The Office of Elder and Deacon

By Rev. Andrew Kim

1 Timothy 3:1-13  (Preached on April 14, 2019 by Rev. Andrew Kim)


As we get ready to receive nominations for the office of elder and deacon, we’re going to spend time today considering what the Bible has to say about these offices. We need to be informed. I’m not sure how many revivals broke out in the history of God’s church by talking about elders and deacons but nonetheless this God’s Word given to us for our instruction and guidance. God didn’t leave the church in the dark and tell us to figure it out with what is practical and with what works when it comes to leadership. He speaks to it in passages like 1 Timothy. But here’s the thing. God does not reveal names in the clouds or in the sand for who should be an officer in the church. I recently heard from a pastor friend whose church is in the middle of a pastoral search process that one applicant had the audacity to write and tell the search committee to stop their search. Their prayer had been answered. God had revealed to him he was to be their new senior pastor. How do you respond to such a claim? God gives officers to his Church as gifts but he uses the ordinary means to give them. And for us that means prayerfully and wisely discerning who we believe to be men fit for office and then nominating and voting them in. If God chooses to use members of the church to make this decision, it means we must be informed by the Bible to know what the office of elder and deacon are and what they are called to do and be.

This can be especially difficult because we may have grown up with certain expectations and stereotypes of these offices. Many people wrongly assume that an elder must be somebody old. I’ve heard people say about perfectly godly candidates that they are simply too young to be an elder. But the Bible never mentions an age requirement. In fact, remember Paul’s encouraging words to Timothy, “Let no one despise you for your youth…” Timothy was as an elder in his church and his age did not disqualify him. Others think an elder must be rich and needs to have money to give to the church in order to be considered. Sadly, I’ve heard people joke that they don’t feel ready to be elders because they aren’t wealthy enough or don’t want to be elders because they will have to buy the church something expensive. I’ve also heard people say that the elders’ jobs are to execute the will of the pastor. That they are “yes” men to the pastor. I wish that was so but that’s simply not what the Bible teaches.

The same goes for deacons. There are many misconceptions and misunderstandings about this office as well. Some assume that because the work of deacons is so hands on that spiritual qualifications don’t matter but only practical skills. But Paul says they must be dignified and hold the mystery of the faith and be proven blameless which are very spiritual qualifications. Others view the office of deacon as a stepping stone to be an elder. It’s almost a rite of passage, a door every elder must walk through. But being a deacon is its own calling, a separate office altogether that’s not a means to an end, but an end itself.

In the end we need to submit our thoughts to the Bible and then ask God to help us understand what he’s revealed and how our church can reflect that. I want to consider our text today considering four things with you about elders and deacons:

  1. The Offices
  2. The Duties
  3. The Qualifications
  4. The Hope

#1: The Offices

There are two recognized offices in the New Testament. They are the office of elder and deacon. But often in the Bible you’ll see another word that’s translated “overseer” but that is not a third office. It’s the same office as elder. The word for elder is the word presbyteros from which we get the word Presbyterian. The word for overseer is the word episkopos from which we get the word Episcopalian. Both of these words are used interchangeably in the New Testament. Even here in 1 Timothy, Paul calls them episkopos in chapter 3 but then presbyteros in chapter 5 but they refer to the same office and the same duties. And so verse 1 lays out that first office, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.” We see the second office in verse 8 where Paul writes, “Deacons likewise must be…” and then he goes on to describe the office of deacon.

Now there is the office of elder and deacon and some of you are wondering, then what is a pastor? Shouldn’t that be a third office? Presbyterians understand that the pastor is also an elder of the church. He is not a greater or lesser elder. He is neither higher nor lower. He is simply an elder with the special calling to teach and preach. In our denomination, the PCA, we make this distinction clear by using the terms teaching elder and ruling elder. Both are elders to whom 1 Timothy 3 and its qualifications apply but as 1 Timothy 5:17 says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” Here, Paul makes a distinction that there are some elders called to this specific labor of not only ruling and shepherding as all elders do, but preaching and teaching, which only a few, select elders do. Therefore I, as the pastor, am considered an elder, just like our other elders. Only I am a teaching elder and they are a ruling elders. The opening of nominations today is for the office of ruling elder.

