HARMONY BETWEEN ELDERS AND DEACONS
Pastor Thomas P. Shorb
Berean Bible Fellowship Church
The question before us is: how can a Board of Elders and a Board of Deacons function in a congregation without conflict? What are the keys for developing a harmonious working relationship between Elders and Beacons?
I. UNDERSTANDING THE BIBLICAL ROLES OF THE OFFICES
Pastors, Elders, and Deacons must have a Biblical understanding of their own and each other's roles if there is to be harmony among the leadership of the church. Elders and Deacons must gain and maintain a grasp of the spheres of responsibility of the Eldership and the Diaconate and honor these continually in action and attitude if they are to avoid tension and conflict. Each office must function within its God-designed role if there is to be unity and effectiveness. One of the great values of these Pastor's, Elder's, Deacon’s Retreats is that men from each of these offices attend, study, listen and learn together their own and each other's roles.
Understanding the Biblical roles of Elder and Deacons begins with submission to the authority of Christ. The church is Christ's church. The offices are of His design. We must accept and work out the implications of His instruction regarding the offices if there is to be proper function and harmony.
What are the Biblical spheres of responsibility of the Elder and the Deacon? Let's review these briefly (cf. the transcripts of these lectures during the 1982 P.E.D. Retreat: "Who's Who In Church Leadership?” by Carl K. Spackman and "Spheres of Responsibility in Church Leadership'' by John B. Herb for more detailed treatment).
Elder means "overseer." The Eldership is the office of ruling and teaching, leading and feeding.
1. The Elder Rules - The Office of Elder is the office of the authority to rule in the church according to the Scripture.
"Let the Elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor." I Timothy 5:17
"We request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you and have charge over you in the Lord." I Thessalonians 5:12
"Be on guard far yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood." Acts 20:28
The Faith and Order of the Bible Fellowship Church summarizes these passages and the teaching of Scripture regarding the ruling role of Elder in the following way .
"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" (p.55. 1981 edition.)
By the way, Elders, notice that finances and maintenance of properties are last on the list. Elders are prone to allow finances and property matters to consume most or all of their time, and if that is the case, it reveals that they don’t understand the Biblical role of the Elder. The Elders are responsible for the spiritual oversight of the congregation and the spiritual welfare of the flock should have the priority in their ministry.
Ruling also involves pastoral care, shepherding and discipline, promoting congregational obedience to the Word of God and correcting those who fall into sin, are distinctive responsibilities of the office of Elder.
All congregation activities fall under the oversight and jurisdiction of the Elders, and that includes the Board of Deacons, The Elders have the authority of Christ to male and are accountable to God for the total life and ministry of the church.
2. The Elder teaches - The Eldership is an office of teaching and feeding the flock.
"Let the Elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching." 1 Timothy 5:17
"We request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among; you and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction." 1 Thessalonians 5:12
“Holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict." Titus 1:9
The Elder is to know the Scriptures, to be able to communicate truth to others in an understandable way, and to be able to defend the faith, distinguishing truth from error. The Eldership is an office of ministry in instruction, exhortation, counsel, admonition, rebuke, encouragement, and comfort through the proclamation of the Word of God.
Elders rule and teach.
Deacon means "servant". The Diaconate is the office of mercy and service.
"And let these also first be tested; then let them 'deacon' (serve as deacons) if they are beyond reproach." I Timothy 3:10
"For those who have served well obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus." 1 Timothy 3:13
1. Mercy (cf. Acts 6:1-6) The Deacon performs a ministry of mercy to the poor, the sick, the elderly, the widows, the orphans, the lonely, the handicapped, and so on. The Deacons minister mercy within the congregation as a priority and then to those outside the congregation. The Deacons are also God's channel for mobilizing and coordinating the resources of the entire congregation to be directed to the specific areas of need. Deacons are men who exemplify and manifest the mercy of Christ for the alleviating of human need.
2. Service - (cf. Acts 6:1-6) The Deacon fulfills a servant role to the congregation. Deacons are men who are willing and ready to undertake tasks entrusted to their care by the Elders so that the Elders can be freed to fulfill the priorities of their calling - ruling and teaching, the ministry of the Word, and prayer, So, in addition to being an office of mercy, the Diaconate is an office of delegated tasks and responsibilities so that ministry and fellowship of the congregation might be multiplied. Deacons are servants of the Elders and servants of the church.
