Members, Elders, & Deacons: Piecing Together a Church that Multiplies

Philippians 1:1-2

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.

The church at Philippi was over 800 miles away from where Paul was imprisoned. Yet, Paul thanks them for their support. Though transportation was slow, difficult, and costly, the Philippian church found a way to partner with Paul from afar. But how? How did they manage to mobilize, organize, and accomplish 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.” By greeting three distinct groups,  Paul assumes that collaboration between these groups made gospel partnership possible. 

God has given the church a great commission to embrace and obey, but he has also provided organizational structure through which the commission can be accomplished. There is an order to church life that is blessed by God for his multiplication mission.  Paul instructs Titus, “Put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5).  This order includes: saints, elders, and deacons.

The Saints

Every local church is fundamentally made up of saints – those whom God has made holy by his grace through faith in Jesus. Saints are given a new identity in Christ, and they band together to carry out a new mission. In Ephesians 4:12, Paul explains that God has given spiritual leaders not to do the work of the ministry for the saints, but to equip the saints for the work of the ministry of building up one another.

Every individual saint, therefore, is responsible for building up other saints who will proclaim Christ according to their unique gifting and influence. Paul writes, “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). Saints are edified, the world is evangelized, and God is glorified through a diverse interconnected people united by one mission. 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 Rome. Church ministry should be an every-member-ministry.  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.[1]

The Elders

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, or 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, they protect the congregation from false teaching, disobedience, and corruption. They feed the sheep regularly with the God’s Word 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 the Scriptures.

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. 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.

The Deacons

God has called the church to more than maintaining doctrinal integrity. He has called the church to be more than a teaching point where Bible studies are led. He has called us to this undoubtedly, but he has not called us to this only. God’s people are commanded to be salt and light in the world. (Matt. 5:13-16) We are called to care for the impoverished, the helpless, and the hurting. (Js. 1:26-27). Consider ministries that care for the poor, provide counsel for the broken, evangelize the lost, and disciple children and youth? Consider the need for church planting and church revitalization. What about the nations? Consider the logistical details that are involved with sending  missionaries and maintaining gospel partnerships among people groups that have no access to the message of Jesus. The work is overwhelming and we have barely surveyed a few areas of ministry. At any given Sunday morning, a whole host of details come together. Bills were paid, facilities were cleaned and upkept, technology is utilized, music is planned, child care is coordinated, visitors are greeted, offering is taken, announcements are made, and the list goes on. 

Pastors alone are incapable of carrying out all these ministries without forsaking their primary role of teaching the Word of God. Pastors need 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 deacon. Deacons are the officially recognized assistants and supporters of the elders leading out in areas of service. 

In Acts 6, the widow care ministry was overwhelming the apostles. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit they appointed spiritually qualified individuals to lead the widow care ministry. This laid the groundwork for deacon ministry. As a result the word of God increased and the disciples multiplied. (Acts 6:7) Deacons are essential to the mission of multiplication. They are a gift for pastors who could potentially be overwhelmed and distracted. Likewise, they are a gift for members who desperately need both the faithful teaching of God’s Word delivered every week and avenues of service coordinated and carried out. 

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  oversee and lead the church. Deacons serve and to mobilize the church for service. Members 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.

For more on deacon ministry click here. 

For more on elder ministry click here.

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

Saints:

  1. What are examples of the “work of the ministry” that every church member is responsible for?
  2. What are some examples of ministry opportunities that some but not all members are responsible for?
  3. What are church practices or emphases that might discourage or hinder the responsibility all members to carry out the work of the ministry?

Overseers:

  1. What are the unique and primary responsibilities of the pastor/elder/overseer?
  2. Under what circumstances might a pastor be distracted from his Biblical responsibilities?

Deacons:

  1. What are the unique and primary responsibilities of the Deacon?
  2. Why have Deacon’s received a poor reputation in some contexts?
  3. What are some practical examples of deacon responsibilities or ministries?
  4. Are there any traditional committee chairmen or staff positions that might actually function like a Biblical deacon and thus should require the same qualifications as a deacon?
  5. Are there any ministries in your church that need the servant leadership of a deacon?

 

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 5, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005) 96.

 

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