Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons. 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Praise God for the gospel witness and partnership of the Philippian congregation. If it were not for the faithfulness of this church to sacrifice for the work of the ministry, we may not have the letter of Philippians. Paul thanks them for their gospel partnership, their support, and their concern for him. Since their beginning as a church plant under Paul’s leadership, they had grown and were now capable of mobilizing and sending support for the imprisoned apostle. Sending support, however, to a Roman prisoner from the city of Philippi was no small task. Imagine the logistical, financial, and personnel requirements for sending support to a Roman prisoner at this particular time in history.
The church at Philippi was over 800 miles away in a historical moment when transportation and communication were slow, difficult, and costly. Yet, somehow, the Philippian church found a way to partner with Paul from afar. How did the Philippian church mobilize, organize, and accomplish such important missionary support against so many obstacles? Paul’s greeting provides us with a hint – “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with overseers and deacons.”
Knowing the Philippian church well and its growth since being planted years prior, Paul addresses the congregation by greeting three distinct groups: the saints, the overseers, and the deacons. Paul acknowledges each group distinctly assuming that each group is distinct yet unified. Perhaps Paul assumed a collaboration between these groups that made the gospel partnership with Philippi possible. There is something to be learned by their inclusion.
God has given the church a great commission to embrace and obey, but he has not left her to flounder in chaos in pursuit of obedience to that commission. There is an order to church life that is blessed by God and revealed in various places of the Scriptures. Paul instructs Titus, “Put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” (Titus 1:5) Order and organization are important for the life and mission of the church. This order includes the three distinct yet unified groups that Paul greets: the saints, the overseers, and the deacons.
Every local church is fundamentally made up of saints – those whom God has made holy by his grace through faith in the atoning work of Jesus. Every Christian experiences an identity shift which leads to a life purpose shift. The apostle Peter summarizes this identity shift of all Christians in 1 Pt. 2:9-10. Saints are people who have been called out of darkness and made to be God’s people. They have received God’s mercy, and have been commissioned for God’s purpose of proclaiming his excellencies. As new people with a new purpose, they do not continue to live in isolation from one another, rather they join together in local communities of faith. Peter says, “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Pt. 2:4) The identity and the mission are not individualistic. They are corporate. Together they act as a priesthood worshipping and proclaiming good news to those who haven’t heard.
Every individual saint, therefore, contributes to the corporate mission of proclaiming Christ’s excellencies. Every disciple of Jesus is a disciple-maker of Jesus. We help others follow this Jesus whom we follow. In the book of Ephesians, Paul explains that this universal ministry responsibility is precisely why God has given spiritual leaders throughout history. Spiritual leaders are gifted to the church not to do the work of the ministry for the saints, but to equip the saints for the work of the ministry.
Every individual saint, therefore, is responsible not only for proclaiming Christ‘s excellencies but for building up of other saints who will, in turn, proclaim Christ according to their unique gifting and influence. Paul writes elsewhere, “For as in one body we have many members, and the members don’t all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Rom. 12:4-5). It is through this beautiful diversity working together in sublime unity that the saints are edified, the world is evangelized, and God is glorified. Without the saints of Philippi giving, praying, and discipling, the Philippian church could not have maintained their own ministry to Philippi much less a healthy gospel partnership with Paul in his mission to the city of Rome. Church ministry should be an every-member-ministry. Without the faithful serving and unique giftedness of every local church member, the work of the ministry will fail. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes,
The chain is unbreakable only when even the smallest link holds tightly with the others. A community, which permits within itself members who do nothing, will be destroyed by them.
All organizations of people need leadership. Our world more naturally gravitates toward chaos rather than order. Sheep need shepherds, armies need generals, teams need coaches, and local churches need pastors. By God’s grace, he designed this role for men who are particularly affirmed, gifted, and qualified to serve as pastors – also referred to as overseers, elders, and shepherds. (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Pt. 5:1)
As overseers, the pastors watch over the spiritual needs and direction of the whole congregation. As shepherds, the pastors protect the congregation from false teaching, disobedience, and corruption. They feed the sheep regularly with the right teaching of the Scriptures and they lead them into green pastures of understanding, obedience, and rest. As elders, they provide God-given wisdom based not upon personal experience but on God’s revelation in the Scriptures and its application to daily life.
It was Paul’s missional practice to not only evangelize the lost in a city and gather them into churches but to then appoint elders over those churches.
“And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” (Acts 14:23)
Pastors, therefore, are essential gifts to God’s church as teachers, protectors, examples, and leaders. The normal pattern of the New Testament suggests that local churches have a plurality of elders, meaning that a team of qualified elders are accountable to one another and to the congregation. Together, with the affirmation of the congregation, they make major doctrinal, methodological, and directional decisions. While the congregation may have the final vote on matters of church discipline, budgeting, and other large decisions, the elders collaboratively lead the congregation through these issues. They bear a great deal of responsibility, authority, and influence while holding one another accountable and leaning on one another’s wisdom. Because many churches have embraced singular pastor models, this has often led to an unhealthy twisting of the deacon position to do what a plurality of pastors should do. When deacons are twisted to act as elders, both elder and deacon ministry is neglected.
