Tested & Blameless

Having observed the ordination of the first seven deacons in our previous study, we constructed a biblical portrait of what deacons’ responsibilities are in the church, namely that they are servants, ministers, and guardians of church unity. As we did with elders, we now proceed to study what the qualifications are for being a deacon. We will begin by looking at five overall qualifications, then we will address the topic of women deacons, and we will end by viewing the reward for being a faithful deacon in the LORD.

OF GOOD REPUTE // ACTS 6:3

For our first two qualifications for the deaconate, we return to the text of our previous study, Acts 6. Here in verse 3, the apostles told the congregation of Jerusalem to choose seven men for the overseeing the duty of food distribution to the widows. But they did not say to choose any men; rather, they must be men of good repute and full of the Spirit and wisdom.

What does it mean to be of good repute? The Greek word used here is the same word from which martyr originates. Since a martyr is a witness or one who testifies, its most common translation in the New Testament is to bear witness or to testify, particularly of Christ. But that is not the meaning here. This usage means that they are men of good reputation, people can testify to their godly conduct and character. The largest implication is that these first deacons (and all deacons afterward) need to be known by their congregation to be men who bear witness to Christ with their lives. The object of recognizing a life of repute flows directly into our next qualification.

FULL OF THE SPIRIT & OF WISDOM // ACTS 6:3

For the Christian, possessing a life of good repute will only be possible if we are full of the Spirit and of wisdom. What does it mean to be full of the Spirit? Doesn’t every Christian have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit? If so, how can someone be full of the Spirit? Yes, the Spirit indwells all followers of Christ. We pray to God as our Father only by the Spirit (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15). “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16). Furthermore, the Spirit is our guarantee of our future glorification (Ephesian 1:14). We, therefore, need the Holy Spirit to simply be a Christian.

Nevertheless, we can also be more or less full of the Spirit, as evidenced by this passage. A greater literal portion of the Holy Spirit is not likely; instead, full is probably used to figuratively describe someone’s submission to the Spirit. Take Stephen for example. Because Stephen was a man who was full of the Spirit, he was a man who gave the Spirit control over himself. He was submissive to God’s will, desiring to be used as an instrument for God’s glory. In essence, John the Baptist’s prayer was coming true in his life: he was decreasing, while Christ was increasing (John 3:30).

Note also that being full of the Spirit is tied to being full of wisdom. Because wisdom is living according to God’s design, true wisdom can only come from the Holy Spirit. Solomon repeatedly urged in Proverbs to heed the instructions of wisdom found in God’s Word. But men of God wrote the wisdom found in God’s Word “as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). We cannot, therefore, separate wisdom from the Spirit.

But how can we recognize someone who is full of the Spirit and of wisdom? Jesus said that we could recognize false teachers by the fruit their lives bear (Matthew 6:15-20). Likewise, the Spirit-filled are also known by their fruit. Galatians 5:22-23 fortunately puts these fruits into list-form: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Spirit-filled and wisdom-filled deacons are those who exemplify the fruits of the Spirit.

HAVE GODLY CHARACTER // VERSE 8

For the third qualification, we move over to our primary text for this study. Verse 8 picks up where we concluded studying the qualifications of elders, which is evidenced by the word likewise. Likewise connects this passage to the previous seven verses, but particularly it connects back to verse 1 in which Paul describes aspiring to the office of overseer as a noble task. The implication of likewise is that 1) deacon is also an office within the church, 2) the office of deacon is also a noble task, and 3) it is also noble to aspire to be a deacon. Elders and deacons obviously have different responsibilities within the church, but the qualifications for both offices are quite similar.

I have grouped the four statements of verse 8 under the umbrella term of having godly character because that is the overall aim. First, deacons must be dignified. This word will be repeated in verse 11 for deaconesses or deacon’s wives, and Philippians 4:8 translates it as honorable. To be dignified is to be worthy of respect.

Second, deacons must not be double-tongued. The word here is literally two-words. Our English idiom two-faced carries the same meaning: someone who says one thing to one person but another to someone else. Being double-tongued is cast as being the exact opposite of dignified.

Third, deacons must not be addicted to wine. As mentioned with elders, the overconsumption of alcohol is a breeding ground for ungodly behavior; however, Paul is not placing a blanket prohibition on alcohol for deacons. Rather, if deacons drink alcohol, they should model the Spirit’s fruit of self-control.

Fourth, deacons must not be greedy for dishonest gain. As with elders, greed has no place in the heart of a deacon. The threat of greedy preachers is all too real with the wide reach of prosperity theology, but few consider its ramifications within the deaconate. Because deacons are serving ministers of the church, they often come into contact with church members at their most needy and most vulnerable, such as the widows of Acts 6. Deacons, therefore, must guard themselves against any greed that might lead them to exploit their fellow church members.

BE FIRM IN THE FAITH // VERSE 9

Next, Paul tells us that deacons “must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” We should first note that Paul is using the word faith here to describe the entire Christian belief-system, not simply faith at an individual level. Generally, faith describes the act of placing our confidence in something, but here it describes the very idea that we are placing our confidence in. The mystery of our faith is described by Paul later in this chapter as being the work of Christ: “He [Jesus] was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believe on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 16-17). The gospel of Jesus is a mystery in the sense of it being an eternal and secret plan that God has finally revealed to humanity. This mysterious nature of the gospel also makes it majestic and glorious, a truth too magnificent for mortal ears.

Deacons hold firm to the glories of the gospel. They must be individuals who are enraptured in, and molded by, the good news of Jesus Christ. The New Testament does not know a deacon who does not know the gospel. But deacons must not merely know the gospel cognitively; their lives must reflect the gospel. Strauch describes this well:

A Christian can’t hold to the faith with a pure conscience and live in sexual immorality, pilfer money, hate a brother, divorce a Christian spouse, or mix falsehood with the gospel. The New Testament never allows people to separate life and doctrine. Whenever we knowingly act in a way that is contrary to God’s Word and do not seek His forgiveness, we defile our conscience. Every time we violate our conscience, we weaken its convicting power and make sin and hypocrisy easier to commit. Therefore, a Christian whose inconsistent, hypocritical life belies biblical truth can’t be a deacon. (100)

BE TESTED & BLAMELESS // VERSE 10

The next qualification for being a deacon is a period of testing to see if they are blameless. The word blameless here is also translated as above reproach in Titus 1:6-7. As mentioned regarding elders, this means being above blame, criticism, or accusations. All Christians must strive for this degree of holiness, but deacons, like elders, should model growth in godliness. They must also be examples of godly repentance when in sin.

This blameless conduct is discovered through a period of testing. What exactly does Paul mean by testing deacons? Commentator George Knight III provides an insightful answer:

How this is to be done is not specified. The letter itself makes the requirements public and [1 Timothy] 5:22ff. indicates that time must be given to appraise a person’s life. From this we can conclude that the testing is to be a thoughtful and careful evaluation of a man’s life by a congregation aware of these needed qualifications. (170)

FAMILY SHEPHERDS // VERSE 12

Verse 12 provides us with our final qualification for deacons. Like elders, deacons must also be shepherds of their own families. The rationality of verse 5 is also implied here. Although deacons are not shepherds of the entire church, they are tasked with leading ministries that care for members of the church; therefore, they must also be able to properly care for their families.

The thoughts expressed of elders regarding being the husband of one wife and managing children well hold true here as well. Being a one-woman man means that the deacon is not a polygamist, an adulterer, or addicted to pornography. Single men, provided they are celibate, should not be prohibited, since Paul encouraged singleness for the purpose of having a less distracted devotion to the kingdom. Potential deacons who are divorced should be handled with much wisdom and prayer. Likewise, as those who hold firm the mystery of the faith, deacons must manage their children well, leading and guiding them in the truth of the gospel. Deacons are not given the same motive of being responsible for the care of the church, but as ministry leaders, they should also be leaders in their own homes.

DEACONSESSES? // VERSE 11

Having now covered the major qualifications of being a deacon, we now return to verse 11, which we passed over. This verse is less controversial than 1 Timothy 2:12, but there seems to be more interpretational disagreement within the evangelical camp over this verse than that one. Paul is obviously talking about women here and has sandwiched the discussion in between qualifications for the office of deacon, so that leaves us asking a few questions. Is Paul now giving qualifications for deacons’ wives? Or is Paul opening up the office of deacon to women as well as men? Let’s address the evidence.

First, the matter is complicated by the Greek text. The ESV translates their wives, but no possessive pronoun exists in the Greek. The word is simply wives, which in Greek is the same word for women. A more literal translation, therefore, would be either wives likewise or women likewise. In this, the NASB furthers its reputation for being the most literal English translation. The answer, then, is not as simple as the ESV makes it seem.

With the word their absent in the Greek, this verse is probably not referencing the wives of deacons, but rather female deacons, or deaconesses. First, it seems unlikely that Paul would provide qualifications for deacons’ wives, while not mentioning any for elders’ wives. Second, the use of the word likewise is used in the same manner as it was for male deacons in verse 8, designating similarity to a new group, which Paul also does twice in Titus (2:3, 6). If this is true then, Paul is asserting that deaconess is 1) an office of the church, 2) a noble task, and 3) a noble aspiration for women.

