Differing views on church polity have significantly impacted the church throughout history. Sadly, secular leadership principles often take priority over what Scripture says regarding church leadership. In this message on 1 Timothy 3:1–16, David Platt lays out for us what the Scripture says about elders and deacons in church leadership, and how to rightly exercise these roles.
- Elders lead under the authority of Christ.
- Elders care for the body of Christ.
- Elders teach the Word of Christ.
- Elders model the character of Christ.
- Deacons meet needs according to the Word.
- Deacons support the ministry of the Word.
- Deacons unify the body around the Word.
Yes, that is it. I had the privilege this week of going around to these different homes and going down to Avondale with fifty-plus homes. I didn’t go to all fifty-plus homes, but I was gone all week long. The gospel was being proclaimed through the church all week long in these homes, and I was sitting there.
This story sums it up: I was sitting there one day in a home talking with a lady, who is not a member of this faith family, and sharing with her about how we believe the gospel is about going to people, not asking people to come to us. And all of a sudden, a sweet little girl that was playing on the play set there apparently was listening in on the conversation. All of a sudden, she stops what she’s doing, she turns and says to this lady, “Because the church is not a building; the church is people.” Yes, that is it.
She went back to playing, and yes, the church is not a building; there is not a building. We do not have a God who is up in heaven waiting for us to come to Him. Therefore, we cannot be a church who sits back and waits for people to come to our place, to our building, so they can encounter the glory of God. No, we take the glory of God, and we scatter the glory of God throughout the city, and I praise God for how that has happened all across the city this week.
I praise God for the leadership of Christ in Kymberly Bankston and the whole host of people, men and women, who serve alongside of me who made a variety of sacrifices, not just this week, but for months leading up to this week. And I praise God for children who know Christ today, that last week at this time, did not know Christ. I praise God for relationships all across communities that have been formed in Christ for the first time this week among people who didn’t even know their neighbors this time last week. So, praise God for that.
All right, that’s a whole other sermon. We need to dive in. So, if you have your Bible, and I’m guessing you have already pulled it out, I invite you to open to 1 Timothy 3 and pull out those notes that look like you need a lunch today. We are going to dive right in. Today is a unique Sunday. Last week, we finished up the series on the gospel and personal evangelism. Next week and throughout the month of August, we are going to dive into the book of Job, and we are going go look at the gospel and suffering in Job. It’s going to be a deep time the rest of this month, and I pray it will be a time that shows the implications of the gospel for suffering.
But today, what we are going to do is we are going to kind of come aside as a faith family, and we are going to talk about the gospel and church leadership. Now, I know as soon as I say that, as soon as some of you see that, you think, “Oh, this is an off Sunday.” Or, “Man, I knew I should have slept in.” Some of you are visiting this morning and thinking, “Oh, we really picked the right Sunday to come. He’s going to be talking about church leadership.”
Some of you are thinking, “Dave, I’ve got this and this and this going on in my life and my family that I am struggling with, and you are going to talk about church leadership?” And teenagers are thinking, “What does this have to do with my life?”
And all of these are valid questions, but the reality is this: Every single person in this room is affected by church leadership…every single person. I know that many, most of you have been affected positively in your spiritual journey at some point by a spiritual leader, by a pastor, by other spiritual leaders in the context of the church. At the same time, I know that many of you have likely, in your spiritual journey, have been negatively affected by spiritual leadership as well.
Some of you have, even at times, been pushed away from the church because of church leadership and the picture you have seen in church leadership. And so, what I want us to do is I want us to come aside as a faith family for this time today and look at the truths in Scripture that inform our understanding here at Brook Hills of church leadership. The reality is the leadership of this church has a huge effect on every individual in this room and people not in this room. If leadership in this church is casual about the holiness of God, casual about Word of God, casual about the mission of God, then this church will be casual about the holiness and the Word and the mission of God. If leadership in this church is passionate about the holiness of God, passionate about the Word of God and passionate about accomplishing the mission of God, then that will have a huge effect, not only on people in this room, but on millions of people around the world who have yet to hear the name of Jesus. So, we want to make sure to get church leadership right.
Now, I say that with a little bit of hesitation because what we are going to do is we are going to look 1 Timothy 3 and some other places. We are not going to have time to look at all these places, so you might just get your pen ready and write all these different places down and side note them. Because of some different circumstances, the outline will not be on the screen either, so it’s going to be a little Secret Church like. So, hopefully you are…you sat next to somebody who like pays attention on Sunday mornings.
So, what we are going to do is we are going to look at truths, non-negotiables of church leadership in Scripture. But the reality is, many different churches look different when it comes structuring church leadership. Now, this is bad and good. It’s bad, because well, quite honestly, there are many churches that have a church leadership picture that is not based on the Word at all. It’s based on tradition; it’s based on man’s design, man’s structure, man’s ideas. Many times, it’s based on a corporate picture. So, I don’t want to go there.
At the same time, even among Bible-believing, Bible-following churches, there is still a variety of different pictures of church leadership. I believe that’s because we see some certain truths and principles and non-negotiables…that’s what we are going to look at this morning…that are in Scripture. But at the same time, how that looks in different cultures
and different times sometimes looks different, and it’s not as clearly outlined in Scripture. So, we want to look at what we do know in Scripture, what is clear, and then use that as the basis for understanding how we look at church leadership in the context of this faith family.
So, I am going to start 1 Timothy 3. We’re going to read through most of this chapter, and I want you to see this overall picture, and then, we are going to dive into the truths that God has for us to see today. In verse 1, Paul writes:
Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
Deacons, likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscious. They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.
In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.
A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well. Those who have served well gain and excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.
The Bible identifies two primary leadership roles in the church.
