Of Elders and Deacons

 Recently, my friend Charles Wood, has been discussing church governance from a Biblical perspective in his daily “Woodchuck’s Den” that he sends out by email.  (Why he will not blog these wonderful articles is beyond me! –hint, hint.)  Apparently, his pastor, John Blodgett, of the First Baptist Church of Elkhart, Indiana, recently preached on the topic as well and he reproduced an outline.  As I read it, I was struck by how closely this aligns with the view that I hold.  Pastor Blodgett gives credit to John Piper for helping him reach his conclusion and I must admit that I have been influenced by several academic friends who have done research on elders and Baptist history and by John MacArthur, myself.

I took both of the churches I pastored through the transition from using deacons as a quasi-”Board of Directors” model to what I believe is the more Biblical model of using elder leadership (both vocational and non-vocational — as in pastors and lay members that both meet the Biblical criteria.)  In hindsight now, I can honestly say that I anticipated and looked forward to the elder meetings in my churches and I dreaded with a passion many of the deacons meetings.  I hold fast to the opinion that having an elder board is important for any pastor to help him avoid an autocratic style of leadership that may swing toward dictatorship.  At the same time, elders who understand their Biblical role and mandate, understand that God does generally use a single elder to provide the vision and direction of the ministry with the plurality of elders and thta he will generally serve as the primary voice from the pulpit.  Other elders will use their spiritual gifts in areas in which the pastor may not be as gifted like finances, administration, etc…  Ideally, the elders work in a spirit of unanimity and proceed with much consideration of Scripture, prayer and a spirit of humility and transparency.  I vowed that I would never push the church forward on a matter without the unanimous support of those that sat on the elder board.

Both of the elder boards at the churches I pastored were men of exceptional spiritual depth and maturity.  I have not a single regret about any lay elder that we selected to serve our church by providing leadership in either place.  (I cannot say the same for every “staff” elder and that may lead to a different commentary on Biblical qualifications for pastoral/vocational/elder leadership within a church.)  If I were in either church today, I would want the exact same lay elders to give me guidance and counsel.

The elder board approach is still in place in my first church and functions wonderfully from all that I can tell.  The church has more than tripled in size and scope since I was there, so I assume there may be a few more than we had while I was the Senior Pastor, but it worked.  The deacons moved away from management (and micromanagement) and worked as servants and assistants and some have and will eventually become elders themselves as their gifts matured.

In my second church, the deacons could not/would not adjust to not being the group “in charge”.  I must take some responsibility for this by possibly moving too quickly (about 5 years) in transitioning to elder leadership.  It was definitely hard for some who had been there a long time to accept and the fact that within hours of my resignation they regained control and abolished the elders is just further evidence of this.  I will say that the lay elders in that congregation were exceptional leaders and good and godly men who met the Biblical qualifications for their office and I believe the church suffered significantly by the loss of their influence in that role, particularly during a time of transition such as they were experiencing.

In the last church where I served as the Executive Pastor rather than the Senior Pastor, there were no lay elders and the church was primarily run by a “finance committee” on which many did not meet even the most basic requirements for being a deacon.  On top of that, the deacon board was largely kept in the dark about most issues and had a habit of rubber stamping decisions (if they were even given that opportunity) by the finance committee without having been directly involved in the process.  The authority of the deacon board was largely an illusion and the ones with real authority/power, were the ones who served on both the deacon board and the finance committee.  Hardly a Biblical model.  (I would add here that in each case, there were a few “deacons” who would point to the “by-laws” for their authority rather than what the Scriptures said.  In one meeting I had a deacon directly say to me, “I know what the Bible says, but the by-laws say THIS is the way we are to do it and that’s how we need to do it.”  I have found that any time you come to a business meeting and someone has a copy of the by-laws in his/her hands, you can expect a rumble before the evening is over.)

In the 20+ years that have passed from which I began pastoring, a fresh look at the offices of deacon and elder has begun taking place in many evangelical churches generally and in Baptist church specifically.  I believe this is a great idea.

I would recommend Strauch’s book on Eldership if you have questions about the Biblical foundation for elder participation in church governance.  I am not a Presbyterian and not moving into the direction.  I do not specifically identify myself as a “reformed” Baptist and I don’t wear the tag “Calvinist”, though I don’t summarily reject all that they believe and in fact, embrace some facets of it.  But wherever one stands on church polity, one would be wise to examine the arguments, study the Scriptures and be able to defend their own position using Scripture — not tradition.

Take a moment and review the outline below and prayerfully study the Scriptures attached to the positions and principles discussed.

