Pastors and Deacons

I am convinced that many churches today possess an order and government foreign to the New Testament. A quick glance at many local churches in the United States will reveal models of government guided by modern business models, tradition that has gone off the rails of Scripture, or western dispositions of individualism and pragmatism. God’s Word provides the unchanging direction and examples that church health and unity require.

The apostle Paul, directing the church at Corinth in the proper manner of church services stated, “for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints…But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner” (1 Corinthians 14:33, 40). That requires that we must allow God’s officers to govern in the way that He intends. But how does God intend for them to govern? How does God intend for a church to be ordered? May God bless you and your church as you seek to follow His will for His people gathered.

Congregation Governed

A Biblical church will be congregation governed, pastor led, and deacon served. God’s intention has been to call a holy nation of priests to Himself (Ex 19:6). As Israel failed to be that holy nation of priests, God promised to make a new covenant in which He will write His law upon His people’s hearts so that they know Him and He has forgiven their sins (Jer 31:31-34). Jesus’ death inaugurated this new covenant (Matt 26:27-28) and to those who surrender to Him in faith, He gives the Holy Spirit. They become part of His holy priesthood-kingdom where by every citizen receives spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:7) so they can offer spiritual sacrifices (1 Pet 2:4-10). Therefore, every member of a local church serves as a minister and no member acts as a mere spectator.

Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom to His apostles (Matt 16:19) who, along with the prophets, are the foundation of the church (Eph 2:20). The keys transferred, not to bishops, but to local churches and enable the churches to share the gospel (binding), recognize false gospels and practice discipline (loosing). Jonathan Leeman makes a convincing argument that church member is an office with responsibilities for everyone who holds it. He states,

Jesus gives all believers, when gathered as congregations, the authority to administer their priestly and kingly duties with the keys of the kingdom. The whole kingdom employs these keys—through the ordinances—to make formal declarations concerning the what and the who of the gospel.[1]

Every member not only serves in ministry, but participates in governing the church.

The New Testament reveals that God has given authority to the local church to govern herself under the headship of Christ. New Testament churches practiced discipline (Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5), baptized new believers and added them to their membership (Acts 2:41), selected and ordained deacons (Acts 6:3), appointed and sent missionaries (Acts 13:2-3), and recognized and corrected false teaching (Acts 15:22). A New Testament church is a church who governs herself under the headship of Christ. However, a New Testament church will also submit to the leadership of her appointed leaders.

Pastor Led

As Jesus gives gifts to every citizen of His Kingdom, He gives some men gifts to serve in the office of pastor-teacher (Eph 4:11). The New Testament exclusively shows the pattern of each local church led by a council of pastors rather than one pastor.[2] The model of one pastor serving one congregation is an unbiblical and unfaithful development of the second century. The New Testament authors use the terms pastor, elder, and bishop for the same office (Acts 20:17-35; 1 Peter 5:1-5; 1 Timothy 3:31-7 with Titus 1:5-9). Each designation indicates a different nuance to the responsibilities of the office.[3]

The office of pastor has five responsibilities. First, the pastor’s primary responsibility is the ministry of the Word. The New Testament reveals that as the church spread and as the apostles died, some, but not all, aspects of the apostolic ministry transferred to pastors.[4] The apostles, led by the Spirit, directed the church of Jerusalem to ordain deacons so that they could be free for the ministry of proclaiming God’s Word publicly (Acts 6:4). As the apostles spread out, pastors shared this relationship with the deacons where by the pastors preach while the deacons serve (Phil 1:1). Paul tells Timothy that for a man to be considered to serve as a pastor, he must be gifted to teach (1 Tim 3:2). Every pastor must hold fast “to the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Tit 1:9). While some pastors may teach more than others, all still must teach in some capacity (1 Tim 5:17). Therefore, pastors must give most of their time and efforts to preaching, teaching, sharing the gospel, and studying to do these works.

The second responsibility of pastors is the ministry of prayer. Likewise, the pastors received this ministry through the apostles as they did the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). While all Christians will pray, pastors have a special ministry of prayer. Indeed, James calls the sick to call upon the elders for prayer and anointing in the name of the Lord (James 5:14). Therefore, a pastor must give a significant portion of his time to praying for his congregation and seeking God’s guidance for the church.