Of course, one of the main difficulties for this verse referencing deaconesses is why Paul would place qualifications for deaconesses in the middle of qualifications for deacons, especially when the very next verse states that a deacon must the husband of one wife. Allison answers this question as follows:

This could also explain why Paul “interrupts” the natural flow of his presentation at this point: he first covers the qualifications that apply generally for men deacons (1 Tim. 3:8-10), then switches to his discussion of women deacons (v. 11). He next addresses a specific qualification for men deacons: they must be “the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well” (v. 12). Obviously, this qualification would not apply to women deacons; thus, Paul places this specific qualification after his discussion of the general qualifications for both groups. (245 continue the quote on a more comfortable computer)

Next is the issue of title. Why would Paul say women instead of deaconess? Allison observes that a feminine version of deacon did not exist in Paul’s day (246). Therefore, Paul could only use the word women in order to distinguish deaconesses from their male counterparts. Strauch argues against deaconesses (favoring the wife interpretation) by asking why Paul includes this verse about women deacons if they are a part of the same office. “Why after listing five qualifications for “deacons” that could include males or females, does Paul in verse 11 repeat nearly the same qualifications for women deacons? That would be like saying that all nurses must attend four years of college and then singling out male nurse and repeating that male nurse must attend four years of college with a slightly different terminology” (117). I would argue, however, that Paul specifically points out women in contrast to their being excluded from the office of elder. Although women are biblical prohibited from being pastors, Paul is clarifying that they may serve as deacons.

Another argument for deaconesses is found in Romans 16:1, where Paul refers to “Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae.” Servant in this verse is the Greek word for deacon. Some argue that Paul was merely calling Phoebe a servant in general, but when deacon is used generally, it is typically attached to the phrase in the Lord or of Christ. Colossians 1:7 calls Epaphras a minister of Christ, and Colossians 4:7 calls Tychicus a minister in the Lord. Yet Paul does not use these general phrases of Phoebe; instead, he calls her a servant of a particular church, namely the church at Cenchreae. It is likely then that Phoebe was a deaconess of Cenchreae’s church.

For all of these reasons, Paul is likely referring to female deacons, or deaconesses, in verse 11. But does having deaconesses contradict 1 Timothy 2:12? Allison answers this concern by saying that “Like their male counterparts, deaconesses do not have responsibilities to teach, lead, pray for the sick, and shepherd the church; those are the primary responsibilities of the elders. Accordingly deaconesses do not violate the Pauline prohibitions in 1 Timothy 2:12” (247). Of course, as we discussed in our last study, many churches have a board of deacons who function in many ways as lay elders in the church. Under that structure, it makes sense why deaconesses are not ordained within the church; they would be violating 1 Timothy 2:12. However, under the biblical responsibilities of deacons, there is reason why women should be withheld from the office of deacon.

If Paul is not referring to deaconesses here, the only other viable option seems to be an emphasis on the importance of deacon’s wives in their ministry. As said earlier, mentioning deacon’s wives but not elder’s wives is quite odd. However, if that interpretation is correct, deacon’s wives have a specially, and biblically, designated role in the ministry of their husbands that elder’s wives do not possess. Once again, I do not think this is the best interpretation, but other than deaconesses, this is the only interpretation that holds exegetical and hermeneutical water to me.

Whether this verse is referencing deaconesses or deacon’s wives, one clarity should stand: Paul is obviously giving these women an office of leadership within the church. That is the very purpose of this verse, even though it has often been ignored. That is why biblical organization is important. When we abandon the Scripture’s authority in one area, we will inevitably begin to forsake others as well. This verse gives us a glimpse of those two extremes. On one hand, many churches go beyond Scripture by ordaining women as pastors, while on the other hand, many churches forbid women from being deacons. Both are, I believe, unbiblical.

THE REWARD OF BEING A DEACON // VERSE 13

Paul concludes this section of Scripture with a promise of reward and blessing for those who serve as deacons. Just as Peter promises an unfading crown for elders (1 Peter 5:4) and Paul urges that elders who lead well are worthy of double honor (1 Timothy 5:17), so Paul assures there is much gain for deacons who serve well. What is the deacons’ reward? Paul lists two blessings.

First, deacons gain a good standing for themselves. This refers to having dignity, honor, and influence within the church. While deacons do not have church-wide authority like elders, they are still authoritative and influential leaders within the church. As model servants and ministry leaders, they are shapers of the church; therefore, as their heart for service is seen they will grow in standing before the congregation. For this reason, I believe elder-led churches should still have deacons’ meetings of some sort. If the churches’ deacons meet these biblical criteria, only wisdom can come from the elders seeking their thoughts and opinions.

Second, deacons gain a great confidence in the faith. Strauch suggests that confidence here might better be understood as boldness (150). As they serve as the hands and feet of Christ, ministering Jesus’ grace to those in need, deacons have a front row seat to witnessing God’s marvelous provision for His people.

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Guardians of Unity

After discussing the responsibilities and qualifications of elders, we now move on to the second office within the church: deacons. The ideas and traditions behind the roles and responsibilities of deacons are vast, diverse, and unfortunately often unbiblical. Much of this comes from the Bible’s implicit, rather than explicit, teaching on deacons; even so, the Scriptures remain clear about the deacons’ responsibilities.

COMMON, HISTORIC, BUT UNBIBLICAL BELIEFS

Before diving into the text, I think it would be helpful to briefly examine three of the most popular, yet unbiblical, roles of deacons both today and throughout church history. Like most things in life, these views on the deaconate lean toward extremes. Two of them diminish the office, while the third exalts it above the biblical presentation. We must fight extremes and walk down the narrow path to which the LORD has called us. We do an injustice to deacons and the entire church when we deviate from our biblical model.

Deacons: Elders in Training

This first false view of deacons is, to my knowledge, not as common today as it was during the early centuries of the church. Alexander Strauch gives a great history of this view in the endnotes of The New Testament Deacon. He says that “For over a thousand years the Roman Catholic Church relegated the position of deacon to an apprenticeship to the priesthood. The deaconate was an ordained position in the clerical hierarchy, but it was only a transitional step to the higher order of priesthood. Its significance was largely ceremonial” (160). Deacons, therefore, were often considered little more than elders in training. The great defender of Christ’s divinity, Athanasius, is one such example.

Deacons: Pastoral Assistants

Another prevalent view throughout history, that is still popular in some circles today, is the idea of deacons being assistants to the elders. This idea goes all the way back to Hippolytus, who wrote in the early 200s, “In the ordination of a deacon, the bishop alone shall lay on hands, because he is not being ordained to the priesthood, but to the service of the bishop, to do what is ordered by him. For he does not share in the counsel of the presbyterate but administers and informs the bishop of what is fitting” (13). Within this function, deacons both fell in authority and grew in it. In some places, the deacons were seen as almost more authoritative than even the elders because the deacons essentially functioned as their representatives. But in other places, the deacons were used for little more than serving the bread and wine during the Lord’s Supper.

Deacons: Ruling Executives

This appears to be the most prevalent view of deacons in the present day. Most often this is expressed in deacons who perform a mix of the functions between elders and deacons, both exercising oversight and serving. Unfortunately, there are also cases where “deacons have assumed the role of being supervisors of the staff and pastor” (Platt, 60-61). Platt’s assessment is that “this is not biblical” (61). Strauch agrees, “In many churches, deacons act more like corporation executives than ministering servants. In direct contradiction to the explicit teaching of the New Testament and the very meaning of the name deacon, which is “servant” (diakonos), deacons have been made the governing officials of the church” (9).

These roles are not biblical and, therefore, do not ultimately benefit the church. Having now glanced at incorrect views, let us dive into the Scripture that we might observe the correct view.

CHOOSING THE FIRST SEVEN DEACONS // ACTS 6:1-6

In studying these verses, we will first do an exegetical walk-through in order to get the overall message and intent of the passage. Then we will step back and create a biblical portrait of the responsibilities of deacons from what we see presented in these verses.

In verse 1, we find the setting of the scene for our text. In these days references back to everything that has been occurring in Acts thus far. These includes the receiving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (2:1-4), the salvation of three thousand people (2:41), public healings (3:1-10), persecution (4:1-22), signs and wonders that led to multitudes coming to the faith (5:12-17), and even more persecution (5:17-42). Indeed the disciples were increasing in number and doing so quite rapidly.

But with this rapid and supernatural growth also came conflict. Hellenistic Jews (that is, Jews that spoke Greek instead of Hebrew) began to complain that the Hebrews’ widows were being favored in the distribution of food, while their widows were being neglected. Thus, a crack begins to form in the newfound community, a crack that if not dealt with would destroy the early church’s unity. Unfortunately, this pattern is still true today. Most church conflicts and divisions are rarely doctrinal; they are ministerial and practical. We fail to serve people as they are meant to be served, and division is the result. How then are the apostles going to resolve the problem and keep the church united?

Verse 2 reveals the apostles’ plan. They gather together the full number of disciples, meaning every believer in Jesus as Christ was gathered to hear the plan of the Twelve. They begin by guarding their main responsibility: the preaching of the Word. Of course, overseeing the food distribution would not have kept them from preaching entirely, but it would have severely cut into their time to preach. Therefore, they knew from Jesus the danger of neglecting what is best in order to do what is good.

Verse 3 begins their solution to the problem. They tell the church to choose seven men to be appointed to this duty. There are many thoughts to point out in this verse.

First, the word duty is elsewhere used in the New Testament to mean a need or a necessity. The apostles, therefore, are not denying the necessity of having a food distribution plan. They just know that they cannot give their time to doing that work.

Second, they tell the church to pick seven men to meet this need. Because these men are the first deacons, we can conclude that deacons should be both chosen and approved by the congregation. Elders, on the other hand, were chosen by apostles and other elders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5) and then approved by the congregation.

