An Effective and Healthy Church
By Elder Victor Goh
God has designed the local church to communicate the gospel of reconciliation to the world. Just before His ascension to heaven at the end of His time on earth, our Lord Jesus told His disciples that they were to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). As a result of the disciples’ work, churches started to grow.
Wayne Grudem defines the church as “the community of all true believers for all time.” Today, churches are bound by the same instructions given to the church in Acts and the rest of the New Testament. We see from Acts that the church was well organised—they kept a record of their members (Acts 2:41; 4:4), had set times for worship and prayer gatherings (Acts 2:42, 47), and had baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:42, 47). They also shared property (Acts 2:45; 4:32-37), and they received and accounted for offerings (Acts 4:32, 36-37; 5:1-11). This pattern of organisation extended to the government of the church, which was divided into two offices, namely the elders and deacons (Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9).
The Bible has clear instructions on the offices of the church and the role of the congregation to guide the polity of local churches. Local churches are to be led by a plurality of elders, served by a body of deacons, and are to remain accountable to the congregation, in order to glorify God by carrying out His mission in their community and beyond.
The terms bishop, elder, and pastor are used interchangeably in the New Testament to refer to one and the same office of the church (Acts 20; Titus 1:5-9). I like the way John MacArthur puts it, “the term elder emphasises who the man is. Bishop speaks of what he does. And pastor (“shepherd”) deals with how he ministers. All three terms are used of the same church leaders, identifying those who feed and lead the church, but each has a unique emphasis.”
As these terms are synonymous, I will use the term elder here on. The main function of elders and deacons as the two offices of the church can be gleaned from Acts 6. Acts 6 is set in the early days of the church when it was greatly increasing in number and was mainly led by the apostles. Complaints arose about unfairness in the daily ministry of distribution (possibly financial or food distribution), so the twelve apostles gathered the church to explain their solution to this problem:
“Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3-4).
Though the two offices of the church were not fully established at this point, the basic premise was set: elders lead by being devoted to prayer and teaching the Word of God; deacons lead by serving the people and overseeing the organisation and function of various ministries. This arrangement is observed throughout the Scripture and should therefore be present in churches today.
The Office of the Elders
The New Testament sets out eight functions of elders:
1. Responsible for the oversight and direction of the church (Hebrews 13:17).
2. Responsible to seek in all matters the mind of Christ through the Holy Spirit’s guidance and the Scripture (Ephesians 1:22; Colossians 1:18; 1 Peter 5:2).
3. Able to teach sound doctrine and refute improper doctrine (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9).
4. Provide instruction for the maintenance of healthy relationships within the church (Galatians 6:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15).
5. Have at least general oversight of the church’s financial matters (Acts 11:30).
6. Lead in appointing deacons with the congregation’s input (Acts 6:1-6).
7. Lead by example (Heb. 13:7; 1 Pet. 5:2-3).
8. Lead in church discipline (Galatians 6:1), but not to the exclusion of the church when necessary (Matthew 18; 1 Corinthians 5; 2 Corinthians 2).
Thus, the function of elders can be broadly summarised into four categories: elders as leaders, shepherds, teachers, and equippers.
The Relationship Between Elders and Deacons
Deacons, on the other hand, have three primary tasks:
1. Care for the physical needs of the church. In Acts 6:2, the apostles did not think it was right that they would give up preaching the Word of God to “serve tables.” The seven servants were chosen to minister to this need of the “daily distribution” (Acts 6:1). Serving tables could refer to financial or physical ministry. This daily distribution ministry allowed this first group of servants to meet physical needs in the church.
2. Promote unity within the church. Acts 6:1 says the seven servants were chosen because a complaint caused division between two different groups in the church. Their work restored unity within the church.
The qualifications of deacons in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 are nearly identical to the qualifications for elders. Deacons are men of great character and reputation. Thus, it would be foolish for elders not to seek their advice in certain matters as it pertains to the church. While both offices work independently, collaboration will naturally occur. For example, elders and deacons might visit a grieving church member together to minister to the members’ spiritual and physical needs during that time.
Hence, deacons are model servants who excel in being attentive and responsive to the tangible needs in the life of a church. They serve by assisting the elders, guarding the ministry of the word, organising service, caring for the needy, protecting unity, mobilising ministry, and more.
The Relationship Between Elders, Deacons, and the Church
Like elders and deacons, the congregation also has specific biblical responsibilities:
First, the congregation selects leaders. The early church proposed two candidates to replace Judas as an apostle, then they cast lots to rely on the Lord’s guidance in selection (Acts 1:23-26). The church chose and ordained the first deacons (Acts 6:5). This pattern of congregational selection set forth in Acts 1 and Acts 6 continues to be the example for the Church. The church should recognise elders and deacons who possess the required qualifications, joyfully examine and pray over them, and obey them (Hebrews 13:17).
Second, the church has an important role to play in church dispute and discipline. Matthew 18:15-17 says that the church involvement is the final step in the reconciliation process. Elders will lead through the process of church discipline, but the congregation has the responsibility to help in the reconciliation and discipline, if necessary. In Acts 6, the distribution ministry dispute was resolved by both the leaders and the church.
Third, the church is responsible for keeping true to God’s doctrine. While elders have the responsibility to teach the Word faithfully, the church has the responsibility to reject false teaching. Paul wrote to “the churches of Galatia” (Galatians1:1), not just the elders. In chapter 1, Paul admonishes them to take a firm stand on correct doctrine. Elders are accountable to one another and the congregation when they teach.
As we can see from the above, elders, deacons, and the congregation are to work together in ministry. While the church is called to submit to their leaders (Hebrews 13:17), that authority should not be abused. Elders are to lead with authority to equip the congregation to live obediently to Christ.
The Bible is our authoritative guide to church polity and it places significant importance on the offices of the elders and deacons. The gospel is too important to be stewarded by worldly methods and scrambled leadership structures. Elders are to lead, shepherd, teach, and equip the church. Deacons are to assist the elders by protecting church unity, organising practical service, and meeting tangible needs. Having a plurality of church leaders in the church allows for greater accountability for theological and personal integrity, the sharing of ministry needs, and more opportunities to sharpen one another.
I hope to encourage church members to serve in their areas of giftedness, to be equipped and prepared to eventually serve in the offices of elders and deacons to build up the church. When elders, working alongside deacons and in unity with the congregation, carry out the Great Commission, God’s name will truly be glorified. This is how a church can be effective and healthy.