Elders and Deacons

The leadership of Christ’s church is a matter of crucial theological importance. Scripture cautions us to be on guard against church leaders who teach false doctrines, promote controversies, and turn aside to meaningless talk (1 Tim. 1:3-7). In spite of these warnings, we live in a day and age when the average Christian’s understanding of biblical church leadership is anemic at best and nonexistent at worst. So at Coram Deo, we spend a lot of time talking and teaching about biblical church leadership to counteract the apathy and confusion that exists in American Christianity. Here’s a summary…

The most important leader in the church is Jesus. As Mark Driscoll writes:

The Scriptures are clear that Jesus Christ is the head of the church. Jesus is the Apostle who plants a church. Jesus is the Leader who builds the church. Jesus is the Senior Pastor who rules the church. And it is ultimately Jesus who closes churches down when they have become faithless or fruitless. Therefore, it is absolutely vital that a church loves Jesus, obeys Jesus, imitates Jesus, and follows Jesus at all times and in all ways, according to the teaching of his word. Human leadership in the church is little more than qualified Christians who are following Jesus and encouraging other people to follow them as they follow Jesus. Because of this, church leaders must be good sheep who follow their Chief Shepherd Jesus well before they are fit to be shepherds leading any of his sheep (On Church Leadership, p. 12).

Serving under Jesus are three types of human leaders in the church: elders, deacons, and church members. Church members are Christians who are following Jesus wholeheartedly and have therefore made the transition from consumers to contributors. Driscoll calls them “Christians whose eyes are capable of seeing beyond their own navels.” They have died to themselves, they see their lives as existing for the mission of God, and they give of their time, talent, and treasure to advance God’s kingdom in the world. They recognize that Scripture calls them to be part of a local church (Heb 13:17, Phil 1:1), and so they have committed to a local church body (which shouldn’t be optional according to the Bible, but sadly is seen as optional by many cultural Christians). At Coram Deo we have about 150 covenant members, as well as many new Christians who are in the process of sorting out their relationship to God and moving toward church membership.

Deacon and elder are formal offices of leadership in the church that are to be filled by church members who meet stringent biblical qualifications (1 Timothy 3). As we investigate the teaching of Scripture, we see the following principles:

  • Elders are appointed first, then deacons. The first step of organizing a local church is to appoint qualified elders. This was Paul’s consistent practice in New Testament church planting (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). It seems that the office of elder/overseer/pastor (these terms are synonymous in the NT) is given primacy because of the importance of sound doctrine and biblical teaching in the life of a young church (1 Timothy 1:3-7). Elders must be raised up as soon as possible in order to guard the gospel and refute error (Titus 1:9). Deacons may be appointed later as the practical ministry needs increase.
  • The main task of elders is theological oversight; the main task of deacons is practical ministry. Only one important qualification distinguishes elders from deacons: elders must be “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2) and “able to… refute those who contradict [sound doctrine]” (Titus 1:9). There is no such requirement for deacons; they simply “must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Tim 3:9). Elders, then, are charged primarily with the theological, doctrinal, and moral leadership of the church, focusing especially on the faithful teaching of Scripture. Deacons are charged with the practical leadership of the church under the oversight of the elders. Elders serve by leading, and deacons lead by serving.
  • Elders delegate tasks to deacons. While the New Testament outlines in copious detail the practical duties of elders, it offers almost no teaching about the roles and responsibilities of deacons. Based on the primacy of eldership and the apostolic pattern in Acts 6, it seems that the job of a deacon is to serve as a “pastoral assistant” under the oversight and direction of the elders. The elders delegate practical ministry to the deacons as the size and needs of the church increase. This is certainly the way the early church understood the office of deacon: “Deacons… are to be honorable and sincere in performing the duties assigned to them by the presbyters [elders],” wrote Theodore of Mopsuestia.

This past weekend Coram Deo installed two new elders and twelve new deacons. These leaders have proven themselves over time and have been carefully examined against biblical criteria. We always say that deacons and elders are recognized, not appointed; we look for people who are already serving well and leading others, and then we develop and train them for further leadership. The most recent crew of deacons spent five months in formal training to prepare them for the office. Our two new elders progressed through an even more extensive vetting process that included a series of written essays, written and oral Bible/theology exams, a family finance assessment, a husband/wife interview with current elders as well as outside advisors, and the drafting of a major theological position paper.

I’m grateful to God for His grace in raising up good, godly, qualified leaders for His church. May they have your utmost respect and confidence, and may you follow them as they follow Jesus, so that in all things Christ might be glorified.

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