How Does a Church Choose Elders and Deacons?
The issue of Church government and organization has been one of confusion due to the introduction of so many interpretations by denominations and independent churches throughout the centuries. Each one of them has a purpose and reason for the structure they have established/adopted, but many have very little Biblical support. They may have good reasons, and they may see good results—but that does not make them a model to be followed by all others. Sometimes, churches have borrowed principles from social governments or corporate examples. Sometimes they have done what just seemed best—because what they, or others, had been doing was not working.
My purpose in this response is to lead us back to what the Bible teaches/establishes as the basic example. How those principles are then adapted to our current social/governmental/cultural situation may be different depending on the needs and/or the ability of a local church. What we must remember is that in regard to many issues (not doctrine or teaching), the Bible gives us guidelines, principles, and examples—but not strict policies. We are responsible to take Biblical truth and apply it to the issues at hand.
The good side of this is that we are able to “adjust” to new times, governments, societal evolution, etc. Otherwise, we would be trapped in a “time-frame” that would hinder development, and keep us from being effective in the “day” in which we live. The bad side of this is that “liberty breeds license”. Without restraints, some people take advantage and use their “freedom” to establish things that are so far from what was intended that the original purpose/design becomes lost. That pretty well “sums up” the status of Church government issues today.
I have studied and taught on the subject of Church Government for over 25 years. When I began my study, I determined to find the Biblical principles, not man’s opinions and alterations. I started with the study of the scriptural use of the terms: Pastor; Elder; Bishop; and Deacon. How the “modern-day” church uses and adapts these terms was not, is not, my concern. Of course, we live in a different era, and under different forms of government. We have laws that we must follow that did not exist for the 1st Century Church. We also have opportunities that did not exist for them—in this day (in most of the World), Churches can buy and own property, which is vital because they are often prohibited/prevented for using public property, as the Early Church did. These, and similar issues change the way we “apply” the principles taught in the Bible. However, we cannot overlook the “intention” of those principles just because it is more, or less, convenient.
The following points will “outline” the principles that are presented in the New Testament.
The Pastor/Shepherd: This is one of the “5-Fold” ministry gifts set in the Church by Jesus Christ. These “Ministry Gifts” are set in the Church to bring the “body of the saints” to their fullest potential. Their work is to be accomplished by teaching, leading, and protecting.
Ephesians 4:11 with 1Corinthians 12:28 – These verses reveal the “5 Offices” that Jesus has “given to the Body”.
The Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor-Teacher, and Teacher are given to the whole Body. As time progressed in the record of the New Testament, the Pastor became resident in the Local Church, whereas the remaining 4 “Offices” continued traveling throughout the Churches, both establishing churches, and ministering to many various local Churches.
Ephesians 4:12–16 – Here we are given the purpose and function of these Offices.
They are to “perfect” (build, finish-out, complete, restore/repair) the “saints” so that they (the saints) are then enabled to “do the work” of ministering to /serving one another. This in, turn will bring the “body” to its fullness. They accomplish this by teaching the truth, correcting doctrine, protecting from “false teachers”, and encouraging the saints. In the Local Church, this becomes mainly the function of the Pastor, assisted by the Elders who serve in that Church (more below)
1 Peter 5:1-4 – Here, Peter addresses the “Elders” about their responsibility. But, in verses 2 & 3 he tells them, “Pastor (feed / shepherd) the flock / take the oversight (Bishopric) / do not act as ‘lords’ / serve as examples”.
From this, we understand that Peter is speaking about the “Pastors” that are in the Local Flock. Their function is to feed / protect / lead by being an example. They are to “take the position” of “Bishop” over that flock—not because it is forced upon them, but willingly, realizing it is part of their God-given responsibility.
Acts 20:28 – In this passage Paul is addressing the “Elders—Leadership” of the Church in Ephesus.
He tells these Elders they are to “take heed unto themselves and to all the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made them Overseers (Bishops), [that is] to feed (Pastor) the Church of God which He has purchased with His own blood.”
Here Paul also identifies the Pastors as Elders who are to serve as Bishops over their congregation.
From these passages we can see that both Paul and Peter recognize that Pastors are Elders whose function is to teach, lead, and protect the local flock, serving as Bishops over them. Who chose these “Pastors” and placed them in this authority? Jesus himself—He gave them to the Church, and they are set as such by His authority.