As for the office of deacon, we see the office created in Acts 6. When the church began and was flourishing as many people were coming to faith, a certain issue arose that needed special attention. Acts 6 records this incident starting in verse 1: “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’” (vv.1-4). The phrase, “to serve tables” comes from the Greek word diakonein which is where we get diaconate or deacon from. This incident shows us that the office of deacon was created as a separate and distinct office from the work of the apostles which was to pray and proclaim the word. Although the office of the apostles has ceased, their spiritual work of praying and preaching are continued by the elders. So we see the deacons are called to a different task and to address different concerns. So there are two offices of the church: elder and deacon.

The reason I highlight this point is because of the implications it has. First, there are many ways of serving the church but only two ordained offices. I am so thankful for all of you who serve the various ministries of the church, volunteering your time and energy. We know that many of our operations as a church would come to a halt if you weren’t so generous and sacrificial in your service. But the Bible shows that only the office of elder and deacon are the ordained offices in the church that require the laying on of hands. This is why we only vote for the officers of the church.

Second, elder and deacon are distinct offices. One is not lesser or greater than the other. Each requires its own calling from God and a faithfulness to fulfill different duties and responsibilities. When people view the office of deacon as lesser than the office of elder, there are always negative consequences. One such consequence is that somebody may be called to be an elder but needs to jump through the hoops of being a deacon first. Often this means means they are awful deacons because their calling isn’t actually to be a deacon, it’s to be an elder. It’s a different set of duties altogether. Another consequence is that when people are ordained deacons and stay deacons their whole lives, some people unfortunately see that as a shameful thing. Sometimes even the deacon thinks that way. But both fail to recognize that being a deacon is its own, unique calling from God. Many are called to a life of being a deacon and that’s great. And third, this negatively affects the way people nominate and vote on officers. They see the leadership pipeline in the church as deacon to elder and so often pass up or pass over qualified, godly men to be elders simply because they are not yet a deacon. And also others may nominate and vote a deacon to be an elder because they’ve been a deacon for so long when that is not God’s calling for them. So without understanding the distinct offices of elder and either, you will either miss out on a great elder, you will lose a great deacon because you think he should be an elder, and/or you might elect an unqualified elder and thus hurt the health of the church. Because the offices are different, that also means the duties of elder and deacon are different. Let’s look at that next.

#2: The Duties

Paul focuses more on qualifications here in 1 Timothy and he he spends less time on duties but we see an allusion to the duties of elders in verses 4 and 5. Paul writes, “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” And as we already ready 5:17 says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor…” So in these two passages we begin to see a picture of elders caring for God’s church by managing and ruling the church and her members.

Reading 1 Peter 5:1-3 might be more helpful to understand what this duty looks like. There Peter writes, “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ…shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” Shepherding, in my opinion, is the best way of summarizing the work of the elders which is to care for the flock of Christ by spiritually leading and guiding its members to greater faithfulness and Christlikeness. This is why the author of Hebrews writes in 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” So it’s with the goal to care for and promote the spiritual interests of the church and her members that the elders are called to rule and shepherd. All decisions made in the church and for the church are all done to see this goal achieved. This is why Paul likens the duty of an elder using parental language, household language. A good father always makes decisions for the interests of the whole family, to promote the growth and health of his children, never pushing ahead with selfish ambition or with a selfish agenda.

So too the elder must put the interests of the church and her members above his own. This is why the elders receive members of the church through membership and baptism, lead the church in worship, pray for the church, visit people in their homes, counsel as needed, and ultimately set forth a spiritual example to the flock. If these are the duties, when you consider a potential elder, you must reflect on this question: Do I see this person shepherding the souls of others and my own?Do I sense in this person a call to know, lead, protect and feed the congregation in wisdom, love and toward greater Christlikeness? Am I able to entrust myself and submit to their leadership?

