Spheres of Responsibility in Church Leadership
Application of the Functions of Pastor, Elder and Deacon
Pastor John H. Herb
Pastors, Elders, Deacons Retreat
Nov. 20, 1982
Pinebrook Bible Conference
In the preceding session Pastor Spackman sought to define for us those offices of the church ordained by God and their basic function. These offices are: the pastor or teaching elder, the ruling elder and the deacon. In seeking to establish for us a biblical basis for these offices he demonstrated from scripture that God exercises sovereign authority in the government of His people. Secondly, he sought to emphasize that He exercises that authority through leaders to whom He conveys authority to function and minister in His name.
As we have already seen, in the Old Testament economy, God governed His people through men anointed to the offices of prophet, priest and king. In the New Testament economy Christ as the head of the church fulfills the three fold office of prophet, priest and king. In exercising His Lordship over the church today, Christ delegates authority to men to function in the life of the church according to that same pattern. The office of minister or teaching elder fulfills the prophetic ministry of the church, the office of the ruling elder fulfills the kingly ministry of the church and the office of the deacon fulfills the priestly ministry of the church.
While the object of the first session was to define the offices of the church and to describe their basic functions, the object in this session is to seek to set forth the spheres of responsibility that belong to each office and to seek to show how these spheres of responsibility relate to each other, We can state our objective in another way by raising the following questions How do these biblical functions work out in a very practical way? How does the theology that we heard in the first session work out in practice? What do the words on paper in the Faith and Order imply for the day to day life of the church?
One can go to the Faith and Order and find that there are certain things that we are told about the function of the elder and the deacon. What do those words on paper imply? What do they mean in the day to day life of the church? Or, we could ask the questions: How does what the pastor does relate to what the elders do? How does what the pastor and elders do relate to what the deacons do?
In the first session we have seen the general function of these particular offices, now we want to seek to understand the particular responsibilities that are involved in the fulfillment of these general functions.
First of all, let me say that to seek to describe the responsibilities of each of these offices is an immense and almost impossible task. Even if we had a number of days to discuss this particular topic we couldn’t begin to do more than to scratch the surface. Whole volumes have been written on individual functions of the responsibilities of elders and deacons. So, I think, it needs to be said that at the very best we can be only suggestive with the hope that we can stimulate your thinking so that when you leave this conference and go home to your churches that you will give further time, study and reflection to what all of these things mean in your local church.
Secondly, let me suggest to you five factors that I believe you need to keep in mind in seeking to delineate spheres of responsibility. I believe there are five areas which become problematic in drawing lines of responsibility within the local church.
Factor One: One needs to keep in mind that there are areas of overlap in the spheres of responsibility. The circles of responsibility are not mutually exclusive. For example, while the pastor’s primary responsibility is to teach he also has responsibilities to rule. While the ruling elder’s primary responsibility is to rule, they also have the responsibility to teach, While the elders primary responsibility is in the spiritual realm, they also have some responsibility to the natural and material aspects of the life of the church. While the deacon’s primary responsibility is to the material, temporal and physical side, they also have responsibilities that are spiritual in nature. One could go further and say while the pastors, elders and deacons fill the special functions of prophet, priest and king in the church, all believers by virtue of their relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ are constituted by God to be prophets, priests and kings. There is a degree of overlap between what the people of God do in general and what the officers of the church do in particular. Therefore, in seeking to delineate areas of responsibility one has to keep in mind that there are these areas of overlap.
