Pastors and Deacons

A Gift from God

Jesus Christ assigns the work of Christian ministry to every believer in every church (Eph. 4:12). To equip them for this mutual task, he provides churches with pastors. The New Testament describes pastors as something that he gives. So, he gives some men to churches as a gift (Eph. 4:11).

How does he provide these men? In some cases, a pastor may arise from within the congregation (Tit. 1:5). In other cases, a resident pastor may recruit and recommend a new pastor from elsewhere (Acts 11:25-26). But whether from without or within, God provides churches with pastors to carry out necessary leadership functions that equip members to fulfill the ministry God has entrusted to them (Acts 20:28).

Three Words and One Office

The NT uses three corresponding words to describe this role of church leadership. The first word is pastor or shepherd, an overarching word God chooses to describe the nature of this role (1 Pet. 5:2-3). It highlights the proper motive and manner of church leadership, leading a congregation of believers the same way that a shepherd leads a flock of sheep (John 21:16; 1 Pet. 5:2-3). Furthermore, the role of a shepherd is a humbling task, not a glamorous one. A shepherd feeds his sheep (Psa. 23:2) and protects them (Psa. 23:4). In the same way, Christ expects pastors to perform similar duties for a church (see John 21:15-17, then Psa. 23:4, then Tit. 1:9-14, respectively). How does a pastor do this? He does so primarily through a biblical teaching ministry, feeding and protecting the church through sound doctrine. Ultimately, this term affirms that pastors must lead churches in submission to Jesus Christ, who is the chief shepherd of every church (1 Pet. 5:4).

The role of a shepherd is a humbling task, not a glamorous one.

Bishop or overseer is a second word that the NT uses to describe this role. It is derived from the Greek vocabulary of the first-century world. Gentiles used this word to describe the men that Rome assigned to oversee and govern a subjugated city on behalf of Caesar. Consequently, the church adopted this word to describe the men who pastored the church in any given city (Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:7). This word highlights the administration, organization, guidance, protection, and oversight that a pastor must provide to a church. Furthermore, it emphasizes the accountability with which a pastor will report to God, the divine overseer (Heb. 13:17). On one occasion, Peter describes Jesus as the foremost overseer of the church (1 Pet. 2:25).

Elder is a third word the NT uses to describe this role. It carried over from Jewish culture, in which it described a man who provided necessary leadership functions for his nearby synagogue. He guided in worship, provided biblical teaching, and governed administrative and relational affairs among the Jews of his city. Consequently, the church adopted this word to describe the men who pastored churches (Acts 14:23; 20:17; 1 Tim. 5:17; Tit. 1:5; Jam. 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1). This word places special emphasis on the spiritual maturity and Christian experience required of a pastor. Therefore, a novice should not serve in this role. A man whom the church does not respect may not serve in this capacity.

A man whom the church does not respect may not serve in this capacity.

Together, these three terms – pastor, bishop, and elder – refer to the same role of church leadership. We recognize this not only because of their similar meanings, but because of the way that NT writers use them interchangeably (Acts 20:17, 28; Tit. 1:5-7; 1 Pet. 5:1-2).

Pastoral Qualifications

Only men may hold this office (1 Tim. 2:11; 1 Tim. 3:6), but not every man is qualified to do so. Such a man must meet biblical qualifications, which Paul lists on two occasions, prescribed in parallel fashion for bishops (1 Tim. 3:1-7) and elders (Tit. 1:6-9), which are the same office.

Such a man must be exemplary in his reputation, a one-woman man, sensible, self-controlled, respectable in his behavior, hospitable, able to teach, not influenced by intoxicating substances, not violent, gentle, uncontentious, free from the desire to be rich, not a fighter, honest in his work ethic, a good manager of his household affairs, one who’s children obey and respect him, a mature Christian, one who has a good reputation outside the church, able to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who teach wrong doctrine, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, a man who appreciates good things, follows justice, practices holiness, and is loyal to the Word of God.

In addition to these extensive character qualifications, this man must also exhibit a distinct call to this role. This call consists of a strong inner desire for the work (1 Tim. 3:1), which is verified outwardly by recognition from other pastors and the general congregation of a church (1 Tim. 4:14). They should agree that he meets the necessary qualifications and give witness to his effectiveness in such a capacity. A man is unqualified to be a pastor without this inner desire, even if he meets other qualifications. Furthermore, he is unqualified if his desire is driven by wrong motives, such as: 1) to satisfy a sense of obligation to external pressure, 2) to accumulate wealth, or 3) to satisfy a personal fascination with being in charge over people (1 Pet. 5:2-3).

This call consists of a strong inner desire for the work.

Of all the qualifications for being a pastor, one distinguishing prerequisite stands out. A pastor must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 2:24; 3:2). In fact, Paul attaches the teaching role to the pastoring role so closely that it may be called the role of a “pastor-teacher” (Eph. 4:11). Regarding this requirement, it is important to ask whether this requires eloquent speaking skills. Must all pastors be adept pulpiteers? Certainly, every pastor must be able to “preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2), but not every pastor will be a silver-tongued Apollos (Acts 18:24). Some pastors may be gifted as large-group teachers, while others may be better suited for small group and one-on-one teaching scenarios. Whatever the case, any pastor should be able to lead a church if called upon to do so, and he must be able and properly trained to teach sound doctrine effectively.

