There seems to be a lot of confusion in the Body of Christ about the terminology of Elders and Deacons. So, what does the Bible say about these offices?
(Disclaimer – There are no classes of Christians. None of these potions or offices mean that one is higher then the other in the Body of Christ. Not at all)
The New Testament speaks of the office of Elders. The words in the original languages are translated to be “Pastor”, “Shepherd”, “Overseer”, and “Elder” interchangeably. Two passages suggest that some Elders teach, and other passages do not. Therefore, Elders can include offices such as Missionaries, Chaplains, and Bishops, while teaching Elders are Pastors. Elders were said to appoint Decans (Acts 15:22), to “rule” (1 Timothy 5:17), and to intercede on behalf of the sick (James 5:14). These leaders were said to have received appointment, and at least one instance, appointment was from a church planter (Titus 1:5)
Several scriptures explain the role. One of the clearest verses is 1st Timothy 5:17.
“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching”.
Another helpful text is 1st Peter 5:1-4.
“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”
These two passages suggest that some Elders teach, and some do not. Otherwise why would Timothy say that those who do teach should receive a double honor? The traditional Pastor does not have to be the only Elder of the church. Some Elders preach and teach, while some do not. Furthermore, the Elder is also called an “overseer” (Greek: episkopos often translated Bishop) and the shepherd/pastor (Greek: poimen often translated as either pastor or shepherd).
Therefore, the church is lead by Elders, some of whom function as teaching Pastors. Pastors lead and feed the flock, help people find their place in ministry, and lead with the attitude of love found in healthy families. I also find it interesting that in the above-mentioned passage in 1st Peter, the one whom Christ said “on this rock I will build my church” (Mathew 16:18), meaning Peter, refers to himself as a “fellow Elder”. This is contrary to how some church organizations operate. Regardless of whether Peter considered himself the lead Elder, which I am sure he was, he still considered himself to be among peers who all share the same shepherding responsibilities as the ones he was addressing. Not, as he put it, “lording the status over anybody else”. Peter also reminds them that they are shepherding Gods flock, not their own.
Less is said in the Bible about the office of Deacon. As I said earlier in this article, Deacons are appointed by Elders. According to the New Testament, Deacons are servants who assist the church in accomplishing its ministry. In fact, the term Deacon can also be translated “servant”. Their role is a ministry role. In Acts 6, Deacons took the responsibility to oversee the churches social ministry to widows who needed the daily distribution of food so that the Elders were free to study and teach the Word of God. Deacons are to conform to a certain lifestyle and behavioral requirements (1st Timothy 3: 8-13). Paul greeted Deacons as church leaders (Philippians 1:1). Deacons are ministry leaders who serve under the leadership of Pastor-Elders. Therefore, the office of a Deacon is designed by God to be for those committed to loyal service in ministry by helping with the general practices of projects so as to free up the Elders and Pastor to be able to focus on his study, teaching, and equipping of the congregation for their own ministries. For example, the Deacon may handle day to day type tasks around the church so that the Pastor is not distracted from his ministry.
The description of a Deacon is very general, and one may read that and realize that churches have Lay-Leaders who fit this same description. Which is fine and good. The Bible does not define any church office for Lay-Leadership, though I do see Biblical president to consider all Christians called to serve in Gods Kingdom work. And among any group, there will always be those who prove themselves to be capable leaders. Leaders in the church who are not ordained to any specific office or title are Lay-Leaders and can serve a countless number of roles. I would say the biggest difference between a Deacon and a Lay-Leader would be that Lay-Leaders may come and go, while a Deacon is likely going to be committed to the church in a more loyal way.
Gods chain of command for leaders:
I hesitate to use words like “hierarchy”, or “boss”, because that comes with some negative connotations due to the secular use of these words. However, it is clear that God has ordained a certain pecking order that was modeled in the ministry of Jesus Christ when He appointed leaders and was foreshadowed in Old Testament priesthood practices as well. To that end, I have created an illustration below. This is not a perfect illustration, but I am limited in my graphics design skills, so it is the best I can do.
If this was our church Organization Chart, we would invert must of this by putting the congregation on the top showing how the leadership of the church supports them from the bottom. If you look at our leadership pathway sheets, that is exactly what you will see. But again, this imperfect illustration is the best I can do.