Church Offices and Leadership Structure by Pastor John Blodgett

1.  What is the nature of the church?
A. The church is a family – I Jn. 3:1
B. The family needs structure – God’s structure for leadership is elders and deacons
2.  Who is in charge of the church?
A.  The church is under the direct authority of Christ – Eph. 5:23
B.  Some churches have elder rule
1.  The final authority rests with the elders
2.  Our leadership is not promoting elder rule for this congregation
C.  Some churches have congregational rule
1.  This is how our church operates and will continue to operate
2.  Under Christ and His Word, the church settles matters of faith and life
3.  The local church is the final authority in matter of dispute – Mt. 18:15-17
4.   The church settled the dispute in Acts 6:1-6 and selected men who could be put in charge of the widows
5.   Paul instructed the churches in Galatia to reject anyone who taught false doctrine (Gal. 1:6-9)
6.  Paul told the Corinthian church how to act in a discipline situation
(I Cor. 5:2)
7.  Paul told the Corinthians how they were to act as a body toward a sinning brother (2 Cor. 2:6-8)
3.  The local body is to have spiritual leaders – elders
A.  Who are elders?
1.  Elders are spiritual leaders of the congregation who serve as shepherds under the authority of Christ there are both paid and non-paid elders (laymen)
2.  The Bible calls these spiritual leaders: pastors, elders, bishops, and overseers – all of these terms talk about the same office, while describing the work of that office

 B.  What are the spiritual qualifications of elders: I Tim. 3:1-7
C.  What does an elder do?
1.  Elders shepherd and care for the Lord’s church – Acts 20:28
2.  An elder is alert to protect the church from attacks – Acts 20:29-31
3.  Elders lead and direct the church by guiding, not driving – I Pet. 5:3
4.  Elders preach the Word, teach sound doctrine, and refute those who contradict it, ensuring that church doctrine is biblical – I Tim.5:17
5.  Elders moderate and arbitrate in doctrinal and ethical matters -Acts 15:5-6
6.  Elders shepherd the church to spiritual maturity – Eph. 4:11-14
7.  Elders seek to restore the believers who have been overtaken in any sin - Gal. 6:1
8.  Elders exercise a ministry of prayer, especially with regard to the sick -  James 5:13-16
9.  Elders administer in love and humility the process of church discipline as outlined in Mt. 18:15-20
10.  Elders share in the commendation of gifted men, to the work to which God has called them – I Tim. 4:14
11.  Elders care for the souls of people
D. The leadership is proposing that we create an elder council made up of our pastors and qualified lay elders to guide our church in spiritual matters
E.  Why should we have lay elders join our paid elders (pastors)
1.  To provide long-term stability for the church
2.  To allow lay people whom God has gifted to be elders to serve this body and give guidance for its future
3.  To have a group of lay elders who are well trained in the Scriptures to help preserve the doctrinal purity of the church
4.  To have lay elders help care for the spiritual needs of the church
5.   Lay elders will give added insight into the needs of the body – as pastors we need the input and help of lay elders
6.   To allow the deacons to function as deacons in meeting the needs of the body
4. The local church is to have servants – deacons
A.  What is a deacon?
1.  “Deacon” means servant
2.  They are not “second class” leaders; they simply minister to the body differently from the elders
3.  The responsibility of the deacons is to serve the members of the church  Acts 6:1-7
a.  They are to solve problems in the church through their ministry to the body
b.  They are leaders in the church who serve the body in practical ways  handling the finances, the property, membership, helping people in need, solving disputes and problems, caring for the widows, etc.
B.  The character of a deacon – I Tim. 3:8-13

3 thoughts on “Of Elders and Deacons

  1. Scott Burdett

    Dan-

    Excellent article. I have been serving at my current church since 2004 as a staff pastor (not the primary teaching pastor) and about four years ago we made the transition to an elder led church (Strauch’s book was instrumental in this process). Along with a name change, this was a significant change as our congregation has deep Baptist roots (formerly associated withe GARBC). This change did not come without its challenges, but we are a healthier, more biblical church. As a pastor, I have always served at a church in which was elder led. This type of polity will always be a core distinctive in any church that I serve and fellowship, whether I am a pastor/elder or just a congregant.

    Reply
  2. Mike Sanders

    Dan,

    Great job. I have served with both models and I love the Eldership leadership model. I appreciate your boldness to address this topic.

    Reply
  3. Steve Longbrake

    Why do you say”At the same time, elders who understand their Biblical role and mandate, understand that God does generally use a single elder to provide the vision and direction of the ministry with the plurality of elders and thta he will generally serve as the primary voice from the pulpit. Other elders will use their spiritual gifts in areas in which the pastor may not be as gifted like finances, administration, etc…

    Upon which Scriptures do you base this point?

    Reply

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