Do not view the office of Deacon as trivial and unimportant. The office of Deacon is not to be reduced to a secondary status. They're not just "the guys who do the dirty work." Their ministry is a spiritual ministry even though it often deals with physical, material, and practical matters. The Deacon serves as the representative of Christ in a Biblically-instituted office. He serves under the authority of Christ and does what he does out of spiritual motives and for a spiritual purpose. He ministers in the context of Biblical instruction and consolation to communicate the love of Jesus Christ for spiritual results. In the light of 1Tim. 3:13, it is impossible to view the Diaconate as an inferior office:
"For those who have served well as Deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus." 1 Timothy 3:13
We often speak of the Eldership as "the office of authority" and the Diaconate as "the office of service." The Elders have full authority for the entire life and ministry of the church. Therefore, the Deacons are to be subject to the authority and oversight of the Board of Elders. However, the Diaconate also hears a measure of Biblical authority - an authority for the ministration of mercy and for service to the practical needs of the flock. Their's is an authority within prescribed boundaries, but it is an authority delegated by Christ, and the office is to be valued for that reason.
Elders need to understand and appreciate the role of Deacons in the church and ought never belittle or berate the office, One office cannot adequately fulfill the ministry of the Word and the ministry of mercy in an organized congregation of any size. Elders need to establish the Diaconate in the congregation if it doesn't now exist and then need to encourage and utilize the Deacons to good advantage so that they have the opportunity and freedom to fulfill their God-given role. The office of Deacon is critical to the life and welfare of a New Testament congregation.
One source of disharmony, then, between Elders and Deacons occurs when Elders and Deacons do not understand and observe their own distinctive roles as set forth in the Scriptures. If Deacons seek to rule the flock, the congregation will be in trouble, and the offices will be in conflict. If Elders fail to rule or teach, they create a leadership gap that will likely result in conflict. If either office fails to fulfill its God-given role, there will be confusion and weakness. There must be mutual respect for each office, and each office fulfilling its role if there is to be harmony in the church. Elders must rule and teach, Deacons must minister in mercy and serving.
II. APPRECIATING THE DIFFERING GIFTS OF THE OFFICES
Not only are there distinctive roles of the offices of Elder and Deacon, but there are also distinctive gifts for the offices according to the Scriptures. Both. Elders and Deacons and the congregation need to understand, appreciate, and honor in practice the distinctive gifts of the offices if there is to be harmony in their function in the congregation.
If an individual or congregation simply views the Diaconate as a training ground for the Eldership, there is evidence that they have failed to appreciate that the offices are distinct offices with distinctive gifts, Now, that's not to say that a Deacon ought never become an Elder. There are situations where men are elected to the Diaconate because they have gifts for mercy and serving, but as they function as a Deacon, it is discovered that they are gifted for the Eldership, Such a man ought be elected to the Eldership if he is qualified. However, when men are initially chosen for office, it should be on the basis of their manifestation of distinctive gifts for the two offices. Therefore, the Diaconate ought not simply be viewed as a training ground for the Eldership. Deacons who are gifted to be Deacons ought expect always to be Deacons and be content in the office knowing it is the role for which God designed them.
Disharmony will occur when there is a failure to appreciate and maximize the use of the distinctive gifts, The Eldership and Diaconate are distinct offices with distinct gifts, and men ought to be elected because they are believed to be qualified, called, and gifted for a particular office.
A. THE GIFTS OF THE ELDERSHIP
Elders may possess many spiritual gifts, but they ought always to possess the gifts of ruling, teaching, and disceranent.
1. RULING - (Rom.12:8; 1 Cor, 12:28) This gift is the gift of ruling, government, leadership, administration, and management. The Elder ought evidence spiritual ability and maturity to rule.
2. TEACHING - (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8; Rom. 12:7; 1 Cor. 12:28) The Elder is to be "able to teach", exhort, rebuke, and defend the faith. He is to have the gift of teaching.
3. DISCERNMENT - (1 Cor. 12:10) The Elder is distinguished, by his gift for good judgement and spiritual insight, The Elder ought to evidence maturity and wisdom, the ability to discern truth from error, and the ability to identify needs and problems and discover solutions to those problems.
B. THE GIFTS OF THE DIACONATE
1. MERCY (Rom.12:8) The gift of mercy is the ability to fee1 love and sympathy for people in need and be compelled to attempt to alleviate that need. The Deacon with the gift of mercy will manifest a heart of compassion patterned after that of Christ. He will be discovered to be patient and understanding with people whom other people find unattractive.
