Elders and Deacons

Elders and Deacons

There are hundreds of Christian denominations in the world not to mention different variety of non-denominational churches as well. Along with this diversity of churches comes a diversity of thoughts and ideas of who can be an officer within a church. What does the Bible say? Are there rules laid down in Scripture about this topic? Yes, there are.

Before addressing the qualifications, we must first see which church offices are defined in the Bible. God’s word mentions two offices of the church – elder and deacon. It is true that the Bible also speaks of pastors, bishops, and overseers, but based on the usage of these terms, it seems the writers used them interchangeably with the term elder [1]. The position of a bishop which oversees multiple churches cannot be found in the Bible itself, although it does not necessarily mean it is unbiblical.

What are the qualifications for these two offices? Paul describes them in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:8-9 for elders and 1Timothy 3:8-13 for deacons (see complete text below). There is much overlap between the two offices. For example, for both elder and deacon the qualifications include being above reproach, a husband of one wife, respectable, not a drunkard and able to manage their household. It is also interesting because among all lists, the focus is on character rather than ability. This is not to say that ability does not matter, but it cannot be at the expense of character.

With all the overlap of qualifications, what differentiates an elder from a deacon? The main distinction is that an elder must be able to teach (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:9). This is one reason that most denominations require elders to have a seminary education. In addition, Paul says in 1 Timothy 5:17, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” The statement “let the elders who rule well…” shows the elders are also the ones with the responsibility of ruling or having oversight over the church.

Paul does not spell out in detail specific duties of deacons, but in 1 Timothy 3:8 he mentions that deacons should not be “greedy for dishonest gain.” This would indicate that deacons should have oversight or responsibility of the finances of the church. Additionally, many see the event described in Acts 6:1-6 as the creation of the office of deacon. There is specific mention of serving tables (rather than preaching the word), so this leads many to believe that the primary role of a deacon has to do with serving. [2]

What about the office of apostle? Ephesians 4:11 mentions apostles along with evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. What are the qualifications of an apostle? First, the person must have seen the resurrected with his own eyes (Acts 1:22, 1 Corinthians 9:1). Second, the person must have been appointed by Jesus Himself (Matthew 10:1-7, Acts 26:16-17). Finally, Paul indicated that Jesus would no longer appear to anyone else appointing them as an apostle (see 1 Corinthians 15:6, 8). All of these indicate that the office of apostle ended with the death of the original apostles, likely the apostle John. This has been the understanding throughout church history until very recently and no significant church father has ever claimed the position of apostle.

Qualifications for elders

1 Timothy 3:1-7: The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore, an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

Qualifications for deacons

1 Timothy 3:8-13: Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

  1. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1994): 913-914 ↩︎

  2. Ibid, 919 ↩︎