Alexander Campbell, one of the early leaders in the Restoration Movement, looked through the lenses of early American culture and viewed leadership in much the same vein as national government. In Campbell’s mind, the eldership stood in relationship to a local congregation much as the Senate does to the nation. Campbell related the deacons to the House of Representatives. Like many Baptists of his day, Campbell referred to the evangelist as “the Bishop.” In Campbell’s mind, “the Bishop” could also be called the congregation’s “President” or “Presider.”
Many Christian Churches accepted Campbell’s view without question. When industrial corporations developed, the church again caved in to culture and developed church boards. These boards, acting much like “boards of directors” guided the corporation. Just as the “directors” answered to the stockholders, the church board answered to the congregation. The idea developed that just as the corporation board existed to show a profit for the stockholders, the church board existed to make sure the church provided appropriate services for its members.
Nothing could be farther from biblical truth. According to the New Testament, the church is the only organization in the world that exists for others. The church’s purpose is to reach the lost! Nothing more, nothing less! To accomplish that goal, the church’s leadership must equip its members for service (train), care for those who are hurt and “injure” (shepherd), and guide the church in fulfilling its purpose (oversee).
Another mistake Christian Churches often make is the view that elders are responsible only for a church’s spiritual welfare while the deacons (or trustees) are responsible for financial matters. The fact is, biblical elders are responsible for overseeing all facets of a church’s life and work. If you look at Acts 11:30, you’ll see that famine relief sent to the church in Jerusalem went to the elders for distribution. Therefore, the basic organizational chart for a church is not like this:
But it is like this:
(Responsibilities delegated by Elders)
The elders, therefore, is to have general oversight of the church (see 1 Timothy 5:17 and Hebrews 13:17), not as lord and dictator, but nevertheless with authority borne of function. An elder is to lead, guide, rule, steer the flock, set the course, discipline, and see the church through difficult situations. Elders are also to refute false teaching. That’s why an elder is to be “apt to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2). No one should be selected as elder who is unable to explain and defend biblical teaching.
What about the deacons? A deacon, by definition, is a servant. The word deacon derives from a Greek term meaning “table waiter.” If we take the events of Acts 6 as an example of the work of deacons—and that is debatable—we note that the Apostles asked the congregation to select seven men “who [were] known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). The Apostles turned the responsibility of determining a method and means of meeting the people’s needs to them (that’s delegation). Then they permitted them to see to it. While it is not explicitly stated, the fact that the Apostles delegated the responsibility to the seven implies the seven were accountable to the Apostles for fulfilling the task.
Neither the elder nor the deacon fills an “office.” The word “office” carries with it connotations the Bible does not teach. It is unfortunate that the King James Version of 1 Timothy 3:1 reads, “If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” The word “office” is not in the text’s original language. Most newer translations have it right. The New International Version puts it, “If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1).
Elders and deacons fulfill leadership functions within a congregation. The elder fulfills a leadership function, the deacon fulfills a service function. Since these are functions (responsibilities) rather than offices, it is important to select by character traits (see 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1) rather than other factors.
It is also important for the congregation to realize that elders are accountable to God for their work (see Hebrews 13:17 – they give an account to Christ). Too many individuals within congregations think these leaders should be accountable to them. While many individual members are well-intentioned, they often do not have the spiritual maturity or biblical understanding to recognize the difference between their preferences and biblical teaching. If their leaders are biblical knowledgeable and men of integrity, they are better suited to make decisions relating to the purpose, direction, and operation of the church.
It all boils down to a matter of trust. If the church selects spiritually qualified leaders—men of integrity, character, and spiritual depth—then trust them to do the right thing. Will they make mistakes? Yes they will. But if they are servants of Christ, they will not “lord it over you” but always do what they believe is in the best interests of the church. If you select men who are biblically ignorant and spiritually shallow, men who are not men of integrity or men with a servant’s heart, then you get what you deserve!
I know that’s a rough statement, but it is true. Churches do not take leadership selection seriously enough. Too many think you can push anyone into leadership. Poor choices in leadership have destroyed the effectiveness of all too many churches. Remember, everything rises or falls on leadership.