Category: (5) What does the Bible say about the form of church government?

In the New Testament, the word usually translated “serve” is the Greek word diakoneo, which literally means “through the dirt.” It refers to an attendant, a waiter, or one who ministers to another. From this word we get the English word “deacon.” We first see the word “deacon” used this way in the book of Acts. “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2). The men who were giving themselves to feeding the flock by preaching and teaching realized that it wasn’t right for them to leave those activities to wait tables, so they found some other men who were willing to serve, and put them in place to minister to the church’s physical needs while the elders or pastors ministered to their spiritual needs. It was a better use of the resources they were given, and a better use of everyone’s gifts. It also got more people involved in serving and helping one another.

Today, for the biblical church, these roles are essentially the same. Elders and pastors are to “preach the word…reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2), and deacons are to be appointed to take care of everything else. In a modern church, this might include taking on administrative or organizational tasks, ushering, being responsible for building maintenance, or volunteering to be the church treasurer. It depends on the need and the gifts of the available men.

The responsibilities of a deacon are not clearly listed or outlined; they are assumed to be everything that does not include the duties of an elder or pastor, which is to preach, teach, and exhort. But qualifications for a deacon’s character are clearly outlined in Scripture. They are to be blameless, the husband of one wife, a good household manager, respectable, honest, not addicted to alcohol and not greedy (1 Timothy 3:8-12). According to the Word, the office of deacon is an honor and a blessing. “For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 3:13).

The Lord was very clear in His Word about how He wishes His church on earth to  be organized and managed. First, Christ is the head of the church and its  supreme authority (Ephesians  1:22; 4:15; Colossians 1:18).  Second, the local church is to be autonomous, free from any external authority  or control, with the right of self-government and freedom from the interference  of any hierarchy of individuals or organizations (Titus 1:5).  Third, the church is to be governed by spiritual leadership consisting of two  main offices—elders and deacons.

“Elders” were a leading body among the  Israelites since the time of Moses. We find them making political decisions (2 Samuel 5:3; 2 Samuel 17:4, 15), advising the king in  later history (1 Kings  20:7), and representing the people concerning spiritual matters (Exodus 7:17; 24:1, 9; Numbers 11:16, 24-25). The early Greek  translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, used the Greek word  presbuteros for “elder.” This is the same Greek word used in the New Testament  that is also translated “elder.”

The New Testament refers a number of  times to elders who served in the role of church leadership (Acts 14:23, 15:2, 20:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14)  and apparently each church had more than one, as the word is usually found in  the plural. The only exceptions refer to cases in which one elder is being  singled out for some reason (1 Timothy  5:1, 19). In  the Jerusalem church, elders were part of the leadership along with the apostles  (Acts  15:2-16:4).

It seems that the position of elder was equal to the  position of episkopos, translated “overseer” or “bishop” (Acts 11:30; 1 Timothy  5:17). The term “elder” may refer to the dignity of the office, while the  term “bishop/overseer” describes its authority and duties (1 Peter 2:25, 5:1-4). In Philippians 1:1, Paul  greets the bishops and deacons but does not mention the elders, presumably  because the elders are the same as the bishops. Likewise, 1 Timothy 3:2, 8 gives the qualifications  of bishops and deacons but not of elders. Titus 1:5-7 seems also to tie these two terms together.

The position of “deacon,”  from diakonos, meaning “through the dirt,” was one of servant leadership to the  church. Deacons are separate from elders, while having qualifications that are  in many ways similar to those of elders (1 Timothy  3:8-13). Deacons assist the church in whatever is needed, as recorded in  Acts chapter 6.

Concerning the word poimen, translated “pastor” in  reference to a human leader of a church, it is found only once in the New  Testament, in Ephesians  4:11: “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to  be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.” Most associate the two  terms “pastors” and “teachers” as referring to a single position, a  pastor-teacher. It is likely that a pastor-teacher was the spiritual shepherd of  a particular local church.

It would seem from the above passages that  there was always a plurality of elders, but this does not negate God’s gifting  particular elders with the teaching gifts while gifting others with the gift of  administration, prayer, etc. (Romans  12:3-8; Ephesians  4:11). Nor does it negate God’s calling them into a ministry in which they  will use those gifts (Acts 13:1).  Thus, one elder may emerge as the “pastor,” another may do the majority of  visiting members because he has the gift of compassion, while another may “rule”  in the sense of handling the organizational details. Many churches that are  organized with a pastor and deacon board perform the functions of a plurality of  elders in that they share the ministry load and work together in some decision  making. In Scripture there was also much congregational input into decisions.  Thus, a “dictator” leader who makes the decisions (whether called elder, or  bishop, or pastor) is unscriptural (Acts 1:23, 26; 6:3, 5; 15:22, 30; 2 Corinthians 8:19).  So, too, is a congregation-ruled church that does not give weight to the elders’  or church leaders’ input.

In summary, the Bible teaches a leadership  consisting of a plurality of elders (bishops/overseers) along with a group of  deacons who serve the church. But it is not contrary to this plurality of elders  to have one of the elders serving in the major “pastoral” role. God calls some  as “pastor/teachers” (even as He called some to be missionaries in Acts 13) and  gives them as gifts to the church (Ephesians  4:11). Thus, a church may have many elders, but not all elders are called to  serve in the pastoral role. But, as one of the elders, the pastor or “teaching  elder” has no more authority in decision making than does any other elder.