What are Elders and Deacons?
Scripture: 1 Timothy 3:1-13
See the beauty of the structure God has given to his church.
Many years ago, I read a book that had a profound effect on all the ways that I think about ministry, and every way I’ve thought about ministry since, has been affected by it. Now, I think the phrase “must read” is a little bit overused. If we read every book that was a “must read” for every Christian, that’s all any Christian would ever do. It’s all we would ever do is just read books. We just would never be done with them. So, I’m not going to say to you that you should even read this book. But there’s a central metaphor in this book. It’s so biblically accurate and profound that I think about it nearly every time I consider the growth and the mission of the church. The book is called The Trellis and the Vine. It was written by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, a couple of Australian guys who have a really big heart for disciple making. And the central metaphor is the title of the book, The Trellis and the Vine. So, picture a trellis in a garden and a vine growing up the trellis. The vine attaches itself to the trellis and new shoots come off of it and it grows higher, and it grows wider and eventually the trellis almost disappears inside of the vine. Now, if the trellis is built well and it’s strong, the vine will continue to grow, and it will flourish. If the trellis is weak, eventually the vine will be so heavy that it’ll break down and it’ll topple over and the whole thing will collapse. The point of the trellis is to support the beautiful vine. The point of the vine is not to showcase the trellis. The trellis needs to be strong. It needs to be well kept because it needs to hold up the vine and only so that it can hold up this vine. Now, the metaphor may be clear to you, but let me connect the dots on this.
Churches are like vines. They grow naturally as the people in the church use their gifts to share the Gospel and to make disciples of Jesus. Making disciples of Jesus is the point of the church. That’s why our mission statement here at Calvary is passion for Christ and compassion for people. We want to see people know who this Christ is. We want to make disciples. Our aim is to see people grow more and more in their worship and obedience to Christ so that His glory is known in greater ways throughout all of Rochester and throughout the world, through our partners. And that’s going to happen mostly through discipleship relationships, where each one of us is doing our best to invest the gospel into each other. We’re making relationships, we’re sharing Jesus with one another. And in that way churches are organic, like a growing vine. We don’t know exactly how these relationships will be formed or who the Holy Spirit will put into your path, or what opportunities will be in front of you in any given time. But the point of the church is to make disciples. So that is the vine.
So, what is the trellis? Well, the trellis is the structure of the church ministries that we have that are designed to give support to that disciple making. So, churches have programs and leadership charts and bylaws and policies and all of that is there to give structure and support to the work of the saints doing the ministry for the glory of God. The point of the church is not to have programs. The point of the church is not to have programs. The point of the programs is to facilitate and to organize disciple making. The point of the church is not to have leaders. The leadership of the church is designed to give oversight and direction to the mission of the church. So, if you take people out into your garden, if you’re a gardener, you take people out into your garden, you don’t go out there and go, “hey, look at this beautiful trellis”. “Isn’t this an amazing trellis that I have?” You say “no, look at this vine”. This is what you want to see. You want to see what you’ve grown. But if the vine is on the ground, if it’s toppled over, it’s crushed the trellis, that’s not good either. When it comes to the church, the key is to have a strong and stable structure for the church body to do all the work that God has called us to do. Our newly proposed comprehensive shepherding model is trellis work. We’re talking about trellis. Shepherding people, sharing the gospel, making disciples, that’s the vine. Love the vine. Everybody loves the vine about the church. Well, now we’re talking about the trellis. The model for how we do this work matters. I get that some folks really don’t want to talk about the model. You don’t want to talk about the trellis? Gosh, can’t we just love people and preach the gospel and make disciples? Can’t we just do that? Yeah, I get it. I wish that were the case, that we could just talk about those things. But how we do that matters. We need to make our trellis strong, not just for the Calvary of now, but for the Calvary of the future.