Third, the men must be of good repute and full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will return to these two qualifications next week.

Verse 4 reestablishes the apostles’ priorities: prayer and the ministry of the Word. Just to reiterate, their commitment to these two tasks was not a belittlement of the food distribution ministry. The apostles simply understood the responsibilities given to them. Wiersbe sums up this thought well:

The Apostles studied the situation and concluded that they were to blame: they were so busy serving tables that they were neglecting prayer and the ministry of the Word of God. They had created their own problem because they were trying to do too much. Even today, some pastors are so busy with secondary tasks that they fail to spend adequate time in study and in prayer. This creates a “spiritual deficiency” in the church that makes it easy for problems to develop. (429)

Verses 5-6 tells us the seven men who were appointed to lead the food distribution needs of the church. Little is known about most of these men, but Acts 7 describes Stephen’s arrest, only recorded sermon, and martyrdom. Acts 8 also describes the missionary activities of Philip. They are chosen by the congregation, set before the apostles, prayed over, and laid hands upon, thus commissioning them into the ministry. The authoritative appointing was necessary because these seven men could not meet the needs alone. They were commissioned to lead and organize the distribution ministry, not simply do the work themselves.

Beyond the exploits of Stephen and Philip, we also know that these men came to be called the Seven in a similar manner to the apostles being called the Twelve (21:8). This is significant language because within this text we have the prototype for the two offices of the church. In Acts 6, the church had yet to spread beyond the walls of Jerusalem; therefore, the apostles acted as elders of the fledgling congregation. As the church spread from city to city, it became clear that the apostles could not directly lead every congregation, so they created the office of elders to continue the shepherding work of prayer and the ministry of the Word (14:23). Therefore, in a sense, elders are the successors to the apostles in responsibility but not authority. Today, the authority of the church comes from the Scriptures, which were written by the apostles, but the responsibility of the apostles to shepherd the church was transferred to elders even in their day. This transition is seen in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. In the meeting to decide whether Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised, we are told that “the apostles and elders were gathered together to consider this matter” (15:6). Furthermore, both Peter and John, although apostles, call themselves elders within their letters (1 Peter 5:1; 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1).

Since the apostles here are acting as the prototype for church elders, it also stands to reason that the Seven are the prototype for deacons. A few theologians (though I have not found many) argue that these men cannot be considered deacons because the title of deacon is not used. Yet the duty given to these men of serving tables is the verb form of deacon (diakoneo). Therefore, most theologians agree that these seven men were the first deacons appointed in the church.

THE BIBLICAL PORTRAIT

Since we have now walk-through the passage of Scripture before us and we know the historical appointing of the first deacons, let us now take a step back to ask the question: What are deacons responsible for the church? We know that elders are responsible for exercising oversight of the church, primarily through prayer and the ministry of the Word. But what about the deacons? What functions are they biblically supposed to play in the church? Below are insights that we can glean from our passage of study.

Deacons are servants.

This one should go without saying because the term deacon means servant. But clarification is required. Another word commonly translated as servant is doulos, which Paul is fond of calling himself at the beginning of his letters. Doulos, however, might better be translated as slave because it referred to servants who were the property of another person. Diakonos, on the other hand, is a servant for hire. Jesus’ statement that He came not to be served but to serve uses the verb of deacon (Mark 10:45). In John 12:26, Jesus uses the same word as both a noun and verb to describe following Him: “If any man serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” Jesus, therefore, came to deacon us, and now calls to be His deacons by following Him. All Christian, then, are deacons in a general sense, but what about those in the office of deacon.

In general, the deacons are examples and leaders in serving to the congregation. They are appointed to lead and meet the physical needs of the church, allowing elders to focus on spiritual needs. Alexander Strauch fittingly calls deacons “ministers of mercy.” Elders are called to ensure that sound doctrine is fed to the church, while deacons are called to ensure that church members do not go hungry for lack of food. Strauch has this to say about the importance of deacons as servants:

The laying on of hands, along with the early appearance of this account in Acts, indicates the significance and necessity of the Seven’s task. Some people might find it hard to believe that appointing men to care for poor widows and handle money would require the laying on of the apostles’ hands. Those who don’t understand why the apostles took this matter so seriously don’t understand how important the care of the poor is in God’s eyes. (40)

Deacons are ministers.

Minister is a common title for pastors. In fact, when doing my taxes, I find much “ministerial” language being used. While the title is not incorrect since elders are ministers of the Word, minister as an official title is better placed upon deacons, especially since the word is often translated as minister.

From these verses, we see that deacons are given leadership authority within the church. However, unlike elders, deacons have ministry-specific authority, not church-wide authority. Deacons are church officers, but they are not elders. Therefore, they should not function as elders. They must function as deacons, ministers who are tasked with areas of focus and responsibility. Gregg Allison provides a small list of these areas of ministry:

Practically speaking, deacons and deaconesses engage in men’s ministries, women’s ministries, youth ministries, children’s ministries, worship ministries, evangelism and missions, bereavement ministries, seniors ministries, singles ministries, sports ministries, fine arts ministries, mercy ministries (e.g., food, clothing, tutoring, medical aid), and the like. Because these ministries flow out of the office of deacon, those who serve in that office as deacons and deaconesses must possess and exercise the requisite authority to carry out their ministries. (247)

This authority to lead and organize ministries also makes deacons key disciple-makers within the church. As noted earlier, the seven original deacons could not meet the needs of the food distribution ministry alone. By necessity, they must have led others to serve the widows and orphans of the church. Likewise, deacons need not, and should not, fulfill their responsibilities alone; rather, they should train and disciple others to do the work as well. The work of discipleship is for every Christian, but elders and deacons as leaders must lead in discipleship. 1 Peter 4:10-11 tells us that we should use our varied gifts to the glory of God, speaking the oracles of God and serving by God’s strength. Elders are charged to disciple how to speak the oracles of God, and deacons are charged to disciple how to serve “by the strength that God supplies.”

Deacons are guardians of church unity.

This is an overlooked aspect of the deaconate, but the preservation of church unity was the very reason that these first seven deacons were chosen. Physical need led to cracks in the church’s unity, and the deacons were appointed to mend those needs. Anyabwile says that “Deacons were the early church’s “shock absorbers.” They absorbed complaints and concerns, resolved them in godliness, and so preserved the unity and witness of the saints” (21). Just as elders are guardians of the church’s doctrine, deacons are guardians of the church’s unity, which Paul describes as a primary characteristic of being the church (Ephesians 4).

What are the responsibilities and functions of deacons then?

Deacons are servants, modeling for the entire congregation how we all should serve one another.

Deacons are ministers, leading and guiding certain ministries within the church and discipling others in the process.

Deacons are also guardians of church unity, cutting off potential divisions at the source.

THE FRUIT OF BIBLICAL POLITY // ACTS 6:7

To close, we return to the final verse of our text, which reveals the outcome of the situation: God’s Word continued to increase, the disciples multiplied, and even the Jewish priests began to follow Christ. These descriptions are the opposite of the initial problem. An argument had threatened the foundation of the church, but the apostles’ Spirit-led structuring of the church resolved the disagreement. That is the fruit of biblical polity, a church structure where elders and deacons lead and serve together. While deacons may not be directly responsible for the ministry of the Word, their service to the congregation’s physical needs sowed the ground for the Word to flourish. Their lives display the Word proclaimed by the elders.

May God give us grace to obey the Scriptures, that the Word of God would continue to increase and the number of our disciples be multiplied!

Guardians of Doctrine

In the previous study, we observed the biblical precedent and imperative for churches being led by a plurality of elders. We briefly addressed the three titles given to a pastor in the New Testament: shepherd, elder, and overseer, which over time have formally become pastor, presbyter, and bishop. Ultimately, each of the title refers to the same office, but they each represent different aspects of the elder’s roles and responsibilities. Those functions will be the focus of our study today.

THREE COMMANDS // 1 PETER 5:1-5

In his magnificent book, Sojourners and Strangers, Gregg Allison argues that there are four biblical responsibilities for church elders: leading, teaching, praying, and shepherding. While I do agree with his assessment, I would like to structure it differently. Instead of saying that an elder has the four responsibilities above, it seems better to say that an elder has one responsibility (lead) that is displayed in three primary ways (shepherd, oversee, and model), which then practically functions within two primary tasks (teach and pray). Leading is, I believe, the one overall responsibility to which every elder is called, and I will argue that shepherding and leading are two sides of the same coin. Following the example of Jesus, a Christian leader is called to be a servant and a shepherd. Pastors lead by shepherding, and they shepherd by leading. You cannot divorce the two concepts from one another.

Pastor: Shepherd the Flock of God

Within the fifth chapter of 1 Peter, the apostle begins an exhortation to church elders. He writes to them as a fellow elder and gives them one big command that he explains and qualifies in verses two and three: shepherd the flock of God. Of course, pastor is one of the three titles used for elders within the Bible, and it means a shepherd. A pastor is a shepherd, so the primary command to a pastor is to shepherd the flock, the congregation. But notice the wording of that phrase: shepherd the flock of God. A pastor’s congregation is not his congregation but God’s. The church is God’s flock, His people.

But what does it mean then to shepherd?

Psalm 23 is likely the passage that first springs to mind.

Psalm 23:1-4 | The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

The same imagery being used by David in Psalm 23 is the imagery being used by Peter here. A shepherd takes care of sheep. A shepherd guards and protects sheep. David is the archetypal shepherd in the Bible, who slew bears and lions to defend his flock. Pastors likewise must defend, care for, and nourish God’s people.