Factor Two It is important to keep in mind that there are different levels of involvement in the exercise of the responsibility of the various offices of the church. The Bible clearly teaches that the gifts of the Holy Spirit came to different men in different measure. So, one finds that the amount of time and the breath of ministry that any given elder, deacon or pastor might give to the work will not be the same. There are different levels of involvement. For example, while all the elders ought to be involved in teaching and ruling they will not all be involved to the same extent or in the same way. While all the deacons ought to be involved in their particular responsibilities to some extent, they do not all function in the same measure. In God’s providence some have more or less free time. Obviously, someone who is involved in a full time capacity has more time then someone who has other employment and responsibilities Someone who is working a full time job has less time then someone who is retired and has more time. Not only do we have more or less free time, but we find that we have more or less family responsibilities. There may be some elders or deacons who are not married and do not have family responsibilities. There are those who are married bit have no children. Family and employment responsibilities are valid factors in the level of involvement and the extent of time each is able to give. Some have more physical strength and stamina. Some have physical problems that they need to contend with. Some men generally have more stamina and drive then other men. And then, of course, some men have more or less ability in a given area. So, while there will be a similarity of function there will also be a differentiation in the level of involvement in fulfilling the particular responsibilities of a given office.
Factor Three: Not all church officers do exactly the same thing in fulfilling their responsibilities of office. While there are general functions that all elders need to be involved in and general functions that all deacons need to be engaged in, one should not conclude that all will do exactly the same things in the life and program of the church. Each man is an individual. We have already pointed out that they have individual gifts. While on the one hand there are general responsibilities on the other hand there are areas of specialization that find expression in the particular gifts of each person. So, while one elder may lead the congregational singing it doesn’t mean that all the elders ought to do this since some of the elders might not be able to sing, or have any ability in this area. Some churches have had the idea that all of the elders have to do all of the same things in the life of the church, when it is obvious that they have different gifts.
Factor Four: The various officers of the church do not do all of the work in the fulfillment of the responsibilities of their particular office. We are going to talk about different areas of responsibilities that fall to each one of these offices. You’ll find that a great deal of that responsibility can be cared for by simply exercising oversight and delegating the actual work to others. An elder need not carry out every individual task that falls within his sphere of responsibility. Some aspects of the work should be delegated to others from the body of believers. While the officers have a responsibility to see that certain things in the church are cared for, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they have to do all of the work or provide all of the input that is necessary to carry out that area of responsibility.
Factor Five: The Bible does not give us all the particular details on how the various spheres of responsibility relate to one another. The Bible does give us the general and foundational principals. These were covered in session one. The particular details must be worked out by the leadership of each particular church in harmony with the principles of the Word of God and within the frame work of the Faith and Order of the Bide Fellowship Church. These particular details need to be spelled out in the bylaws of each particular church.
Now I know from the things that I have heard in talking to others that one of the areas of concern that many of you have is how you can have a Board of Elders and a Board of Deacons without conflict. I believe one of the main reasons why so many of our churches do not have deacons is because of the fear of such conflict. And it is true that conflict over areas of responsibility and authority can happen if the church doesn’t take the time to apply the broad principles of the Word of God and the Principles of Order in a specific way in bylaws on the local level.
Both the scriptures and the Principles of Order of the Bible Fellowship Church tell us that the function of the elders is, “to rule the spiritual affairs of the church” and they both tell us that the function of the deacons is “to serve in the natural and material needs of the church.” The Principles of Order tell us that the Board of Deacons is to serve under the direction of the Board of Elders but the specifics of how that is to happen is not spelled out. These details need to be worked out locally and set forth in the bylaws of each local church. To give you some help in this area, I have already circulated a page from the Bylaws of Bethany Church in Hatfield which relates to the function of the deacons. These bylaws are very similar to these being used in a number of Bible Fellowship congregations that have both elders and deacons. We have operated with these particular bylaws since 1979. While I think they need some refinement, revision and clarification to meet our current needs at Bethany, they have provided a basis for us to have a harmonious working relationship between the Board of Elders and the Board of Deacons and I think they have provided a sufficient basis for the deacons to function with a reasonable amount of effectiveness within the life of the congregation and with the surrounding community.
Now at this point I want to proceed with you to consideration of the spheres of responsibility of the various offices of the church. First, let’s consider the prophetic office.