Today, I want to talk about the question of elders and deacons, specifically, what are they, how they function, and who can serve in those positions. Last summer here at church, I was having a discussion with somebody about these matters and this person said to me, what are elders and deacons? I’m not even familiar with those terms. Okay, that’s interesting. All right let’s talk about this. He had not been part of a church where those terms have been used, so we need to talk about them. This will be a sermon to define these God ordained offices and to inspire you to see the beauty of the structure that God has given to the church. Now, I’m going to move around quite a bit in the Bible today. You can open your Bibles to Acts 6:1. That’s where we’re going to start today.
First, we’re going to define these offices of Elder and Deacon, and then we’re going to talk about the qualifying characteristics of elders and deacons, and then I’ll conclude with some of the direction that we want to go in creating these biblical offices here at Calvary. So, let’s begin in Acts 6. You’ve already heard it read to you. This might seem like an odd place to start for defining elders and deacons, because neither the word elder nor deacon is used in this account. But historically, this is where we begin to see a division of labor in the early church, and the two offices of the church begin to be defined here. A complaint rose up in the very first church. Yes, that’s right. That’s right, Larry. In the very first church, someone had a complaint. Oh, it warms my heart to know this. It does. This was not just some empty complaint, though. This wasn’t. This wasn’t. This was a legitimate problem. Caring for widows was a vital task for the church. And some of the Greek, or in this passage is termed Hellenistic, widows notice that they were being neglected. A favor was being shown to the Hebrew widows, and so they go up to the 12 apostles for help. Now, there’s a lot we can learn from this passage, but I want to focus in on the solution that the apostles came up with, and even more so, the rationale that they had for their plan. The solution was to have the rest of the body pick out seven trustworthy, spiritually mature men who would be appointed to organizing the widow care program. The rationale for this plan was that the Apostles could not set aside their duties of preaching God’s Word and praying to solve the problem and serve the widow ministry. Now, they are not saying that the widow ministry is beneath them. What they’re saying is they simply don’t have the margin in their ministry to get this done. And we know this because they appoint leaders who had great reputations. They were full of the spirit and full of godly wisdom. These were not bottom of the barrel folks. These were incredible leaders that they appointed to this task. In fact, Stephen, one of these guys that they picked is martyred in the very next story after giving one of the greatest summaries of the Old Testament that you will find anywhere. It’s a phenomenal teaching. He definitely has the gift of teaching. This guy knew his Bible. He was incredibly brave, a very, very good leader in the early church. What we have here is one of the earliest descriptions of the trellis. That’s what this is. It is a description of the structure of the church. The apostles devoted themselves to studying, preaching, teaching, God’s word. We see in the rest of Acts that this actually included evangelism and planting churches as well. The duties of that office will later be assigned to elders who, as the church expands across the world, these elders will be appointed in churches to carry out that duty. As the church grew and became more complex, what happened was the needs began to rise up and so godly servants were needed to lead in those ministries. And so, the office of Deacon was added to the structure of the church. See deacon, the word deacon means servant. We could spend all morning looking at all of the ways that Jesus both taught and modeled service to us, showed us how to be servants so that we could serve one another. That servant role, like the elder role, becomes an office within the early church. You can see this if you look at the greeting that Paul gives to the Philippians, the letter we just went through over this last year. If you go back to it, look at the very first verse in it when he writes, “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and the deacons” it’s not the first verse, actually, it’s just part of the part of the introduction there. But he says, “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and the deacons”, and there’s your structure, right? There’s your structure. You have all the saints, meaning all the people who are sanctified, all the people who are followers of Jesus, who are part of the church in Philippi. And within that group, you have the elders, and you have the deacons.
