One of the perennial challenges that face congregations and the leaders that lead them is the question of how to add individuals to either the elder team or the deacon team. Challenges abound. If congregations are not very careful, they run the risk of leading the church in either one of two directions. The first is a kind of oligarchy where only a select few could ever be elected, even if there is a larger pool of available individuals that could be selected from.
In this first scenario the major concern is not, “Who is biblically qualified?” but rather, “Who will be blindly loyal to the few leaders who have always controlled the congregation?” In this first extreme the leadership of the church has a total “lock-down” control of the church-life.
The second, equally bad, approach is found in churches where the leadership has absolutely no control over the process of electing leaders. In this second extreme, the leadership is under the control of a hyper-congregational “pure democracy.”
In seeking a biblical answer to the extremes, today’s leaders face a challenge in the area of biblical interpretation. There are occasions when the Apostle Paul simply appointed or had one of his apostolic representatives “appoint” elders or leaders (example – Titus 1:5). The question here is, “Is there any sense in which that practice can be adopted by church leaders today?” (Paul was an apostle – we are not!) The answer is yes … and no.
In the end, with both the office of elder and that of deacon, we find that there needs to be a role played by the elders as well as the congregation. In a sense, the elders must determine if an individual is qualified to lead. Paul made it very clear to Timothy not to appoint men to the office of elder too quickly (1 Timothy 5:22). The elders must be involved in this process, ensuring the addition of godly men to the team of leaders.
In 1 Timothy 5:17 elders proistemi the church. The word can be understood as “rule,” “lead,” “manage,” or “direct” the church. On the other hand, congregations must make sure that they have biblical leaders leading them.
As I noted in The Pyramid and the Box: The Decision-Making Process in a Local New Testament Church (Resource Publications, 2013):
The congregation does share in the burden of responsibility for their own spiritual health. Passages such as 2 Corinthians 5 demonstrate that congregation is responsible to make sure that the elders are making decisions in a way that is consistent with Scriptural demands. The balance is difficult but important. Elder rule without congregational accountability is foreign to the New Testament. Congregational polity without elder leadership is equally unscriptural. (53)
The local New Testament Church is gifted with two offices. These are two groups of leaders Paul notes in connection to church life in the opening of his epistle to the believers in Philippi. The apostle begins his letter with, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are Philippi, with the overseers and deacons” (Philippians 1:1).
What becomes clear is that the nature of the pastor-elder-bishop office is primarily an office that oversees the spiritual sphere of ministry (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Timothy 5; Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council). Conversely, what is also clear is that the nature of the office of deacon is primarily the oversight of the physical and benevolent sphere of ministry (Acts 6, and Phoebe, of Romans 16:1).
It is not possible for these two offices to work in total isolation from each other. Leadership teams that try to isolate these two offices struggle because of the fluid nature of both wings of ministry. There are just too many times when there will be massive overlap. God’s intent was for the teams of elders and deacons to work with each other — not against each other.
In both cases it seems consistent for there to be a counter-action by the elders and the congregation as a whole in the acquiring of new leaders for the office of elder/or deacon:
A. The role of the spiritual leaders (then, apostles; today, elders)
When we consider the various passages in which spiritual leaders identify those who should serve, clearly there is a significant role for the elders. On some occasions it seems right to actively pursue elders for a spiritual kind of leadership role. In Acts 6 the spiritual leaders demonstrated agreement with the choice of the congregation (“the multitude of the disciples”) by placing hands on the heads of “the seven” in Acts 6:6. A similar example of this was the seeking out of Paul by Barnabas in Acts 11:19-26. Here is a template for NT ministry staffing which would include the need for deacons and elders today.
- Awareness of an alleged need (Acts 11:22a)
- Confirmation of the need (vs. 22b-23)
- Search in response to the need (vs. 25). We must remember that, years earlier, Barnabas had met and even defended Saul (Acts 9:26-27). Notice that the KJV uses the word “seek.” The NIV/ESV uses the word “look.” The Greek term is anazeteo. The word is used only three times in the NT. In Luke 2:44-45 we see it translated as “earnestly search,” as it describes the seeking out of Jesus by Mary and Joseph on the occasions when Jesus was interacting with the Temple staff at age twelve.
- Recruit to fill the need (vs. 26a). Tarsus was 100 miles away.
- Train/Mentor those filling the need (vs. 26b). See also 2 Timothy 2:2.
B. The role of the congregation
It looks as if deacons where chosen or nominated by the congregation, then approved or placed by the spiritual leaders. It also appears that there is a more direct role by the apostles or elders in choosing other elders, but that does not mean the congregation had no part in the process of choosing of those elders.
Acts 14:23 tells us that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders during their missionary journey. There are many who believe that the linguistics connected with “choose” actually involved a kind of congregational affirmation by hand. While a vote from the congregation to affirm the choice of elders by the elders may not be demanded, it seems helpful, and even consistent with the spirit of the NT text.
Benjamin L. Merkle notes,
The best approach is not to choose one method over the other but to allow the elders to have a leadership role in the process while, at the same time, allowing the congregation to have a voice in the matter. That is, both the congregation and the elders must be involved in the selection process. The congregation should be involved because the prospective elder will serve the congregation. Thus, the congregation must have a voice in examining and approving the candidates. The elders must be involved because they are the spiritual leaders of the church. To ignore their insights and opinions would be unwise. Whether the congregation votes or not, the main issue is that the elders get the input of the members. (40 Questions about Elders and Deacons, 202)
Joel Tetreau has over twenty years of pastoral ministry experience and presently serves as senior pastor at Southeast Valley Bible Church in Gilbert, AZ and as the Western Coordinator of the Institute of Biblical Leadership. He earned his MDiv at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary and his DMin at Central Seminary. He is married to Toni and is the father of three sons.