NOMINATE ELDERS & DEACONS

Overview

There are two offices in the church, “the overseers and deacons” (Phil. 1:1; cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-13). The terms themselves convey their distinct roles. The overseers oversee, while the deacons (literally “servants”) serve. This distinction is delineated in 1 Timothy 3:16-18, where the elders (i.e. “overseers”),[1] but not the deacons, are required to be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). The deacons are called to “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Tim. 3:9), but they are not called to “teach” it in any official capacity. The deacons, like the elders, must “[manage] their children and their own households well,” but only the elders are charged with managing and “car[ing] for God’s church” (1 Tim. 3:5). These unique qualifications for elders anticipate their primary functions of “teaching” and “ruling” (1 Tim. 5:17). Due to the authority invested in the office, an elder is particularly vulnerable to becoming “puffed up with conceit,” therefore, there is an additional requirement that he “not be a recent convert” (1 Tim. 3:6). In summary, the elders teach and govern the church; the deacons serve the church.[2]

In light of these biblical distinctions between elders and deacons, the parallels in Acts 6:1-7 are suggestive. There, the twelve Apostles appoint and commission “seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” to attend to the Greek widows in the church who were being neglected from the daily distribution of food. Their stated rationale is that they must not neglect prayer and the “ministry of the Word” in order “to minister tables.” This distinction between ministry of the word and ministry of the table appears to be a template for the inchoate diaconate ministry in the early church.

Ministry of the table comprises any service, or ministry, that keeps the unity of the church and meets the temporal needs of the church in order to relieve and release the Elders for prayer and the ministry of the Word. If an eldership is like a quarterback on a football team, the diaconate is like the offensive line. A football cannot advance without either. Likewise, it is when both elders and deacons are faithfully ministering that “the word of God continue[s] to increase, and the number of the disciples multipl[y] greatly” (Acts 6:7).

[1] “Elders” and “overseers” refer to the same group of people who are called to “pastor” their people (e.g. Acts 20:17, 28; Eph. 4:11; 1 Pet. 5:1-4).
[2] 1 Peter 4:10-11 seems to have these two offices in mind when he speaks of two general gifts of “speak[ing]” and “serv[ing]” that God distributes among the church.

What makes an Elder?

All Christians are commanded, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom…” (Col. 3:16). It is also true, however, that the members of the body of Christ are specifically gifted for a diversity of tasks, “if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching” (Rom. 12:7; cf. 1 Pet. 4:11). Elders are those who are given the special grace to teach. They are to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). They guide and guard the church with sound doctrine (1 Tim. 5:17; Titus 1:9; 2:1; Heb. 13:17).

For this reason, elders are men who are “able to teach” (1 Tim. 1:2) and “manage [their] own household[s] well” (1 Tim. 1:4-5). In addition to these competencies, elders meet the character requirements of being “above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, … not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Tim. 3:2-3). They are not “recent convert[s]” (1 Tim. 3:6) and are “well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim. 3:7).

What makes a Deacon?

All Christians are called to follow the example of their Lord who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; cf. John 13:1-20). It is also true, however, that the members of the body of Christ are specifically gifted for a diversity of tasks, “if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching” (Rom. 12:7; cf. 1 Pet. 4:11). Deacons are those who are given the special grace to serve. They are models of service and lead the church in meeting the temporal needs of its members.

For this reason, deacons are men and women who “manag[e] their children and their own households well” (1 Tim. 3:12). In addition to this competency, they meet the character requirements of being “dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain,” and “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience (1 Tim. 3:8-9). They must “be tested first” in their service, then appointed as deacons “if they prove themselves blameless” (1 Tim. 3:10).

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