2. HELPS/SERVICE (Rom. 12:7; I Cor. 12:28) The gift of helps or service is identified by a servant's heart and a compulsion to serve. One so gifted is not annoyed by menial tasks but finds delight in serving people or the church. The Deacon with the gift of helps will have the ability to identify opportunities for service and demonstrate the initiative to do the work for the sake of Christ and the church.
A Deacon may also have the gifts of teaching and leadership in addition to mercy and helps, but if he lacks the gift of mature discernment, he is gifted for the Diaconate and not for the Eldership.
Each Christian man needs to understand the Biblical gifts, to seek to discover his own gifts and to be content with his own gifts, He ought so to be able to appreciate and encourage the exercise of the gifts of others without envy or jealousy. Men who have not yet been elected to an office ought to function in the congregation according to their gifts and to the best of their ability. Gifts are discovered and identified in the course of use. Men who believe they are gifted for office should be faithful and patient, devoted to spiritual growth.
Disharmony between Elders and Deacons often occurs because a Deacon desires the Eldership when he is not gifted for it and becomes envious or competitive with the Elders. It may also occur when men are Elders even though they are gifted to be Deacons. Tension will occur when they fail to fulfill the office of Elder. Disharmony will occur whenever Elders and Deacons fail to appreciate and respect the respective gifts of each office. Elders ought manifest at least the gifts of ruling, teaching and discernment. Deacons ought manifest at least the gifts of ruling, teaching, and discernment, mercy and helps.
III. ORGANIZING CLEAR DIVISIONS OF RESPONSIBILITY
There will be chaos, confusion and conflict between Elders and Deacons unless are clearly prescribed divisions of responsibility between the offices.
"Let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner" (1 Cor. 14:40)
Elders and Deacons will function more effectively if each office understands its own, as well as the other's responsibility in the congregation.
Clearly delineate in writing the spheres of authority and responsibility of the offices in the church to provide a foundation for harmonious relationships. Develop a job description for Elders and Deacons in your congregation to supplement the material provided in the Faith and Order. Ultimately, the Elders are responsible to develop, implement, and revise as necessary the specific responsibilities of the office of Elder and Deacon in their congregation. If there is a functioning Board of Deacons, certainly the Elders ought to involve them in the process of clarifying the responsibilities of the Deacons in the congregation. It is also virtually important that Elders and Deacons know, understand, and respect each other's specific roles in the church. These steps will contribute to unity and good working relationships in fulfilling the ministry of the church.
Deacons need to know the boundaries of their authority and responsibility when they are considering expanding their ministry or moving into new areas of service. Wherever there is any question regarding new ministries, they ought to respectfully consult the Elders. Deacons ought to inform the Elders of new policies, procedures, or ministries for communication purposes even when these are clearly within their sphere of authority and responsibility.
Elders and Deacons will be able to function harmoniously when they delineate their respective spheres of responsibility and then honor them in the life and service of the congregation.
B. ELDER'S DELEGATION
In Acts 6:1-6 we see the Apostles delegating to elected men the care of the widows. In Old and New Testament the concept of delegation of leadership responsibility is appropriately maintained. Elders do not do all the work of the church. Rather, they oversee the workers. The elders are ultimately responsible and accountable before God for the work of the church, yet God has directed the people to be the workers and the Elders to delegate responsibilities to them.
Elders, maintain the priorities of your office. Delegate to the Deacons or to committees those tasks which would distract and divert you from your primary calling as shepherds and overseers. Give others the joy of responsible involvement in leadership and ministry in the church. However, when you delegate, be certain to grant the freedom to function effectively and creatively. Don't meddle or interfere in such a way that you break the spirit or discourage the creativity of those to whom you've delegated a task. Proceed cautiously when you review the actions of the Deacons or a committee, especially when you must recall their action. Steer them as needed, but beware of exasperating them so that they conclude, "What's the use! We'll never be able to please them anyway." When you delegate a task, give enough direction so that the individuals know what is expected of them and then give them the freedom to go and do it. Keep them motivated and proceeding on course by encouragement and communication and by their sense of accountability to the Elders.
Elders, use the Deacons to their maximum potential, Enable them to discover the challenge and fulfillment of Diaconal ministry.
