14 March 2005

Elders and deacons

I propose that government by a council of elders, with administrative support by a council of deacons, is the New Testament model for leadership in the church – not, for instance, leadership by a single pastor, or by a democracy.


For those on a tight schedule, here's the bottom line. In the Biblical model, every local congregation has:

  • a body of elders, whose job it is to:
    • pray
    • guide and protect the congregation
    • preach the gospel to the lost
    • teach and disciple the saved
  • a body of deacons, whose job it is to:
    • manage the congregation's resources
    • minister to the physical needs of the congregation's poor and suffering
    • take as many administrative responsibilities as possible off the hands of the elders
  • everybody else, whose job it is to:
    • carry out the work of ministry, in all its forms

Jewish Elders

The church concept of elders derived from a system which was already in place by the time of Moses. The elders of a clan were literally its oldest members (presumably male), who discerned the will of God and made decisions on behalf of the people (Ex 3:16-18; 4:29-31; 12:21; 19:7-8; Lev 4:15; Num 11:16-30). A council of elders governed the nation (Num 16:1-2; Ps 107:32).

The priests, prophets, judges and kings held special positions of honor and authority. But the system of leadership by elders persisted through the the time of the return from exile (1Sa 8:4; 15:30; 2Sa 3:17-21; 5:3; 17:4; 1Ch 15:25; 1Ki 8:1-3; 12:6-8; 20:7-8; 2Ki 23:1; Ezr 5:5; 10:8-14; Jer 26:10; Eze 14:1; 20:1-3). By the time of Christ, the authority of the elders was embodied in the Sanhedrin, an elite group of chief priests and teachers of the law (Mt 21:23; 26:59; 27:1-4; Mk 7:1-13; 8:31; 15:1,43; Lk 22:66; Act 4:5,15; 5:21b; 6:12-15).

Church Elders

The early church appointed a body of elders (plural) to govern each local congregation (Act 14:23; Tit 1:5; 1Tim 4:14; Jam 5:14). These elders:

Their responsibilities were shared among all the elders of a congregation, so that no one person carried the whole burden.

The Church at Jerusalem

In the early church at Jerusalem, the apostles functioned as the church elders (Act 1:12-26; Act 6:1-6). Decision-making was by consensus. The apostles recognized that their primary calling was "prayer and the ministry of the word" (Act 6:3-4). They instituted the body which became known as deacons to take over responsibilities which would otherwise distract the apostles from their primary purpose. Later more elders were added (Act 15:4-6,22-23;16:4).

James the brother of Jesus soon became the recognized head, the "bishop", or what we would term the "senior pastor" (Act 12:17; 15:13-29; 21:18; Gal 2:9). He spoke for the church, and represented the authority of the church in handing down decisions. But we are never told that he made any decisions on his own. Rather, he consulted with the council of elders, and based his pronouncements upon what God had shown to the body as a whole.

James was not himself one of the Twelve, those especially commissioned to carry on Christ's ministry on earth. Yet Paul referred to James, Peter and John as the "pillars" of the church (Gal 2:9). The primary leader was clearly not the sole voice of authority in the church, nor the only source of teaching and preaching.


As mentioned above, the terms pastor ("shepherd"), overseer ("bishop") and elder are generally used interchangeably. However, there is one exception.

  • "But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: 'When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.' … It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up …" (Eph 4:7-8,11)

Some interpret this passage to specify distinct ordained offices within the church: apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher. I can find no evidence to support this position. If it were true, then each local congregation should have at least one leader in each office.

Rather, the list occurs in a discussion of spiritual gifts given to individuals for the purpose of building up the body of Christ. This is the most natural interpretation, consistent with other passages about spiritual gifts.

We already know that all believers are called to be evangelists (Mt 28:18-20; Act 1:8; 1Pet 3:15), and that all elders are called to be shepherds (Act 20:28). We also know that all elders must be capable of teaching (1Tim 3:2), but not all elders have teaching as their primary responsibility (1Tim 5:17).

It is reasonable, then, to conclude that this list is describing special gifts that are given to the body, particularly to elders. Some will have a special gift and calling to serve as evangelists, others as teachers, others as shepherds (pastors).

There is certainly no justification for the belief that any individual should have sole authority over a congregation.

See also Breaking Covenant.


The office of deacon, meaning "servant" or "minister", was created to relieve the apostles from administrative responsibilities, so they could devote themselves to prayer and teaching of the word (Act 6:1-6). Biblically, then, the office of deacon is primarily an administrative role, with a special mandate for ministering to the physical needs of the poor, and with responsibility for the church finances.

That does not mean that deacons were "mere servants", however. They were expected to be men "full of the Spirit and wisdom" and of exemplary reputation and character, similar to that of elders (Act 6:5; 1Tim 3:8-13). They had considerable authority and responsibility. Two of the original deacons became influential evangelists (Act 6:8-7:60; 8:4-40).

Cultural Context

One could rightly argue that the Bible was written in a particular cultural context, and some of its teachings may reflect the culture of the day. Perhaps, then, it could be argued that autocratic or democratic forms of government might be appropriate for other cultures. I would entertain such arguments as being potentially valid. But I would not accept that such systems are the only Biblical way, as some claim.

I am honestly not sure where our modern concept of a single head of the church came from. I suspect it derived from the Roman Catholic priesthood, but I would have to do historical research to be sure.

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