Foundations: Number one, the Bible identifies two primary leadership roles in the church. First, elders who are servant leaders, and second, deacons who are leading servants. Elders and deacons. Now, I want to be careful here. Now, obviously, we see both of these roles described here in 1 Timothy 3. Now, you see, you don’t actually see the word “elder”; you see the word “overseer” used a couple of different times in the beginning of this chapter.
In the New Testament, what you’ve got is “elder”, “pastor”, and “overseer” used as interchangeable terms. They are used at different times in different ways. If you look over at Titus 1:5—9, you see Paul giving a similar list, a similar picture that he’s giving here in 1 Timothy 3, and in one verse, he uses “elder”, and in one verse, he uses “overseer” referring to the same group of people. What we are about to look at in Acts 20 calls the same people “pastors” and “overseers”. And so, you’ve got these interchangeable terms.
And what we’ve got to be careful of, what I want to be cautious of is, when I say those words “elders” and “deacons”, I know that across this room, there’s all kinds of different ideas or images or stereotypes so to speak that pop into your mind when you think of those two pictures. And it’s based on, maybe, the tradition that you’ve grown up with; if you’ve grown up and involved in a church, you’ve got different pictures. What I want to invite us to do is try our best to put aside tradition, put aside the different thoughts and ideas we have, and take an honest look at Scripture and say, “Okay, what does Scripture teach about elders? What does Scripture teach about deacons?” And we are going to unpack how elders are servant leaders and deacons are leading servants in Scripture, and we are going to see both of these roles and the responsibilities that go along with them.
1 Timothy 3:1–16 shows us that church leadership is designed by God.
So, that’s the first foundation. Second foundation: Church leadership is designed by God to be a display of His glory. The glory of Christ is reflected in the beauty of His bride. Those who lead His bride then must be a clear reflection of the glory of Christ. I don’t have to go into specific stories or instances in our culture, in our country today, to point out that the glory of Christ, before the world has been jeopardized by leaders in the church who have not reflected his glory.
And the effects are devastating; the effects are eternal in many people’s lives. We need to take church leadership seriously. I say that even with great hesitation, because Paul says in Corinthians, “Take heed, lest you fall.” I know that I am one step away from falling into the same picture that other church leaders have fallen into.
And so, that leads to the second part: Church leadership is designed by God to be a display of His glory, and second, to be dependent on His gospel. Nothing we are going to talk about today, absolutely nothing, is possible in a church leader’s life apart from the grace of Christ in that church leader. Jesus is the Head of the church; He is out leader. Christ is our leader, church, and anyone who leads…elder, deacon, any picture, anyone who leads…must align themselves with the person of Christ, and the only way these qualifications, responsibilities we are about to dive into…the only way they can be a reality is if Christ is living and working in someone. He must be dependent on Christ’s gospel.
Four Responsibilities of Elders …
So, elders and deacons and church leadership is designed by God to display His glory and be dependent on His gospel. So, with those foundations, let’s dive into elders. I want you to hold your place here in 1 Timothy 3 and turn with me back to Acts 20. While you are turning there, let me give you a little background. When you see this word “elder” in Scripture, it’s used a variety of different times in a few different ways. In the Old Testament, you will see different leaders who assisted Moses referred to as elders. Sometimes, in the Old Testament and New Testament, you will see different spiritual leaders in Israel referred to as elders.
Sometimes, elders refer specifically just to people of more mature age.
But then, about twenty times in the New Testament, you see elders referring to a unique group of leaders in the church. Almost nearly every church we see in the New Testament is described with elders. You look at 1 Peter 5; you look at Philippians 1, 1 Timothy 3 and Acts 20 when it talks about Ephesus here, and you see elders. Most often, almost every time, the word is in the plural. Very rarely do you see elders mentioned in the singular.
I think there is a picture there. Obviously, from cover to cover in this book, God has raised up individual leaders in His church; you’ve got that picture. At the same time, you look at the New Testament church, and you see a plurality of leadership, elders, that are leading the church. So, you don’t see…the New Testament doesn’t give us a picture of dictatorship.
Likewise, it doesn’t even give us a picture of democracy. What you’ve got is Christ entrusting elders as servant leaders in the church.
Let me show you this. Look at Acts 20; listen to verse 28. This is a conversation that Paul is having with the elders from the church at Ephesus, and he’s talking with them before he goes down to Jerusalem where he’s going to be arrested and imprisoned and listen to what he encourages them with. Verse 28,
“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
“Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and can give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”
1 Timothy 3:1–16 shows us that elders lead under the authority of Christ.
Let’s kind of stop there. As Paul is talking to this group of elders from Ephesus, I want you to see the picture that he gives us of what elders do based on this passage in 1 Timothy 3. First responsibility of elders: Elders lead under the authority of Christ. This picture of an overseer involves overall leadership in the church; they lead under the authority of Christ.
Now, the key is, that last part of that sentence, “under the authority of Christ.” The reality is, elders belong to the church. You look at…I will throw these out: Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians 5, 2 Corinthians 2; Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians 5, 2 Corinthians 2. These are all instances where God holds the entire church accountable for decisions they have made, for things they have done. In Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians 5 and Corinthians 2, they let sin reign throughout the church, and God doesn’t just speak to the elders and say, “You’ve let this happen.” He speaks to the church and says, “You have let this happen.” In Matthew 18, you confront somebody in their sin, and if they refuse to repent and turn from their sin, there’s a process that ultimately leads to you bringing that person before the church.
There is an accountability here to the church, and elders belong to the church. That is why we are calling them “servant leaders.” They have overall leadership responsibility, but they are servants of the church. They serve under the authority of Christ in the church. They belong in the church, and as such, elders are appointed by the Spirit of God. You do not…you don’t campaign to become an elder. You don’t get a website and cool ads to run and put them out over Birmingham and try to become one. That’s not the way it works. The Spirit of God appoints elders through the church, in the church, and calls men out to serve in this capacity.
