Request your free, three-month trial to Tabletalk magazine. You’ll receive the print issue monthly and gain immediate digital access to decades of archives. This trial is risk-free. No credit card required.Try Tabletalk Now
Already receive Tabletalk magazine every month?
Verify your email address to gain unlimited access.
Jesus has only one plan, and He called it “the church.” Having exclusively talked in terms of building a kingdom, He suddenly announced at Caesarea Philippi, “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18).
But what kind of church? And with what structure and organization? These were questions that took time to answer. In the immediate post-Pentecost fledgling church, there appears to have been very little structure, just a community overseen by Apostles and committed to four distinctive features: Apostolic teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and “the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
Leadership in this early church evolved from house gatherings with little structure to more organized congregations with distinctive offices—deacons and elders. The examination of “office” in the New Testament church is curiously fraught with difficulty. Chief among the points of discussion is the identification of which offices are meant to be permanent and which are merely temporary.
Associated with the issue of office is the equally vexing matter of extraordinary gifts (for example, tongues and prophecy). Are these gifts permanent or temporary? Cessationists (such as me) believe Scripture identifies certain gifts in the New Testament as “signs of a true apostle” (2 Cor. 12:12) that were given for specific redemptive purposes in a period when the church possessed a relative paucity of New Testament Scripture. These extraordinary gifts were essential for guiding and directing the church in her infancy. However, once the canon of the New Testament was complete and the Apostles (whether defined broadly or narrowly) were deceased, a more normative situation arose that features relatively few offices—deacons, elders, and (for some interpreters) pastors.
The progress in ecclesiastical structure is clearly visible in the way the later epistles to Timothy and Titus do not mention the extraordinary gifts and offices but focus instead upon deacons and elders and Timothy’s role as a preacher of the gospel. It is as though there is an expectation that some things are meant for the age of infancy and not for the age of maturity.
Deacons seem to have emerged from a crisis. The growth of the church, particularly in its racial and ethnic variety, caused problems. Widows, for example, were especially vulnerable in the first-century culture. A sense of community required distribution of food to those who were unable to fend for themselves, an issue that seems to have led to a sense of inequity and frustration (Acts 6:1–7). The Hellenist (Greek-speaking) widows felt they were being left out in the distribution in favor of the Aramaic-speaking widows. It was a classic “us and them” problem and one with which the church in our own time is all too familiar. By way of a solution, the Apostles selected seven men to oversee the matter. And the reason for this solution? So that the Apostles could devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (v. 4).
While no specific allegation of partiality or mismanagement was alleged against the Apostles, it became clear that the Apostles could not “preach the word” and with equal commitment “serve tables” (v. 2). They needed help to fulfill the role given to them in the growth and nourishment of the church.
Of interest is the way these seven men were recognized and set apart. They were to demonstrate certain qualities—they were to be “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (v. 3). And, though they were chosen by the local Christian assembly, ultimately they were “appointed” by the Apostles, who “prayed and laid their hands on them” (vv. 3, 6). There appears, therefore, to have been an act of ordination and installation, signaling something of the distinctiveness of the task given to these seven men.
But were these seven men deacons? The Scriptures do not specifically identify them as such, but the Greek term “serve” (diakone ) bears a close relationship to the word “deacon.” Though they were not called deacons explicitly, these seven men were to engage in diaconal (service) ministry that required an act of specific ordination to accomplish. It is fair to suggest that they were proto-deacons, an example of how the church makes a distinction between the ministry of the Word and the more practical, material aspects of church life. The communion of saints and the office of deacon therefore address issues of practical import, involving money, food, and basic care.
We should note that certain moral and spiritual requirements were deemed necessary to fulfill the role of serving tables. Offices in the New Testament are always in the interest of servant leadership. Deacons and elders are to be Christlike, serving others rather than themselves. Interestingly, no special quality of godliness is required of one office more than another. In enumerating the list of spiritual qualities necessary in a deacon, Paul mimics the very same qualifications required of elders. Apart from the gift of teaching, deacons must reflect the highest moral and spiritual aspects of godliness (1 Tim. 3:8–12).
The distribution of aid to the widows in Acts 6 serves as a template for the work assigned to deacons in general: deacons are to demonstrate leadership in matters relating to property and money as well as aid. A few decades later, Paul would make some important qualifications in the scope of diaconal ministry, particularly among widows (1 Tim. 5:3–16). In view in 1 Timothy 5 are the church’s widows rather than widows in general. Chief among the issues insisted upon is the responsibility of the family to care for widows. The diaconate must not create a culture of entitlement that abuses the church’s resources. The family is the primary source of such aid. Deacons, therefore, must possess spiritual gifts of discernment and compassion as well as firmness and resolve to make these difficult judgment calls.
Should all deacons be male? Whereas no evidence exists in the New Testament for female elders, the data respecting deacons is a little more ambivalent. Paul commends his “sister Phoebe” to the church in Rome and describes her as “a servant of the church at Cenchreae” (Rom. 16:1). The word “servant in Greek is diakonos, a term that can mean nothing more than engagement in diaconal ministry without the additional requirement of ordination to office. Further, in addressing the qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy 3, Paul adds qualifications for deacons’ wives (3:8–13, especially v. 11) but makes no such qualification when addressing elders earlier in the same chapter (3:1–7).
Some argue that the term for “wives” (Greek gunaikas) can bear the meaning “deaconesses” and that such a reading makes more sense in the flow of the chapter. Reformed denominations such as my own (the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church) recognize and ordain female deacons and do so by exegetical conviction without the slightest suggestion that a “slippery slope” argument necessarily follows concerning female elders.
Leaving aside the issue as to whether a “minister” (a “teaching elder” in current Presbyterian usage) is a separate office from that of the “elder” (or “ruling elder”)—an issue that would require several pages to address properly—the New Testament makes it very clear that one of the normative offices in the church is that of elder.
The three New Testament titles for this office, which are used interchangeably, are episkopos (overseer or bishop), presbuteros (elder), and poim n (shepherd or pastor). All three terms are used of the same individuals in Acts 20:17 and 20:28, for example. This fact alone ought to be sufficient to dispel hundreds of years of division and tens of thousands of pages written in support of the view that these terms refer to separate offices.
Paul provides a list of moral and spiritual qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:5–9. As with deacons, so with elders, leadership without virtue is catastrophic. No amount of giftedness can make up for the lack of integrity.
The one distinctive feature of an elder (as opposed to a deacon) is that he must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). But what does this mean?
Not all elders “labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17), a point that suggests that those who do may occupy a different office than an elder. Perhaps we should not make too much of this. After all, deacons must hold the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience (1 Tim. 3:9), older women are to teach younger women (Titus 2:4), and entire congregations are to teach one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16). Indeed, every Christian must be ready to give a reason for the hope that lies within (1 Peter 3:15). The ability to teach is not sufficient to qualify someone for the office of elder. But elders must have this ability with abundant clarity.
While the authority of deacons seems to be confined to the local church body to which they belong, there are occasions when the authority of elders transcends the local congregation. For example, the elders who gathered at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:6–21) were clearly making decisions that bound the whole of the New Testament church.
Leadership in the New Testament church, therefore, eventually rests in the two offices of deacon and elder. Ensuring that our own churches have both is a commitment to our subservience to the teaching of Scripture. To have godly, well-instructed officers in the church is a basic requirement. All things should be done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40), and this applies especially to the bride of Christ.