As for deacons their duties are in the name itself. Deacons are servers of tables as we saw in Acts 6. Whereas elders are called to shepherd, deacons are called to serve. Their duty is to take care of the practical, physical and material needs rather than the spiritual needs which are entrusted to the elders. Although the Bible doesn’t specifically lay out what they do, typically in churches their service is needed in areas of ministry like handling finances, taking care of facilities, responding to the physical and material needs of church members, and serving in areas that free the elders to give themselves to the ministry of spiritual care. Our denomination’s Book of Church Order beautifully puts it when it says “The office is one of sympathy and service” and it goes on to say, “It is the duty of the deacons to minister to those who are in need, to the sick, to the friendless, and to any who may be in distress.” The real heart of the work of deacons is to assist the elders by serving the needs of the congregation in every other way the elders can’t and don’t. Basically the deacons serve in order to free the elders to shepherd. That’s their relationship. If this is what deacons do, then as you begin to pray about who to nominate, remember that they are called servers of tables. Ask yourself: Do I see in this person a humble and servant oriented heart? Have I already seen them serving in the church and do they do it well, with joy and in humility? Would they helpfully assist the elders to shepherd by responsibly assuming tasks of service? But the most important qualifications are character and spiritual.

#3: The Qualifications

Paul’s focus when it comes to these officers is almost entirely on character qualifications and mentions only one skill or gifting. This is because whether shepherding or serving, both are spiritual matters. 1 Timothy makes it clear that the spiritual health of the church is tied to the spiritual health and maturity of its leaders. How many churches have fallen and been ripped apart in the last ten years because of unhealthy church leadership? Unfortunately too many. The church in Ephesus, where Timothy pastored, suffered because of bad leaders. They may have been men of great charisma, wealth, influential, eloquent, skilled but they did not have good spiritual character. So the majority of Paul’s focus in these verses is on qualifications.

Now one thing he doesn’t say directly in this passage because he said it in the chapter before is that the office of ordained elder and deacon are for men only. First, he assumes it when he gives the qualification that these men are to lead their households and be faithful to their wives. Secondly, in chapter 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man…” None of Paul’s words are meant to put women down. In fact Paul and Jesus speak of women in the highest ways possible. You can’t read the whole corpus of Paul’s letters or stories about Jesus and conclude they were misogynistic. You would have to be blind to the evidence. So Paul is not talking about a difference in worth or significance or even ability. He is talking about a difference in calling and the roles God has given to men and women in the church. Simply different. Not better or worser. Now you can say this is culturally informed and at Paul’s times women’s roles in society were a certain kind of way but our times are more progressive and open minded. But you would misunderstand Paul’s argument. When he cites the reason why women are not to have this spiritual authority over a man in the church, his reason is Adam and Eve in the garden. He’s anticipating your argument and essentially saying, “Before you think this is a cultural designation, I’m telling you it’s not. I’m following a created design.” So at Cornerstone, because we believe the Bible only speaks to ordination being for men, the nominations for elder and deacon is also only for qualified men.

Now let’s consider these qualifications. First for elders. Verse 2 begins: “An overseer must be above reproach.” This doesn’t mean sinless – only that he is to have a blameless reputation. His conduct cannot be lived contrary to a life of following Christ.

“The husband of one wife.” This cannot mean that the elder be married. Singleness does not disqualify somebody from being an elder. How could Paul, an unmarried man who served an unmarried Savior, demand that marriage be a qualification? He would disqualify himself and his words then would have no authority. This qualification means that if they are married, the man must be faithful to his wife with unquestionable steadfastness. Because a man unfaithful in his marriage is a man who does not understand the gospel because marriage point us to the gospel.

The next three, “sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable” are marks of a disciplined man. The idea here is that you cannot rule over others if you cannot rule over even yourself. An elder must be a disciplined man, disciplined in life and in spirituality not simply giving into his desires and passions at a whim.

“Hospitable.” This comes from the Greek word meaning “love for strangers.” Although this includes opening up one’s home, it is not limited to that. You can host but not be hospitable. I’ve seen and experienced that. Hospitable is a practice but it is also a heart attitude. It means drawing near to others, moving toward them, opening heart as well as your house to people and making them feel at home.