In order to shepherd well, a pastor must possess two qualities: a love for God and a love for God’s people. That may sound incredibly simple, but do we truly live that way? Because the congregation is God’s flock, a pastor cannot properly love them without first having a love of God. He cannot love what is God’s without first loving God. Of course, these qualities are not exclusive to elders; rather, the pastor is intended to model them before the congregation. After all, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). Each Christian is called to love God and love people. Pastors, therefore, are called to model loving God and loving people.

In an article titled Two Indispensable Requirements for Pastoral Ministry, Kevin DeYoung takes those two qualities one step further. He says that a pastor must like to study the Bible and must like his people. He uses the word like with purpose. A pastor must not only love God, but he must like studying His Word. Why? God reveals Himself through His Word. How can anyone truly love God but not enjoy studying His Word! And a pastor should not just love God’s people, he should like them. Shepherds like being around sheep, and a pastor should like being around God’s flock.

Overseer: Exercising Oversight

If shepherding the flock of God is the big overall command, the next phrase is a further explanation of that command: exercising oversight. A pastor, as an overseer, must exercise oversight over the church. Just as a pastor and an overseer are different titles for the same office, so exercising oversight is, at its core, the same command as shepherding the flock of God. They are each the same responsibility of leading God’s people, but they emphasize a different aspect of that leadership. A shepherd’s duty is to care and provide for the flock, while an overseer manages and guides God’s people.

What does this oversight look like?

First, exercising oversight means watching over souls. Hebrews 13:17 commands: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” While this verse very purposely does not target pastors specifically (instead applying to everyone is a position of leadership), it should bear tremendous weight upon the heart of all pastors. He must view this verse with joyful fear because every pastor will give an account to God for the congregation they shepherd.

This is also why a proper understanding of membership is important. Pastors must know who they are watching over, which people they are responsible for overseeing, because they will answer to God on behalf of each soul. James 3:1 is sage advice: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” As an elder, I will not merely give an account of my own soul to God (which is burdensome task indeed!), but I will answer to God on behalf of each soul within my congregation.

Second, exercising oversight means equipping the saints for the work of ministry. Ephesians 4:11-14 teaches us this principle:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

An overseer must equip the saints for the work of ministry. As a pastor, I am not a minister who has been called into the ministry. Instead, I was called into the ministry as a Christian, just as every Christian is called into the ministry as well. We all have ministries, areas of life where we are called by God to serve one another.

To discover those areas of ministry, we only need to ask a few questions. Are you a spouse? If yes, that’s an area of ministry for you. Are you a parent? Another ministry. Are you child? Are you employed? We have been placed in each realm of life by God for a purpose. And the role of an overseer is to equip the congregation for their ministries. We do not hire a pastor to do the ministry for us, but to lead us in how to minister throughout our lives.

Elder: Being an Example to the Flock

The third command that Peter gives is to be an example to the flock. Once more, this is not an independent command. Just as shepherding and overseeing are the same command viewed from different angles, so is being an example to the flock. Modeling maturity and godliness is the task of an elder, just as shepherding is for a pastor and overseeing is for an overseer.

When considering maturity, we should note that age is not the primary factor for being an elder; spiritual maturity is. Paul gave this famous instruction to his young disciple, Timothy: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). The first half of that verse is too often cited without the latter portion. Young pastors, because of their youth, have all the more reason to set an example for the flock in their speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity. In short, an elder must model godliness to the congregation. He must give an example of a life that is fully surrendered over to God’s will.

But elders must also model repentance for the congregation. No pastor is perfect and without sin; therefore, pastors will always have sin to repent of. Yes, they are shepherding God’s people, but they are also a part of God’s people, being shepherded by the chief Shepherd. Like all Christians, elders will fail and fall into sin. But the mark of a Christian is not sinless perfection; it is repentance. Christians are a people who repeatedly cling to the hope of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Elders, therefore, must model that hope via repentance.

TWO TASKS // ACTS 6:4

In 1 Peter 5:2-3, pastors are given three commands which correspond to the three titles: shepherd the flock, exercise oversight, and be an example to the flock. Each command is a different aspect of leading God’s people. Pastors lead by shepherding, overseers lead by overseeing, and elders lead by modeling. These are great overall ideas, but how does that look in the everyday? What are the primarily tasks by which a pastor shepherds, an elder models, and an overseer oversees? Acts 6:4 gives us the two most important tasks required of a pastor: prayer and the ministry of the Word.

As we will see when we study the responsibility of deacons, the apostles within Acts 6 are acting as prototype elders of the church in Jerusalem, and within that text, they also establish the first seven prototype deacons. Therefore, the apostles’ resolve to commit themselves primarily to prayer and the ministry of the Word must also be the heart of every pastor. The entire purpose behind establishing deacons was to defend pastors’ ability to focus upon praying and ministering the Word.

Above all things, pastors must devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. That’s not to say that an elder does not have other tasks that must be done, but being devoted means giving unremitted attention to these two things. If he can do only two things, they are prayer and the ministry of the Word. People often have a multitude of expectations for what a pastor ought to do, but the Bible is clear that these two tasks must be above everything else.

The Ministry of the Word

A pastor must be rooted in God’s Word. As an overseer, he oversees through the Word of God. As a pastor, he shepherds with the Word of God. As an elder, he models submission to the Word of God. As intimidating as being a young pastor can be, it also forces me to depend only upon the Scripture. I simply do not have the life experience or the time-hardened wisdom to say many things that must be said. Fortunately, I have God’s Word, which is the only authority worth asserting.

For the importance of ministering the Word to others, we only need to turn to the life of Jesus. The primary focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry was preaching the gospel. This, of course, runs against what we tend to assume. Our minds first go to Jesus’ miracles, but He performed those miracles in order to demonstrate the authority of His preaching. Mark 1:35-39 tells of Jesus’ disciples informing Him of people in need of healing, but He says to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out” (v. 38).

Furthermore in Mark 6 we find the account of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Verse 34 gives provides the background to that miracle: “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep with a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.” It is tempting to link Jesus’ compassion upon the crowd immediately to His feeding them; however, Jesus’ love for them was first displayed in His teaching them. They were lost sheep, so He shepherded them by teaching them the good news of the kingdom. Jesus, therefore, saw teaching as shepherding. This is even further enforced by Jesus command for Peter to feed His sheep in John 21:15-19.

The mark of teaching God’s Word is so important for a pastor that it is listed in the office’s qualifications (1 Timothy 3:2). Although there will almost always be teachers in the church who are not elders, the ability to teach God’s Word is a requirement for elders. Not all teachers are elders, but all elders are teachers.

Titus 1:9 reiterates this necessity while providing a twofold look at its practice: “He [an overseer] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Three points must be made from this verse. First, the ministry of the Word means holding firm to the Word as trustworthy. Second, he must be able to give instruction in sound doctrine. Third, he must be able to refute those who contradict it. Instructing and refuting are the two arms of ministering the Word. In shepherding terms, instruction is feeding the sheep, while refutation is protecting them. All pastors must feed the sheep by teaching the Scripture and drive away the wolves by rebuking false doctrine.

Prayer

The second task of an elder is prayer. Why is prayer a job requirement for an elder? Aren’t all Christians supposed to pray? The quick answer is yes. All Christians are certainly called to pray. Remember, elders are models of Christian maturity; therefore, a pastor should desire for all those in his church to pray like him. If this does not humble a pastor, he should probably examine his heart. Few Christians, pastors included, are strong enough in their prayer to confidently tell a new Christian to pray like they pray. Elders, nevertheless, must model prayer.

This does not mean, however, that elders are the only models of prayer in a church. Specific ministries of intercession are sorely missing in most churches today. In fact, I would urge each Christian to grow in intercessory prayer throughout their life. Too many older believers become disheartened in their old age that they cannot do the ministries they once did due to physical constraints. Aging, of course, cannot be stopped; therefore, we should prepare for becoming warriors of intercessory prayer in the years where our bodies can no longer perform many of their former tasks.

Elders, though, should not only model prayer for the congregation; they should also pray for the flock of God. Personally, I use either physical notecards or the app, PrayerMate, to pray for every member of the church. Placing each family unit on a card, I pray for three to five cards each morning. While that system is not required of each elder, it does ensure that each member is being prayed for by his or her pastor on a regular basis. Without this system, I tend to only pray for those who I know are in present need of prayer, but as a follower of Christ, I do not want people to only pray for me whenever I am in visible need. I want to be prayed for at all times because I need prayer at all times! How then can I not do the same for the congregation?

The danger of prayer is that it is so easy to neglect. Since most prayer happens behind the scenes, a pastor can be readily convinced of the need to focus on more “important” or showy things.

In terms of importance, seemingly random needs will always come to the surface at the moment of prayer. Unfulfilled to-do lists come to mind with a renewed resolved to see them accomplished whenever one becomes ready to pray. But there is no work more important than prayer.

As for showy things, it is all to easy, as a pastor, for me to neglect prayer in favor of doing things that will be seen by others. For me at least, it’s rarely a means of boasting; instead, I often fear that I will be seen as lazy. Time spent in prayer, after all, is time not spent elsewhere. By working prayer into my schedule, I must set aside more “productive” tasks. The heart is ultimately at stake here. I prefer the hands-on work because it can be recognized and affirmed by others; prayer, however, is between God and I. Prayer is work, but it is work without recognition and affirmation of others. Since pastors live before the watching eyes of the congregation, God was certainly wise in pairing the public work of teaching with the private work of prayer. When I teach well, I risk taking the glory for myself, but knelt in true prayer, I can do nothing but give glory to God.