The labor division between elders and deacons is a vital component to the structure of a church. The word pastor, elder and overseer are used interchangeably in Scripture to describe this office. Overseer gives the weight of meaning to the oversight of the church. So, they lead and they cast vision, they watch for problems there. They’re overseeing what’s happening. Pastor means shepherd of the church. They preach and they teach God’s word. They pray for the church. They counsel people using Scripture. Elder means that they are spiritually mature. Now, they do tend to be older because as you walk with Jesus, you become more mature. And that’s part of being an elder is being a mature believer in Christ. But Timothy was a pastor in Ephesus and Paul told him not to let anybody look down on him because he is young. So, it’s not just age. Elder is referring to spiritual maturity. You can summarize the role of an elder as one who knows, feeds, leads and protects the church. Now, I’m not going to dive into all of those roles because Josh Locke did a fantastic job of that last week. I encourage you to go back and watch that sermon. Listen to that sermon again on biblical shepherding. The elder role is distinct from the deacon role. A deacon is assigned to execute a particular task within the church, which does two things. It accomplishes that task which is vital for church ministry. We need to accomplish many tasks together, but it also relieves the burden on the elders, which is what we see here in Acts 6. Another way of saying this is that deacons protect the ministry of the elders by ensuring that they have time to do their jobs well. Matt Smethurst, who wrote a book on deacon ministry, calls them like this, he calls them the special ops force, carrying out unseen assignments with fortitude and joy. That’s a deacon.
Now, before I move to the characteristics of those who can serve in these roles, let me just say something about what you might be thinking. You might be thinking, Kyle, aren’t we all called to serve? Isn’t that part of the job description of just a Christian in general that you would be of service? We’re all called to serve? Yes, we are all called to serve. In fact, I will add this. Everyone’s called to be part of the shepherding ministry, too. If you follow Jesus, you have been given gifts by the Holy Spirit to serve the Church’s mission of making disciples. 1 Corinthians 12 is absolutely clear that every person who follows Jesus has gifts that are vital to the role of the church, that’s been given for achieving the mission that God has for his church. But there’s a difference between a gift and an office. All of us have gifts for shepherding and service, but it takes discernment to know who to appoint to the offices of Elder and Deacon.
So let’s look at those qualifying characteristics, starting with the elders. “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” So, the first thing you’ll notice about this list is that it is a list of character qualities with only one skill put in there, able to teach. It is far more important who an elder is as a person than what he is able to do, far more important. That teaching skill is vital because leading and feeding and protecting the church requires the ability to study scripture and to guide other people with it. That’s what sets elders apart. That’s what elders are doing in their work. But character assessment is the biggest part of determining whether a man is qualified to be an elder. There’s a lot here, but let’s look quickly at each one of these character qualities. This is going to be a very fast flyover of these. We cannot dive into each one of these, but we’re going to just do a quick one. Above reproach is the standard for all of the other qualities that are listed. So, to be above reproach means no one can accuse you of acting sinfully. No one can disgrace you and bring shame to the church. Now, that doesn’t mean you are free of sin. If that were the case, there would be no elders. We’d have Jesus and nobody else. Alright? But what it does mean is that you have to be at a place where you are openly battling and defeating your sin. I like to say no one can bring a charge against you that you have not already brought to yourself. So, elders must be openly repentant, fighting sin, willing to be accountable to the other elders in every area of life. No secret sins. Including these areas, husband of one wife or more literally, a one-woman man. He can’t be captured by secret lust and adultery and pornography. He needs to display a very deeply committed relationship to his wife, like Christ loves his church in Ephesians 5, that’s what we’re taught. You want to know what a marriage is supposed to look like? Look at Ephesians 5. Christ’s love in his church, sacrificing himself for his church, bathing his wife in the in word, sober minded, self-controlled, respectable. He can’t be a fool, basically. Can’t be a fool. He can’t be known for making a bunch of foolish choices and saying a bunch of foolish things to other people, out of control stuff, and always getting himself into trouble with his mouth. He needs to operate under godly wisdom. Hospitable. He needs to show hospitality. Usually, we think of this as the ability to have people over to your house. That’s what we consider hospitality. But really hospitality, being hospitable, simply means you’re approachable. People can come into your presence. You are a welcoming person, not pushing people away. Able to teach. There’s