Here is part 2.
The structure of leadership in the local church
The biblical structure of church leadership seems to be elders and deacons and then the rest of the church members. We can see this in the way Paul often opens his letters to the churches and we can see it in his instructions to Timothy, and Titus, about the qualifications for elders and deacons. I believe that elder, overseer, shepherd and bishop are interchangeable terms in the NT, so what we call them doesn’t massively matter. How they function is much more important.
It might be worth making a distinction; I would call elders and deacons ‘offices’ and the apostles, prophets, pastors etc as ‘roles’. The only reason I crudely define them is because a prophet could quite easily be an elder or a deacon or any church member for that matter.
In Acts 20 Paul gathers the Ephesian elders together to encourage them, say goodbye and leave some instructions. He doesn’t call the whole church congregation, therefore, we can assume that the elders were to lead and pass on the instruction.
The elders are predominantly responsible for the teaching and direction of the church. In Acts 6 the Apostles need to devote their time to preaching and prayer and so they appoint deacons to meet the needs that have arisen. They then oversee the ministry that will meet the needs and get church members to help out.
When Timothy and Titus appoint elders, they are people who will be overseeing the spiritual well-being of the church in terms of doctrine and teaching.
Practically there needs to be accountability. Ultimately, the elders are accountable to Jesus for how they shepherd His church, and they will be judged accordingly. But, on the ground week by week, elders need to be mutually accountable, watching their own lives and doctrine closely, as well as each other’s.
Deacons should also be accountable to the elders for the leading and serving that they do. Deacons will have a level of autonomy, it is no good if the elders micro-manage, but the buck will stop with the elders if something goes pear-shaped.
How frequently elder teams and deacon teams meet will vary from church to church and context to context. I would think that they need to be regular and it would be helpful if deacons fed back information and updates to elders so that they can oversee the church well. If teams are small then they could all meet together as times, but as churches, and therefore these teams grow, that will become practically impossible.
The qualifications of leaders (elders and deacons)
There are two main places for the qualifications of elders (1 Tim and Titus) and the lists are almost identical. 1 Timothy 2 is slightly fuller so let’s take it and see what the essence of it is, and then what those things may look like practically today.
The list covers relationship with God, family, self and the community at large. The whole list, except for ‘the ability to teach’ which we will come to later, is a list relating to character. Being an elder is not about having a particular personality type, a wonderful array of skills and not even necessarily about gifting, but it is about character, Christ-likeness.
If a man desires to be an elder, he desires a “noble task”. Those being considered for church eldership need to have proven themselves in their relationships (as mentioned above). Being an elder is not a small task, or one to be taken lightly, but a serious commitment to love and leading the Lord’s people.
In relation to God, an elder must be a mature believer, not a recent convert and he must be above reproach (v2, 6). This does not mean that an elder must have reached some kind of sinless perfection. It means that an elder must be a person who is becoming more like Christ each day, his character to should be displaying the fruit of the Spirit and he must live out hid identity in Christ. There must not be obvious, major character flaws that he is not bothered about or is not seeking to change in the power of the Spirit. Does he love Jesus? And doe he desire to know and love Him more? Then he is good candidate to be an elder.
The sign that a man might make a good elder lies not only in how he lives out his relationship with God but how he has and is looking after his family (v4). Paul makes it clear to Timothy that if a man can look after his own family, he can’t look after God’s (v5). An elder is to be a one-woman man. He does not have to be married (a la Paul of Jesus) but he needs to be sexually pure in this way. Not only that but it needs to be evident that he loves and leads his wife. His children too should respect him and listen to him and his love for them should be obvious.
On top of this, elders need to be self-aware and well respected by outsiders. Tying in with the desire to be changed by the Spirit to be more like Jesus, an elder needs to be aware of His weaknesses. An elder need to be clear-minded, able to make good and wise decision. He is not to be addicted to anything, be it alcohol or something else, he is to know and find all he needs in Jesus. He needs not to be argumentative, but gentle and gracious. He should in control of his mind and body. He should financially content and wise and, I would argue, generous, because if he does not love money he will quite happily give it away and he is also to be hospitable (v3, 7).
The main difference between elders and deacons seems to be the ability to teach. But also, women can be deacons. I am saying this for 2 reasons. If verse 11 refers to the wives of male deacons, then deacons are being held to a higher standard than elders, which would be strange. Also, the word likewise in other places often refers to a new group of people. Phoebe in Romans 16 seems to be called a deacon too! There’s a lot more technical discussion on Greek that can be done, but that is my summary conclusion.
From the fact that deacons are not required to teach, their role must be primarily more administrative, practical and organising. Things like church finances, website management, mercy ministries etc. Having said that, although deacons are not required to have the ability to teach, I wonder if they do some teaching anyway. It is practically impossible for the elders to do all the teaching that is needed in a church. Not only that but Colossians 3, for example, speaks of all believers “teaching” one another.
If this is the case, that in some way, all believers “teach” then the teaching that an elder is required to be able to do must be something particular. My conclusion would be that the teaching elders do is, in most modern churches, what takes place during a Sunday gathering, or in different contexts, the place where the doctrine and direction of the church is proclaimed authoritatively. Other places for teaching, such as home group Bible studies, Sunday School etc are not solely the responsibility of elders, although elders may well be involved in them.
Deacons, as with elders are to have certain characteristics. It is not for anyone to decide to be a deacon. Deacons are also to be exemplary believers who are seeking to love the Lord Jesus and practically live it out. They are to be tested according to the criteria mentioned, much like elders.
There is great benefit in being a deacon too; confidence in Christ will grow and it provides a good place to serve and build a good foundation.