Elders belong to the church, they are appointed by the Spirit of God, and the church belongs to Christ. And this is the picture you’ve got in verse 28. It is a humbling picture and this is where I want to remind you that elders, not only are appointed by the Spirit of God, but elders are accountable to the Son of God. Listen to verse 28, “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” That’s huge. You cannot approach church leadership lightly when you realize that Christ gave His life for the church. There is a huge accountability here. This is an overwhelming picture.
There is a proper humility that is evident here in church leadership, to know, to take this personally, myself in my own life, that I will stand before Christ to give an account for how I lead His bride. Leaders in the church stand before Christ to give an account. This eliminates power plays, power struggles in the church, because Christ has all power and every leader in the church is held accountable to the One who has all authority. That gives a proper humility. Not just humility, but it gives a proper fear to church leadership. This is a bought church with Christ’s own blood. Elders are accountable to the Son of God because the church belongs to Christ. Elders are stewards of the church.
1 Timothy 3:1–16 shows us that elders care for the body of Christ.
So, that’s first responsibility: They lead under the authority of Christ. Second responsibility of elders is they care for the body of Christ. This is the picture we got back in verse 28. He says, “Be shepherds of the church of God…” 1 Peter 5:1—3 says, “Elders…Be shepherds of God’s flock.”
Now, what does he mean? We are not as used to looking out the window and seeing shepherds out there, so what does this picture look like in the church as a shepherd? Well, a shepherd, basically to summarize this picture in Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5 in particular, is that a shepherd has two primary roles. Number one is to protect the flock. Elders protect the flock.
You hear it here in Acts 20. Paul says, “After I leave, savage wolves are going to come among you so guard the flock; protect the flock.” Elders protect the flock from false doctrine, false teaching, savage wolves, attacks from the Adversary, outside the church and inside the church. It is a both/and.
Elders are on the front line of spiritual warfare in the church, protecting the flock and guarding the flock with everything they have. They are guarding their lives and guarding the life of the church. But not just protecting the flock, but second, elders nurture the flock. An elder’s responsibility is not just to pet the sheep; the elder feeds the sheep. You pat the sheep, and the sheep feel loved; you don’t feed them, and they feel starved, and they need food. And so, the elder’s picture here is a shepherd who is feeding the flock. Feeding them with what? They are feeding them with the Word. They have a commitment to you, God and to His Word.
1 Timothy 3:1–16 shows us that elders teach the Word of Christ.
This leads to the third responsibility. They care for the body of Christ, protecting and nurturing. How do you nurture? Third responsibility: Elders teach the Word of Christ. Paul said in verse 27, “I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” He is preaching to them the whole counsel of God. Paul had been preaching to them the Word, sharing the Word with them and equipping them to do the same. He says, “I commit you to God and to the Word of His grace.” Teach the Word of Christ.
The reality is it’s the picture we got in Matthew 16 when it comes to church leadership. Christ builds His church on the gospel, on the Word that He has entrusted to His church, and here is the reality: An elder’s authority in the church is tied to this Word. Whenever I or any other elder in the church would wander from this authority, then I have no authority anymore whatsoever, because the Word grows the church; the Word nurtures the church. My opinions, my ideas and my thoughts bring you no nurture. You will die based on my thoughts and my opinions; you will live based on the Word of God. That’s what we live by. Not bread, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. And this is what elders feed the body with; they feed the body with the Word.
Now, in order to do that, elders have to do two things. First, they must know the Word extensively. Elders memorize the Word, they study the Word, they meditate on the Word, and they know why they believe what they believe. Elders must be extremely well versed in this Word. Elders must know how this Word relates to theological issues, questions that we wrestle with theologically. For example, regarding questions about the gospel and divorce, elders dive into that, and they need to know the Word to be able to dive into that. They don’t dive into that with contemporary ideas about this or that, or contemporary writings about this or that; they dive in with the Word. They study theological issues and practical issues, asking themselves, “How does this Word relate to this situation?” And elders must be well versed in Scripture to apply the Word in those situations. They must be strong in the Word; that is where their authority is found.
Elders must know the Word extensively, and then second, elders must be able to communicate the Word effectively. And this is where I would bring you back, even to 1 Timothy 3:2 and 1 Timothy 5:17. What you’ve got is a picture of elders that must be able to teach the Word. This is one of the things among others that sets elders apart from any other church leaders. Elders must be able to teach the Word of Christ, not just know it. There are a lot of people who know the Word. They must be able to communicate the Word effectively; it’s one of the requirements.
Now, that doesn’t mean that everybody who teaches the Word in the church should be an elder. There are a lot of people who teach who aren’t elders. But the picture is, no man should serve as an elder, can serve as an elder in the church, if he’s not able to teach, to communicate the Word effectively. Any elder must be able to persuade people with the Word, to comfort people with the Word, to instruct people in the Word. Elders wield the Word with grace, with truth. It is the responsibility that is on them.
1 Timothy 3:1–16 shows us that elders model the character of Christ.
Now, all that leads us back here to 1 Timothy 3 and the picture of qualifications, so to speak. The fourth responsibility of an elder is that they must model the character of Christ. There is a list here in 1 Timothy 3. There is a list in Titus 1. And there is kind of an abbreviated list in 1 Peter 5. And what I’ve tried to do is take all those lists together…for the sake of time, we are not going to be able to look at every single one of these lists and show each one of these questions we are about to look at in each verse, but you put these together, and what you’ve got are elders modeling the character of Christ.
Now, what’s interesting, even just take 1 Timothy for example…what’s interesting is two things. One involves something that isn’t on the list. You look at this list in 1 Timothy 3, and you don’t see business experience or success in business. Often times when we think about church leadership, we think, “Well, who in the church is successful in their business? We need to bring them into be a leader in the church.” On the contrary, I’m not saying business leaders are disqualified from church leadership, but just because someone is successful in the corporate world does not make them successful in the picture of Christ and His church.
