It is clear from Paul’s letter to Titus that the church was not to be a chaotic mass of people without guidance or leadership. In fact, Titus’ very mission on Crete was to “set what remained in order and appoint elders in every town.” (Titus 1:5) God has graciously gifted his church with leadership so that there might be a proper order to its life together. Although the size of a church dictates how structures are functionally arranged, the Scriptures give us a simple order for the church—elders, deacons and members.
The New Testament prescribes two offices for the church, that of elders (pastors, bishops, overseers, Acts 11:30, 14:23, 15, 20:17-38, 21:17-26, 1 Tim 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, 1 Peter 5:1-5) and of deacons (servants/ministers, Phil 1:1, 1 Tim 3:8-13). These are people who are called to lead, teach and shepherd (elders), and to serve particular needs of the local body (deacons). However, the New Testament also demands that the church, the assembly or congregation (the ekklesia, ) also function in certain roles directing the life of the community. The following describes the various roles and responsibilities of elders, deacons and members of the congregation.
God entrusts leadership in the local church to mature, biblically qualified men who are called by God to follow Jesus as under shepherds (Titus 1:5-9, 1 Timothy 3:1-8, 1 Peter 5:1-6). There are two words which are used in the Scripture to describe this office: elder (presbyter) and overseer (bishop). The more common term in our culture of “pastor” is used mostly as a verb to describe what the elder/overseer does; he shepherds or pastors the church. New Testament scholar DA Carson said it this way. Eldership was their place in the community, oversight their responsibility.1 In summation an elder is a mature Christian who gives oversight to God’s church to shepherd the people in the mission of God.
These elders submit to Jesus Christ, the chief shepherd of the church and trust the Holy Spirit to lead God’s people. A mature church will have a plurality (more than one) of elders who serve and lead together. This means that certain vital decisions will remain with a plurality (so leadership is not in one man), of qualified (humble, biblically mature and prayerful) men who together seek the will of Christ for his church. This assesses the weakness of the immature or spiritually naïve making decisions for the church or even causing schism and factions in the body. On the other hand, the elders must not seek to have all power in the church, denying rightful congregational responsibility and the headship of Christ. In fact such men are disqualified for the office in seeking to control the church which belongs to Christ alone. The following are the primary roles of elders.
The Roles of an Elder:
- Walk with integrity and lead their families as humble, godly men (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9)
- Prayer and ministry of the Word (Acts 6:1-7)
- Shepherd the church of God (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4)
- Teaching truth and guarding against false doctrine (Titus 1:5-16)
The word deacon comes from the Greek term diakonos, which means servant. Simply put, the deacons are meant to serve the church by handling various tasks so that the elders may more fully devote themselves to prayer and to teaching the Word. A deacon’s task could be anything that the church needs. It is a dynamic position, and one that comes with responsibility to the elders of church to fulfill a need in the body. The duration of a deacon’s service could be long or short term depending upon the need and is a position of service. The New Testament exhibits both women and men serving in this type of role (See Romans 16).
Some Possible Roles for Deacons at Jacob’s Well:
- Ministry with the poor
- Community development
- Graphic design
- Helping with Weddings and Funerals
- Serving with children
- Technology and Internet service
- Pastoral/Elder assistants
- Hospitality on Sundays
- Helping with Music
- Research and writing
- Leading/Co-leading Missional Communities
- etc. etc. etc.
The Congregation – Covenant Members
Covenant members are those who have committed themselves to a local church and its mission. They serve Christ under the leadership of elders, agree to the church’s doctrine, and take responsibility to work together and live out the mission of Jesus. There is a resounding clarity in the areas in which the Scriptures call the congregation to be responsible. These areas are as follows:
The Roles and Responsibilities of Covenant Members
- Matters of church discipline, faithful membership and resolving conflict with one another (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5; 2 Corinthians 2:1-11)
- Matters of doctrinal fidelity (Galatians 1) – to personally and diligently hold to the biblical gospel and teaching
- Matters dealing with the calling and confirmation of Servants/Deacons and Elders (Acts 6:3, 1 Timothy 3:10, Titus 1:5-9)
- The church is not only ordered it is also gifted by God to do the work of the ministry (1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4:7-16)
- Sending delegates to councils and gatherings with other church leaders (Acts 15)
These areas of responsibility, though they may be led and guided by elders, are the clear responsibility of the congregation. One note should be made at this point.
Leadership in Christ’s church is an act of service and should be exercised in the way of Jesus. This means two things. First, the exercise of authority should be carried out in the manner of a servant. Many pastors and leaders today are passive and will not exercise humble, godly authority. They will not preach and teach the truth, confront sin or guide others because of a fear of people and a need to be liked. Second, some church leaders today act as if they are little gods wearing CEO hats and do not see their role as servants of the people. The apostle Peter’s exhortation to church leaders is so needed in our day; I’ll simply quote him here:
1So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 5Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” —1 Peter 5:1-5 (ESV)
At Jacob’s Well we want to reject the model where “the pastor” does all the work and the church is sitting around like spectators. The Scriptures call each of us to be involved using our various gifts and abilities to move forward Jesus’ ministry on the earth. The first step is to become a covenant member of a local church and get in the game. Give of your time, talent and resources to fulfill Christ’s mission. Some will be elders, some will be called as deacons, all of us are called together to do the work of the ministry.
1. D. A. Carson, ed., New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, Rev. Ed. of: The New Bible Commentary. 3rd Ed. / Edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970., 4th ed. ed. (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994).
2. For additional reading see Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership, Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears Vintage Church—particularly Chapter 3, Gene Getz, Elders and Leaders, God’s Plan for Leading the Church, Phil A. Newton, Elders in Congregational Life—Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership.