The New Testament specifies two offices for the local church. The apostle Paul, in 1 Timothy 3, told his young protégé that he was writing so that Timothy would know how “thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God” (as the old King James puts it). The behavior that Paul had in mind was not individual behavior, as if he meant Timothy to stop the kids from running around the auditorium and pounding on the piano. It is corporate behavior, or what we would call church order. Paul meant to instruct Timothy in the structures and patterns that ought to characterize New Testament church organization. In that discussion, Paul prescribed the two offices of bishop and deacons.
Bishops, of course, are also known as elders and pastors. The terms are interchangeable for the office. Deacons are simply known as deacons—certainly never as a board. A board is a governing body, and deacons are decidedly not the governing body of a New Testament church. They do not exercise authority over the church or over its pastor. Under Christ, the only governing authority in the local church of the New Testament is the congregation itself. The words deacon and board should never be joined on the lips of any Baptist. The deacons are simply the deacons, never the deacon board.
The apostle Paul spelled out the qualifications for both offices. Most of the qualifications have to do with character. Interestingly, the character qualifications for deacons are identical with the character qualifications for a bishop. When it comes to personal godliness and integrity, both pastors and deacons are held to a very high standard.
Functional qualifications are few. For example, both pastors and deacons are to have orderly households. This qualification is understandable, for both engage in some work of oversight. Bishops by their very title are charged with the oversight of the whole work of the church. If Acts 6:2-4 provides any pattern, their oversight focuses on specifically spiritual affairs, though other matters are not excluded. Deacons are responsible for overseeing the mundane organizational matters of the church and for administering benevolence. They certainly manage a part of the church’s business, but the business that they oversee is not the spiritual oversight of the congregation.
Not surprisingly in view of these roles, the bishop is assigned another functional qualification: he must be a skilled teacher (1 Tim. 3:2). The ministry of the Word is one of his priorities. Whatever else he does, he must show aptitude for that. Deacons, however, are not primarily teachers. They must possess a fairly advanced knowledge of the Scriptures (1 Tim. 3:9), but they do not have to show the same skill in communicating it.
Unfortunately, in some Baptist churches, deacons are assigned responsibilities that rightly belong to pastors. They are given oversight of areas of the church’s ministry that involve the communication of biblical truth. Directly or indirectly, much of the church’s teaching ministry (such as Sunday school or the youth department) may fall under their management. In other cases, the church’s disciplinary procedures must flow through the deacons. In still others, church business must be approved by the deacons before it reaches the floor at the business meeting—a procedure that transgresses the prerogatives of both pastors and congregations.
Christ knew what He was doing when He instituted the office of deacons. He has prepared certain men to function well as deacons. These men should not be asked to act like elders. The offices, functions, and qualifications are distinct. Deacons who are forced to assume elder functions will almost certainly leave deacon responsibilities unaddressed.
Of course, some churches have developed a solution to this problem. Since their deacons are acting like pastors, these churches invent new offices to assume the responsibilities that deacons should rightly fulfill. For example, some churches have a separate body (often also called a board) of trustees. Legally, churches that are incorporated in the United States are required to have trustees, and that is not necessarily a problem. What legal trustees are supposed to do, however, is exactly the sort of thing that a New Testament deacon should do. The better pattern is to have deacons acting as legal trustees of the corporation, though still under the general oversight of the pastor or pastors. The same might be said of the function (in most churches, a designated office) of church treasurer. That is a duty for a deacon.
Many Baptist churches have multiplied the offices. They have superintendents of these departments and chairs of those committees. In many instances, these offices are made responsible for aspects of the church’s work that ought to be managed by a deacon—and sometimes by a pastor. Worse yet, these offices are frequently filled by people who do not meet the biblical qualifications for deacons.
The result is a situation in which churches have pastors, deacons, and whatsits. Deacons are asked to fulfill pastoral responsibilities for which they are not qualified. Whatsits are asked to perform diaconal tasks for which they are not qualified. Oddly enough, this structure sometimes keeps pastors from some of the oversight that they really ought to exercise over the congregation. Occasionally all of these groups are assembled into a grand “advisory committee” that attempts to provide direction for the entire church. The result is an unhealthy church in which lines of responsibility are blurred and conflict flourishes.
Whatsits are not part of New Testament church order. Of course, subordinate functional needs do arise within a local church. The church is not wrong to authorize pastors and deacons to appoint people to fulfill those functional needs. These functionaries, however, should never be accorded the status of New Testament church offices. At the end of the day, deacon functions should be under the purview of men who meet the biblical qualifications for and hold the office of deacons. Pastoral functions should be under the oversight of men who meet the qualifications for and hold the office of bishop.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Now That the Sun Is Beaming Bright
Ambrose of Milan (340–397); trans. John Henry Newman (1801–1890)
Now that the sun is beaming bright,
Once more to God we pray,
That He, the uncreated Light,
May guide our souls this day.
No sinful word, no deed of wrong,
Nor thoughts that sinful rove,
But simple truth be on our tongue,
And in our hearts be love.
And grant that to Thine honor, Lord,
Our daily toil may tend;
That we begin it at Thy Word,
And in Thy favor end.