Deacons and Elders, But Please, Not Judges

I heard recently of a pastor who was censured by his deacons because he refused to allow a woman to sing in the church choir who was living in open and unrepentant sin.  Odd to consider that a group of leaders who are supposed to use the Bible as their guide opposed the biblical mandate and their pastor.  Would this have happened if the church were governed by elders?

That’s a question for which I do not have answers, but the deacon vs. elder issue has raged on (and on and on and on…) in my denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, for quite some time.  The question is not whether or not the two offices exist, but exactly how they exist.  Does the Bible specify one elder or multiple elders in a church?  How does congregational rule co-exist with elder leadership?  I’m really tired of the controversy because at the end of the day, we all look at each other and affirm the autonomy of the local church and shake hands and walk away.  However, in the midst of the controversy, I think one thing has been sorely missed.

We have talked so long on the style of leadership in the local church that we have seemed to neglect the qualifications for leaders, no matter what you call them.  In 1 Timothy 3, Paul gives the qualifications for deacons and elder/overseers.

      [3:1] The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. [2] Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, [3] not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not alover of money. [4] He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, [5] for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? [6] He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. [7] Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
[8] Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. [9] They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. [10] And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. [11] Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. [12] Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. [13] 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.

The truth of the matter is that in most SBC churches the deacons serve a dual role as that of servant within the church and as elder who assists in the leadership of the church.  My greatest concern then, is not whether or not you have deacons or elders, but whether or not your deacons or elders are godly men who “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.”  Many of our churches have ceased to have qualified deacons or elders and instead have instituted people that in a biblical sense are more reminiscent of judges.

The judges, if you will remember, were a mixed lot.  They were well qualified to lead God’s people in many areas and they delivered God’s people from their enemies, however, they were also often notorious sinners.  They led in battle well, but often failed to lead the people to God.  The constant refrain in the book of Judges is,

In those days there was no king in Israel.  Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

That which was right in their own eyes was evil in the eyes of the Lord (See Judges 13:1 for example).  The people of Israel had not king, they observed no rule of law, and as a result, they pleased themselves.  For too long in our churches we have argued over the right model of leadership without encouraging churches to seek out the right king of leaders.  Too many of our churches behave as if there were no king in their midst and do only that which is right in their own eyes.

Deacons, elders, pastors, overseers, teachers, nursery workers, you are not appointed by the church to do what is best in your own eyes, you serve a higher power, there is a great King who dictates how his church should be governed and ruled.  His word is our guide, it supersedes church constitutions and even the Baptist Faith and Message (in all of its editions).

I long to see leaders in our convention advocate for biblical leadership in all of its forms.  We respect the autonomy of each church to select leadership in accordance with their understanding of the Scripture, but we also expect our sister churches to honor the Scriptures.  Certainly there can be arguments about certain points of scripture, multiple elders, single elder-led, what does “one woman man” even mean?  But there are other things for which we must advocate.  The Bible clearly expects the leaders of the church to serve the King and to do what is right in his eyes, not in their own eyes.

Jesus came to serve and not be served.  He served mankind, but more importantly, he served his Heavenly Father.  We, as leaders in the church, serve at his behest and not on our own terms.  Honestly, I’m tired of the arguments over deacons and elders, but I believe we should all agree that the church of Jesus does not need Judges.