Rulers and Servants: The Offices of Elder and Deacon
Not only the minister(s), but also the elders and deacons have tasks within the congregation. The minister and elders form a supervising body, which as an executive committee or presbytery (1 Timothy 4:14), is called the consistory of the church (BC, Art. 30). The council (consistory with the deacons) has been given the mandate to govern the congregation, and must also take care of the material and practical needs (CO, Art. 23).
How do the offices of minister, elder, and deacon differ? What are the specific characteristics of each office? Since the tasks of elder and deacon are not lifelong (CO, Art. 24), but the office of the minister is indeed for life (he “is bound to the service of the Church for life”, CO, Art.12), is there a basic difference in their tasks?
The office of the “ordinary” member of the congregation is that of “believer”. How does the council ensure that the saints are not hindered in this office?
In this Outline we will discuss the offices of deacon and elder simultaneously, since there is one form for their installation. Also with the help of this form, we will attempt to answer the above questions. For additional information, we can refer to Articles 30-31 of the Belgic Confession and to Articles 22-24 of the Church Order.
B. The form for the ordination of elders and deacons
The structure of the form for the ordination of elders and deacons is similar to that of the form for the ordination (or installation) of the minister of the Word. Both forms came into being shortly after the Synod of The Hague (1586) had made a resolution in this matter.
C. Stimulating the office of believers
The form begins with the recognition of Christ’s concern for his congregation, which can be seen in the gifts of the offices, including the offices of elder and deacon.
The purpose of their supervision and stewardship is to encourage all members of the congregation to fulfill their own tasks in the office of the believer, as Christ has commanded. The offices operating in the church are intended to stimulate and activate the office of believers. Each person must live as a Christian.
The Scriptures depict this office of the believer as a priestly office.
Romans 12:1 We give our bodies as “living sacrifices” to God.
1 Peter 2:9 The congregation is “a royal priesthood”, a people dedicated to the Lord (cf. Exodus 19:6).
Revelation 1:6 Christ has made us priests to God.
Revelation 5:10 The 24 elders sing about this in their song.
Office bearers motivate the saints to do their best to fulfill their office as priests before God, by serving God and one another. They visit members personally, speak with them, and show empathy. They rebuke and comfort as needed. Together, the members of the congregation must dedicate themselves to peace and “mutual edification” (Romans 14:19).
Not only the minister, but also elders and deacons, should be engaged in equipping the congregation to fulfill the office of believer. The minister cannot do this alone. By virtue of the office of believers, every member has a mandate to contribute to mutual encouragement in the congregation.
Because of the 16th century Reformation, there was a renewed awareness of the office of believers. No longer are believers treated as immature laity, as was the case before the Reformation.
Calvin contributed much to the effort to reinstate the honourable office of believers as a service to equip the saints.
D. The elders
The office of elder will be discussed first.
1. The elders and the congregation
What is the function of the elders in the congregation? The New Testament has two words for elder: he is the oldest presbyter (elder priest), and the overseer (episcopos = bishop).
We first read about the elders of the apostolic church in Acts 11:30. We do not read about a formal installation to this office. We may assume that, guided by the Holy Spirit, the apostles decided to appoint elders at a specific moment. The terms elder and overseer both refer to the same office.
Acts 20:17, 28 The elders of Ephesus are appointed to be overseers.
Titus 1:4-7 The same persons are called elders and overseers. The term eldest, found in the Old Testament, refers to a person with a ruling office.
Exodus 3:16 The total populace had their elders.
Judges 11:5 Every tribe had elders, just like Gilead.
Judges 8:16 Every city had elders, just like Succoth.
Elders had a seat in the Sanhedrin (Matthew 27:41), which is also referred to as the council (Acts 5:27). According to the Jews, this council was a direct succession of the council of the seventy elders and overseers who assisted Moses (Numbers 11:16-17).
Therefore, the elders have a position of leadership in the congregation. They are overseers or bishops. This word has a strong pastoral connection. A shepherd is an overseer, watching over the sheep and giving leadership. The Lord himself is the great shepherd.
Psalms 23 The image of a shepherd is pre-eminent here.
Ezekiel 34:11-12 The Lord himself will take care of his sheep.
John 10:11, 14, 15 Christ is the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.
1 Peter 2:25 Christ is the shepherd and bishop (episcopos) of our soul.
1 Peter 5:1-4 He is the chief shepherd.
Elders must also be shepherds as charged by the chief shepherd.
Acts 20:28: He must oversee the entire flock.
1 Peter 5:1-4: He must watch over the flock and be an example to it.
Thus the nature of the elder’s task is to rule with pastoral care (CO, Art. 22). Elders “tend the flock of Christ which is in their charge” by means of the Word of God, as is the case for all the offices.
Just like the minister, the elder instructs the members of the congregation. He is not able to put as much time and energy into it as the minister does, who has been charged with the preaching, catechism instruction, and home instruction (1 Timothy 5:17).