The third responsibility of the pastor is leadership. The term for overseer, episkopos, carries this idea. As Daniel Akin states, “The title ‘overseer’ indicates the function of oversight or supervision of the church. It implies a spiritual responsibility to ‘manage’ God’s church (cf. 1 Tim 3:4–5)…It is an office charged with ensuring the welfare of God’s people through the loving watch- care of their servant leaders.”[5] Paul reminds the Ephesian elders that their leadership over the church was not appointed by man, but by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28). Peter instructed the elders to exercise oversight voluntarily “according to the will of God” (1 Pet 5:2). Corresponding to this, the writer of Hebrews instructed the church to “obey your leaders and submit to them” (Heb 13:17). While the church governs itself in certain areas, the day-to-day direction of the church belongs to pastors. The leadership of a pastor should reflect the leadership of Christ: proclamation of truth, giving direction, and seeking the welfare of those under His leadership with a deep concern for them.

The fourth responsibility of the pastor is the ministry of shepherding. The shepherding motif directs pastors in this function whereby they imitate God as shepherd, caring for His people (Ps 23). Jesus came to shepherd His people by providing abundant life and protecting them from thieves, wolves, and the false sense of protection of hired hands (Jn 10). Therefore, pastors serve as undershepherds, imitating the chief shepherd (1 Pet 5:2-4) by shepherding the whole flock of God (Acts 20:28). This kind of shepherding involves spiritual protection, provision, and care in applying God’s Word to the lives of the congregation. The primary goal is not to provide therapy, but to provide for sanctification.[6]

The fifth responsibility of the pastor is the ministry of modeling the Christian life. The qualifications for elders and overseers in First Timothy chapter three and Titus chapter one reveal this pastoral role.  Regarding these qualifications, except for the ability to teach, God calls every believer to possess them. This implies that pastors must set the example. Likewise, the pastoral designation of elder or presbuteros “communicates the maturity, integrity, and dignity a church leader should possess.”[7]

Deacon Served

God has provided so that every local church should have her own deacons. In the Bible, there are two clear passages that refer to deacons (Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8-13), one which likely speaks of deacons or proto-deacons (Acts 6:1-7), and one questionable passage (Romans 16:1). The term diakonos speaks of one who waits tables; one who serves. English translators render the term deacon, minister, or servant. Philippians 1:1 sets apart the offices of pastor and deacon as the norm for a local church.

Deacons have four main responsibilities. In Acts chapter six a division arose. The church was providing food for widows. Yet, the church neglected the widows of the Hellenistic Jews who had relocated to Jerusalem. The apostles would have neglected their God-given responsibilities if they had met the need themselves. Therefore, they told the church to select several men who were above reproach and full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom (Acts 6:3). This instance guides the church’s understanding of diaconal ministry. First, deacons must protect their pastors’ ministries of Word and prayer. Second, deacons care for the physical needs of the church. Third, deacons prevent divisions in the church. Fourth, deacons set the example of godly living (cf. 1 Tim 3:8-13). The scarcity of information on the diaconal role in the Scriptures may be intentional to allow for flexibility in its functions. Concerning women deacons, the Biblical evidence is vague and controversial. If Acts 6:1-7 speaks of deacons, the Biblical pattern does not obligate a church to have women deacons.

[1] Jonathan Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members: The Case for Congregationalism (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 67.

[2] Benjamin Merkle presents strong evidence for this claim in 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2008), 161-165. Also see Benjamin Merkle and Thomas Schreiner, eds., Shepherding God’s Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament and Beyond (Grand Rapids: Kregel Ministry, 2014).

[3] See Bruce A. Ware, “Putting It All Together: A Theology of Church Leadership” in Shepherding God’s Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament and Beyond, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Ministry, 2014), 289-290.

[4] Benjamin Merkle makes this speculation after noting that Luke speaks of the Apostles and Jerusalem elders working together in Acts 11:30 but as Acts progresses, the Apostles are mentioned less and the elders more. in Shepherding God’s Flock (Grand Rapids: Kregel Ministry, 2014), 61

[5] Daniel L. Akin and R. Scott Pace, Pastoral Theology: Theological Foundations for Who a Pastor Is and What He Does, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2017), 153.

[6] See Andrew Purves, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 32-35 where Purves explains that the priorities of shepherding are preaching forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ and assisting people to find God’s grace in their lives.

[7] Daniel L. Akin and R. Scott Pace, Pastoral Theology: Theological Foundations for Who a Pastor Is and What He Does, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2017), 154.

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