C. DIACONAL RESTRAINT
Deacons need to be disciplined not to take advantage of the freedoms or to abuse the authority entrusted to them by the Elders. Deacons, guard against usurping authority that rightfully belongs to the Elders. Even if leadership of the Elders in the congregation is weak, restrain yourselves from capitulating to the temptation to fill the leadership vacuum. Rather, be patient, be submissive, be prayerful, be respectful, and encourage and build up the Elders to assume the leadership, but don't invade the territory of their responsibility. Otherwise you erode the sense of the distinctiveness of the offices and enter into competition with the Elders which will produce conflict. Deacons have wide-open possibilities for ministry in the Diaconate and ought not try to do the work of the Elders, or damage to the cause of leadership and office in the church will result.
D. FINANCES AND MAINTENANCE OF PROPERTIES
Instances of tension and disharmony between Elders and Deacons often occur when Deacons are entrusted with responsibility for finances and maintenance of properties.
Preparation and control of the church budget rightfully belongs with the Elders as a consequence of their total oversight of the flock. It is the Elders who establish the financial priorities. They ought delegate the bill-paying and record keeping function whenever possible, but with the delegation must go clear policy and procedure guidelines if harmony is to be maintained.
Similarly, the oversight of church property ultimately is the responsibility of the Elders. They can and ought delegate as much of the maintenance and development of property as is possible, but the Elders continue to be the source of authority and control, and those to whom the tasks are delegated need to recognize and honor this.
If a church is about to establish a Board of Deacons, the Elders ought not to thrust the responsibility for finances and maintenance of property upon them at the outset. Let them get established in the ministries of mercy and service and fully functioning in the priority areas of diaconal service. If finances and property are their responsibility at the outset, they are likely to become consu3ned with those tasks, they will function more like trustees, and will fail to learn the prime tasks of the Deacon. Elders know only too well how easily finances and property can divert a Board from its primary concerns. Only after a Board of Deacons is well-established in its primary ministry might the Elders consider delegating aspects of finances and property to them, and then only under clearly defined guidelines. It may ultimately be preferable to have finances a maintenance of properties cared for by sub-committees of the Board of Elders rather than by the Deacons.
IV. MAINTAINING GOOD LINES OF COMMUNICATION
We read in Amos 3:3, "Can two walk together unless they be agreed?" A system of communication is essential to any relationship.
A. A SYSTEM OF COMMUNICATION
A lack of communication or a breakdown of communication is often a factor in situations of disharmony between Elders and Deacons. Elders and Deacons must establish and maintain an effective communications system in order to experience good rapport and a good working relationship.
It is preferable that the Pastor not be the link of communication between the Elders and Deacons because he will repeatedly find himself being caught in the middle. Communication is best accomplished by a member of that Board which is reporting to the other. The Faith and Order of the Bible Fellowship Church says that "The Secretary of the Deacons shall be responsible to report the actions of the deacons to the Board of Elders" (p.58, 1981 edition). Stroudsburg B.F.C. utilizes a written quarterly report prepared by the secretary and presented to the Elders by the chairman of the Deacons in person at a meeting of the Elders. Some churches have an Elder assigned to be the link or communication with the Elders. This has value in conveying the actions and policies of the Elders to the Deacons, but may place the Elder in an awkward position if he is expected to defend the proposals of the Deacons, explain the rationale behind actions taken by the Deacons or answer the questions of the Elders regarding the ministry of the Deacons. A Deacon is best equipped to serve these functions in communication with the Elders.
Occasional joint meetings have a value as well. If Elders and Deacons meet in joint meetings continuously, there is evidence that the congregation and its officers don't understand or aren't practicing the differing roles and gifts of the separate offices, and are functioning instead as an "official board" and not as Elders and Deacons. Joint meetings, rather, ought to be occasional occurrences to enhance communication and to help each other do a more effective job of ministry in the congregation. A joint meeting of Elders and Deacons after the annual Pastor's, Elder's, and Deacon's Retreat would be appropriate to rehearse what's been learned to evaluate each other's ministry, and to apply and implement what has been learned. An annual joint meeting to review the health of the congregation, to evaluate constructively each other's ministry, and to plan for more effective ministry in the coming year will prove helpful. Some churches may choose to have their own Elder's and Deacon's Retreat for prayer, study of the Word, equipping for more effective ministry, and the enhancing of relationships and communication between Elders and Deacons.
B. THE MANNER OF COMMUNICATION
The Scriptural teaching regarding Christ-like and edifying communication is certainly applicable to Elders and Deacons:
"But speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects unto Him, who is the head, even Christ." (Eph.4:15)
"Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that is may give grace to those who hear." (Eph. 4:29)
Inappropriate and unedifying communication among or about Elders or Deacons will lead to disharmony and tension. All communication both public and private, both face-to-face or confidential should be of a manner that is pleasing to the Lord, edifying, and appropriate even when conflict exists between the Elders and the Deacons. Proper Christ-like communication will be essential to resolving all conflicts.