“Able to teach” – in the middle of a list on character qualifications, this is the only skill or gift required. That means it is very important since this is the only ability Paul highlights. Now the fact that Paul later identifies those elder who preach and teach well, means that every elder is not expected to be an excellent teacher and preacher. Some are called specifically for that task. Remember that the word is able, meaning capable. “Able to teach” means the man is competent in both content and communication. He must both know enough and be able to speak clearly enough to teach and build up the church and her members in the sound doctrine and protect and guard her against false teaching.

“Not a drunkard” means not giving in to drunkenness. Now here some people declare they will never be an elder. Well, remember that Ephesians 5 tells every Christian to not get drunk. So you’re never excused. But why does Paul repeat this command? It’s because this command is heightened to those called to be elders. Elders are called to shepherd the flock, but if you are intoxicated and receive a phone call for emergency counseling, you have an opportunity to evangelize somebody who wants to hear the gospel, or you have to urgently visit somebody in their home or in the hospital, if you’re drunk you wouldn’t be able to fulfill your duties. You would fail to shepherd. I want us to know that nowhere does Jesus or any biblical author require total abstinence from alcohol. It’s unbiblical to make that a law. But this call to not be a drunkard or given to drunkenness must be taken seriously by every Christian and especially those who are called to the office of elder and deacon as Paul later applies it to them as well.

“Not violent, but gentle, not quarrelsome.” These men are to love and pursue unity and always strive to honor and protect the weaker brother or sister, the least mature believer. They are not to sow seeds of division through quarreling but in gentleness pursue and cultivate peace, harmony and love among others.

“Not a lover of money.” This is the second deal breaker for people who are now absolutely sure they would never be an elder. But later in 1 Timothy 6 Paul writes, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Again it’s a statement made for all Christians but heightened in its application to elders. The temporary, earthly pleasures that worldly riches promise a person should not have a grip or hold on this kind of man. Rather generosity and sacrifice are his marks. This is not saying that an elder cannot be wealthy but that his wealth is not his identity. He is using his wealth to serve others and the kingdom for the promotion of the gospel, not to serve himself and establish his own kingdom.

“He must mange his own household well, with all dignity…” Since the church is called a “household of God” in verse 15, if the man has not proven he can rule his own household well, how can he rule God’s household? An elder cannot be living in hypocrisy between his home life and his church life. They must be in similar accord. In fact, in his home life where nobody else but God and his family can see, he must serve there most with integrity, godliness and faithfulness. Then those things spill over into the household of faith. By the way, this qualification does not mean all his children must be believers. Only God can change hearts so how could we expect an elder to that work too. He is not God. But he cannot be the reason his children refuse to believe. His hypocrisy cannot be the reason his children think the faith is hogwash. But he is to parent well because the character he exhibits to congregants should be consistent with the character shown to his children.

“He must not be a recent convert or he may be puffed up with conceit.” We’re not meant to make this quantifiable but we are to understand that Paul is seeking spiritually mature men. The number of years attending church or being in the faith does not always equal maturity. So being a Christian or being in the church for a long time does not qualify you. I think what Paul has in mind are men who have lived the Christian life long enough so that their lives have proven their character and doctrine are in sync. That one is not way ahead of another. Not a recent concert means they have experienced the different seasons of the Christian life so they can wisely and pastorally speak, counsel and pray alongside others. The danger Paul says is to be puffed with conceit and therefore proud and arrogant in your attitude and approach. You cannot shepherd God’s people if you are suffocating them.

And lastly “He must be well thought of by outsiders.” This concerns a man’s reputation and the witness he gives to the watching world. This qualification is last because if all of the previous, inward qualifications are truly at work in a person, the evidence will be seen by outsiders. It’ll be undeniable. So as you pray getting ready to nominate, and pray again to vote when the time comes, consider these qualifications.

