Why Elders & Deacons?
I Tim 3.1-13; I Peter 5.1-5; Acts 6.1-7
Introduction: Brief Review.
We have a lot to cover this week, so I am going to get after. But just as a way of reminder last week we started unpacking the structures has put in place to make sure local churches are embodying Christ where God has placed them. One of those structures was leadership and that is the one we will focus more on today. So, what I hope we will see today is…
Theme: Leadership in the church is more about who you are than what you can do.
1. The attributes of elders.
As I said last week, I want to make sure we are laying all our cards on the table during this series. I will not spend very little time on this, but this church believes only men can be elders at this church. This does not mean women can’t be leaders, not skilled enough to leaders, or have the exemplary character of a leader. In fact many times I have met many women who may have these more than men. We practice this because we believe this is the way God ordered things in His church. We believe this is not a matter of preferences but what God says.
With all that said let’s take a look at our first question, “Who are the elders?” Embedded within this question is this question, “What attributes do they have?” There are two major texts that reveal those things to us, but I am going to concentrate on I Timothy 3.1-7. There are 11-13 attributes in this passage depending on how you interrupt some of them.
The first of these attributes is they desire this position of leadership. Some people don’t like this because they think it sounds power hungry, greedy, or prideful. But I would say that is a misunderstanding of what is happening here. Mark 10.42-45 tells us what these aspirations mean:
And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”—Mark 10.42-45
A man who aspires to the office of elder is saying I want to die for others, I want to be slave for everyone’s joy in God. That is how we exercise power and authority in God’s church. The second attribute these men have is “above reproach.” Simply put this means if I am was nominated people are not saying, “Uh, really, that guy!” The third attribute is taken from “the husband of one wife.” A better translation would be “a one woman kind of man.” I do not believe this disqualifies divorced men or single men. Fourth, these men should be “sober-minded” which means they should see the world and themselves as they really are. There is a strong sense where an elder needs to be self-aware. He knows his strengths and weaknesses. Fifth, “self-controlled,” means this man only has one master—Jesus Christ. He eats and enjoys food but is not ruled by it. Sixth, these men are to be “respectable.” This has become a challenge in our culture because honor and respect has been lost in many ways. It used to be that if your political candidate did not get elected you still showed respect for the office. With the rise of the internet age, coupled with the fact we know more about our candidates, people have lost respect for people in positions of authority. Seventh, “hospitable” means the man has a welcoming spirit about them. He is welcoming to the Christian and non-Christian. Eighth, “able to teach” means this guy could address everyday life stuff with the Word of God. Ninth, “not violent, but gentle, not quarrelsome” all go together. What these mean is this kind of man is not looking for fights, but he can fight off the wolves at the same time. Tenth, “not a lover of money could be seen in the light as “self-controlled”—this man is not ruled by money. Eleventh, verses 4-5 tell us that the home is proving ground. This man should be leading in such a way that his wife and children are thriving. If he is not laying down his life for his own family, then he won’t for God’s family either. Finally, verse 7 reinforces the idea that this man must be hospitable and respectable. A non-Christian should not say, “That guy is a pastor? He is kinda a shady dude.”
I don’t know if you noticed, but none of these things listed hear were about skill except one—“able to teach.” What this tells us is the office of elder is more about character than it is about having certain skills. But let’s take a look at what skills God wants these men to have.
2. The skills of elders.
I believe I Peter 5.1-5 tells us what kind of skills these men should have. There are about 5 skills we find in this text. First, these men know how to govern. I Peter 5.2 says they will exercise “oversight” therefore they will need to be able to do that. I think there is a lot of freedom here. The elders main agenda is help us grow in the likeness of Christ, which is another way of saying their main task is DISCIPLESHIP. Now they may chose to do that through Sunday school, missonal communities, community groups or home bible studies. We cannot get so caught up in the method, but leave room for the elders to exercise oversight in these areas. Second, Peter refers to them as shepherds. This means they care and protect. Third, we see that they are supposed to lead by example. The elders should never be asking you to do anything they are not willing to do. These men were lay members before they were elders. Let’s not forget these men are meant to lead like Jesus, which means they servant leaders. Finally, while they are meant to be examples to the flock, but what verse 5 tells us is the primary way they lead by example is through HUMILITY. While they lead in humility we follow their example.