In the design of God there is a prophetic function that is to be carried on in the church. That prophetic function is the proclamation of the Word of God. The preaching of the Word of God is one of the essential marks of a true church. I believe in a very real sense that it is the supreme task of the church. This particular function is foundational to all the other functions of the church. Everything else that the church does is related to this basic function.
The ministry of the Word of God is central to the worship, service and ministry of the church. It is vital to the life, growth and outreach of the church. The ministry of the Word of God is essential to the very existence of the church itself. Now while the prophetic function is carried out on various levels in that the ruling elders are involved in teaching and the entire congregation is involved in sharing the truth of God’s word, the prophetic function in a particular sense is the primary responsibility of the pastor or teaching elder. Preaching is God’s primary way of instructing his people. While the minister is both a ruling and a teaching elder he is usually called a pastor or preacher because his essential task is to teach men the Word of God. He ministers the word in the broadest sense within the life of the church. He teaches the Word of God to children and youth as well as to the adults of the congregation. He teaches those within the church as well as those outside the church as he engages in evangelism. He teaches publicly in the pulpit and privately in pastoral counseling and home visitation. He exhorts and admonishes the members of the congregation. He is charged with teaching doctrine as well as the application of doctrine to the lives of God’s people. The apostle Paul indicates that “he should preach the word in season and out of season.” Paul also describes the scope of his responsibility when he says, “that he is to declare the whole counsel of God.”
While the pastor has many other responsibilities, since he is both a ruling and teaching elder, his primary responsibility is teaching and proclaiming the Word of God. Therefore, it follows that the greater portion of his time will be taken up by his duties as teaching elder.
In order for the minister to faithfully fulfill this responsibility he must be a diligent student of the Word of God. The Faith and Order states concerning a minister's personal qualifications:
“In as much as the primary function of the minister is that of preaching the Word of God, the minister must have a love for study and an ability to teach.”
He must have a deep and thorough knowledge of the Word of God. He must also have an understanding and a knowledge of human nature. He needs to be conversant with current events. He must have knowledge of what is going on in the world around him. He needs to be able to speak with authority and clarity to the problems of society. He must be in touch with the individual problems and needs of the congregation.
This breath of knowledge and understanding will enable him to adequately proclaim the Word of God in a meaningful and practical way. However, to be able to give himself fully to such pursuits requires time and diligent effort. Therefore, I believe it becomes incumbent upon those who are the ruling elders of the church to see that the pastor has adequate time and freedom from other responsibilities to give himself to his primary function of teaching and preaching the Word of God.
Secondly, let’s think of the spheres of responsibilities in the kingly office. In the exercise of God’s lordship and authority over the church he has ordained to govern his people through the kingly function of ruling elder. I would call your attention to I Timothy 5:17 wherein we read:
“Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor.”
In seeking to delineate the particular areas of responsibilities that are involved in ruling the church, there are a number of texts of scripture that can help us by providing a framework upon which we can build.
First, elders rule by personal example. In setting forth some of these particular areas of responsibility I am using the word rule in a very broad sense. That elders’ rule by personal example can be seen in a number of passages of scripture. For example, Paul exhorts Timothy in I Timothy 4:12;
“But, set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, in purity.” (NIV)
and then in 4:16 he says;
“Watch your life and doctrine closely.” (NW)
Peter tells us in I Peter 5:2, 3:
“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, so God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; 1ot lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (NW)
Or, think of that admonition that we are given in the scriptures when we as elders are told "to take heed to ourselves and to the flock." There is a double responsibility. I am first of all to take heed to myself, my doctrine, my life, my conduct and secondly, I’m to take heed to the church. There is a direct relationship between how well I am able to take heed to the church and how well I am able to take heed to myself. I believe that the elders can progressively qualify themselves for keeping watch over the congregation as they ‘develop skills in keeping watch over themselves. They should be diligent in their pursuit to model the truth of God. We need to realize that doctrine is never an end in itself. Doctrine is always to mold and to shape the life in obedience of God. It’s not enough, that the elders teach others what the Word of God says, but they need to live out and demonstrate those truths in their own lives. The elder's living needs to be honorable before God. I believe each elder needs to go to the school of his own experience. His awn life, its struggles, its temptations, its failures and its pressures help to illuminate for him the lives of those over whom he rules. His own experience will enable him to take heed to the flock with the deepest sympathy and a deeper wisdom. Knowing his own struggles and difficulties of others. The school of his own experience provides the opportunity for him to model the truth of God,
Secondly, elders rule by teaching. In I Timothy 3:2—5 we have a portion of scripture that sets forth the qualifications for elders. If you look clearly at the qualifications for elders you will find that most of the qualifications listed by Paul relate to the character of the man who fills the office. What he needs to be within his own life and character. However, two of the qualifications relate not so much to the character of the man but to the nature of the work of the office. In verse 2 we read:
“Elders must be able to teach.”