2. No ambitious behaviour
According to the form, Christ has entrusted the leadership of the congregation to the elders and ministers. In doing so, he wants to prevent ambitious behaviour of a minority (hierarchy).
However, history teaches us that it is also possible for a hierarchy to develop with a greater number of office bearers. In the church of the Middle Ages, this development of official power created power-hungry office bearers. The church of the Reformation limited the term of the offices of elder and deacon in order to ward off and prevent the evil of hierarchy. The minimal term of office is two years (CO, Art. 24). As a rule, a term runs for three years, after which the office bearers are replaced by others.
Using this rule of thumb, the election of office bearers is regulated locally, and this can vary from church to church. The Church Order speaks of a proportionate number who retire every year. If this number were too large, the continuity of the office might be jeopardized. Nor should too few retire, for this would impede proper circulation in the council.
3. The task of the elder
The form describes the responsibilities which are included in the task of the elder. In summary, this task is:
a. To supervise the conduct and doctrine of the congregation
Shepherding includes watching over the congregation members. Elders are to show concern for the congregation. Caring for the congregation is a mandate entrusted to them (1 Timothy 3:5).
One form of supervision is the home visit. The home visit gives the elders the opportunity to pay close attention to the personal needs of the members. They can comfort, rebuke, and instruct them in their homes (cf. Acts 20:31). Calvin introduced the visiting of homes by the office bearers. In doing so he broke with the (Roman Catholic) sacrament of confession, which had through the ages been considered a superior agent of pastoral care. Calvin was of the opinion that the office bearers should visit the members in their homes and not wait until they came to the father-confessor. The church in the Netherlands followed Calvin’s lead and introduced the home visit by means of synod decisions.
In the 16th century a home visit was made before the Lord’s Supper. This link was discontinued. Article 22 of the Church Order stipulates that elders are “faithfully to visit the members of the congregation in their homes” (at least once annually and as often as is necessary for the strengthening of the congregation).1Besides the annual home visit, elders are also expected to visit their ward members more frequently. There are plenty of reasons for doing this, such as happy or sad occasions, or specific difficulties that cause distress. This type of home visit is usually brought by one elder. Official home visits are done by two elders. They can assist each other, alternately lead the conversation, and afterwards, evaluate the visit.
Both the elders and the members must prepare themselves for the home visit, if it is to be used to its full advantage.
b. To take care that all things are done decently and in good order
In Titus 1:7, Paul calls the elder (“bishop”) God’s steward of the house of God, which in Greek is oikonomos, (“economist”) or manager of (household) affairs.
Together, the elders assume the task of keeping order and peace, in both spiritual and material matters. The church’s finances and property are part of the responsibility of the council. The council may appoint a committee of administration to assist them in this.
c. To supervise the minister’s doctrine and conduct
The elders are responsible for the work of the minister. They must supervise the preaching, catechism teaching, and all his other work. ‘Wolves’ must be kept out of the congregation (Acts 20:29-31). The elders must watch closely that the minister shows himself “to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, cf. Titus 2:7-8). Although the elders generally have no formal theological training, they should be able to judge whether the preaching is Scriptural, builds up the congregation and is not one-sided: “the whole will of God” (cf. Acts 20:27).
4. When no minister is available
Elders are not called upon to preach or administer the sacraments, neither do they have the authority to do so. If there is no minister, an elder may conduct the service and read a sermon written by a lawfully called minister of the Word. Administering the sacraments, invoking the benediction, and preaching belong to the public administration of the Word, which is the task of the minister.
E. The deacons
The word deacon (diakonos in the New Testament) is a general term for one who serves. Later it was commonly used for office bearers who looked after the poor (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8-13).
The section of the form that deals with the deacon was considerably improved2..
1. In response to Christ’s love
It is a commendable development that the word diaconate is now losing its negative connotations. Years ago it was thought better to stay away from the deacons and to ask for help elsewhere. Possibly some deacons overstepped their authority, thus creating a negative image of their position.
Christ provided this office as a ministry of mercy, which proceeds from his love. He himself cared for many who were needy, as did the early church (cf. Acts 2:45; 4:32-37).
No one in the congregation should be needy, whether the needs be material (money, goods) or non-material (sickness, loneliness, problems with marriage or family, social struggles). Such needs are difficult for the members of the congregation to deal with and the deacons should seek to relieve the situation.
2. The entire congregation is a deaconal congregation
When the deaconry is discussed, we must not think only of deacons. The entire congregation is called to active assistance.
Matthew 25:31-46 The issue here is spontaneous help for a brother in need.
Acts 2:45 There was a direct caring for each other, as yet without the supervision of the apostles.
Romans 12:13 Contributing to the needs of the saints is the task of all congregational members.
