Elders, Deacons, and Broader Assemblies

Christ is the Head of the church and the source of all its authority (Mt. 23:10, Jn. 13:13, 1 Cor. 12:5, Eph. 1:20–23; 4:11–12, 5:23–24). Therefore, the appointed officers of the church derive their own authority from Christ and in turn must be humble in submission to Him and His Word in all things. 

In the New Testament we find two ordinary offices of church government: elder and deacon. The non-regular, or “extraordinary offices” would be that of apostles, prophets, and evangelists. Because the extraordinary offices are believed to have ceased and are not held by officers today, we will only explore the offices of elder and deacon. 

It is important to note that while the basics of church governance can be clearly deduced from Scripture, some of the exact details are not. The Westminster Confession of Faith acknowledges this when it states that there are some circumstances concerning the government of the church “which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word…” (WCF 1.6). Therefore, some of what follows, such as the types of distinctions among elders or the ordering of broader assemblies, will differ in details in various Reformed churches.

Elders

Elders are men called by Christ to shepherd His church. It is common in the Reformed tradition two distinguish between different kinds of elders, such as ministers, teaching elders, and ruling elders. Ministers are pastors who are primarily responsible for preaching the Word and administering the sacraments. Teaching elders are men, who like ministers, are also called to teach but primarily in settings other than Lord’s Day worship, such as in schools, writing, or other media. Ruling elders are men who are not set apart for regular teaching in the church, but who along with ministers and teaching elders shepherd the church and are responsible for its governance.

This distinction is natural as we consider both the gifts of men and needs in the church, and it is also found in Scripture. In 1 Timothy, St Paul writes that elders who rule well should be considered worthy of double honor, “especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (5:17). This indicates that there are some elders who do not labor in preaching and teaching, but nevertheless rule the church. Alexander Strauch helpful summarizes the duties of elders:

“Elders lead the church (1 Tim 5:17; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 5:1–2), teach and preach the Word (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:9), protect the church from false teachers (Acts 20:17, 28–31), exhort and admonish the saints in sound doctrine (1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 3:13–17; Titus 1:9), visit the sick and pray (James 5:14; Acts 6:4), and judge doctrinal issues (Acts 15:6). In biblical terminology, elders shepherd, oversee, lead, and care for the local church.”[1]

Elders are therefore assigned the weighty task of caring for eternal souls in the household of God.

Qualifications

Scripture lays out clear qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:6–9, and the following are some of the key requirements. Elders must be above reproach, meaning that they should be of good reputation and no one should be able to lay a credible accusation against them. They must be the husband of one wife, meaning that they are not polygamists or unlawfully remarried. They must be sober-minded or disciplined and not a drunkard, emphasizing that they are not slaves to their desires but practice self-control. They must be hospitable, joyfully given to welcoming guests and strangers into the church and their homes. They must be able to teach, with both the necessary knowledge and skills to communicate doctrine to the church. They must be not violent or quarrelsome, meaning they are not prone to anger or outbursts, nor eager to fight with others. They must not be lovers of money or greedy, but instead must be generous, seeking first the kingdom. They must be good managers of their households, having submissive children, for if they cannot lead well their families how do they expect to lead God’s people? And lastly for our purposes, they must not be recent converts lest they become conceited, but instead have experience in life and doctrine. These qualifications together found in St Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus make up the character necessary for elders in Christ’s church. If a man once qualified to become an elder while serving becomes disqualified because of his sin or neglect of duties, he should humbly step down or be removed from office. 

Calling and Ordination

This saying is trustworthy: if a man aspires to the office of elder he desires a noble task (1 Tim. 3:1). But the calling to this noble task can sometimes be difficult to understand or discern. Are men to wait for their own personal Damascus Road experience? Are they to be thrust into ministry despite their own desires like Augustine or Gregory of Nazianzus? The church has acknowledged two forms of calling that ought to meet together for a man to know whether it is God’s will for him to pursue the office of elder.

First, there is an inward calling, as seen in 1 Timothy 3:1 where the man himself desires to do the work of an elder. This does not need to be a mystical experience, but can come about by the Holy Spirit giving the desire over a period of time. Part of this inward call is not mere desire, but also the genuine and humble belief of one’s own usefulness and readiness to undertake the ministry.[2]

Second, there is an outward calling, in which God uses others to encourage, affirm, and examine the man regarding his fitness for the ministry. This involves both officers in the church who guide the process and ordinary members and peers. To enter into ministry without both and inward and outward calling would be disastrous for the man, his family, and the church. Therefore, St Paul instructs Timothy not to be hasty in the laying on of hands (1 Tim. 5:22). Any man truly called to ministry will meet the qualifications that we previously looked at. To not meet these qualifications is to be very obviously not called, no matter what a man thinks of himself or what others desire. 

After a calling to the ministry is tested and confirmed a man is ordained to the ministry by the elders of the church. Louis Berkhof defined ordination as “the solemn expression of the judgment of the Church, by those appointed to deliver such judgment, that the candidate is truly called of God to take part in [the] ministry, thereby authenticating to the people the divine call.”[3] The elders are not acting alone in this process, but after presenting the man to the congregation for approval, are acting on behalf of the church and with authority given by Christ when they lay their hands on a man for ordination (Acts. 6:6, 13:3; 1 Tim. 4:14).

Deacons

Acts 6 records a dispute that arose in the church regarding the neglect of Hellenist widows in the daily distribution. In response to this demand for additional care of those in the church with material needs and not wanting to neglect the preaching of the Word and prayer, the apostles requested that “seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” be appointed to the task (6:1–3). It is here where we find the office of deacon in the New Testament church being established, as the apostles prayed for and laid hands upon seven men called to serve the church. 

While elders shepherd and care for the spiritual needs of the church, deacons manage and care for the material needs, especially providing for the poor in and outside the congregation. The qualifications and ordination process for deacons largely mirror that of elders, with the absence of the ability to teach. That said, deacons must “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Tim. 3:9). Stephen, one of the seven chosen, was “full of grace and power” as he performed signs and wonders among the people (Acts 6:8). He was bold in declaring the truth and delivered one of the most magnificent speeches in the Book of Acts prior to being martyred for the faith (Acts 7). From his example we see that although deacons are not given the task of teaching, they ought to be men who know their God and are willing to stand alongside elders in the proclamation of the Word in the world.

Broader Assemblies

Beyond the local church session there are “broader assemblies” that exist to promote accountability and unity among likeminded churches. We see examples of councils in Acts, such as the Jerusalem Council which determined whether or not Gentile converts must be circumcised (Acts 15). These broader assemblies include presbyteries and the general assembly (or church council) made up of all the presbyteries in the denomination. The Westminster Confession of Faith states that the purpose of these broader assemblies is the better government and further edification of the church (WCF 31.1). In the presbytery and general assembly, ministers and elders representing their local churches have the responsibility of determining controversies of faith and cases of conscience, establishing directions for the better ordering of the public worship and government of the church, and to receive complaints against sessions and judge authoritatively in the cases (WCF 31.2). Insofar as the decrees of the presbyteries and general assemblies agree with Scripture, they “are to be received with reverence and submission” (WCF 31.2).

It is important to understand that these broader assemblies do not have a “higher authority” than the local church. Every local church exists as a complete church of Christ, “fully equipped with everything that is required for its government,” therefore, no presbytery or general assembly can usurp the autonomy of a local church.[4] Instead, the authority that presbyteries and general assemblies carry is the same authority found in the local church.


[1] Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership Booklet (Lewis & Roth Publishers), 16.
[2] Heinrich Hoppe, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House), 67.
[3] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 588.
[4] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic), 589-590.

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