that skill. This is not necessarily the ability to teach from a stage in front of a crowd like I’m doing right now. This is simply the ability to handle God’s Word in such a way that you can guide other people. And that can happen in a classroom. It can happen in counseling, evangelism and in small group leadership. An elder needs to be able to share the gospel accurately and clearly. Not a drunkard, not violent, not quarrelsome. I’m going to put all these these together. I know guys who have wanted to become elders because they’re just upset with how things are getting done around here. They are immediately disqualified, immediately. Elders have in their hearts and minds a gentle mode, a gentle nature. They need to be ready to tackle very difficult problems, but with lots of love and grace. Not a lover of money. If wealth is your main goal in life and you filter all of your decisions through riches, you cannot be an elder of the church. Jesus was very clear on this. You cannot serve both God and money. You can’t do it. Elders have to manage their households well. If there’s chaos at home and you’re not going to simply have the emotional and practical bandwidth to focus on shepherding the church. And this is a little harder, but it’s true. An inability to shepherd at home is an indication that you are not ready to shepherd a whole lot more people in a church. Elders can’t be recent converts. It takes spiritual maturity to handle the weight of the responsibility that comes with being an elder of the church. Recent converts, people who’ve just come to faith in Jesus, you’re brand new to Christ, you may want the authority of being an elder. It may seem like a really great thing to have, but it takes maturity to be a shepherd who gives his life for the sheep. And finally, elders have to have a good reputation with people who are outside the church. And I feel like this is one that’s very much neglected today. You have to have a good relationship with people outside the church. You have to have a good reputation with the community. In the day and age of social media, this is even more difficult. It matters what people think about you. An elder represents Jesus both to the church, but also to the world. That reputation has to be above reproach. More could be said on this.
But let me turn to the qualifications for deacons. “Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanders, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” There’s a lot of overlap between this list and the list for the elders. And so let me just point out a couple of things here. You can study them more in depth later if you want to and see the comparisons. But let me just point out a couple of things. First of all, to be appointed to the office of Deacon, a person must first be tested. Do you see that there? You need to do ministry and prove yourself competent and faithful. This isn’t to say, by the way, that elders aren’t tested. They are. But elders can’t be recent converts to Christianity. You see, here that restriction isn’t in place for deacons. So there needs to be a little bit more of an emphasis on the eye test of faithfulness. You might be a newer Christian and be very excited to help lead in a ministry, and that is fantastic. I love it when people who are newer in their faith, they’ve just come to Christ, and they want to be involved. That’s a wonderful thing to be involved and to get involved in ministry. But just know that in a healthy church, more mature believers are watching to see how well you handle responsibility. They’re looking to see what you’re doing with it. Are you faithful with it? And if you are, you’ll probably receive more, and you may find yourself eventually in the office of Deacon. And that would be a good thing too.
The second thing I want to point out, and the part you’ve all been waiting for, is the mention of women in this passage. I’m going to do something here that I very rarely do. I’m going to disagree with the English Standard Version’s translation here. In verse 11, the ESV reads “their wives”, referring to the wives of the deacons. I believe that is an incorrect translation. There’s only one word there in the original language. Women, it is just women. The possessive pronoun “there” is not there. I would translate this literally. “Women likewise must be dignified.” And in the context of this section, I interpret this to mean female deacons, women who serve as deacons, must be dignified. That’s just translation. The context also tells us this. It makes no sense at all for Paul to place requirements for assessing the wives of deacons, but no assessment of the wives of elders in the first seven verses. It just makes no sense at all for that to be the case. What makes sense is that when he gets to deacons, he doesn’t just address the men who serve in that office, but the women who serve there to. Now that observation is double edged. He mentions women under deacon characteristics because they can serve as deacons. In fact, in Romans 16:1, he commends Phoebe as a deacon of the church of Cenchreae. You should check that out sometime. It’s pretty cool. But he doesn’t mention women under the elder characteristics, because he doesn’t need to because only men can serve in the office of Elder. See, church leadership is structured in the complementary way the family is structured under God’s design. In the paragraph right before the elder qualifications that we just read, Paul makes clear that women are not to have a position