What I’m Reading: The New Testament Deacon…with MTC on Office Definitions

The New Testament DeaconAlexander Strauch’s Biblical Eldership is often cited as the authority on the ministry of the elder. His work on the office of deacon is less known, but is as helpful as any book I’ve studied for a while. Part of the benefit TCBC received from the book has to do with us—our officers read through it at a particularly needy time. We’ve had a plurality of elders and deacons, but we haven’t had them functioning distinctly until recently. Frankly, we’ve had too little difference between our elders and deacons and too much difference between our non-staff & staff elders (whom we call “pastors”). Our understanding of the issue was right, but our practice didn’t reflect it. At any rate, we recently focused on having our elders “eld” and our deacons “deac,” and this book was very helpful in getting us back on track. By God’s grace, it’s going very, very well.

(This is for free: the term “board” isn’t at all helpful.)

I’m uploading the definition of church offices we’ve worked on in recent months. (Officer Definitions pdf) It provides our definition of the offices, followed by explanations and clarifications. It wasn’t prepared with publication in mind, but it may be helpful for you. And BTW, Dever’s books (particularly The Deliberate Church) have been a help on this issue, as well.

Our understanding of church polity is essentially as follows:

1. Christ rules.

2. The body moves.

3. The elders lead.

4. The deacons serve.

One note about Strauch’s book. He sees Acts 6 as definitive of the office of deacon. That’s fine. However, based on Acts 6, he (usually) says that the deacon’s job is to care for widows and those in need—period. I also believe that Acts 6 is definitive, but in this since: the deacon’s job is to assist the spiritual leaders of the church (apostles then, elders now), enabling them to focus on prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). In other words, while Strauch sees ministering to widows as exhaustive, I see it as exemplary. Practically speaking, the difference is very significant.

Even for those who have a good understanding of the deacon’s office, this is a helpful book. It would be a great book to read through with your church officers.

If you’d like to discuss it or if you have questions about it, feel free to chime in.

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18 Responses

  1. [...] Is Good: Home-Grown Deacons I just posted on the importance of both elders and deacons. This issue has been especially dear to my heart in recent days. By God’s grace, one of the [...]

  2. BTW, among other things, the deacons are leading an entire host of our members in caring for the needy family that recently lost their dad. (Discussed here, here and here.) The entire body has rallied to demonstrate “pure religion” (James 1:27). Praise the Lord.

  3. Chris,
    This recommendation for Strauch’s book is appreciated as well as the resources you’ve created at TCBC. If I might ask about your “this is for free” statement: We realize that “board” isn’t helpful, but I find myself stumbling when describing the deacons as a collective group.

    What do you use? “The deacon bo–I mean, the deaCONS “, “The deaconing collective group”, “The team o’deacons”, etc?

  4. Hi, Tim. Glad you found it helpful.

    I think the terms “Elders” and “Deacons” or “Elders and Deacons” are probably best. :)

    BTW, I get into verbal “slips” like you’ve described, too.

  5. Hey Chris!

    I’m preaching on Acts 6 next Sunday, and Strauch’s book is on my desk for consultation.

    I like you structure/descriptions. Just one clarification that I’ve asked others with your model: Why do you call your “staff elders” “pastors” and your non-staff elders “elders.” Do you see a distinction between the two? Do you think your people do? Do you ever refer to your non-staffers as “pastors” or your staffers as “elders” (I assume you do the latter, but what about the former)?

    Just some legitimate questions as I think further through this model. I don’t have a particular problem with it — in fact, I think it’s good and healthy. I’ve just always been frustrated with the seemingly artificial distinction between staff “pastors” and non-staff “elders.” Why not just call them all the same thing?

    One more curiosity if I may so indulge: do you pay your non-staff elders, and if not, how do you reconcile that with passages such as 1Ti 5.17-18, 1Co 9.8-14, Cal 6.6, etc.?

    Thanks!

  6. Hey Scott, do you pay all of your Sunday School teachers? If not, how do you reconcile that with Galatians 6:6? :-)

    Chris, I’ve always answered the objection that the only ministry of deacons is caring for physical needs in the congregation by appealing to Acts 7-8. Here two deacons, Stephen and Philip, carry out amazing ministries that are far more than helping with widows!! I’ve understood that the office of a deacon does not require this kind of giftedness and ability, but it most certainly does not preclude it.