According to New Testament scriptures, the Elders are individuals recognized for their spiritual maturity, and “set” before the people as teachers and leaders (rulers). They are taken from within the congregation and are to assist the 5-Fold ministry in accomplishing the task of bringing the believers to maturity, and leading them by their teaching and example. All 5-Fold ministers are Elders, but not all Elders will be in 5-Fold ministry. Many will be serving as leaders and teachers within the Local Church. Let us look at what the scriptures say about these Elders, their selection, and their authority.
Acts 14:21–23 – As Paul and Barnabas were completing their 1st Missionary journey throughout “Asia—Turkey”, they revisited each established Church, and “ordained” Elders in every city. This “ordaining” was done by the Apostles (5-fold Ministry), not by the Lord. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t according to His will—and I’m certain it followed prayer. But, it was the leadership that Jesus “set in the Church” who then ordained the Elders. Their function was to teach, lead, and protect the flock, operating under the authority given them by the Apostles. As time advanced during the New Testament age, some of these Elders became recognized as Pastors who had been set in the Church by Jesus Christ. (See passages above)
Titus 1:5–9 – Here Paul gives some directions regarding the “qualities” of one who is to be recognized as an Elder. Notice again, that it is Titus and Apostle/Pastor who is to “set” things in order in the Church, ordaining Elders in the Local Body. It is clear in this passage that their function is to teach, lead, and protect the flock—under the authority of the 5-fold Ministry. It is possible—even probable—that one or more of these Elders rose to the level of Bishop (below), and may even have recognized—as he was operating in this capacity— that he had a divine call to stand as Pastor in the Church. It is often found that those who rise in positions of leadership and teaching realize that there is more to their call than standing as an Elder. Many man and women have only realized their divine call after they have begun doing other works of ministry.
Acts 15:2; 4; 6; 13; 19 – This entire chapter gives the account of the 1st general council of the Christian Church. In response to the issue of Gentiles being saved and added to the Church, the “Apostles and Elders” gathered in Jerusalem. This made-up the recognized leadership of the Church, not only in Jerusalem but also in the other regions. Yet, in verses 13 & 19 we see one person who speaks as the “final authority”. This is James, the Lord’s brother. He is never recognized as an Apostle, but he is the authority in the Church of Jerusalem. He is known in historical records as the “Pastor” of the Church in Jerusalem. From other records in the New Testament, it must be that He was “set” in this position by the Lord Jesus. All the Apostles—Peter, Paul, Barnabas, etc—and the Elders acknowledge his authority to set the final decision.
There are other passages that mention the role of elder, but, in summary, they support the position established by the above scriptures. Elders are “set / ordained” into their position by the 5-fold ministry. They are to teach and lead the congregation by scripture and example. They work under the authority of the Local Pastor, and some of them may arise to 5-fold ministry—if they are called to this office by the Lord.
They are to be chosen from among the congregation as ones who are recognized for their spiritual maturity (1Tim 3:1–7). Both men and women (Titus 2:3–5) can serve in this capacity. Their role is consistently mentioned throughout the NT as “teaching and leading”. This will contrast with the role of the “deacons” which is to serve the congregation, but not primarily as teachers/leaders (see below).
These are “Elders” who have been given a position of “Oversight” within the Local Church body. The same principles of qualification apply to them as to the Elders. We would refer to these today as Supervisors or Directors—for the most part, they are working under the headship of the Pastor of the Local Church. All Bishops are Elders, but not all Elders will be serving in a capacity of “oversight” within their Local Church. The Pastor is “the Bishop of the Local Church”, in that he is the one placed as the general overseer of the local flock.
There are only a few verses in the New Testament that address the position of Bishop. Most of those are the ones mentioned above under Pastor. There is no mention of a Bishop, by name, in the New Testament. Only 1 passage speaks specifically of “bishops” and that is:
1Timothy 3:1–7 – This passage list the “qualities” that are to be found in one who is to serve as a Bishop. The list and order are almost identical to that in Titus 1:5–9. This shows that a bishop was basically the same as an Elder. His position and function are to teach and lead. However, the distinction arises in the first verse, “If one aspires (reaches up) to [the office of] Bishop…” The implication, here, would be that this is one who desires to be an overseer / superintendent / director of some function within the Church. Only an Elder is qualified to fill this position.
There is no scriptural basis for someone “outside” the Local Church serving as a Bishop over other Churches, etc. That was a development of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries of the Church. Some denominations still follow that example, and some new movements are using the “title” of Bishop to signify a step beyond Pastor. There really is no scriptural basis for this, and they would probably be better to use the “title” Apostle.
