God has given many spiritual gifts to the church so that the church might be built up in the faith, but in terms of church offices, there are these two—the elder and the deacon. They are official appointments of service. They are those who will govern and manage the church, and take care of the spiritual and physical needs of the church.
What are the biblical qualifications of an elder and a deacon? Not anyone or everyone in the church can be appointed elders and deacons. What are the qualities we should look for in appointing members of the church to such positions of leadership and service?
1 Timothy 3:1–16 gives us a list of things to look for.
The Greek word used in verse 1 is “bishop” (episkopos, literally “to watch over”). He is an overseer. This is the duty of the church elder (presbuteros). The terms “bishop” and “elder” are used interchangeably and speak of the same office and function (eg, presbuteros in Acts 20:17, and episkopos in Acts 20:28).
In the Presbyterian system, the elders are of two types: (1) the teaching elder and (2) the ruling elder. The teaching elder is the pastor or the ordained minister, set apart especially for the ministry of the Word and prayer. The ruling elder co-labours with the pastor in the governing and discipline of the church. A church should have more than one elder. The plurality of elders is the form of church government in the Presbyterian system, for in a “multitude of counsellors there is safety.” (Prov 24:6).
The office of eldership involves a call, and this call comes from above. It is a holy desire and conviction to serve in this capacity, not for selfish ambition and gain, but to the glory of God and for the edification of the church. Note that the word “desire” here is used twice in verse 1, and both are different Greek words, namely, orego and epithumeo. Orego literally means to stretch out your hand to get something, and epithumeo speaks of intense passion or feelings. It goes without saying that such a desire must come from the Lord. The office of an elder is not a profession but a vocation—it involves a call from God, and this call is irresistible. And if the Lord wants you to serve Him in that capacity, you will not be able to resist it for He will indicate it very clearly to you.
The office of eldership involves work. It is described as good work. It is good work because it is based on the good book. The teaching elder must thus be skilled in the good book. And that is why those who want to be pastors in the church must undergo extensive theological training. This good work of preaching and teaching the Word of God from the pulpit requires serious preparation in Bible school where the student of the Bible is tried and tested, drilled and grilled (like in SAFTI).
What are the qualifications for this office? They are as follows:
(1) Blameless. The elder must be blameless (v2). The word “blameless” in the original literally means “cannot be taken hold upon.” In other words, he is irreproachable. No one can take a hold of him and charge him for heresy or dishonesty. He is a man of sound faith and integrity. Of course, being blameless here does not mean sinless perfection for none is perfect at this point in time. Here, it simply means that he is guarded in all his ways so as to have a good reputation among people, and is above board in his general way of life. Nevertheless, it ought to be noted that the leaders of the church are often the target of Satan who is a liar and murderer from the beginning (John 8:44) and a false accuser of the brethren (Rev 12:10). That is why 1 Timothy 5:19–20 says, “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.” (1 Tim 5:19–20, Deut 19:15–21).
(2) The husband of one wife. He is male and married. Literally in the Greek, he is a “one-woman man.” The emphasis here is on the numeral one. In other words, he is monogamous, and not an adulterer or a fornicator.
(3) Vigilant (literally, he is a non-drinker). Wine makes a person sleepy and confused, but a non-drinker is alert and awake, and thinks clearly and sharply.
(4) Sober (literally, he is sound minded or serious minded). He is not a clown, not a jester.
(5) Of good behaviour. The Greek word here is kosmion (English: cosmetics) meaning “well-ordered”. He is orderly in conduct. He leads a disciplined life.
(6) Apt to teach. He has the spiritual gift of teaching. This is especially applicable to the pastor who, as a teaching elder, must be able to expound or communicate the truth of God’s Word clearly from the pulpit (1 Tim 5:17, Tit 1:9). The pastor has the general oversight of the spiritual life of the church. The ruling elder cooperates with the pastor “in the government, administration and discipline of the Church, visiting the sick and sorrowing members, investigating delinquents and endeavouring to remedy any spiritual weakness in the lives of members.” The Board of Elders thus has the authority to discipline errant members who scandalise the church or disrupt its peace and unity, and excommunicate members who refuse to repent (Matt 18:17–18).
