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.