These individuals are chosen by the congregation and brought to the 5-Fold Ministry for approval. Their function is to assist the “Leadership” in ministering to the needs of the Local Church. They are, in effect, “servants to the congregation”. The Greek word used for “deacon” is “diakonos”. It can be translated servant, minister, or deacon. There are only a few passages in the New Testament that address this “office” so it is difficult to make too many guidelines regarding their function.
Acts 6: 1–7 – There is a lot of material in this passage to teach from, but I cannot go into detail here. Let me itemize a few of the significant points that relate to your question.
1. The problem of ethnic division was important and potentially destructive. The “12” recognized the need of dealing with the issue, but also that it was not something that they were able to accomplish while fulfilling their God-given responsibilities. Their “ministry—deaconing” was to Prayer and to the Word of God. (Verses 1; 2; 4)
2. They addressed the congregation of “disciples” (trained ones) and gave them some “qualities” that were important in finding ones who would be appointed to this important task. (verse 4)
3. The “people of the congregation” chose these individuals—not the Lord; not the Apostles. They were to be someone the congregation trusted and knew. They were to have a “reputation” (known to be…) of commitment to God and His Word. (verse 5) It was highly important that the people have confidence in these “Deacons—servants—ministers”. They were not going to be servants of the leadership, but of the congregation!
4. When the people had selected the “deacons”, they brought them to the “12” for final approval. Once accepted they were placed in this position. And, the Church grew in great and new ways!
These “deacons” were chosen by the people, approved by the Leadership, and placed in service to the congregation. They were not selected to take the place of the 5-fold ministry, nor were they to make decisions that ruled over them. They were “servants”—serving whatever need the congregation had. This allowed the Leadership to concentrate on the issues of Prayer, Teaching, Leading and Protecting (see verses 4–6).
1 Timothy 3:8–13 – This passage lists the qualities that should be found in one who is to serve as a “deacon/deaconess” in the Local Church. You can notice that 2 of the differences that stand-out between the Elder and the Deacon are “teaching and leading”. Both of these are mentioned as vital for the Elder, while neither is mentioned for the Deacon. That does not mean that a “deacon” cannot teach, or lead. It is just that in relation to the function of “deaconing”, it is not required. Remember, though, that Stephen and Philip were both listed as deacons in Acts 6, and that both were later mentioned as fulfilling 5-fold offices.
I also want to draw special attention to verse 13. Those who serve faithfully as “deacon”, using their place in the congregation to do good and help the believers, “gain to themselves an advance in their service…” This shows that the position of deacon may often be an initial entrance into other areas of ministry. Many men and women have offered themselves in service (deaconing) to the Church and the ministers, and have found that, as they served, they became aware of a greater “call” to ministry. Their “deaconing” didn’t create this call—it helped them to realize what God had already given to them.
This office of “deacon” is a vital part of the ministry of the Local Church. Much of the work of those we call “volunteers” is really the ministry of deaconing. They serve the Church for the good of the people, assisting the 5-fold Ministry to accomplish the work of bringing God’s people to their fullest and best.
Some Churches / congregations / denominations have used the title of Deacon for much more than it was established to be in the New Testament. Often they operate as a “board” that oversees the entire Church, even “ruling” over the Pastor (the one God set in the Church). This is not supported by New Testament teaching but has quite a long history of use. That does not make it proper. Deacons are to be used as a blessing to the congregation, serving them in whatever area of ministry the Leadership determines.
The Pastor (the only one of the above that is “set in the Church” by Jesus Christ) works under the Headship and authority of Jesus Christ who has “set” him in the Church. The Pastor is an “Elder” who serves as the “Bishop” of the Local body. He is a “Deacon” to the Church and to the Word of God—giving his service to them in Prayer, Teaching, and Leadership through delegation.
He is assisted in this work by Elders who help to teach and lead the congregation. Some of these Elders may rise to a position of “oversight” as they help to administrate and delegate. These directors would be operating as “Bishops” under the Leadership of the Pastor.
The Church Body is also helped by the ministry / service of the Deacons. These men and women serve the congregation, and they assist the leadership in many various ways in fulfilling the commission to bring the flock to maturity.
Pastor Bob Yandian has written a book that teaches along these lines. It is, Decently and In Order, and is available through BYM. He presents a great overview of each of these “titles” of ministry. The book gives much more detail and background for each of these and shows how all of these “offices” are necessary for the overall function and life of the Local Church.
I trust this has been helpful in revealing the New Testament teaching regarding the ministries of Pastor, Elder, Bishop, and Deacon. Although the use of these titles is not common today, I’m sure you can see in your own Church the operation of these offices. Many faithful, committed, and diligent men and women are working within our congregations to bring the Body of Christ to its fullest and best.