God has called the church to more than maintaining purity and even more than just doctrinal integrity. He has called the church to be more than a teaching point where Bible studies are led. He has called us to that undoubtedly, but he has not called us to that only. God’s people are commanded to be salt and light in the world. (Matt. 5:13-16) We are to care for the impoverished, the helpless, and the hurting. (Js. 1:26-27) We are called to fulfill the great commission not only in our own communities but to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8).
The task is overwhelming. Take a moment to consider the needs in your own church as you carry on weekly services to both disciple believers and evangelize visitors. Consider the details, logistical planning, and leadership that is required for the church to make kingdom expansion a reality in the Sunday morning service alone. On any given Sunday morning, many people gather having no idea of what took place to make that time of worship possible. They enter into the doors of a building. During the week someone cleaned that building, maintained that building, and paid the bills on that building. Someone cut the grass, fixed the plumbing issue in the bathroom, and renewed that year’s termite contract. Someone maintained and prepared the equipment, the technology, and the musical instruments to be used in the service. Someone prepared the elements for the Lord’s supper, filled up the baptistry, prepared visitor materials, organized nursery rotations, trained nursery workers, planned and practiced for musical worship. For larger churches, parking teams and security teams were prepared for action. During the service, musical worship is led, announcements are given, the offering is collected, technology ministries such as podcasts are utilized, lyrics for corporate singing are displayed, and scripture reading slides are presented.
During the service, a pastor preaches a sermon over which he has labored, studied, and prayed over. He has done so in between preparing for small groups, leading staff meetings, mentoring upcoming leaders, counseling troubled church members, evangelizing the lost in the community, overseeing the ministries of the church, and shepherding his own family. After the service, the offering is counted, reported, and deposited. Throughout the week, checks are written, expenses are recorded, and budgets are managed. All of this takes place just so that the local church can come together weekly for corporate devotion to the word of God, the fellowship, musical worship and the sacraments. But, once again, this is not all the church is called to.
Consider what it takes to truly expand God’s kingdom in a community. What about issues of social justice, the fight against abortion, care for the impoverished, counsel for hurting marriages, counsel for the addict, counsel for the sick and dying, outreach, weddings, funerals and ministries for children, youth, and broken families? Consider the need for church planting and church revitalization. What about Kingdom expansion to the nations? Consider the logistical details that are involved with sending overseas missionaries and maintaining gospel partnerships for the advancement of the Kingdom in people groups that have no access to the message of Jesus Christ. The work is overwhelming and we have barely surveyed a few areas of ministry to be done.
With this brief look at regular ongoing ministries, it is clear that the pastors alone are incapable of carrying out the work of the ministry without forsaking their primary role of teaching the word of God and prayerfully leading the congregation. Even with the help of church members who are doing the work of the ministry, there is further need for leadership over specific ministries. The pastors need other servant-leaders that are uniquely gifted and specially called to certain aspects of service. This is precisely why God gifted the church with both the offices of pastor and the office of deacon. Deacons are the officially recognized assistants and supporters of the elders. They are called to meet all the qualifications of godliness that the elders are required to meet apart from the required ability to teach. The ability to teach is not required, because teaching is not the deacon’s primary responsibility.
In Acts 6, we are given a first-century prototype for the ministry of the deacon. Men of good repute, full of wisdom, and full of the Holy Spirit were chosen to lead service efforts so that the apostles would be freed to focus on their primary task of preaching and praying. When these servant leaders were appointed to a particular ministry of service, the whole church operated like a well-built machine powered by the Spirit of God for the work of making disciples. Through their service in the local church, the word of God increased and the disciples multiplied. (Acts 6:7) The Lord has not given the office of deacon to the local church by accident or as an optional addition. They are essential to the mission of multiplication. They are a gift for pastors who could potentially be overwhelmed with tasks that take away from their ministry of leading, feeding, and protecting the sheep. Likewise, they are a gift for members who desperately need both the faithful teaching of God’s word delivered every week by pastors and avenues of service coordinated and carried out by faithful deacons. It is through faithful deacon ministry that the whole church multiplies.
The Dance of Multiplication Ministry
Choreographed dancing is about moving in unison to the same rhythm. If one member of the team dances to the wrong tune or gets off rhythm it affects the whole team and so it is with the partnership of saints, elders, and deacons. Each role has particular moves, motions, and steps they are responsible for all to the same rhythm of glorifying God by making disciples of all nations. When these roles work in sync with one another it is a beautiful display of God’s wisdom, but there will always be the danger of getting off beat. There will always be the danger of forcing pieces into the puzzle where they do not fit and neglecting other pieces altogether. Pastors are called by God to oversee and lead the church. Deacons are called to serve and to mobilize the church for service. Members are called to carry out the work of the ministry. Neglect or misunderstanding of any of these roles will affect the whole. But, when they are pieced together according to God’s design, the word of God increases and disciples are multiplied to the glory of God.
By His Grace & For His Glory,
Pastor Brandon Langley,
St. Rose Community Church
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 5, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005) 96.