  7. That is a good point, I guess. The other passages, of course, relate more specifically to all of the responsibilities of elders.

  8. Sorry I haven’t been able to give attention to this today, guys, but I appreciate the discussion. Scott, I’ll get back to you when I have a few minutes. Good questions.

  9. Scott, I’m actually in the process of working through this myself. I’ve said in the past that “every pastor is an elder, but not every elder is a pastor.” I’m coming to the conclusion, however, (I think) that there really isn’t a difference in the sense of responsibility or even calling. I’d say elder=bishop=pastor. The hesitation I have with that is that elder/bishops are commanded to pastor in Acts 20 & I Peter 5, but in both places, “pastor” (poimaino) is a verb, not a noun. So I’d say elder/bishops “pastor.” Is that the same as elder=bishop=pastor? Probably. But I think the typical Baptist statement that they are used absolutely interchangeably in those passages could probably use a footnote stating that “pastor” is a verb, not a title used interchangeably with the others (as is episkopeoin I Pet. 5:2).

    As for the difference, as I’ve said, the responsibility & calling of full and part-time elders is the same. However, the degree of involvement is not. In our set-up, those who are full-time “labor” or “work hard” at preaching and teaching (I Timothy 5:17), and are recompensed for it. The other elders are faithful, but they “work hard” at dairy farming and computer programming, not at ministry, and are recompensed for this by their employers. Whatever I Timothy 5:17 means (and that’s a point of significant contention), it does seem to discuss two groups of elders. I believe the difference is extent of labor and perhaps degree of giftedness, but not nature of responsibility or calling.

    As for our titles: I don’t have a problem calling them all elders or pastors. In fact, I’ve gone out of my way to tell our elders & our body that “these are your shepherds—your pastors.” That said, we have a distinction in title between full & part-timers that is probably more practical than doctrinal. (I have previously understood Eph. 4:11-12 to refer to “pastors” and not all “elders,” perhaps on suspect exegesis.) Bottom line: just about everybody who has a plurality of elders which includes full and part-timers has some way of differentiating between them. Presbyterians call them “ruling elders” and “teaching elders.” That’s no good since all elders rule and all elders teach. Dever, on the other hand, is pretty strong regarding the idea that elder=bishop=pastor. However, in The Deliberate Church, he repeatedly talks about how “the pastor” should train his elders, etc. Maybe it’s a Freudian slip, but he does it a lot. Again, it’s probably more a practical thing than doctrinal.

    What is abundantly clear, however, is that a plurality of elders was the norm for the NT church.

    Sorry if this is completely muddled. As I said, I’m working through some of the nuances myself. Plus, having my three-and-a-half year old on my lap doesn’t help.

  10. It’s not muddled, Christ. Thanks. I agree with your comments. I have just recently began to really wonder why the title “pastor” is the one we predominantly use in our church when it is only used once in the NT as a noun. Why not use the term elder.

    I understand the pay thing; I’m still thinking through that one.

    The only point on which I still disagree is having any kind of titular distinction between full time and part time elders. I don’t see why you would do that. I strongly believe that there must be one lead elder, so I have no problem with that title or the title “senior pastor,” but to distinguish between full and part time elders is confusing to me. I also have noticed that distinction in Dever’s writings, and (I may be wrong about this) it seems to me almost as if he views the lay elders as more authoritative than the full-time assistant pastors.

  11. The title “pastor” really just means “preacher” in common usage. The “pastor” in most peoples’ minds is the guy who stands in pulpit for thirty-five minutes (probably sixty-five minutes in Chris’ case) each Sunday morning and preaches. [heh,heh] (Sorry, Chris, I couldn’t resist.) This is unfortunate, but it is simply the case (the nomenclature issue, not Chris’ sermon length). [heh,heh]

    You could probably (with time and carefulness) change the verbiage your local congregation uses, and either have them call all elders “pastors” or call them all “elders.” You’d have to re-educate everybody who comes into your church. You’d probably still slip up. Frankly, I think we have bigger fish to fry.