In fact, there are dangers there that anyone from the corporate world would have to combat, to be on guard against when it comes to mixing the corporate world with the picture of the church. So, it’s not listed on here.
You also don’t see age listed on here. Now, we talked about elders. Many times, Scripture refers to people of more mature age, but you don’t see an age requirement here in 1 Timothy 3. You don’t see a requirement here. So, the picture is, just because someone is
older doesn’t mean they are qualified to be an elder. And just because someone is younger, it doesn’t mean they are disqualified from being an elder. So, age is not on here.
“Good ole’ boys” are not on here. This is a danger in church leadership. Elders are not just people that everybody loves to like. This is a high bar that is being set here. And one other thing that’s not on this list is you don’t see women mentioned as elders in Scripture, here in 1 Timothy 3, in Titus 1, in 1 Peter 5 or anywhere else in the New Testament. This responsibility, leadership responsibility to people in the church, is specifically designated to men.
Now, follow with me here. Nowhere in Scripture is this an issue of equality, that women are unequal to men. It’s not an issue of superiority, that men are superior over women. It’s the same picture, if you would go back to Ephesians 5 with me, that picture of the husband as head of the home and leading his home by laying down his life for his wife. This is the picture.
Now, transfer it over into the church that God has entrusted men to lead, it’s the same picture. You see the parallel between home and church, even here in 1 Timothy 3. But I am convinced that godly women are more than willing to trust, respect, and follow godly men who lead the church by laying down their lives to accomplish the mission of Christ. That’s the picture we’ve got in the New Testament. Nowhere in Scripture do we see “elder”, “pastor”, or “overseer” mentioned as women. Now, we are going to talk more specifically about that picture when it comes to deacons, but it is sufficient to say at this point, that women are not mentioned there. So that’s what’s not there.
What else is interesting about 1 Timothy 3 is what is there, because, you look at this list, and to be honest, except for being able to teach and maybe a little thing here or there, most of these things that are listed are commanded of every follower of Christ. Self controlled, respectable, hospitable, not given to drunkenness, not violent, gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money, all of these things you find Scriptures all over the place that say every single one of us should be these things. Now, that doesn’t mean the bar is being lowered here; that means the bar is being raised to say, “Any elder must imitate the character of Christ. He must show us, as a church, what the character of Christ looks like.” This is modeling the character of Christ.
And so, you’ve got in your notes that the primary question we ask when we look at this list, when we look at elders, is we ask this question, “What will happen if the church imitates this leader?” That’s the overriding question. Hebrews 13:7 says, “Imitate your leaders.” This brings back…this is not an easy sermon to preach when you are an elder. This weighs on me in ways that I just can’t even begin to describe to you, and I’m not trying to be dramatic or over exaggerating that, but the thought that I am supposed to live and to lead my family in a way that I would say to you, “Follow me, and you will be following Christ.” I ask you to pray for me to be that kind of leader, and I ask us as a faith family to pray for those kinds of elders.
So, that’s the overriding questions. What I want to do is take these lists…1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5…put them together and think about different facets of an elder’s life and his personal life. We would ask questions like…based on Scripture, we would ask, “Is he self-controlled, not addicted to anything?” This would include alcohol, food, pornography,
the Internet, anything. Is he self controlled? Is he wise? Is he peaceable? Is he wise and is he peaceable? An elder does not incite unnecessary division. Is he gentle? It doesn’t mean elders are wimps; elders aren’t wimps. They teach the Word; they teach the Word with the authority of Christ, but they teach it with the gentleness of Christ as well. A contrite spirit, that’s the picture. Is he gentle?
Is he a sacrificial giver? “Not a lover of money,” Paul says. This is not the richest person in the church; that doesn’t qualify him to be a leader. He’s not the poorest person in the church; he’s the person who sacrifices to give. This is somebody who is handling, who has been entrusted as a steward of God’s church, and as a result, he cannot seek dishonest gain. He doesn’t seek things for himself, but he sacrifices himself to give. Is he humble?
Shepherds were not high class in the first century. Is he humble? This is not a glamorous picture we are getting here. Is he humble? Is he patient? Is he honest? And is he disciplined? All of these must be evident in an elder’s personal life.
Now, I’m not saying an elder is perfect, but these characteristics of Christ in an elder should be evident, should be clear, and when it’s in his personal life, it will transfer over to his life at home and his family life. We ask questions like, “Is he the elder in his home?” 1 Timothy 3 makes very clear that you can’t lead the church if you can’t lead your home. And so, when we think about elders, we look at the picture of elders we have seen here, and we say, “Is this happening in this man’s home? Is he leading his home? Is he leading his wife and his children under the authority of Christ? Is he caring for his wife and his children? Is he caring for his home? Is he teaching the Word of Christ in his home? If a man is not teaching his wife and his children the Word, then why would we expect him to be responsible for teaching the Word in the church? Is he an elder in his home?
Now, what if he’s single? This is a question I think we should ask. And this is based a lot on 1 Corinthians 7. It’s not specifically addressed in these lists, but if he’s single, is he self controlled? Is he living like we saw with the gospel and singleness a few weeks ago? If he is married, is he completely committed to his wife? This picture, the husband of but one wife, literally means he’s a one woman man. He is single-minded in his devotion to his wife.
Now, there is a lot of discussion about this. A lot of people think this is a reference specifically to polygamist relationships that were sometimes common in the first century. Others think this has ramifications for whether or not somebody can serve as an elder, can be a servant leader as an elder, if he is divorced. And the reason I would hesitate giving a blanket answer to that question is because with divorce…we talked about this with the gospel and divorce…there are so many different scenarios represented, and I think the responsible thing for the church to do is to look at this Word, look at these texts, look at a man’s life and bring it back around to this overriding question, “What happens if a church imitates this man?”