The Pattern of Multiple Pastors

The Bible consistently alludes to a plurality of pastors as a regular arrangement for church leadership. Consider the following examples: Jerusalem (Acts 11:30; 15:2, 4; 21:18; Jam. 5:14), Syrian Antioch (Acts 13:1), Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, Pisidian Antioch (Acts 14:23), Ephesus (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Tim. 5:17), Philippi (Phil. 1:2), Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:12), multiple churches on the island of Crete (Tit. 1:5), and various other churches (1 Pet. 5:1; Heb. 13:17). All of these references mention elders in a plural form. To be sure, these references assume that these churches consisted of enough members to justify or require multiple pastors to lead them. Furthermore, they likely also assume that these churches met in various homes, in sub-groups simultaneously, requiring multiple pastors to shepherd and oversee the full church in harmony (Acts 2:46; 5:42; 20:20; Rom. 16:2; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Phil. 2). Nevertheless, this appears to be a regular pattern at the very most, or the wisest arrangement at the very least.

The Bible consistently alludes to a plurality of pastors as a regular arrangement for church leadership.

Some suggest that the word bishop (1 Tim. 3:1) refers in a special way to the role of a “senior pastor.” According to this interpretation, such a man would serve as “the pastor who oversees the pastors” of a church. While this meaning may be possible, Nothing in Scripture warrants this interpretation, whether that be the meaning of the word or biblical example. In fact, the NT provides no explicit examples of any church guided by a single pastor, though it does not explicitly forbid such an arrangement.

Some disagree with this assessment and suggest that the messengers of the seven churches in Revelation provide such an example (Rev. 1:20; 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). But how can we know that the messengers mentioned in Revelation 2-3 are the “senior pastors” for each respective congregation? While this interpretation is possible, it is neither clear nor necessary. In fact, it is far more improbable than likely. Nowhere else in Scripture does the word messenger refer to pastoral leadership. It frequently refers to an angel; but this interpretation makes no sense in this context. Why would God tell John to write seven letters to seven angels? Instead, the best answer seems to be the most straightforward meaning of this word, which is a human messenger assigned to carry the letter of Revelation to the seven churches. Furthermore, notice that this group of seven churches includes the church at Ephesus, which benefited from multiple pastors (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Tim. 5:17).

The best answer seems to be a human messenger assigned to carry the letter of Revelation to the seven churches.

Ultimately, a plurality of pastors for a given congregation seems wise and desirable. Not only does this arrangement serve the congregation in a more efficient way, but it provides a greater measure of personal accountability for the pastor(s) of a church by not investing too much authority in a single man.

Supporting Your Pastors

Understanding that the NT encourages multiple pastors for a given church, some also believe that the NT specifies two kinds of pastors: 1) those who study and teach doctrine and 2) those who rule and administrate (1 Tim. 5:17). They may call these ‘teaching elders’ and ‘ruling elders.’ But careful examination of this verse indicates that Scripture is identifying something other than two separate pastoral roles. Instead, it is calling upon congregations to recognize when a pastor is fulfilling his role in an exemplary and effective manner. Those who “administrate well” should receive appropriate acknowledgement and care (Heb. 13:17). Furthermore, those who demonstrate effectiveness in teaching the Word should receive the care and resources necessary to focus on their task without distraction.

To this end, a church should embrace the responsibility of providing necessary resources, finances, and care in support of pastors who lead them well (Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:17-18). Just as multiple pastors are the normal expectation for a church, providing pastors with necessary financial support is also the normal NT expectation. Paul makes this abundantly clear by alluding to the way that a farmer provides food and housing for the animals that plow his fields and the way that Temple proceeds provided for the material and financial needs of the priests (1 Cor. 9:7-14).

As multiple pastors are the normal expectation for a church, providing pastors with necessary financial support is also the normal NT expectation.

Still, some pastors may choose to support themselves through secular employment. Paul, who makes a clear case for pastoral remuneration, also chose to support himself through secular employment on at least three occasions: 1) when he pastored the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 9:12), 2) the church at Thessalonica (1 Thess. 3:7-10), and 3) the church at Ephesus (Acts 20:33-35). To do this, he utilized the trade skills of tentmaking he had learned as a boy (Acts 18:3). Even so, he reveals that during these periods of public employment, he also relied on supplemental income from other sympathetic churches (2 Cor. 11:7-9; Phil. 4:16-19). So, the NT provides a precedent for “tent-making” pastors on certain occasions. Yet, it urges congregations to adequately support pastors who lead and teach them well. This, not tent-making, is the biblical norm.