    In my mind, the more important thing is making sure that all elders function the same way. For example, we shouldn’t have elders shirking their shepherding or teaching responsibilities because they feel the pastors should do it or vice versa. All elders, whether they are compensated by the church or not, are responsible to lead, oversee, and shepherd the flock.

    Just to add one more point to the discussion: I don’t care for the term “full-time” or “part-time” either, although I know what we mean. This is how I lay it out: God has gifted all of these men to lead, oversee, and shepherd his Church. All elders are “full-time elders.” The church has the option of paying one or more (or even all!) elders so that they can dedicate all of their time to this work of shepherding. The other elders are full-time elders too; they just work another job to “pay the bills.”

    I have difficulty imagining that when Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the new churches (Acts 14:23) they had established that those men immediately had to quit their jobs and be put on the churches’ payrolls.

  12. Aside from the jabs, that was very helpful, Mark. Thanks. Turkey.

  13. Yes, it was helpful.

    I’m glad to hear you say that “all” could be put on the payroll. One of the points that bugs me about Dever’s teaching on the issue is that he insists that it is unhealthy to have all paid elders, and in doing so, he comes across as if the unpaid elders are more valuable tot he church than the paid ones.

    Thanks, guys. This has been very helpful for me.

  14. As a deacon I appreciate your post. I agree with your statement that caring for widows is an example, and not the full scope. By focusing on just caring for widows you are missing the point of the whole passage. The widows was a single example of where a temporal item of the church was interfering with the duties of the pastor in performing his duties as the spiritual leader. While in this case it was widows, no where does the passage limit the issues that impact a pastor to only widows. The deacon should serve and meet the temporal needs of the church. Too many deacons want to guide the church, act as a board, or think of themselves as too high to serve. A deacon should assist the pastor and not be above any need in the church,whether it is cleaning toilets or coordinating the providing for a church member. The dichotomy is that the pastor and deacons should be so in tune with each other that the deacons are relieving the pastor to focus solely on the spiritual ministry and the deacons are serving in such a way that it prepares the congregations heart for the church’s ministries.

  15. The focus of Acts 6 was not on providing for widows. We know this because if the focus was on widows, much more in depth information would have been provided on how to take care of widows. Instead much information was given on selecting men and the impact that the widows had on the elders.

  16. A friend asked off-line why we elect elders when the NT speaks of appointing them. It’s a good question. My understanding of what happened in the early church is that the Apostle Paul (and those directly under him) had a very unique relationship with local churches, acting with apostolic authority that isn’t appropriate in the matured church & in the absence of apostles. For instance, Paul told Titus to ordain elders “in every city” (Titus 1:5; cp. Acts 14:23). The parallel today wouldn’t be elders appointing elders in the local church, but an individual with the authority to appoint elders in many churches—a sort of hierarchical bishop. That’s not what we’re after.

    Anyway, we elect elders because (a) we see the election of officers in Acts 6 as more normative than those appointments, (b) we believe in a stout autonomy, and (c) we think there is safety in not having a self-appointing presbytery.

    One more thing: we believe that Acts 6′s selection by election replaced Acts 1′s selection by casting lots specifically because of Acts 2. Since the baptism of the Spirit (and what I understand to be the permanent indwelling of the Spirit), the church—the whole church—has made crucial decisions by the vote of its Scripture-instructed and Spirit-filled members.

    I thought it was a good question, so thought I’d share it. FWIW.

  17. I was widowed at the age of 47 and found that my status as a person changed completely after my husband died.

    People who I knew for 20 years were there for the day of the funeral but pretty much turned their back on me socially….people who I was contemporaries with….saw me alone and left me alone. One couple who were missionaries, saw me broken car and well, left me alone to handle it….Interestingly enough, when I started dating three years after my husband’s passing, all of a sudden the invitations appeared.

    In those alone years, I was a part of the church but felt saddened that I was treated differently. I left that church because of the hypocrisy there…..

    Interestingly again, they didn’t mind taking my tithe each week….

  18. [...] and Strauch’s two books Biblical Eldership and The New Testament Deacon (which I blogged on here) as among the most helpful. I’m now glad to add David Dickson’s The Elder and His Work [...]

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