What happens if men in the church love their wives like this man has loved and is loving and will love his wife? Is that a good thing? We come back to that overriding question, “Is he single minded in his devotion to his wife? Can we imitate him and his marriage?” Similarly, if he has kids, if he has children, do they honor him? These are all questions we ask, just like Ephesians 6:3, “Fathers, don’t exasperate your children.” We are honored by our children. That’s the picture there.
How can a man honor an elder in this way if he’s not honored in his home by those who are closest to him and most directly under his leadership? These are penetrating questions in his personal life, his family life and then expanding the influence, in his social and business life. Is he kind? Is he hospitable? An elder can’t be a recluse. Okay, elders don’t study the Bible all the time and never talk to people. It’s not the picture of elders. Elders reach out to others; they are shepherds. They are hospitable. Is he a friend of strangers? Does he show favoritism? Elders don’t show partiality; they see people as Christ sees people, and does he have a blameless reputation? Again, not perfect, but the picture Scripture gives us is above reproach.
And here is how we are applying that at Brook Hills. Before we affirm a man as an elder, we go through a process where we look at all of these different things, and at the end of that process with the men that we are affirming as elders, we take their names, and we put them in the Birmingham News; we put them before our community, and we say, “These are men that we are considering bringing on as elders and now are affirming as elders in our faith family. And if you know anything about these men that would disqualify them, that would question their ability to lead in the church, we want you to tell us.” And there is an avenue set up where they will tell us. And that’s the picture. We want to be led by men who display the character of Christ very clearly throughout this city, who want to display the glory of Christ in this city in the way we lead the church.
That’s how it looks in Acts. You don’t see in Acts that they put their names in the paper, but that’s what we do to apply that kind of picture, and so, in his social/business life, does he have a blameless reputation? In his spiritual life, finally, is he making disciples of all nations? How can a man lead a church to make disciples of all nations when he’s not doing that? An elder must be able to look at men…it’s not about having notches on your belt or anything, but he must reproduce the Word…but he must be able to look at men and say, “These men have come to Christ and are following Christ as a result of the Word of Christ and me and my life.” That’s the picture there. They are making disciples.
Does he love the Word? We have talked about this. Is he a man of prayer? We are going to see in a minute, elders devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. Is he long in the prayer closet? Does he possess secret righteousness, Matthew 6? Is he holy and is he gracious? Is he contrite and broken-hearted and gracious in the way he leads?
Now, those are the truths; those are the foundations. Christ has entrusted elders to the church with these responsibilities. The way that looks in the context of The Church at Brook Hills is we have nine elders. Again there are truths, but the Bible doesn’t say, “If you have 4,000 people in your faith family, then you need nine elders, and this is how it should look.” This is where we take the truths, and we try to put them into practice. We have nine elders here at Brook Hills, which I am one of them. The way we have phrased it in the bylaws is that I’m the first among equals, that we are all equal in our responsibility as elders, of the things we have seen here. At the same time, the primary responsibility, for example, in teaching the Word of Christ is entrusted to me or entrusted to the pastor and my position. And so, leading under the authority of Christ, that overall picture, I’m the first among equals.
These guys, myself and these eight men meet together, and I thank God for them. You probably, many of you probably don’t know them. Many of you do know them. They are men who walk with God, and when we gather together and devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word, we pray for you, and we study the Word for you. We want to carry out these responsibilities, and I praise God for the men He has entrusted in this capacity. At the same time, among these eight, the way we have set it up, is they serve four year terms,
and every two years, four elders rotate off of that elder board. And what we’ve come to this fall is a time where four are rotating off: Paul Miller and Alonza Jones and Bill Christenberry and then Chris Nichols, who is our new Executive Pastor. These are all rotating off, and so, we will be seeking the Spirit’s leadership this Fall and asking Him to show us four new elders to serve in that role. And we’ll talk about, in a minute, just a little bit later, how that works, but that’s the picture that we’ve tried to put this picture into practice that’s elders.
Three Responsibilities of Deacons …
Now, deacons. Turn with me over to Acts 6. 1 Timothy 3 gives us a picture of deacons, but when you look at the rest of the New Testament, you don’t see quite as clear a picture about deacons as you do elders. There’s a little bit more ambiguity here, which I’m convinced why, when you look at churches, you see all kind of different deacon pictures.
And when you think of deacons, there are all kinds of thoughts that come into people’s minds all across this room, good thoughts and maybe not so good thoughts.
And so what I want us to look at in Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 3 is the clearest picture we can get of deacons. What I want to show you in Acts 6, there is a word in the original language of the New Testament, and it is a used a variety of different times. The word is “diakonos”. It’s where we get the word “deacon” from. And the word literally means, “service.” It refers to physical types of service, spiritual types of service, and different types of service. Sometimes it refers, like here in Acts 6, to different roles people have in helping lead in the church.
I want to show it to you, and get your pencil ready. There are three different times a form of this word is used, and I encourage you to circle every time you see it, because it will help us understand this picture. Acts 6:1, “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, and the Grecian Jews among them complained about the Hebraic Jews because
their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” Circle “distribution”. That word is, literally, referring to service. It’s the word form of “diakonos”, distribution of food. The text continues, “So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right focus to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.” Circle “in order to wait on…” That’s the word that means “serve”, “diakonos”, right there.
I want you to pause right there for a second. What we’ve got here is this is a word that, if you go over to Ephesians 4, you will see this same word used to describe everybody in the church. We are all servants in the church, every single one of us. And so this word, and forms of this word, are not just referring to a specific office, so to speak, in the New Testament. In a sense, we are all servants.