Prayer forces a pastor to remember that only the Holy Spirit can change hearts. Pastors need to always be reminded that God shepherds His people through them. They cannot do the work of shepherding alone; they need the empowerment of the Spirit.

ONE PURPOSE // TITUS 1:7

To conclude our study on the responsibilities of an elder, I would like to journey into Titus 1:7 where we will confront the ultimate purpose of a pastor that has been undergirding the other two passages: “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.” Notice how the overseer is described as being God’s steward. A pastor must lead by shepherding, overseeing, and modeling through prayer and the ministry of the Word; however, he is called to do these things as a steward of God.

A steward is one who enacts authority on someone else’s behalf, to be a manager. Although a manager might have near total control of a store, he or she is ultimately acting in place of the owner. Thus, in calling the overseer God’s steward, Paul is establishing the pastors as the managers of His church. This ought to be a weighty statement. It is a reminder that pastors are watching over the souls of the congregation, “as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17). This burden is too great for one man alone to bear, which is why elder plurality is so crucial.

Though the nature of being a steward is heavy for the pastors, there is also a responsibility for the church to submit to their leadership. Within many churches where all decisions are finalized via congregational vote, the tendency is to provide the leadership with a set of boundaries and guidelines rather than obeying and submitting as Hebrews 13:17 commands (for proper usage of voting, read Members’ Responsibilities). In general, this seems to stem from the importation of the democratic ideology into the church. While in theory democracy looks just as helpful for the church as the government, the reality is that church and state are entirely different beasts. Democracy means “people-ruled,” and this idea works well for governments where people of various ideologies must work cohesively together.

The church, however, was always meant to be a theocracy (God-ruled). God, not people, must govern, rule, and lead the church. Democracy often leads to a people-centered mind, but the church must be God-centered. This causes many churches, under the best of intentions, to attempt to market themselves primarily toward reaching people, which is done out of love for others. However, the most loving action we can ever do is point people to God. Making churches that center around people in the end fails to love those people fully. Instead, let us attend and organize our churches for God, and as we point people to Him, they will behold the deepest spring of love. And it is the pastor’s role as God’s steward, therefore, is to turn the congregation’s gaze toward God, leading them under the sole authority of God’s Word.

Two Tasks

But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.
Acts 6:4 ESV

In 1 Peter 5:2-3, pastors are given three commands which correspond to their three titles: shepherd the flock (pastor), exercise oversight (overseer), and be an example to the flock (elder). Each command is a different aspect of leading God’s people. Pastors lead by shepherding, overseers lead by overseeing, and elders lead by modeling. These are great overall ideas, but how does that look in the everyday? What are the primarily tasks by which a pastor shepherds, an elder models, and an overseer oversees? Acts 6:4 gives us the two most important tasks required of a pastor: prayer and the ministry of the Word.

As we will see when we study the responsibilities of deacons, the apostles within Acts 6 are acting as prototype elders of the church in Jerusalem, and within that text, they also establish the first seven prototype deacons. Therefore, the apostles’ resolve to commit themselves primarily to prayer and the ministry of the Word must also be the heart of every pastor. The entire purpose behind establishing deacons was to defend pastors’ ability to focus upon praying and ministering the Word.

Above all things, pastors must devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. That’s not to say that an elder does not have other tasks that must be done, but being devoted means giving unremitted attention to these two things. If he can do only two things, they are prayer and the ministry of the Word. People often have a multitude of expectations for what a pastor ought to do, but the Bible is clear that these two tasks must be first and foremost.

The Ministry of the Word

A pastor must be rooted in God’s Word. As an overseer, he oversees through the Word of God. As a pastor, he shepherds with the Word of God. As an elder, he models submission to the Word of God. As intimidating as being a young pastor can be, it also forces me to depend upon the Scripture. I simply do not have the life experience or the time-hardened wisdom to say many things that must be said. Fortunately, I have God’s Word, which is the only authority worth asserting.

For the importance of ministering the Word to others, we only need to turn to the life of Jesus. The primary focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry was preaching the gospel. This, of course, runs against what we tend to assume. Our minds first go to Jesus’ miracles, but He performed those miracles in order to demonstrate the authority of His preaching. Mark 1:35-39 tells of Jesus’ disciples informing Him of people in need of healing, but He says to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out” (v. 38).

Furthermore in Mark 6 we find the account of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Verse 34 gives provides the background to that miracle:

When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep with a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.

It is tempting to link Jesus’ compassion upon the crowd immediately to His feeding them; however, Jesus’ love for them was first displayed in His teaching them. They were lost sheep, so He shepherded them by teaching them the good news of the kingdom. Jesus, therefore, saw teaching as shepherding. This is even further enforced by Jesus command for Peter to feed His sheep in John 21:15-19.

The mark of teaching God’s Word is so important for a pastor that it is listed in the office’s qualifications (1 Timothy 3:2). Although there will almost always be teachers in the church who are not elders, the ability to teach God’s Word is a requirement for elders. To be more succinct, not all teachers are elders, but all elders are teachers.

Titus 1:9 reiterates this necessity while providing a twofold look at its practice:

He [an overseer] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

Three points must be made from this verse. First, the ministry of the Word means holding firm to the Word as trustworthy. Second, he must be able to give instruction in sound doctrine. Third, he must be able to refute those who contradict it. Instructing and refuting are the two arms of ministering the only Word that is entirely worthy of our trust. In shepherding terms, instruction is feeding the sheep, while refutation is protecting them. All pastors must feed the sheep by teaching the Scripture and drive away the wolves by rebuking false doctrine.

Prayer

The second task of an elder is prayer. Why is prayer a job requirement for an elder? Aren’t all Christians supposed to pray? The quick answer is yes. All Christians are certainly called to pray. But remember, elders are models of Christian maturity; therefore, a pastor should desire for all those in his church to pray like him.

If this does not humble a pastor, he should probably examine his heart. Few Christians, pastors included, are strong enough in their prayer to confidently tell a new Christian to pray like they pray. Elders, nevertheless, must model prayer.

This does not mean, however, that elders are the only models of prayer in a church. Specific ministries of intercession are sorely missing in most churches today. In fact, I would urge each Christian to grow in intercessory prayer throughout their life. Too many older believers become disheartened in their old age that they cannot do the ministries they once did due to physical constraints. Aging, of course, cannot be stopped; therefore, we should prepare for becoming warriors of intercessory prayer in the years where our bodies can no longer perform many of their former tasks.

Elders, though, should not only model prayer for the congregation; they should also pray for the flock of God. Personally, I use either physical notecards or the app, PrayerMate, to pray for every member of the church. Placing each family unit on a card, I pray for three to five cards each morning. While that system is not required of each elder, it does ensure that each member is being prayed for by his or her pastor on a regular basis. Without this system, I tend to only pray for those who I know are in present need of prayer, but as a follower of Christ, I do not want people to only pray for me whenever I am in visible need. I want to be prayed for at all times because I need prayer at all times! How then can I not do the same for the congregation?

The danger of prayer is that it is so easy to neglect. Since most prayer happens behind the scenes, a pastor can be readily convinced of the need to focus on more “important” and showy things.

In terms of importance, seemingly random needs will always come to the surface at the moment of prayer. Unfulfilled to-do lists come to mind with a renewed resolved to see them accomplished whenever one becomes ready to pray. But there is no work more important than prayer.

As for showy things, it is all to easy, as a pastor, for me to neglect prayer in favor of doing things that will be seen by others. For me at least, it’s rarely a means of stereotypcial boasting; rather, I often fear being viewed as lazy. Time spent in prayer, after all, is time not spent elsewhere. By working prayer into my schedule, I must set aside more “productive” and visible tasks.

The heart is ultimately at stake here. I prefer the hands-on work because it can be recognized and affirmed by others; prayer, however, is between God and I. Working for the approval of men is often the root cause of my procrastination of prayer. Prayer is work, but it is work without the recognition and affirmation of others. Since pastors live before the watching eyes of the congregation, God was certainly wise in pairing the public work of teaching with the private work of prayer. When I teach well, I risk taking the glory for myself, but knelt in true prayer, I can do nothing but give glory to God.

Prayer forces a pastor to remember that only the Holy Spirit can change hearts. Pastors need to always be reminded that God shepherds His people through them. God is the worker, and they are His instruments. They cannot do the work of shepherding alone; they need the empowerment of the Spirit.

Evangelism (Making Disciples: part five)

To be honest, I never thought of evangelism and witnessing as two separate actions until recently. In his short (and free!) ebook, What Is the Great Commission?, R. C. Sproul writes:

Evangelism, on the other hand, is the actual proclamation—either oral or written, but certainly verbal—of the gospel. It is declaring the message of the person and work of Christ, who His is and what He has done on behalf of sinners like you and me.

That means there are several reasons that evangelism is not. It is not living your life as an example. It is not building relationships with people. It is not giving one’s personal testimony. And it is not inviting someone to church. These things may be good and helpful, but they are not evangelism. They may lay the groundwork for evangelism. They may allow others to relate to us, or they may cause someone to be curious about why we live the way we do. But they are not evangelism, because they don’t proclaim the gospel. They may say something about Jesus, but they do not proclaim the person and work of Christ.

Witnessing does not necessitate words, but evangelism must use words, either written or spoken. We see this thought from the word evangelism itself. It comes from the Greek word for gospel, which means good news or good message. Therefore, evangelism is gospelism. It is making known the gospel, and because the gospel is a message and messages must be expressed, evangelism is a verbal act.

