsibility
The qualifications of elders are clearly outlined in the above two passages of Scripture. The role of elders is evident in various passages throughout the New Testament. These can be categorized into six major areas of responsibility: Ministry of the Word; Leadership; Discipleship; Protection and Discipline; Prayer; and Hospitality.
Ministry of the Word (Acts 6:1-7; 15; 20:17-38; 1 Thess. 5:12-13; 1 Tim. 2:12-14, 5:17; 2 Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:9)
Elders are to be devoted to the ministry of the word. This includes studying, knowing, and teaching all of God’s Scriptures to his people. The ability to teach is one of their distinct qualifications (1 Tim. 3:2b), and they are to have teaching authority in the church (1 Tim. 2:12-14; 1 Thess. 5:12-13; Titus 1:9). Paul writes, “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2). As the early church grew and the practical needs became too great, they appointed deacons to ensure the congregation was being cared for in that regard, so they could devote themselves to the ministry of the word (Acts 6:1-7). In addition, those who labour in preaching and teaching are considered worthy of double honor (1 Tim. 5:17).
Leadership (Acts 14:23; 1 Thess. 5:12-13; 1 Tim. 3:4-5, 4:14, 5:22; Titus 1:5; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:1-5)
Elders are entrusted to provide leadership over the local church (1 Thess. 5:12-13). One of their distinct qualifications is that they be good managers of their own household who keep their children under control so that they might provide this type of care to the church (1 Tim. 3:4-5). Congregants are to obey and submit to our leaders (Heb. 13:17). Peter exhorts elders to be shepherds that exercise oversight willingly as examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:1-5). Elders are to be appointed by other elders (1 Tim. 4:14; 5:22, Titus 1:5). Those who are qualified and most spiritually mature will prayerfully identify and call other men who demonstrate those qualifications (Acts 14:23).
Discipleship (Matt 28:18-20; Eph. 4:11-12; Titus 2:1-8)
While every Christian is called to fulfill the Great Commission, elders have a more specific responsibility to oversee this through the local church. In the authority of Jesus Christ, elders are to make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to understand and obey the Scriptures (Matt. 28:18-20). Elders are given to the church “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). They are given the role of helping believers identify, use, and grow in their unique spiritual gifts for the benefit of the church. Elders are also entrusted to provide gender-specific discipleship. Paul gives instructions for teaching older and younger men (Titus 2:1-2, 6-8). Elders are also expected to teach older women and equip them to disciple younger women (Titus 2:1. 3-5).
Protection and Discipline (Acts 15; 1 Tim. 5:20; 2 Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:9; 1 Pet. 5:1-5)
Peter encourages elders to shepherd the flock, which implies a proactive leadership for their wellbeing (1 Pet. 5:1-5). Elders are to know sound doctrine and be able to refute false teaching, in order to protect the church from deception and heresy (Acts 15; Titus 1:9). Elders are also entrusted to provide discipline to those who persist in sin, by rebuking and correcting them with the truth of God’s word (1 Tim. 5:20; 2 Tim. 4:2).
Prayer (Acts 6:1-7; James 5:13-15)
Elders are to be devoted to prayer. This includes praying for the congregation, modelling, and teaching biblical prayer habits to those in their care. Recognizing the growing need to serve the church in practical ways, the disciples appointed deacons to fulfil this role so they could devote more of their time to prayer (Acts 6:1-7). James also writes that the church is to call the elders to pray over the sick (James 5:13-15)
Hospitality (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8)
Elders are characterized as being hospitable (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8). This includes opening their home to welcome believers traveling through, and unbelievers who need the gospel. In addition, practicing hospitality is an effective way to fulfil the elders other six areas of responsibility. An open and welcoming home can be an effective setting to model and practice the ministry of the word, discipleship, prayer, leadership, protection, and discipline.
Qualifications of Deacons (1 Tim. 3:8-13)
The above discussion has explained the qualifications of deacons. Paul wrote that they must be characterized by dignity, not double-tongued, not addicted to wine, not seeking after money, holding to the faith, above reproach, faithful in marriage, and good managers of their households (1 Tim. 3:8-13). In addition, women deacons are to be dignified, not gossips, temperate, and faithful in all things (1 Tim. 3:11).
Role of Deacons: Areas of Responsibility
The main function of the office of deacon is to serve the church in caring for their practical needs. Essentially, deacons are to help the elders fulfil their mandate by assisting the church to care for one another. As noted above, Phoebe was a servant of the church and most likely a deacon. Paul describes her as a “helper to many, and of myself as well” (Rom. 16:2). In Acts 6:1-7, the church was growing and there were widows that were being neglected in the distribution of food. The disciples recognized that the practical needs of the church were becoming too great for them to care for, and realized it would not be right for them to neglect the ministry of the word of God. The disciples then selected seven men to oversee the care of those in their flock, so they could devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.
Two important distinctions between the roles of elders and deacons are in regards to ministry of the word and leadership. Deacons are not described as having any teaching or authoritative leadership responsibilities. Rather, deacons are to support and submit to the teaching and leadership of the elders.