1 Thessalonians 5:14 The congregation as a whole has a pastoral and deaconal mandate.
Article 28 of the Belgic Confession speaks of edifying the “brothers and sisters, according to the talents God has given them as members of the same body.” Every member “is duty-bound to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the benefit and well-being of the other members” (HC, Q&A 55).
The purpose of this assistance is to enable each member to live joyfully.
Deuteronomy 14:28-29 Those in need must be able to participate in the harvest feast with true joy.
Deuteronomy 16:11, 14 Everyone should be able to celebrate the ‘feast of booths’ with joy.
Deuteronomy 24:19-21 At harvest time, people should not be stingy but generous to the poor and needy.
3. Why deacons?
The larger the congregation, the more difficult it is to discover the needs of individual members. People do not like to make their problems public knowledge.
For this reason Christ provided deacons to seek out needs, to offer assistance, and to stimulate the congregation to render help.
Acts 4:34 Management has now become necessary.
Acts 6:1-7 The seven are not called deacons, even though they do deaconal work to help the neglected and to encourage the congregation to be helpful.
Clearly, the deacons do not take over the task of the congregation. They give direction to the deaconal work and guide the congregation in assisting one another. They are official office bearers, because their work has branched off from the work of the apostles, by way of the elders. Their task is summarized in the form for installation as follows:
a. To estimate the needs and stimulate assistance
Deacons go on home visits to better understand the needs. Their home visits have a dual purpose: to encourage everyone to be helpful and to guide them in accomplishing this. At the same time they may discover where the needs are and ensure assistance.
b. To give assistance
The deacons collect money from the congregation, managing and distributing it in a responsible manner. Distribution of funds should be done in a pastoral manner, that is, by encouraging and comforting those that receive assistance, through Scripture reading and prayer.
Deacons must make clear that they are not social-service officials; rather, they are used by Christ to take care of his sheep. The deacons do not always give direct financial assistance. Sometimes they will first involve relatives or other private individuals. If the problem is social in nature, they may request help from a social worker. They may also give advice in various situations that require professional help. When long-term assistance is required, the deacons may call upon the members of the congregation. For instance, “sister aid” can be provided for families in which the mother is incapacitated.
Deacons should have much tact. Office-bearer conferences may help to equip the deacons through the sharing and exchanging of mutual experiences.
The church does not recognize the office of deaconess, because the word deacon refers to an official office bearer in the church. Needless to say, however, women are able (and welcome) to be active in a deaconal manner. The Bible teaches us the following:
Romans 16:1 Phoebe is referred to as a “deaconess”.
1 Timothy 3:11 Women, not necessarily the wives of deacons, gave assistance in the congregation.
1 Timothy 5:9-10 Widows were also active in the deaconal sector.
4. Strengthening the bonds of communion at the Lord’s table
The form indicates that the communion of saints, typically shown at the Lord’s table, ought to become manifest through the work of the deacons. When love and joy flourish at the table, mutual assistance will inevitably gain strength. For this reason, the collection at the table (in congregations where it is held) is for deaconal work.
The specific character of the task of the elders is the pastoral leading of the congregation. They supervise the personal conduct and doctrine of each member, including the minister. Christ builds his congregation through the elders, preparing his bride for the feast of eternal life.
The specific character of the task of deacons is the pastoral relief of existing need in the congregation. They activate the congregation to share in this specific aspect of the office of believers. Through the work of the deacons, Christ wants the congregation to experience that he delivers their lives from all need and cares for his sheep with pastoral love.
G. Tips for the introduction
1. By referring to texts like 1 Corinthians 12:25, Galatians 5:13 (“serve one another in love”), Galatians 6:1, 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Hebrews 3:12-13, Hebrews 10:24, develop further what the congregation’s pastoral task is toward one another. The same can be done for the deaconal task (see Acts 2:45; 4:32-37; 1 Timothy 5 - the widows and the children).
2. Based on the unity of the offices in Christ, show how the three offices are inter-related. Although ministers, elders, and deacons are different branches of one official service, there are various connections that make good cooperation possible.
3. Try to explain how and why office bearers should stimulate congregational activity in the office of believers.
H. For discussion
- What does Paul mean in 1 Timothy 3:1 with the words: “if anyone sets his heart on being an overseer”? With a view to this demanding task, can we expect that someone might desire this office? To what extent should the family of the faithful office bearer help to carry the father’s workload in his special office? What reasons might there be to ask for release of office, and to grant it?
- Is it reasonable that it is sometimes difficult to find suitable candidates for the office of elder or deacon? Could this situation reveal anything about the spiritual level of the congregation?
- How should members prepare themselves for a home visit?
- Are special elders needed for the young people, the military, the nursing homes, the students and others? Should the elders pay special attention, for example, to the older youth in the congregation, or to engaged couples?
- No formal training exists for elders and deacons. Would special training be desirable, e.g. in the form of taking courses or attending special conferences?
- How do we prevent the deacons’ work from becoming under-rated as the use of social services increases?