Many Christians become incredibly fearful at the thought of doing evangelism, while others write it off as a special gifting for some Christians. While there are some Christians with the passion and gifting of evangelism, all followers are called to the task.

We see this principle in the book of Acts. Following the death of the Stephen, the first martyr within the church, the Christians of Jerusalem fled across the Roman Empire. Here is how Luke describes the act: “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” (Acts 8:4)

As they fled from Jerusalem, they continued to preach the word wherever they went. They continued to tell the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord. They kept proclaiming the truth that God saves sinners from the consequences of their sins.

This powerful statement is only made more powerful by who Luke is describing. He is not merely writing about the original disciples of Jesus, like Peter or John. He is not talking about the newly formed church leaders, like Stephen’s fellow deacons. No, Luke is describing the Christians in general. Normal, everyday followers of Christ preached the word of God wherever they went, and the world was irrevocably changed.

Evangelism is the work of every believer, but please realize that this does not mean you need to have a PHD in theology. John writes that Christians overcome satanic forces “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” (Revelation 12:11)

You do not need to know the ins and outs of systematic theology in order to share the gospel; you only need to have experienced the power of Christ’s saving blood and be able to express how He saved you in words. If Christ’s blood and our proclamation of how He saved us is enough to conquer Satan, it is also entirely sufficient for delivering the gospel message to a heart that is dead in sin.

One more thought on evangelism before I move on. Your salvation was the work of God, not yourself. You were dead in sin, an object of God’s wrath, but Christ made you alive because of God’s great grace and love. Therefore, lay aside the weight of thinking that you will save people with evangelism. We can save no one. Even if we argue someone into Christianity, someone else can always argue them out.

We are simply called to share the gospel, proclaim the good news.

God does everything else.

As a farmer sows seed but God produces the growth, may we also be faithful to share His truth, knowing that God alone can bring the dead to life.

4 Benefits of Christ’s Ascension

Having just concluded the Easter season, the resurrection of Christ is firmly established within our minds. After all, we cannot truly consider the work of Jesus without declaring the glory of His resurrection. The miraculous incarnation set the foundations for the redemptive work of Christ. It provided the platform by which God was able to become a man and live a sinless life. The crucifixion was the means through which redemption would come. Because Jesus lived a sinless life without blemish, He is the only human in history not deserving of death. Yet because of His great love for us, Christ died in our place, making atonement and propitiation for our sins. However, this atoning sacrifice would not have been proven effective if the resurrection did not happen. Paul is correct in saying that without the resurrection we should be most pitied of all men.[1] If Jesus was not able to overcome the death, then how would we have been able to trust Him to overcome death on our behalf, especially when we are completely deserving of death!

Indeed, the resurrection is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. However, I believe that we often leave out one more step in the redemptive work of Christ: His ascension. I have yet to hear a sermon explicitly expounding upon the significance of the ascension of Christ. Too often we view the ascension as simply a historical fact for why Jesus is not on the earth right now, and we fail to see the significant theological implications and effects of Christ’s ascension into glory. Therefore, my aim will be to do just that: to give account of the effects and the implications of the ascension of Christ upon the lives of His followers.

The Account of the Ascension

Our primary text from which we will springboard into other sections of Scripture will be Acts 1, verses one through eleven. This section of Scripture provides us with the clearest description of the actual act of Christ’s ascension; therefore, we will first look at some important aspects from this text before launching into the effects and implications of the ascension. First, verse 3 tells us that there was a forty-day period of time between the resurrection and ascension, and during that time period, Christ spoke to them about the kingdom of God. It is important to note the patient love of Christ being reflected in this statement. We know from other Scriptures, which we will discuss later, that Christ was not fully glorified until He ascended. If we couple that fact with the severity of the humiliation received by Christ on the cross, one would imagine Him wanting to receive His full glory as quickly as possible. However, Jesus does not operate as we do; He was continuously selfless even after His resurrection. He stayed upon the earth another forty days, teaching and instructing His friends and disciples about the kingdom of God. Accounts such as the road to Emmaus give us an idea of what Christ’s post-resurrection/pre-ascension ministry must have looked like, that is revealing to them the great plan of salvation as fulfilled through Him.

Second, in verse 6 we see that the disciples, even after forty extra days of learning from Jesus, still did not understand fully the work that Jesus had done and was still going to do. Though Jesus taught them for forty days about the kingdom of God, they still could not stop focusing upon the kingdom of Israel. They longed to see the day that God would fully establish Israel as the chief nation upon the earth, now with Christ as their king. However, this was not the intent of Jesus, at least for that time. Christ’s focus was, instead, upon the kingdom of God that would not only impact Israel but Samaria and the ends of the earth as well. We know from elsewhere in Scripture that Christ will one day return as a ruling king to bring all of the earth under His submission, but such was not the plan during the days of the disciples.

Third, verse 9 describes the literal ascension of Christ into the heavens. Though some people today may find difficulty with this account of Jesus ascending into the clouds and vanishing, we cannot ignore that the gospel writers portray this event as concrete fact. Granted, there is a level of mystery to this verse. For instance, what exactly does it mean that a cloud took Him out of their sight? Since we know now that beyond our atmosphere is a massive cosmos, we assume that He did not physically ascend beyond the atmosphere but rather was taken supernaturally into the heavenly realm, which is beyond human sight. Nevertheless, since the ascension clearly involved the supernatural working of God, it is mysterious but true. We must take the ascension as clear, historical fact, just as Luke does here.

1. I Go to Prepare a Place for You

There is no doubt that Christ’s ascension would have naturally caused worry and sorrow among the disciples. We see some evidence of that fact in verse 10, where it appears that the disciples are awestruck because of having just witnessed the ascension of their Lord into heaven. Though of course, we read at the end of Luke that the disciples left the ascension rejoicing and worshipping Jesus. How are we to explain the reason for their joy, when obviously it was difficult for them to lose the physical presence of Jesus? We receive part the answer in the first verses of John 14. At the end of chapter 13, Jesus spoke to His disciples about His departure from them.  Apparently, this disheartened them because Jesus begins chapter 14 by telling them not to let their hearts be troubled. He then proceeds to tell them that He will be going to His Father to prepare a place for them in His Father’s house. Throughout history, the Father’s house has been most commonly seen to be a reference to heaven, and I see no reason why it would not be so. Thus, Jesus is indicating that He would be leaving them prepare a place for them in heaven. Now, we must be careful with this text because some might take it to mean that the reason for Jesus’ 2000-year delay is because He hasn’t finished preparing all of the rooms in heaven. That seems to be a ridiculous interpretation of this text. Instead, Jesus is using imagery of Jewish matrimony to describe His relationship with the disciples. At that time, it was common for the bridegroom to return to his father’s house following the couple’s engagement, where he would prepare an addition onto the house where he and his bride will live. Thus, Jesus is using this imagery to describe something of the result of His ascension into heaven: Jesus’ ascension into heaven prepared the way for us also to enter into heaven.

Too often, we read this text and are too focused upon what Jesus might be describing heaven to be like. In fact, I have heard many people, on multiple occasions, declare that they cannot wait for their mansion in heaven. The problem is that they placed their focus upon the wrong part of the text. Jesus’ point here is that because He is going before the disciples, He will also return for the disciples. The emphasis is not about what heaven is like but rather that Jesus’ ascension to heaven is a guarantee of His bringing us into heaven. Just as Jesus is the first fruit of the resurrection, so His ascension guarantees our eternal home with Him. But how did the ascension accomplish this? Hebrews 1 verse 3 seems to give us some indication. It claims that the act of ascension was Jesus “sitting down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” This means that the very act of Jesus ascending to heaven and sitting at the right hand of the Father was symbolizing the completion of His atoning work on our behalf. Praise God for the ascension, confirming the accomplishment of the cross and resurrection!

2. The Priestly Intercession of Christ

Having seen that Christ’s ascension serves as our guarantee of heaven with Him, we now turn to the second reason for the importance of the ascension: the priestly intercession of Christ. The task of explaining this role of Christ is far too great for this short sermon, but I will try to cover the overarching purpose for it. The priesthood of Christ is one of the great themes of the book of Hebrews, so I strongly suggest rereading the entire book for a better understanding of this matter. However, there are two great texts within Hebrews for viewing this matter. First, Hebrew 9:11-12 tells us that Christ, our high priest, entered into the very presence of God (not simply the man-made Holy of Holies, found within the temple), bringing before God the sacrifice of His very blood to make propitiation for our sins. The weight of this sacrifice was so great that He only needed to make one ascension into the holy place and only needed to offer that one sacrifice in order to secure “an eternal redemption.” This is the significance of speaking of only one act of Jesus ascending, He did not need to do so repeatedly. There was no need for Christ to repeatedly enter into the holy place. His sacrifice was sufficient, once for all.

Still the high priestly work of Christ does not end there. Though obviously there is major and primary significance in the mediatorial work of Christ through the presenting of His blood on our behalf, such does not completely encapsulate the intercession of Christ for us. The final two verses of Hebrews 2 give us insight into the continuous high priestly work of Christ. There, the writer of Hebrews portrays Christ as being a high priest that relates to us and is merciful upon us. Since Jesus is fully man as well as fully God, He is able to be a sympathetic high priest. This means that Jesus’ work is also to continuously aid in our sanctification by petitioning the Father on our behalf.