in the church where they teach or have authority over men. There was some false teaching that was happening in the Ephesians Church that was encouraging women to abandon their complementary roles of submission, and being submissive to the teaching of men, in their church. And Paul corrects this by appealing to God’s design of men and women in creation. Let me read that paragraph for you. “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing-if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” Teaching doctrine and exercising authority over the church is the job description of an elder. That’s why this paragraph leads into the elder roles that we just looked at. In the Ephesians church apparently, women were being encouraged to step up and to take over the teaching and authority roles of the men. And Paul says that it just cannot be that way. Not because of some cultural issue that was happening there, but because of the way God has designed men and women. Men were designed to lead, to teach and to carry the weight of authority. Women were designed to help and serve by coming alongside men in their duties. They serve a submissive role. When Adam failed to teach his wife, she then took the leadership role, messed up the instructions from God, and fell into sin. And what happened next? Her husband followed right behind her into sin and the whole relationship structural collapse, thrust the whole world into sin. Part of the curse that God gave to Eve was that she was going to continue to desire to take the place of her husband, and in turn he was going to rule harshly over her. And this rejecting of God’s given design for men and women continues, right up to the mess that we find ourselves in today. We’ve moved beyond rejecting Gods complementary roles for men and women to rejecting the categories of men and women altogether. By rooting his reasoning in the design of men and women before the fall, Paul is showing us what the church should look like for all time. The way God designed it. I’m sure I have made no friends today. I get that this is terribly unpopular. I understand that. But remember that what is popular is dictated by the values of the culture, not the Bible.
When we talk about intentionally building a biblical church, we mean that we are looking to Scripture to find out what it’s supposed to be. God tell us what your church is supposed to be. Cultural values have no bearing on the design of the church. In fact, since cultural values are formed outside of Scripture, we should be pretty wary of them. We should scrutinize cultural values through the lens of Scripture. And by the way, I would make that same argument for lots of cultural influences, corporate and business culture for example. There are a lot of churches that turn to the culture of corporations and businesses to learn how to design their church. And they shouldn’t. American notions of democracy and politics have made their way into the church. They’ve had a big influence. There are lots of cultural influences that put pressure on the church to change, to shave off the parts of what God has said that his church should be. We have to recognize those influences. We need to call them what they are, and we need to hold tightly to the Word of God, no matter how unpopular that might seem to people outside the church, or even inside it.
Let me close by giving you a little of the short term plan, what we’re going to do with elders and deacons in order to implement them here at Calvary. Following our six-part series on shepherding, we’re going to hold a member’s meeting to vote on the changes to the constitution and bylaws that will allow us to build an elder structure here at Calvary. We do not right now have elders per se here at our church. We have staff pastors, and we have a leadership board that functions in some ways like elders, but in other ways not like elders. Our proposal would create a team of elders comprised of an elder board, and a greater team of shepherding elders who wouldn’t have to come to the every other week meeting but are still elders in our church shepherding people, and that would include our staff pastors. I want to invite you to check out the web page that we’ve created that will give you lots of resources on this proposed change, including side by side views of the proposed changes, a resource list, and a video FAQ where you can watch me answer even more questions about all of this, exactly what you were hoping for this afternoon, I’m sure. You’ll get a link to it in the weekly email this week, or you can use the link in the email that I sent out just a couple of days ago to everyone here at church. We are not yet proposing the creation of deacons, but that is coming. We already have dozens of people that serve in deacon type ministries and leadership roles here in our church. But we’re going to create this official office down the road once we implement our new model, so that we know exactly how the Office of Deacon will fit and function within it. And in all of this church, I would ask you to continue to pray for your church leaders. Please continue to pray for us. There are so many wonderful things happening here at Calvary, and I believe our attention to the trellis structure of God’s church will yield an even healthier vine. But none of this is easy. Take this sermon, for instance. None of this is easy. Please pray that God will give us the eyes and the ears and the heart to apply His word with godly wisdom. Would you pray with me?