Later in verses 4, 5 we read:
“the Elder must rule his own house well, for if he doesn’t rule his own house well, bow shall he take care of the church of God.”
Now these qualifications indicate that ruling and teaching are part of the sphere of responsibility of each elder. While it is the primary function of the pastor to teach, as we have already seen, teaching is also part of the responsibility of the ruling elder. Just as Pastor’s rule as well as teach, so ruling elders teach as well as rule.
All ruling involves teaching in some sense of the word. So that one can not really separate in any exclusive manner the functions of ruling and teaching, I believe this text of scripture sets forth the fact that every elder should be involved in teaching at some level in the life of the church. We need to realize that the qualification “able to teach”, doesn’t mean that every elder should be able to get up and preach a sermon on a Sunday morning. However, it certainly does mean something. I think it implies that at the least, he needs to have a knowledge of the Word of God, the ability to communicate that knowledge in a meaningful way, the ability to apply the Word of God to the lives of people, and the ability to distinguish truth from error. Each elder needs to be able to do these things at least on a one to one basis. Each elder’s involvement in teaching will vary according to his particular gifts. Some elders will preach. Some could very easily up on a Sunday morning and give a message very similar to what the pastor might do. Other elders will teach publicly in Sunday School or in a Bible study. Some elders have certain gifts that enable them to provide counseling in home visitation. Some have the unique gifts of evangelism and are able to teach on a one to one basis as they witness to men the saving truths of the gospel. Some will have special gifts in exhorting one another. So, while the elders will teach on different levels in the life of the congregation, it is the responsibility of all elders to function as teachers in some way.
Thirdly, elders rule the congregation through prayer. In Acts 6:4 we read:
“But we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
In this particu2ar passage the apostles (who were also elders) were relieved of ministering to the natural and physical needs of the widows of the church so that they could give themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. Now while it is true that all the work of the elders and the total ministry of the church should be undergirded with prayer, I believe that in ruling the church a major responsibility of the elders is intercessory prayer for the flock of God.
Intercessory prayer is vital to pastoral care. Every elder ought to seek to establish some systematic program for praying for the needs of the individual families of the church that are under his care and intercede on their behalf. I believe that when Boards of Elders meet together they need to give time for prayer for the needs of individuals and for the problems of the congregation as a whole. As the elders come together in session their responsibility in ruling the congregation is not only to make decisions but also to engage in intercessory prayer on behalf of the people whoa they rule and on whose behalf they make decisions. I think it would be good for the leaders of the church to seek to establish regular stated times when they gather together to give themselves wholly to prayer for the needs of the people apart from the press of other responsibilities. Stated times when they can give themselves to concentrated intercessory prayer for the needs of God’s people who are under their care. As the elders move from house to house and visit within homes, they need to be sensitive to discern the needs of people. Those needs should be brought to the Throne of Grace in prayer in their private lives and when the elders come together.
Fourthly, elders rule through pastoral concern and ministry. In Hebrews 13:17 we read:
“Obey them that have the rule over you and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief; for that is unprofitable for you.”