3. The Glorification of Christ

The third effect of the ascension that we will consider is the glorification of Christ. We know, especially from texts such as the Christ hymn of Philippians 2, that the end result of Christ’s humility unto death was the exaltation and the glorification of Christ; however, we rarely view the ascension as having such an integral role in the glorification of Jesus. Verses 20-22 of the first chapter of Ephesians provided a clear link to these two concepts. Paul states here that following the resurrection Christ was seated at the “right hand in heavenly places” (the ascension) and that from this seat He is far above all powers and authority. The act of Christ ascending to the right hand of the Father is the very act of placing all other things under His feet. The ascension proclaims that Christ is Lord and that all things are in subjection to Him.

However, with this discussion also comes the question of why do things appear to be outside of the control of Christ. After all, if Jesus is truly as exalted as the New Testament describes, why does everyone not yet proclaim Him Lord over everything? The answer is simply within the word “yet”. Things do not always appear to be under Christ sovereign rule for now, but there will come a day when we will finally see every knee bow before Him and every tongue confess that He is Lord to the glory of God the Father! Thus, the ascension of Christ is both the proclamation of His present glorification at the right hand of the Father and also of His future glorification as every creature in existence declares Him to be Lord.

4. The Sending of the Holy Spirit

For the final effect of the ascension, we turn our attention once more to the main text of our study: Acts 1. The ESV divides these first eleven verses of chapter one into three paragraphs. Found within each of those paragraphs is a concept that is key not only to understanding the significance of Christ’s ascension but also for understanding the nature of the Christian life as a whole: the Holy Spirit. The third person of the Trinity is the mentioned often in this text because He is of absolute importance. The first paragraph tells us that the power through which Jesus accomplished His entire earthly ministry was through the Holy Spirit, and since that is the case, the next two paragraphs are utterly astonishing. In verses 5 and 8, Jesus confirms to His disciples His previous promise of the Holy Spirit being given to them. This means that the disciples were ordered to wait for the very same power that empowered Jesus’ earthly ministry. Luke goes so far as to imply that, through the Holy Spirit, the work of the apostles in Acts would be the continuation of the ministry of Jesus Christ! This should give us an entirely new depth of meaning when we call the church the body of Christ. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we are meant to be the physical presence of Jesus in the world, even today.

Jesus gives emphasis to the importance of the Holy Spirit whenever He tells the disciples that it was better for them that He was departing from them because then He would send the Holy Spirit to them.[2] This is an incredible statement. Surely, there are times when each of us would love to be able to speak to Jesus face to face, to be able personally to be His disciple, yet Jesus Himself tells us that having the Holy Spirit is better. Why is this so? It is because the Holy Spirit dwells within us. The Holy Spirit is God Himself inhabiting our bodies just as the presence of God once occupied the temple in Jerusalem. This should be an incredible thought for any believer that God would choose to dwell within us! This Spirit within us is the “guarantee of our inheritance.”[3] He is the One by whom we are able to call God our Father. We also learn from Romans 8 that He makes prayers on our behalf to the Father, since we often do not know how to pray as we ought. In short, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential for the life of the believer. We simply cannot live the Christian walk without Him.

Final Implications of the Ascension

Finally, brothers, after we have seen the astounding effects of the ascension of Christ, upon both Jesus Himself and every believer in His name, we must give question to how they shape and mold our everyday lives. First, if we claim that Christ is the glorious treasure of our lives, do our hearts show to be with Him? Are our hearts within Him in His heavenly realm, where He has prepared the way for us to go?

Second, if He has truly ascended into heaven in order that we might forever dwell with Him, do we long for such? Do we long to be eternally with the infinitely glorious Christ in never ending worship of His supremacy and majesty?

Third, or perhaps do we look too longingly for the His return? Are we like the disciples who stood looking at the sky, seemingly in wait for His immediate return? Or will we in true obedience serve the Lord and make Him known since His return can come at any time?

Fourth, since we are given the Holy Spirit to continue the work of Christ, how seriously are we taking that work? Are we faithfully going to the ends of the earth to carry the name of the Jesus, the ascended and glorified Christ?

Finally, if we have seen that the ascension is evidence of Christ’s completed work, do we trust in that completed work? Do we have full reliance in Jesus for our salvation, knowing that our greatest works are worth nothing at all?

[1] 1 Corinthians 15:19

[2] John 16:7

[3] Ephesians 1:14

Good Works | Sound Doctrine

Church Elders | Titus 1:5

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might… appoint elders in every town as I directed you.

Titus 1:5 ESV

 

Given that appointing elders in every town was Paul’s primary directive to Titus, it is troublesome that so few of us understand the biblical concept of eldership. In fact, thinking about a church’s elders likely conjures up either wizened old men or cultish organizations governed ruthlessly by a handful of men. As you may have already guessed, the biblical idea of church elders is something else altogether. Thus, I will endeavor here to give a brief explanation of biblical eldership and then a three-pronged argumentation for why I believe in churches being led by a plurality of elders.

WHAT IS A CHURCH ELDER?

Biblically, there are only two official offices within each local church: elders and deacons. That answer may be surprising, given the absence of a pastor. Well, allow me to explain. Titus appears to show that elders and overseers are different words for the same office. Paul first writes, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might… appoint elders in every town as I directed you (v. 5)”. In verse 6, Paul gives a general overview of the qualifications for being an elder. Verse 7 then continues to give more specific qualifications, but this time Paul uses the word overseer.

There is a similar occurrence within Acts 20:17-38. In this text, Paul is returning to Jerusalem in spite of his probable imprisonment upon arriving, so as he passes into a harbor near Ephesus, he calls for the elders of the Ephesian church to speak with him for the last time. These men are clearly called elders of the church in verse 17, but Paul also refers to them as overseers in verse 28. Thus, it is evident that elders and overseers are simply two words for the same role, but what about pastors?

It may surprise some to know that the title of pastor is found only once in the New Testament (Ephesians 4:11); however, the role and activity is certainly present. Pastor means shepherd, so a pastor’s job is shepherding. Pastor’s lead and guide Christ’s flock (the congregation), feeding them the nourishment of God’s Word. Paul uses the verb for shepherding in Acts 20:28 by commanding the overseers to “care for the church of God.” Peter also exhorts church elders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you (1 Peter 5:2)”, which is a command that he received from Jesus directly when He said to Peter, “Feed my sheep (John 21:16).” Finally, the verb is used negatively in Jude to refer to selfish shepherds who only care for themselves (Jude 12). Elders (or overseers) are, therefore, called to pastor (or shepherd) the church in which God has placed them.

Pastors, elders, and overseers, as described in the New Testament, are different titles for the same office, and those titles are important. Pastor emphasizes the leader’s role in tending to the church, primarily through teaching them the Scriptures. Elder connotes the maturity and wisdom that must mark the man of God. Overseer indicates the governing leadership that elders must possess in order to guide the church toward effectively making disciples. There is no pastor who is not an elder and overseer as well. Likewise, an elder is simultaneously a pastor and overseer, and an overseer is also a pastor and elder. Though various giftings might make one feel more like a pastor than an elder or overseer, you simply cannot divorce the three titles from one another. Each is essential for healthy leading of the church.

WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY?

Elders are pastors, pastors are elders, and overseers are pastors and elders too. Hopefully we now have a better idea of what the Bible means by church elders, especially since elder is used far more frequently than overseer or pastor. Let us, therefore, now address the issue at hand: why does Paul tell Titus to appoint elders (as in plural)?

Most Baptist churches today (which is the immediate context of my discussion) are governed by a three-branch single-pastor system, with deacons and the congregation sharing investments of authority in directing the church. Being led by multiple elders, each of whom has equal authority with the pastor, is an entirely foreign concept. This oligarchical approach is somewhat threatening in comparison to the check-and-balances of the U.S. government-inspired system we commonly use (but we will discuss the three-branch system later). Our authority, however, is based upon the Word of God, and we willingly allow it to dictate how we organize and lead.

I believe that the Bible teaches that local churches are to be governed by elders, meaning more than one of them. The title of elder is used nineteen times in the New Testament in reference to church leaders (beginning in Acts 11:30). Each usage in singular form is specifically about the office in general (1 Tim. 5:19) or a specific elder (1 Peter 5:1); otherwise, it repeatedly refers to the elders of various churches. In Acts 11:30, Paul and Barnabas are sent to the elders of the church in Jerusalem. Acts 14:23 shows Paul and Barnabas appointing elders in every church by prayer and fasting. The first glimpse of the authority of elders is seen in Acts 15, where we find the elders of Jerusalem gathering with the apostles to decide whether Gentiles must be circumcised. In Acts 20:17, Paul meets with the elders of the church in Ephesus one last time. Paul addresses the letter of Philippians to all the believers of the church with special emphasis to the overseers and deacons of the church (Phil. 1:1). In returning to our present text, Paul exhorts Titus to appoint elders in every town (Titus 1:5). Each city, therefore, possessed multiple elders.

Allow me to briefly raise a possible question: since each city had a plurality of elders, could they not be the collective pastors of different churches within the city? Throughout the New Testament, the only identification used for local churches is their city of location because there was only one church per city. Jerusalem, Rome, Ephesus, Philippi, and all others each had elders for the church that existed in those cities. With multiple congregations coexisting within cities, the logical adaptation of this principle to modern church life is for each church to have its own body of elders. Otherwise, if we wanted a New Testament-minded system, we would need to consider each congregation a piece of one large church per city with each pastor being one of the elders for the city’s church, which, for obvious reasons, would not work very well at least within our social context.