And then, in Ephesians 6, what you’ve got here is a picture of a group of leaders. We are about to see seven men that are rising up to take care of this responsibility, to make sure that widows who are being overlooked in the distribution of food receive their food. And so, what we’ve got is a picture of leaders being risen up to give leadership in specific areas of service. This is why we call deacons “leading servants”. All of us are servants; deacons are living out that service in different ways. Obviously, in this picture, by this time in Acts 6, you have a church that includes thousands of people. Seven guys aren’t the only ones doing anything around there while everyone sits around and watches. What you’ve got is seven guys who are appointed by God up to lead others in service; leading servants.
Keep going to verse 3. “Brothers, choose seven men among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and give our attention to prayer and the…” Circle it. “…ministry of the word.” Literally, same word there translated, “service of the Word.” So now, the same word is used to describe, basically, the elders who were giving them to prayer, to ministry of the Word, to things we have already talked about.
This is where it gets ambiguous, because you look in the rest of the book of Acts, and you don’t see a clear picture of deacons rise to the top. In fact, in 1 Timothy 3, which we’ve already read, is probably the clearest picture, and it deals more with qualifications than it does with roles and responsibilities. And I want us to think about this passage in Acts 6, because I think it unlocks the answers to why there might be that ambiguity.
Meet needs according to the Word.
Three responsibilities of deacons referring to those folks who were raised up to lead in this capacity. You see their names in Acts 6:5. Their first responsibility is that deacons meet needs according to the Word; deacons meet needs according to the Word. What’s the primary meaning of the word? The meaning is to meet needs, to serve, physically and
spiritually and to serve others. The picture in Acts 6 is there was a physical need that caused spiritual leadership to rise up.
So, I want to say two things about those needs. Those needs arise from specific circumstances. This is one of the reasons I think there is ambiguity here, because there were needs here in Acts 6 that probably aren’t needs today in 21st century America, specifically Birmingham. And there are needs here in Birmingham that may be a lot different in the middle of South/Central Sudan. So, what you’ve got are different types of needs raised, coming about in the church at different points in different cultures, and so you’ve got leaders who arise to meet those needs and specific circumstances.
And deacons are accountable for specific commands. God, all throughout the Old Testament, as well as the New Testament, says, “I care about orphans and widows. You care for orphans and widows.” The Word said that widows were being overlooked, so deacons rose up, took the Word and said, “We have to meet this need.” That’s the picture: Deacons meet needs according to the Word. This is what deacons do. And they lead others in doing that.
Support the ministry of the Word.
Second responsibility: Deacons support the ministry of the Word. Let’s take a step deeper into this picture in Acts 6. They are not just meeting needs here. Those same needs among the widows had pulled the apostles away from prayer and the ministry of the Word, and so, when the deacons start meeting those needs, they free up the apostles to devote themselves to prayer and ministry of the Word; the same things we have seen in elders, elders are freed up to do, to devote themselves to those things, when deacons are helping meet these needs over here. What you see is a balance. This is a beautiful balance in Scripture that the church must always maintain radical devotion to the Word and radical devotion to the needs of the world. They’ve got to both be there, and deacons help maintain that balance, to free it up.
So, they support the ministry of the Word in two ways: Number one, deacons serve elders so they can lead; they serve others so they can lead. These deacons are not a second competing body. They are not a second house in the legislature to compete with the elders over leadership and to lead overall leadership in the church. That’s the picture we’ve got in elders, and deacons serve elders so they can lead in the capacity God has entrusted to them.
At the same time, deacons lead others so they can serve. This is what we’ve talked about: They lead others to serve. So, in the context of this faith family, this is kind of a historic day, because up until this point, Brook Hills has not affirmed deacons, and today, for the first time, we are doing that. This has been a process over the last two years, as the elders have been praying, studying, thinking through, “Okay, who is serving as leading servants in the context of this faith family?”, and you look at different areas.
Now, again, we are all servants, but this is not just anybody who is doing anything is a deacon, okay? But this is somebody who is leading others in areas of service, and that includes people who have responsibility for helping hold the finances of the church accountable.
This includes people who lead a variety of different ministry teams, whether it’s a parking ministry team or a hospitality ministry team. We looked at all the multiplicity of people who are serving and leading the people through the Word of Christ and helping meet pastoral care needs, and we basically have taken a whole list of people, positions in the church and said, “These are leading servants.” Now, we are going to talk more about that in just a minute, but that’s the picture here. Deacons are supporting the ministry of the Word by leading others so they can serve.
Unify the body around the Word.
They meet needs according the Word, they support the ministry of the Word, and the third responsibility of deacons is they unify the body around the Word. Now, we’ve got to see this right here. If we miss this, we miss the whole point of Acts 6. This wasn’t just about widows getting food, and it wasn’t just about apostles getting to pray and devote themselves to the Word. There is something even deeper here. What you see in the book of Acts is the gospel advancing rapidly. The number of disciples is increasing. And as that happens, what happens in the church? The church started having struggles. The church started turning inward, and you’ve got complaints, and you’ve got disunity beginning to fill the church and what did deacons do? They step in and say, “These are valid complaints. There are valid needs here, and we need to meet those needs so that the mission of the church can advance.”
This is Stephen. Acts 6 and 7, you look at Stephen, and he gave his life at the end of Acts 7 to keep the mission of Christ advancing. And he started doing it by waiting on tables. That’s the picture here of deacons. Stephen raises the bar for deacons really high. They unify the body around the Word.
Don’t we know this church? That the more we devote ourselves to the mission of Christ, the more the Adversary will love, will delight in trying to turn us inward? He will start to bring about this complaint and this complaint. We will begin to see this area of division and that area of division, and it’s not that those complaints aren’t real, those needs aren’t valid. Just like Acts 6, many are, but deacons step in and say, “Let’s handle this need so we can keep moving on as a mission.” Because I am convinced in our day today that the Adversary delights in nothing more than getting the church of Jesus Christ to turn inward toward each other, get focused on each other, while we turn a deaf ear to a billion people who have never heard the name of Jesus. We’ve got to pray that God would use deacons in this church to unify this body around the Word.