(7) Given to hospitality (literally, he is loving to strangers). He delights in receiving people into his house, to provide shelter and food to those in need.
(8) Not given to wine (v3, literally, “without wine beside”). You will not see him holding the Bible in one hand, and a wine bottle in the other.
(9) No striker. He is not a man who talks with his fists.
(10) Not greedy of filthy lucre. Not a gambler, not a cheat, a conman, or a swindler.
(11) Patient. He is gentle and fair. He allows due process. He gives people time to repent, to change their ways, to grow in their spiritual life.
(12) Not a brawler. Not contentious or cantankerous. Not someone who likes to pick a fight, who is quarrelsome or fault finding. He contends for the faith but is not contentious. He is not a bully, not rude or brutishly aggressive or foolishly offensive.
(13) Not covetous (literally, not a money-lover). This is because “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10). Not materialistic.
(14) Ruleth his house well (vv4–5). He takes care of his family and provide for their needs. He is not dominated or controlled by his wife but leads and instructs her spiritually. His children likewise are disciplined and obedient.
(15) Not a novice (v6, literally, a neophyte). Not a new shoot, but a grown tree, ie, spiritually mature. A novice is easily tempted to be proud and conceited.
(16) A good report of them which are without (v7). In the estimation of unbelievers, he is a decent man who does no harm to others; not a criminal, not of shady character. He is innocent and honourable, and invites no sinister thoughts from the public.
The word “deacon” comes from the Greek diakonos which means “servant” or “attendant.” In Acts 6:3, 4, we find deacons being appointed to assist the apostles in the administration of the church. This was done so that the apostles could concentrate on the ministry of the Word and prayer.
What are the qualifications for this office? They are as follows:
(1) Grave (v8). He should be a man of dignity and worthy of respect. He is not a light-hearted but a serious man.
(2) Not doubletongued. He is a man of his word. He speaks honestly and truthfully. He is not a gossiper, a rumour-monger, slanderer, flatterer etc. He is not talkative but is able to control his tongue.
(3) Not given to much wine. He is not a drunkard or an alcoholic. Note that the elder is to abstain from drinking (v3), and this applies to the deacon too. The statement here is a prohibition not permission, and thus should not be used to mean that a deacon can indulge in occasional or moderate drinking. High standards apply to both offices. There is no discrimination.
(4) Not greedy of filthy lucre. Since deacons will be handling funds—the tithes and offerings of the church, they should have a clean heart that hates corruption and abhors stealing. Like the elders, he must not be a gambler, not a cheat, a conman, or a swindler. He is not a Judas Iscariot who as treasurer of the apostolic band stole from the money bag, and not only that sold the Lord for 30 pieces of silver.
(5) Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience (v9). A deacon is not required to have the gift of teaching, but he must be one who is well grounded and settled in the fundamentals of the Christian Faith. With a pure conscience, he believes and doubts not the perfection of Christ and the perfection of His Word. In TLBPC, a deacon must be able to take the Dean Burgon Oath together with the Elders without reservations.
(6) Be proved … found blameless (v10). Candidates must be tried and tested and found trustworthy. As such, a deacon must not be a novice/neophyte, but a spiritually mature Christian. He is observed to be an active and a responsible member in the church. (Warning: God forbid that we appoint people to positions of leadership or responsibility just to keep them in church.)
(7) Husband of one wife (v12, ie not a bigamist or polygamist, an adulterer, or a fornicator). Deacons must also show themselves to have orderly homes and children. Their wives are women of dignity (v11), not slanderers (literally in the Greek, “not devils/demons” because the devil is the father of lies, and the accuser of the brethren). Many a church has been destroyed by deacons who have wives who are slanderers, gossipers and talebearers. They must be able to control their tongue. They are faithful in their duties as helpers to their husbands, mothers to their children, and servants in the church.
It is a privilege to serve the Lord as an elder or a deacon. With all the qualifications in mind, may the members of the church exercise their duty to elect such men into office, and to do so with much prayer and wisdom from on high.
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