The Deacon is Not a Junior Elder
Our church holds to a two-office view of church leadership. What this means is that we believe that the Bible teaches that Christ has instituted two offices in the church to which qualified men can be called as servant-leaders. These are the offices of ‘Elder’ and ‘Deacon.’
The qualifications for these two offices are outlined in the New Testament in 1 Timothy 3:1–13 and Titus 1:5–9. Note that in the above two passages Paul uses the terms ‘Overseer’ and ‘Elder’ as synonyms. This is what is known as parity of office. The Bible makes no distinction between ‘Overseer,’ ‘Elder’, ‘Shepherd,’ or ‘Pastor’ but instead sees them as descriptions of one and the same office. Within the church’s Eldership parity is important and so is plurality — but this is a topic for a separate post.
The office of ‘Elder’ is invested with the responsibility of shepherding the flock of Christ and meeting the spiritual needs of the people through the ordinary ministries of Word, Sacraments, and Prayer. The Elder is a minister of Christ (and not just of his Holy Scriptures!). As the authorized teachers of the church — under Christ and as enabled by the Holy Spirit — the Elder is an ambassador of the Lord’s grace and truth in the Gospel.
The office of ‘Deacon’ is invested with the responsibility of stirring up the flock of Christ to love and good works through their intentional and pro-active example of Christ-like service in the meeting of the people’s material needs. They do this in order that they might free the Elders up to focus on the task of ministry.
We remember that in Acts 6 a pressing need arose in the early church that needed diaconal attention. The Hellenistic widows in the church were lacking the attention and provision that their Jewish counterparts were recieving. In order to maintain the purity and peace of the church, the Apostles decided to call seven reputable and Spirit-filled men to the task. They reasoned that,
‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ (Acts 6:2–4)
Here we can see that the task of the Deacon is clearly distinguished from the task of the authorized teachers of the church (i.e. the Apostles and later the Elders). We can see something of this changing-of-the-guard at the Jerusalem Council (see Acts 15) when the Apostles sit as peers with the Elders of the church.
The Deacon is not a Junior Elder. Although it is not uncommon for some serving Deacons to later aspire toward Eldership, it is important to note that the Diaconate is not a stepping stone towards Eldership. There is no such thing as a vertical promotion from Deacon to Elder. These two are distinct spiritual offices with distinct functions and areas of responsibilities. While the Deacons ultimately serve under the oversight of the Elders (i.e. Elders have veto powers when it comes to decisions or proposals brought before them by the Deacons) yet, in the main, they have significant autonomy and authority to work within the limits of their remit.
‘But all things should be done decently and in order.’ (1 Corinthians 14:40)
I have been to churches where the people in charge of the affairs of the church (both spiritual and material) are the Deacons. They serve as administrators and supervisors over various committees that cover every area of church life. The Elders, if there are any, are usually old people (literally!) who are no longer involved with church matters and are for all intents and purposes simply honorary leaders and pillars of the congregation. There is great wisdom indeed in honoring the faithful senior members of our church but we must not view the office of Elder as a Deacon Emeritus position.
Could it be that the lack of qualified and actively serving Elders in many churches is evidence of a desire to obey Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 5:22 when he says, ‘Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands’? I have no doubt that this is so in many cases.
And yet, this misplaced fear of being too hasty, coupled with a less than satisfactory process of examination and selection, can often result in a confused view of the office of the Deacon. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being careful. In fact, I would be the first to argue for more rigor (and less pragmatism!) in our examination and candidacy procedures. But alas, again, this is a topic for another post.
So in most cases there is a mismatching that’s going on in churches where there are practically no Elders but there are Deacons who are doing all the work. There are men who are qualified to be Elders who are stuck with being Deacons (and needing thus to do double duty as Jr. Elders) just because churches don’t want to risk ordaining men to Eldership who are not qualified for the office. But if we look at the qualifications for Deacons in the 1 Timothy and Titus passages we can see that the office of Deacon is no less demanding. Office bearing in the church — whether as Elders or Deacons — is a high calling. It is a solemn charge. The qualifications are strict and the danger of laying hands too hastily applies to both!
I suggest that the solution must not be the minimizing of the Diaconal office to a role of less gravitas but rather to elevate our standards for both offices in accord with what the Bible teaches. The Deacon is not a Jr. Elder and the Elder is not a Deacon Emeritus. In order for our churches to be healthy and well-ordered we need both offices to be functioning properly and in close partnership with one another.
Our churches also need to learn that the Minister’s Wife does not hold special office within the church. She is not a pastora and neither is she a de facto deaconess or admin officer. Aside from being an older lady who could and should teach and counsel the younger ladies and children in the church, your pastor’s wife holds the same ordinary office that all other ordinary members do. She must not therefore be subjected to unreasonable and often unspoken expectations of service and ministry. We must expect of her no more than we would expect of either the other members or of the wives of the other office-bearers in the church.
This hit home for me at my own ordination in 2018 when some people asked us why my wife did not join me in front when the Elders from my presbytery were praying and laying their hands on me. In the church tradition that I grew up in, it is both husband and wife who kneel and are prayed over at ordinations. But this picture of the pastor’s wife kneeling beside her husband as the full weight of pastoral ministry is being laid upon him through the imposition of hands is a cruel disservice to one who is neither qualified nor called to the office. When I was ordained I was the only one who underwent the examination and candidacy process of my presbytery. I alone took ordination vows.
Deacons are not Junior Elders.
Elders are not Deacon Emeriti.
Pastors’ wives are not Office-bearers.
A right understanding of a church that is well-ordered according to the Bible will result in a church where (a) every member knows who to approach for help — whether material or spiritual, (b) every office-bearer, whether Elder or Deacon, knows their remit and can be devoted under Christ to the faithful and orderly discharge of their duties, and (c) where all things can be done — by God’s grace — decently and in order.