Many times, that’s not the picture; many times we have deacons based on traditions we have grown up with. Deacons are the ones who are gossiping; deacons are the ones who are causing divisions. Deacons are the ones who are talking bad about the pastor. Deacons are the ones who are doing these sorts of things. We’ve got to see this picture that deacons unify the body around the Word.
This means two main qualifications for deacons that we see here in Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 3. Number one is a mission mindset. Deacons see everything they are doing in the context of the overall mission of the church. This is huge. When I talk to Chris Towns every morning when I come in Sunday morning, and he’s helping lead a team of people that’s helping us figure out where to park and be safe in the middle of it, he said, “I want to get them in there, so they can hear the Word, and they can go out and impact nations for the glory of Christ.” That’s the picture. Everything we do, in the context of overall mission, has a
mission mindset. If a deacon doesn’t have mission mindset where his or her overall passion is to make the glory of God known in Birmingham and around the world, then the position is missing the point; the deacon is missing the point of that point and would not be serving in that role.
This is the picture we’ve got in Acts 6: A mission mindset, and second, a Christ-like character. And this is where we come back to 1 Timothy 3, and we see this list here of qualifications, character pictures. And again, it’s not an astounding extravagant list. Everything that is listed here for deacons is expected, is commanded of every follower of Christ in this room, but again, deacons are exemplifying the character of Christ.
And so, we ask a variety of questions. Based on this picture in 1 Timothy 3, we would ask, “Is a person honorable?” You go back to Acts 6, and you see, “Choose men that are full of faith and the Spirit and in wisdom to serve in this role.” Is this person genuine, authentic, sincere? Honorable and then genuine; authentic and sincere. Not a gossip. Is this person self-controlled? Same picture with the elder that we saw. Not addicted to anything. Is this person a sacrificial giver? I mentioned people who handle finances in the church. We don’t want someone who is pursuing, in any way, dishonest gain, but someone who is giving of themselves, sacrificing of themselves; he or she must be a sacrificial giver.
Is this person devoted to the Word? Now, again, I mentioned this earlier. You don’t have to be able to teach to be a deacon; that doesn’t mean that if you teach the Word, you can’t be a deacon, but it’s not a qualification to be a deacon, to teach the Word. But you have to be devoted to the Word. He says, “They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscious,” in 1 Timothy 3:9. That leads to this next question: “Is this person faithful?”
He must prove himself. First, be tested, and if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons; nothing against them. That leads to this last question, “Is this person blameless?” Again, not perfect…not perfect; nobody in this room is perfect in all these areas, including myself, but if there is nothing against them, this is the picture.
When it comes to his home life, is this person honoring Christ in the home? This passage talks about his relationships in the home. Is he leading the home? And really, the million dollar question is this one: What about women? What about women? Can women serve as deacons in the church? And, basically, there are two primary schools of thought on this one.
One says, “Yes”, and the other says, “No”. And so let’s explore those for just a second. Now, I know, again, based on the different traditions and backgrounds that are represented in this room, this is a no-brainer for some of you. Some of you say, “Well, of course not; no way.” Others of you, “Well, of course. Why wouldn’t they?” So, let’s dive into it as gently as possible.
There is a lack of clarity in the Word specifically on this question. Now, I know what some of you are thinking…immediately, you are thinking, “Lack of clarity? Did you not read that? 1 Timothy 3:8, ‘Deacons likewise are to be men worthy of respect…’ Verse 11, ‘In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect.’ That’s as clear as it gets, isn’t it, Dave?” And that’s valid; that’s valid. The reality is there are many Bible-believing, Bible following scholars and pastors who I respect greatly who come down on both sides of this picture. And yes, I want to dive into some of the specifics here. But I want you to know from the very beginning, my desire in this moment in no point as your pastor, especially based on what we’ve seen about elders, is to in any way try to make something happen in the Word that’s not there and try to twist the Word.
To be honest, I don’t really have a lot at stake in this one. I’m a man, first of all, and second, I’m really not afraid of offending you with anything I might say. I hope I have shown that. It really doesn’t matter what you think about what I say, to me, as long as what I’m saying is in the Word. And so, I don’t want you to think I have any kind of agenda, or that I’m trying to promote anything like that. I want us to think honestly about the Word.
We have discussed this among the elders as well, and we wouldn’t want to go there if we didn’t have firm confidence in the Word on this, but I do believe that Scripture does affirm women serving in leading servant positions all over the New Testament.
Let me show you a few things in 1 Timothy 3 to explain. Well, we’ll start in verse 11: “In the same way, their wives…” You look at that, and you probably have a note that sends you to the bottom of your page, and it says, “Or deaconesses”. Do you see the note in your translation that sends you to the bottom page?
The reality is, some translations look at this differently than others. The original language of the New Testament is very unclear on this. In fact, that pronoun, “their”, is not there in the original language of the New Testament. Many translators think it’s implied, but it’s not there. So what you’ve got is a word here that can definitely apply to women in a role that is being described here. And you see that, even when you compare the whole structure of a passage, verse 8 and verse 11, he starts verse 1 though, and he talks about elders. And then, he transitions and says, “Likewise, deacons are to be men worthy of respect…” And then he uses the same transition in the same way; it’s the same word in the original language in verse 11. In the same way, these women, possibly deaconesses, are to be
women worthy of respect. So there is ambiguity here. So, what you’ve got, I believe, is some ambiguity here.
And then, you go to Romans 16:1, and you will see a lady there named Phoebe. It says, in most translations, she’s a servant of the church. The word there is the same word that is used to describe what these men were doing in Acts 6. It’s this word form of “diakonos”. And not only her, but I have spent time studying, diving into this thing. There are 17 different women mentioned in Paul’s letters that have leadership roles in the early church, in the mission of the church. You look at Paul’s ministry, and they are everywhere, leading in different capacities.