Did you notice in this text of scripture that elders are those who exercise their rule in the congregation by watching for the souls of those that are under their care. The phrase “watching for your souls” implies pastoral care and concern. Elders are co—pastors and every use of the office should reflect that particular fact.
Here, as in other areas the work of the minister and that of the ruling elder overlap. Ruling elders must not leave the visitation of the congregation, the comforting of the distressed or the correcting of the erring exclusively to the minister for they also are “shepherds” and “pastors” and are charged with keeping watch for their souls.
Now, I believe in order for the elders to “watch over the flock” they must engage in systematic and frequent visitation among the congregation. To be an elder is not some ivory tower thing where you come together in a room and make decisions about mundane things. To be an elder means to be involved intimately in the lives of the people and to exercise pastoral ministry and concern.
The elders have a responsibility of working along with the preached word of the pulpit to promote congregational obedience to the Word of God. The elders minister to the congregation through instruction, counsel, exhortation, admonition, encouragement, comfort and rebuke. They are only able to do these things as they participate in visitation among the homes. Remember, that the elder is not only a teacher but also a listener. He sits with the rest of the congregation and listens to the Word of God as it is expounded from the pulpit. He needs to take the things that he hears and apply them to his life and then as he moves among the homes of the congregation he seeks to undergird that preached word and to lead people to the place of obedience to the things that they have heard proclaimed by the teaching elder of the church.
The ruling elders should share in the joys and sorrows of those under their care. The minimum goal should be to visit every home at least once a year. Visitation in some homes will be more frequent because of particular problems that need attention. The tendency is to only go to places where there are particular problems. However, all of the homes, whether there are particular problems or not should be touched by the pastoral concern and the visitation ministry of the elders of the church.
In seeking to fulfill this particular responsibility, churches have used various programs of approach. Some have used zone visitation. They have assigned a particular geographical area to en elder. He visits each family within that particular geographical area. Others have divided the families of the church into groups and have assigned a particular group of families to an elder or to a team of elders. It is their responsibility to visit the families assigned to them. Some have set up a program wherein the pastor and one of the elders visit the members of the church. The elders rotate in visiting with the Pastor. One of our churches has a program where an elder and a deacon who is assigned to work with him form a team for family visitation. In Hatfield, we have the elders divided into teams of two. Each team visits families that are assigned to them for the month.
There are various ways of approaching the problem. Each has advantages and disadvantages. The method of approach is not particularly important. That a regular program of visitation is carried on by the eldership is important for effective pastoral ministry.
Now, if you have such a program in your church, there are many values that flow from such a program. One of the values is that it extends the care and the concern of the church into the homes of the membership. It helps to provide a way to determine the precise needs of the congregation. It provides focus for the preaching and teaching ministry of the church. For example, one of the responsibilities that the teaching elder has is to set the menu of spiritual food upon which the people of God feed. How does the Pastor know that he is scratching where the people itch? Such a program of visitation can help provide focus for his preaching ministry as well as for the teaching ministry of the church as a whole. And then as we have already pointed out, it provides information for intercessory prayer. As the elders move among the homes, they are able to discern the real needs of the people. It provides you with information so you are able to pray in definite and particular ways. I think it also enables the elders to receive feedback on the preaching and teaching ministry of the Word. It can provide answers to such questions as: Do they really understand what is being taught? Is it meaningful to them?
Elder visitation also provides an avenue for the congregation to share ideas and perspectives on needs for various programs and ministries within the church. I believe it deepens the relationship between the elders and the people, and then, finally, it provides a way to nip problems in the bud. The unity and the harmony of the body can be preserved as the elders become sensitive to seeds of dissension. They have opportunity to respond quickly in seeking to resolve problems and to give biblical solutions before those seeds of dissension become full blown and hinder the church. These things can only be accomplished through regular visitation in the homes.