Necessary Leadership Functions

Pastors fulfill vital responsibilities for a church. To begin with, they govern, supervise, and oversee all church functions. This does not require them to be present or involved in every activity and event; but they should ensure that necessary and appropriate functions occur in an orderly, God-honoring fashion (Acts 20:28; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 3:4-5; 5:17; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:2). Deacons help pastors fulfill this responsibility effectively (Acts 6:1-6).

They are responsible to study, teach, and preach biblical truth in an accurate and transforming manner (Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 3:2; 4:13; 5:17; 2 Tim. 2:15; 4:1-2; Tit. 1:9). This should occur before the entire congregation as a public gathering (Acts 2:46; 19:8-9; 20:20), especially on the Lord’s Day (Acts 20:6; 1 Cor. 16:1-2; Rev. 1:10). But this should also occur among smaller gatherings and with individuals throughout the week, whether in homes or elsewhere (Acts 2:46; 5:42; 20:20; Rom. 16:2; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Phil. 2). Coffee shops anyone?

They are responsible to pray, both for and with the congregation (Acts 6:4; Jam. 5:14) They are likewise responsible to equip the congregation to pray effectively in a comprehensive manner (1 Tim. 2:1-3), especially as a congregation assembled together for that purpose (1 Cor. 11:2-16; 1 Tim. 2:8-11).

They are responsible to guard the church against doctrinal error, distracting causes, unbiblical behavioral trends (2 Thess. 3:10-12), and divisive people (Acts 20:28; Rom. 16:17; 2 Tim. 2:16-18).

They are responsible to provide a living, visible example of biblical Christianity, providing a pattern for church members to follow and providing an example to the observing world (1 Tim. 4:12).

They are responsible to evangelize the unregenerate, whether witnessing to individuals or leading in gospel outreach initiatives such as exploratory evangelism and church planting (Matt. 28:18-19; Acts 13:1-5; 2 Tim. 4:5).

They are responsible to equip church members to do the work of the ministry for themselves, guiding them to understand their spiritual gifting, make disciples, and to obey all that Christ as commanded them (Matt. 28:20; Eph. 4:12-16). This includes mentoring new church leaders (2 Tim. 2:2).

A Sacred Task

Yes, Christ assigns the work of Christian ministry to every believer in every church (Eph. 4:12). Consequently, every believer must give an account of himself before God (Rom. 14:12). But as pastors take on the larger responsibility of guiding churches to do this work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11), they must give an account before God both for themselves, and also for the believers in their care (Heb. 13:17). This is a sacred task and a sobering reality.

The Role of Service

The NT assigns a second church office, in addition to the office of a pastor, using one word, deacon, to describe this role. This word portrays the general activity of a servant or minister, one who serves and meets the needs of people. On certain occasions, the Bible uses this word to describe a formal role within a church, one that is distinct and complementary to the pastor (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1-13). It is in this sense that the word refers to a formal role within a church. Furthermore, as pastors are a leadership role, deacons are a service role.

As pastors are a leadership role, deacons are a service role.

This role first appears in Acts 6:1-6, when the first church selected seven men to minister to the financial needs of widows within the congregation. Assigning these men to this task enabled the pastors to devote concentrated time both to prayer and to studying, teaching and preaching the Bible. From observation, we see that deacons become necessary whenever the tasks and needs of an administrative, logistic, or material nature prevent the pastor(s) of a church from fulfilling their primary functions.

Deacon Qualifications

Men certainly qualify to hold this office (Acts 6:3; 1 Tim. 3:8-9). However, some propose that women may also do so, and not without warrant. For instance, Paul names a lady, Phoebe, as a “a servant of the church at Cenchrea” (Rom. 16:1). Furthermore, the word that our English translations render as the “wives” of deacons may easily be translated as “women in general” (1 Tim. 3:11).

Nevertheless, it seems more probable that the office of deacon may be occupied only by men, since they are required to be “husbands of one wife” and “ruling their children and household affairs well” (1 Tim. 3:12). Such a man must meet prescribed spiritual and character qualifications. Luke summarizes these qualifications (Acts 6:3), and Paul later lists them with increased detail and specificity (1 Tim. 3:8-12). They resemble the qualifications for pastors, but without the requirement of being “able to teach.”

Optimal Results

Whereas pastors are responsible to guide the church through biblical teaching and decision-making, deacons are responsible to carry out delegated tasks and to meet pressing needs among the congregation (Acts 6:3; 1 Tim. 3:13). This specialized function, however, does not preclude them from fulfilling other ministry duties, most notably public gospel outreach, as both Stephen and Philip exemplify (Acts 7; 8:5-40; 21:8-9).

Deacons are responsible to carry out delegated tasks and to meet pressing needs among the congregation

Deacons who serve well strengthen the testimony of their church in the surrounding community, especially in the face of public criticism (Acts 6:1). Furthermore, they make it possible for the church to benefit from extensive prayer and intensive teaching from their pastor(s) (Acts 6:4). This leads to increased gospel exposure and increased numbers of conversions and disciples (Acts 6:7). Ultimately, deacons who serve well will enjoy an honorable reputation both now and for eternity, along with increased confidence in God (1 Tim. 3:13).

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