Elders and Deacons ought spend time encouraging and commending each other's ministry. Elders and Deacons ought pray for each other in prayer meeting, setting a good example for the flock. Maintain a mutual respect for each other and cultivate respect for the offices within the congregation, motivate each other to excellence in ministry and to greater effectiveness through edifying communication.
Elders and Deacons ought to manifest respect for one another in sending and receiving communications from the other. Deacons particularly ought to demonstrate respect as they make recommendations regarding policy and ministry to the Elders. Elders ought to have enough respect to respond to recommendations even if it is to communicate that more time is needed for a decision.
Communication is a key to harmony between Elders and Deacons.
V. MANIFESTING A HUMBLE SPIRIT AND A SERVANT’S HEART
A humble spirit and a servant's heart are set forth in the Scriptures as qualities of a good leader from God's point of view and ought to pervade the lives and relationships of Elders and Deacons,
A. HUMBLE SPIRIT
Elders and Deacons hold office only by God's grace and are men under His authority, not a law unto themselves.
"You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble." (1 Pet. 5:5)
Elders and Deacons need a sense of their own sin and fallibility and of their own need for oversight, correction, and instruction, Sometimes when men gain office, they seem to forget their vulnerability, their inadequacy and the necessity of humble dependence on the Lord.
A rebellious spirit or a domineering spirit like that of Diotrophes in 3 Jn. 9,10 will lead to disharmony and tragic results. Diotrophes is characterized as one who "loved the pre-eminence" and as being unresponsive to apostolic and Biblical authority. Elders are warned in 1 Peter 5:3 not to lord it over the flock entrusted to their care, The office of Elder and Deacon are exalted and honorable, but only humble men are fit to fill them.
Men who have not yet been elected to an office need to Learn humility learn to wait on God's timetable. Let God open doors. Concentrate on your spiritual maturation. Impatience or bitterness is an evidence of pride and a need for growth to be qualified for office.
B. A SERVANT’S HEART
"If I then, the Lord and Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet, For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you," (John 13:14,15)
Jesus Himself is our stellar example of leadership, and He taught us by life and precept that Biblical leadership is servanthood. Biblical leaders ought have a servant's heart, and if that servant spirit is lost, there will be friction and conflict, Elders are servants as well as Deacons. Elders lead and rule as servants of Christ and His church. If Elders lose the servant spirit, they become dictators or domineering leaders, wanting their own way and abusing their power.
Elders and Deacons need continually to examine their motives and their attitudes. They need to be careful to serve without concern for reward, acknowledgment, or recognition, not grasping for power or threatened by others, but faithful servants in all things,
Be content with your present position. Be content with your gifts and your calling. If you feel that you have gifts and a calling that are higher than that which has been recognized in the congregation, be content and serve where you are, humbly and faithfully.
VI. EXERCISING VIGILANCE AGAINST CARNALITY
Paul exhorts Elders in Acts 20:28: “Be on guard for yourselves." 1 Timothy 3 gives the Scriptural qualifications for the offices of Elder and Deacon. Many men, however, including pastors, upon gaining office seem to become careless about maintaining those qualifications. Elders and Deacons must maintain a vigilance against carnality. Carnality in the life of an Elder or Deacon will become a cause of disharmony to the entire Board.
Men in office are tempted to justify and rationalize sin by means of their authoritative position, and such carnality has devastating effects in a congregation. It is easy to claim a right to do or to say that which is in reality sin. It is easy to do or say what is right but to do so in a manner unbecoming to Christ. These are abuses of the office, and they bring discredit to fellow officers, the church, and the cause of Christ in the congregation and the community.
Elders and Deacons must guard against carnality. They must be vigilant against pride, selfish ambition, lovelessness, envy, jealousy, power struggles, divisiveness, vindictiveness, or a critical spirit. These quench the Holy Spirit and create tension, confusion, and disharmony. Rather, Elders and Deacons must constantly pursue the deepening or spirituality and maturity and be godly in characters and performance in office for the glory and honor of God, (I Timothy 4:12, 6:11).
Elders and Deacons can work together in harmony. Their offices were designed by God for the church and are to be utilized according to His pattern. Harmonious relationships between Elders and Deacons can be achieved when by God's grace these six keys are faithfully observed in the lives and practice of those who fill the offices in Christ's church.