Next for deacons, there are many qualifications that overlap. We won’t revisit the qualifications in verse 8 that says “Deacons likewise must be dignified…not addicted to much wine…prove themselves blameless…the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.” Each of these qualifications that applied to elders also apply to the deacons.

I want to focus on just three that are unique to the deacons. First, not being “double-tongued.” This means he is not prone to gossip and having a loose tongue. Deacons handle people’s private affairs and often sensitive information and so he should not foolishly share those things with others but keep them to himself.

“Not greedy for dishonest gain.” Since much of the diaconal role has to do with financial matters, he must not be tempted to steal or take advantage of his entrusted responsibility. Remember Judas rebuked the woman pouring perfume to honor Christ. If he had his way, his selfish motive would have prevented a beautiful act of service being done for Christ. A deacon cannot be so consumed with love of money that his decisions prevent Christ being honored and his people being helped.

“They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. Let them also be tested first…” Deacons are called to have sound doctrine. Although they are not called to teach and their ministries are more deeds than words, Paul still insists they know their Bible and their theology. Even though they do not have teaching authority, because they are ordained officers in the church and therefore have influence in the church, they must be committed wholeheartedly to the truths of the gospel. In fact their doctrine should influence the wisdom they exercise in their duties as deacons to serve. They serve with Bible in hand.

Now let me say this as a word of caution. The qualifications for elders and deacons are impossible. All people are sinful and saved only by grace. We are not yet perfect and so no man can fully measure up to this. So if you take these qualifications and place it over any person in the church, they will all fail. If you wait for perfection, then we’ll be a church without elders and deacons. In fact, even the ones we have now would all be disqualified. But instead, we are looking for men who by the Spirit at work in them, are pointed in the right direction and truly live with an aspiration to be obedient to these things. Men who are making it their prayer that God would form and fashion them to reflect these qualifications. Not men who will make it a prayer once they get nominated or once they have to start living this way. But men who are evidencing these things in their lives now because they’re seeking godliness and righteousness, not seeking an office. And by the Spirit’s wisdom, I believe we can begin to identify all of the men or none of the men who the Lord is readying for our church to serve as ordained officers.

#4: The Hope

Any and every earthly elder or deacon will fail. For they and we are simply imperfect, flawed people. Although elders and deacons are God’s gift to the church, they can never be the hope of the church. The church is not built on these men. And when these men are long gone, the church will still persevere. Why? Because our only hope is Jesus. He is the true elder and he is the true deacon because he is the great shepherd and he is the great servant. Jesus did what no man could do perfectly.

You see, Jesus was a greater shepherd than an earthly elder could ever be. He gave his life for his sheep and he protected us until his dying breath. This is why in 1 Peter 5:4 Jesus is called “the chief Shepherd” and in John 10:11 he says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherds lays down his life for the sheep.” We’re not supposed to look to our elders as our saviors. But we look for elders who look to the Savior. As they have their eyes and their hearts fixed on him, they will become the shepherds that we need. And as they are conformed into Christ’s image, God will use them to shepherd and lead our church for his glory. So Jesus is our hope.

Second, Jesus was also a greater servant than any deacon could ever be. Jesus said in Mark 10:43-45, “But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant (diakonos), and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This is why we don’t look to our deacons as our saviors. But we look for deacons who look to the Savior. And as their lives are centered on him and shaped by him, they will be conformed into his image to be the types of servants who give of themselves as Christ gave of himself to us. And through their conformity to Christ, God will use them to serve our church and its members.

As you begin to pray and nominate qualified men, remember that your hope can and should only be in Jesus. And remember how the gospel works. When you stop looking to earthly elders and deacons to shepherd and serve perfectly, when you believe this can only be fulfilled and met in Jesus, this will actually free the elders and deacons to serve better. When you believe the gospel, and they believe the gospel, it’ll take the weight of expectation off of them so that with greater joy and freedom they can give themselves to shepherd and serve Christ and his church.

Friends this is an exciting time for us. I hope you feel it too. So let us pray during this nomination process until the end of the month that God’s name be hallowed, his kingdom come and his will be done in Cornerstone as it is in heaven.

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