Fifthly, elders rule through management and oversight. In I Peter 5:2 we read:
“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseer”
In I Timothy 3:5 we read;
“If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?”
Elders are sometimes called “overseers” or “bishops”. These words convey the idea of management or superintendency. The eldership is the administrative hub of the church. All congregational activities fall under the jurisdiction and oversight of the elders. The Faith and Order states:
“The Board of Elders shall have the general oversight of the life and work of the church including the worship, preaching, ordinances, evangelism, visitation, discipline, finances and maintenance of properties,”
This indicates that the elders manage and have oversight of all the various activities of the church. It ought to be their concern that the activities and programs of the church are in harmony with the Word of God and according to the Faith and Order of the Bible Fellowship Church.
As the managers of the church the elders set the goals and priorities of the church. They endeavor to organize those programs that enable the congregation to reach its goals and objectives. They are responsible to evaluate the various areas of ministry and programs of the church as to their effectiveness.
While elders do not do all the work in the various phases of the churches life and ministry, but delegate it to others in the congregation, they must provide the oversight and direction. Let me be more particular in some areas. The elders have oversight of the worship of the congregation. Since the worship services are central to the life of the church they should evaluate the services as to their order and content. Do the services lead one to worship God and to obey Him? Does the music used in these services convey accurately the truths of God’s Word? Is the preaching effective in touching the lives of those in the congregation?
One of the most solemn duties of the eldership is to oversee the life and work of the Pastor. Since the primary task of the church is preaching the Word of God, therefore, the primary task of the eldership is the oversight of the preaching and teaching ministries of the church. It is incumbent upon the elders to evaluate the preached ministry of the Word. It’s their responsibility to give guidance, direction and a sense of focus to the preached ministry of the Word. Sometimes it’s necessary to give constructive criticism to the teaching elder. This is part of being a manager and an overseer.
Secondly, it implies that elders should participate according to their gifts in various aspects of public worship. This might include such things as; leading the services, leading in prayer, reading the scripture, directing the singing and a host of other things in keeping with their particular gifts.
The elders have oversight of the administration of the ordinances. They must help to guard the Lord’s table. They should seek to lead people to obedience to the Lord in baptism. They should see that the Lord’s supper is made available to those within the congregation who because of physical infirmities are not able to participate when the church gathers. They need to provide a church in miniature, so that the shut-ins are able to participate in the ordinances.
They have a responsibility to structure and guide the programs of evangelism and missions so that the church will fulfill its responsibility to the lost. They must evaluate what methods are biblical and effective in fulfilling the great commission.
Let me further add that while the elders work is primarily spiritual in nature, some of their responsibility touches the material and physical aspects of church life • While the finances of the church and the maintenance of the property must always be managed in a businesslike fashion, yet at the same time they should also be managed in a spiritual way and to spiritual ends. Both money and the church facility have a direct bearing on the ability and the effectiveness of the church to provide spiritual ministry. It is important that the elders set the financial priorities of the church. But on the other hand, while the elders ought to have final authority in regard to these areas, the work of counting money, paying bills, keeping records and maintaining the buildings and equipment ought to be delegated to others.
The elders need to provide oversight and direction to the Board of Deacons and aid them in providing an effective benevolence ministry to the church constituency, the surrounding community and even to the world itself.
The sixth Way the elders rule is by sitting as a judicial body. Among the highest duties of the elders is that of sitting together as a court of the Lord Jesus and ruling for Him over the affairs of the flock. Elders as a body are responsible for guarding the gates of the visible church. They exercise the use of the keys of the Kingdom. In Matthew 16:19 we read:
“And I will give unto thee the keys of the Kingdom: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.”
and again in Matthew 18:18
“Verily I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.”
Although these verses sound very similar, I think that they are moving in two directions and they bring into focus two spheres of responsibility.
This exercise of the keys is both ministerial and magisterial. The eldership has the responsibility to accept or reject applicants for church membership and baptism and to exercise judicial discipline upon erring members of the church.