In summary, biblically each church was led, taught, and guided by a group of elders (also called pastors or overseers). There was no one man who led the church with greater authority than the others. Each elder is equal in authority to one another, and together, each reflecting the qualities listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, they lead God’s people toward expanding the kingdom of God through making disciples.

WHAT DOES HISTORY SHOW?

As we enter the second category of arguments, I pray that the biblical case was sufficient for guiding our understanding because submitting ourselves to the God’s Word ought to be the highest priority of the Christian. I hope, then, that I have outlined enough of the Scriptures to display what I believe is the most biblical answer to how a church should be governed: a plurality of elders. If the Scriptures do not persuade us, nothing will. Nevertheless, I will present an historical case for elder plurality, and let us center our historical discussion around answering this question: if having a plurality of elders lead the church is biblical, why do most modern churches not follow this model?

The New Testament gives clear indication that local churches were originally led by multiple elders together. One of the earliest Christian writings outside of Scripture, the Didache, urges churches to “appoint therefore for yourselves bishops [overseers] and deacons worthy of the Lord (15:1)”. In fact, the first notion of a single pastor system does not arrive until later with the writings of Ignatius, who separated the titles of overseers and elders from one another. In his letter to the Trallians, Ignatius writes, “In like manner, let all men reverence the deacons, and the bishop likewise, even as Jesus Christ who is the Son of the Father; and the presbyters [elders] as the council of God, and as the bond of the Apostles. Without these there is no Church (3:1).” Thus, Ignatius developed the idea of one ruling overseer with a council of elders and a body of deacons. It is possible that this concept derived from a misunderstanding of the usage of elders and overseer in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. As both texts are similar in their usage, let us observe Titus for them both. Paul commands Titus to appoint elders (plural) in every town, but in verse 7, Paul lists the qualifications of an overseer (singular). Ignatius and others may have read these verses as suggesting that each church should be governed by one overseer and multiple elders. Even though some people still appeal to this argument today, it seems highly speculative. Given the interchangeableness of the titles in Acts 20, there is no reason to assume that Paul is meaning different things when speaking of elders and overseers. In fact, the clearest reading of the text is to understand that Paul speaks of overseers in the singular because he is describing the position generally. For example, saying that plumbers should be able to fix a pipe gives no indication as to a number of plumbers; it is simply a general statement meant to apply to all plumbers. Similarly, this is Paul’s meaning in Titus 1:7. He speaks of overseers singularly as a generality that pertains to all overseers.

Regardless of the reasoning behind a single-pastor system, it quickly became commonplace among churches. The Catholic establishment of monarchial bishops who rule over churches became the predominate practice, which has led to a plethora of extra-biblical terms and hierarchies such as archbishops, auxiliary bishops, coadjutor bishops, and cardinals. Quite simply, this shift did not arise from nor was it submissive to the Scriptures, and the trend continued until the Reformation.

As Baptists, we will now approach the history of elder plurality within our denomination. In Elders in the Life of the Church, Phil Newton and Matt Schmucker argue wonderfully for a plurality of elders. The first chapter, written by Newton, presents the historical nature of elders and the Baptist denomination. I whole-heartedly suggest reading the book, which for Baptists the first chapter alone is worth its price. Newton explains that while a plurality of elders was never universal among Baptists it was not uncommon. He cites a few influential Baptist speakers in the 1700-1800s that reshaped the system. Isaac Backus and John Leland led the way. “Both men had been shaped by the developing colonial culture’s emphasis on the individual and had relegated the church to a secondary position relative to the individual (30).” The influence of the newly formed United States three-branch government is impossible to miss as, over time, the Baptists created a three-branch system within churches with authority dispersed to a single pastor, a board of deacons, and the congregation.

Allow me to close this section with Newton’s closing words of the chapter:

The past two hundred years have witnessed the demise in elder plurality among Baptists. Pastors have begun to resemble CEOs rather than humble New Testament shepherds. Their staffs are hired for their business skills. And their churches are run like big businesses, requiring the corporate structures of a successful company.

A candid look at polity in churches at large today raises questions regarding our diligence to conform to Scripture. Specifically, how well are Christians in the West doing in being different than the world around them? Are we acting as salt and light in our communities? Are our “family values” appreciably different from our neighbors? Connected to theses questions regarding the holiness of the church are the polity questions: Are our congregations nurtured and disciplined like their New Testament counterparts? Are our membership rolls inflated, and could this be contributing to our worldliness? Are pastors and staff members held accountable to anyone besides themselves? Might the alarming rate of immoral behavior among ministers be connected to the disconnect between church staff and a plurality of godly elders, both lay and staff? To put it plainly, I believe recent experience teaches what Scripture at least implies—that the holiness of a church is tied to its polity, just as faith is tied to order.

Our Baptist forebears sought to anchor their church structures and practices in the teaching of Holy Scripture. These stalwarts did not conform their churches to the popular designs of the day, but applied the truths of Scripture to forge a path for their heirs. In the end, whether or not Baptists historically practiced plural eldership is secondary. The primary focus for church leaders today must be to understand what God’s Word teaches, and then to order their churches accordingly. History merely serves to affirm the veracity of Scripture (36-37).

WHAT IS THE MOST PRACTICAL?

Having now addressed the biblical and historical arguments for and against a plurality of elders, we will next approach the pragmatics behind this governance. Obviously, the biblical case must be of prime importance with us always ready to submit ourselves to the Bible’s instructions, and though secondary to the biblical arguments, reviewing history is helpful in making informed and confident decisions.  With these two in mind, practicalities are also important to consider, and I believe that elder plurality is the most practical form of church governance available. With that being said, here are a few thoughts of pragmatism on multiple elders.

First, it strikes me as odd that many hesitate on a plurality of elders because they fear an abuse of power and authority by the elders. After all, the current model of Baptist churches was created to ward off such mistreatments. The obvious answer though is that if each elder matches the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 the congregation should have little fear that he would abuse his authority. However, if an elder is found to be severely falling short of those standards, Paul gives the actions to take in 1 Timothy 5:19-20. To avoid such scenarios, great care must be taken in ordaining elders to serve the church, which is why Paul goes on to say in verse 22, “Do not be hasty in laying on of hands”. The laying on of hands was the physical action used to signify ordination as an elder or deacon. If elders are wisely chosen, the congregation will be able to confidently trust their leadership, just as a wife trusts her husband to lead her.

Though abuses can (and unfortunately will) happen, the chances and effects of them are decreased with elder plurality, and the reason is accountability. With multiple elders all being equal in position and authority, each elder is more easily accountable to the others. With one person leading the church, accountability is diminished, and for examples, look throughout history books at the bishops during the Middle Ages. Take false doctrine for example. In a single-pastor system, the church is far more susceptible to wavering from the truth if the pastor begins to teach heresy; whereas, if one elder among others begins to believe false teachings, his brothers are able to correct and rebuke him while ensuring that the congregation does not follow after him. In short, elder plurality is not subject to great abuse of authority but actually provides greater accountability in preventing it.

Second, growing up in churches traditional for our time, I quickly became accustomed to the virtual parade of pastors that many congregations experience. The church of my youth saw pastors come, stay for a few years, then move on to another church or ministry. Though each pastor struggled to leave the church in a better place than it was when they arrived, I could not help feeling cheated. Most pastors gave little more than a two week notice of their exit, and without fail the vacuum of leadership undid much of their former work. Thus, each subsequent pastor finds himself building upon a partially demolished structure that may be fortunate enough to have a solid foundation rather than improving upon the work done by the pastor before him. The vacuum of leadership does much damage to even the strongest of congregations, so I have never understood why a pastor would claim to love the flock while not preparing for his absence. After all, love of my wife leads me to have life insurance so that she will be relatively provided for should I die. What plans do pastors have for their flock should the Lord take their life next week? Should pastors not be motivated by love to consider how they might care for the congregation even after they are no longer with them?

These are the sort of questions that haunt me as a pastor. I long to care and shepherd the congregation that I am to lead beyond my time with them, whether the Lord takes me elsewhere or to be with Him. Under a single-pastor system, the only solution is for the pastor to establish a meaningful and well-planned transition to his successor. While I think that such transitions are much needed, sometimes they are simply impossible. A plurality of elders is, I believe, a sufficient solution. Though elders are equals, that does not stop a vocational elder from assuming a larger portion of responsibility and work; however, in his absence, the church is not without leadership. The other elders will find themselves with heavier loads and shouldering more responsibility, but the congregation is still being led and loved. Having multiple elders is a pastor’s life insurance for the congregation.

Finally, the third largest practicality for functioning under a plurality of elders is that together the group overcomes the weaknesses of the individuals. If an elder is called to wisely counsel the congregation, provide leading guidance, and administer sound teaching of Scriptures, there is a likeliness that he will excel at one better than the others. Rarely is a pastor ever equally skilled in the three; rather, one or two will be his strength and the others his weakness. Establishing a plural eldership helps to offset the weaknesses of one man. If the vocational elder (the primary preaching pastor) is weak in wise counseling, there will hopefully be at least one other elder who is a stronger counselor than he is. In this way, the diversity of leadership helps to account for a single man’s flaws.

CONCLUSION

Obviously, the thoughts expressed above are far from extensive; however, I pray that they are a sufficient overview and summary of the essence of the issue. Elder plurality is, I believe, the biblical system of church governance. Regardless of cultural or historical tradition, we must ultimately submit ourselves to the Scriptures, trusting that God’s Word will not lead us astray. For more reading on this topic, I have listed several books that are worth consultation.