Now what does all this mean for us? What does this mean for the people who are not elders? There a few things I would advise you in as someone who used to be lay church member for most of my life. First, I mentioned this one above, when it comes to matters of grey give your elders room to actually lead. Don’t seek to question their every decision especially in the places were Scripture is quiet. Second, let them actually shepherd you. What do I mean by that? As someone who has been an elder for some time and have many elder friends, one of our common heart struggles is when people in our flock come to us with fully formed views on what they are doing. Essentially when you come to an elder “seeking his counsel,” but already have your mind made up then you cut the shepherds legs out from under him. He is not really your shepherd, but someone you are looking to affirm what you already believe. We should never approach God that way, so why do we approach the leaders He has placed over us that way? Finally, when you are harm your elders are you harming yourself. Remember what Hebrews 13.17 said, “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
3. The attributes of deacons.
I mentioned earlier that we do believe elders are aloud to be men, but when it comes to deacons we believe this a position leadership God has made available to women. So, what are the attributes of deacons? The attributes are listed right after the passage on elders in I Timothy 3.8-13.
In this text we also have a list of attributes for this office. First, “dignified” has a similar meaning to respected like we saw for elders. It makes sense if you are a leader there is a level of reverence or respect for the person and the office. Second, “not doubled-tongued” means we should not catch these people saying one thing to one person, then a contradictory statement to another. We would call this lying or deceit. Third, the next two statements are similar to the elder’s attribute of “self-controlled.” These leaders should not be ruled by anything other than Jesus. Fourth, what verse 9 reveals to us is the distinction between the deacons and elders is deacons do not have to be able to “teach” sound doctrine, but they do have to know it and live it. Fifth, we see these are men and women of “proven character.” Much like elders they need to be evaluated by the existing elders and congregation.
Now it is here in verse 11 that I believe we start to see the argument for this leadership office being open for women in the local church. There are a few basic arguments for this. First, the Greek word here for “wives” can also be translated, “women.” The word “Their” we see here is not in the original Greek, which is reflected in NASB, NIV, RSV, and CSB. Second, we then see a list of similar attributes to the male deacons from verses 9-10. Third, based on other texts we read this office seems to be about assisting the elders in caring for the needs of the church and community. If that is the case then it explains why Paul makes such a strong case for Phoebe in Romans 16:
I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also.—Romans 16.1-2
The word “servant” is this passage is the same word for deacon in I Timothy.
Verse 13 reiterates to the congregation that if someone is serving in this office then we are treat them with dignity and respect. But this verse also reminds us that when we see these men and women serving that they are helping us grow in our affections for Christ. As we watch them serve in exemplary ways we are reminded of how much more Christ served the church.
4. The skills of deacons.
We have seen who the deacons are, but now we must quickly examine what they do. To explain that I want us to READ Acts 6.1-7 together.
What see happens here is the church was growing rapidly. It would some the context that it was clearly because of the message, but also from the church practically taking care of the poor in their community. But the needs were so great that some of the Greek speaking people were not getting their needs met probably because language barriers. Acts 6.1 uses the word “neglected” to express how dire this situation was. The apostles did not deny this was happening, but recognized they needed help, because if they did not address this issue then they would have been guilty of being negligent.
So the apostles, who were the elders at that time, decided to encourage the people to pick out 7 exemplary men who could set up a good system to make sure everyone’s needs were being met.
“Most commentators I’ve read note that the names of the seven men of verse five are all Hellenistic. In a congregation that was probably majority Hebrew, that’s striking. Through the work of God’s Spirit, the congregation didn’t content themselves with simply meeting the bar the apostles had set for them; they bent over backwards to care for their Hellenist sisters. In a climate of mistrust and suspicion, they risked entrusting their widows to this unfamiliar cultural group…Not surprisingly, we read in verse 7 that ‘the word of God continued to increase,’ and that a ‘a great many…became obedient to the faith.’”—Compelling Community, p. 160-161
In our context, both inside the church and outside, I would have loved to see more women represented among our deacons. But I would say this gives us something intentional work on and toward in the future.
While I do not believe these 7 men in Acts 6 are necessarily deacons I do believe they are a good picture for us what deacons do. The deacons primarily help defuse conflict in the church and make sure the physical needs are being met. In many ways the deacons compliment the elders by making sure there is a culture of mercy and justice.
Therefore, God put two types of leadership in place to help carry the load. And noticed what happened in Act 6.7, “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly.” When these two church offices are represented God’s church functions better, and more importantly we see clearer pictures of Christ in the ways they lead.