In other words, the body of elders is to receive repentant and believing sinners into Christ’s church and to feed them there. The elders must minister to them the ordinances of the church.
Since these believers may stumble and fall into sin, the elders must be ready to deal with this situation. They ray be forced to acknowledge that their first judgment was wrong and finally put the unrepentant and disobedient outside the visible church.
The elders are responsible to act as a judicial body in admitting people into the membership of the church and in exercising corrective discipline within the church. They need always to keep in mind that discipline must be exercised in love and with the view of restoring the erring member.
Now I believe that these six areas are a major part of what it means to rule as an elder in the church. As one can see from this overview — the responsibilities of the eldership are great. Berghof & DeKister state in The Elder’s Handbook, “The conscientious elder must never be overwhelmed by the magnitude of his responsibility in comparison with the extent of his weakness and failure. He must remember that authority for ruling does not rest upon his success at self discipline, but upon the commission of God.”
Finally, let us consider the priestly office.
In seeking to provide for the needs of His people, our Lord instituted a priestly function in the office of deacon.
In the New Testament Church the diaconate is the office of mercy. It is significant in this regard that the writer of the book of Hebrews tells us that “to do good and to communicate” (Hebrews 13:16) are sacrifices that are well pleasing before God. As the bringing of sacrifice is a priestly function so are “doing good and communicating.” The N.I.V. translates the verse “And do not forget to do good and to share with others.”
It is clear that those whose special task it is to perform works of mercy in the church perform these tasks as representatives of Him whom scripture calls, “A mer4iful high priest, “ even Jesus Christ.
The primary meaning of the Greek word from which the English word, deacon9 is derived means “servant.” The word is used 30 times in the New Testament and it is clear that 11 of these times a special servant of Christ who serves or imparts something to someone is in view. Three times it is used in the sense of the particular office of deacon.
It seems valid for one to draw the conclusion from the usage 0+’ the word in the New Testament that the office of deacon is one of service and imparting of goods or services to the needs.
While in a small congregation the same men may serve in fulfilling the function of both elder and deacon -. the purpose for the establishment of such an office in the providence of God was to release the elders from responsibility to serve the physical and material needs of the congregation so that he could give himself more fully to the spiritual concerns of the people of God.
If the origin of the office of deacon was not the incident recorded in Acts 6 wherein seven men were chosen to provide for the needs of the widows to free the disciples for spiritual ministry — at least that incident sets forth the principle behind diaconate service.
“Look out among you seven men. . . whom we may appoint this business, but we will give ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word. “ Acts 6:3a & 4
An important task of the Old Testament priest was to show mercy. In the old dispensation the priests and the Levites had to share with the stranger, the fatherless and the widows the tithes which they received from the Israelite people. (Duet. 14:29, 26:12)
In the New Testament passages such as:
I Tim 5:3—10,
I Tim 6:17—18
II Cor. 9,
the same responsibilities to the widows and the poor are placed upon the church. In the church the deacons serve the poor and needy and represent Christ as priest, The Faith and Order states:
“His office is one of sympathetic service to the church and to the distressed, friendless or sick after the example of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The deacons perform the sacrifice of mercy by receiving the shared gifts of sacrifice of the congregation with the widows, the poor and the needy.
Secondly, in the old dispensation the Levites had responsibility for the tasks involved in caring for the temple and its equipment. I believe that by way of application and by extension of the same principle of the parallel between the deacon and the priestly function of the old economy, the sphere of responsibility for the care and maintenance of the church property and its equipment can properly be assigned to the deacons.
This is in harmony with the statement in the Faith and Order which reads:
“The function of the deacons is to see that the material and natural needs of the church constituency are met so that the elders can give freely of their time and concern to the spiritual needs of the congregation.”
While the office of deacon concerns the material and physical in a primary sense, it should not be overlooked that the work of the deacon has important spiritual aspects.
Caper states in his book The Glorious Body of Christ:
“Let no one think that the deacons of a church have done their full duty when they have gathered from the members of the church gifts for the poor among them and have distributed those to the poor. . .their duty extends to such spiritual activity as praying with the distressed and reminding them of the consolation of scripture.”
The benevolent ministry directed to those outside the church also provides opportunity for the deacons to engage in the spiritual activity of evangelism and enables them to witness to the claims of Christ.
White it is difficult to pinpoint a great number of specific duties from the biblical material, it is possible to set forth some levels of diaconate activity from the principles of scripture.
The specific areas of activity for diaconate service are unlimited and each local board of deacons must evaluate the varying ways of serving the Lord within their own situation.
Let me suggest some areas. It seems that the deacons have an area of responsibility to minister to the church as a body or to the church as a whole. This area of responsibility could include such things as providing oversight and assuming responsibility for the maintenance of the church property and its equipment. This doesn’t mean that deacons do all the maintenance work or clean the property, but that they see that these are cared for. I believe that within the sphere of this area of responsibility, they can handle the financial accounts of the church, including the counting of money, paying the bills and keeping financial records. While I think it is imperative that the Board of Elders set the financial priorities, I don’t believe it is their responsibility to take on all of the details involved in the financial work of the church.
Deacons ought to provide for the physical preparations of the Lords table and baptism. The Faith and Order states that the elders can assign responsibilities to the deacons. Such an assignment could be the responsibility of organizing the ushering system of the church.
I believe there is an educational ministry that the deacons can perform, through visitation of church families. The deacons can challenge and educate the congregation as to their responsibility to the benevolence needs that are around them. They also can inform the families of the various benevolent ministries and services in which the church is engaged. They also need to access areas of need among the families they visit.
Secondly, the deacons have an area of responsibility to the congregational needy, — service to individual members of the body. Let me suggest some things in this area, since the possibilities are really unli3pited. They should be involved in providing financial aid to the widows, poor and those who are unemployed. Besides providing money, they should provide aid for the widow shut-ins and the disadvantaged in other ways. They could provide transportation, do repair work and provide meals. They could find people within the congregation who have particular skills and challenge them, not only to tithe their money, but also to tithe their time and skills. These skills could provide a solution to some of the material needs of those in the congregation who apart from such help would not have these needs met.
Deacons can arrange for the provision of meals for families where there is illness and hospitalization. The deacons need to respond to emergencies that come up in the church. Sick bed care, providing companionship for the elderly and sick, including reading to them and ministering to them in times of loneliness and isolation are other possibilities. You could establish a clothing depot for emergency assistance. Deacons can be involved in visitation to handicapped and single parents. As I said the list of areas of ministry are unlimited.
The deacons also have an area of responsibility to the neighborhood around the church. I believe that beyond this they also have an area of responsibility to the benevolent needs that concern the fellowship of churches. We are not only particular churches but also a part of a fellowship of churches. There are certain needs that relate to the fellowship of churches. Then, of course, we live in a world that is so full of problems. Take for example the problem of world hunger. I believe that the scope of benevolent ministry is far reaching. Each local church needs to grapple with the issues and problems around them and ask how they can provide meaningful ministry in these areas.
I believe the Bible indicates that the deacons need to begin at home in the local church and then need to expand the focus of their ministry beyond the local church. The scriptures tell us;
“so then as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.”
I’m saying that we have a special responsibility to those who are of household of faith. But this text lifts our horizon beyond that. We are “to do good to all men” as we have opportunity. Therefore, we need to recognize our opportunities and define our objectives. We need to institute those kinds of programs that can be carried on by the deacons to minister to the material needs of the people in these different areas.
Each office in the church has a vital function to fill in bringing Christ’s authority and blessing to bear upon the life of the church. May we all give ourselves to the task of seeking to understand our own particular responsibilities more clearly and may we with diligence seek to fulfill those responsibilities for the glory of God and for advancement of the church