And so, what you’ve got is a picture of the New Testament affirming some type of leadership role for women in the church. But you take that picture, and you bring it back to our understanding, and we put before ourselves in Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 3, with this picture of deacons meeting needs according to the Word, supporting the ministry of the Word, and unifying the body around the Word. And I don’t see anything in Scripture that would say, “Women should not lead out in doing all three of those things.” In fact, I see the exact opposite. I see women affirmed in doing these things.
And so, that leads to the conclusion that with these circumstances, with this understanding of deacons then. I believe we are on safe ground, not only on safe ground, but on good ground, affirming women in those roles. And I want to be careful here, and I want to emphasize in this understanding of deacons because, many churches that, maybe, we have grown up in, may not have the same understanding of deacons. A lot of churches have a very different understanding of deacons. A lot of churches have deacons that are more like elders that are overall leaders in the church. And in that kind of church, then I would not affirm women as deacons because that’s a completely different role. I wouldn’t affirm that whole picture because deacons shouldn’t be doing those things, but since they are, then let’s call them what they are; they are elders, and so they shouldn’t be women. So, that’s the picture, just point blank.
So, this understanding of deacons, I think the New Testament affirms. Think about it. I mean, what we are identifying as deacons is leading servants is a leader of a hospitality ministry team; a leader of some part of a children’s ministry team. I don’t believe, based on Scripture, that we would say that those roles are just for men. So, we are going to affirm women in those roles, and yeah, that’s the way it is. So, I hope, in a way, it brings great honor to Christ through the gifts and skills and talents He’s entrusted to women all across this faith family. Not in a way that would, in any way, jeopardize the picture of God’s design for the church, but in a way that affirms.
The Bottom Line …
The church appoints and follows servant leaders who are wholeheartedly committed to accomplishing the mission of Christ.
So with that understanding, let’s come to the bottom line. Practically, how does this look at Brook Hills? The church appoints and follows servant leaders who are wholeheartedly committed to accomplishing the mission of Christ. We’ve seen that the Spirit does this through the church. The church appoints leaders, and I mentioned that we’ve come to a point in this two year rotation or four year rotation every four years where we are seeking the Spirit’s leadership in four new elders. So, when you leave today, on the tables there are a bunch of elder nomination forms, and over the next three weeks, we will be going about this process.
Again, elders belong to the church, and so this is where this process starts. And we don’t have a picture that says, “When you select elders, here is how you would do it. Try to take these truths and put them into practice.” What we have is an elder selection team made up of myself, one of the elders that is rotating off, a staff member, a deacon and then a church member at large, and together, we will seek the Spirit of God. We will ask God, by His Spirit,
to bring us to a point, just like we see in the early church, where it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us that we affirm and present these men to the church as potential elders. What will happen is these elder nomination forms, I want you to encourage you as a faith family, to begin praying about immediately, and consider any man, or men that you would nominate as a potential elder.
Now, it is very clear on this, that you are not to consult that man, not to even let that man know that you are nominating him as an elder. This is between you and the Spirit of God. And this is not just somebody who you like. This is not just somebody who you think would make good decision. This is not somebody who you would like to be in that; this is
somebody who fits in line with this whole picture, and I want you to think very seriously about the picture we have seen in Scripture and meditate on these Scriptures before you even begin to consider who that might be. But as you consider men who might possibly serve in that role, based on the responsibilities we have seen, you’ve got three weeks to fill this out. There are instructions on where to turn that in.
And then, what will happen, is the elder selection team will begin to process where different perspective elders will be sent an application, or perspective elders will be interviewed, and then what would happen at the end of that process, is that those elders will be brought before this faith family, and for a period of time, this faith family and the community around us in Birmingham would have the opportunity to approach me and to approach this elder selection team with any concerns about this man serving as an elder. We would address those concerns in whatever capacity they might be.
And then, at the conclusion of that process, we will affirm four new elders. That’s how we are trying to put into practice this picture, so that’s coming. The church appoints and then follows the leading of the Spirit. This is key. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders.”
These are men who we want to obey. Appoint them, and we obey them. We follow them. That’s the picture, and so pray along those lines for who God is raising up in those roles.
The church affirms and honors leading servants who use their gifts to build up the body of Christ.
Second, the church affirms and honors leading servants who use their gifts to build up the body of Christ. I mentioned earlier that this process has been a couple of years in the making, which has been kind of leading to this day, and we have identified a variety of different leading servant positions. These are not people who are not going to walk around with deacon badges on them or little signs above their head or anything like that. These are
not people that are going to go to meetings now every week or every month. These are people that are going to do the same thing they have already been doing: Carrying out this picture in Acts 6 all across this faith family, but we are going to affirm them. We are going to pray for them today, and we are going to acknowledge the work of Christ in them.
These are men and women who have agreed and convent agreement to say, “I want to carry out these responsibilities, and I want to model the character of Christ, a mission mindset, and all the things that are listed here in 1 Timothy 3 and based on Acts 6.” And so, whether this is a small group leader, whether it’s somebody who leads a ministry team, whether it’s a children’s or student’s small group leader, we want to say that in front of our children, we want to put men and women who realize the importance of spiritual leadership in their lives. And we don’t want anybody to be on the stage leading musical worship who doesn’t realize the importance of spiritual leadership based on the Word. And so, in just a moment, we are going to affirm them and honor them, I pray, in a way that we will continue to do so.
The church is comprised of ministers who multiply the gospel throughout the world.
Third, and this is where it all leads to: The church is comprised of ministers who multiply the gospel throughout the world. This is the end goal. In Acts 6:7, after this picture of deacons, the Word of God spread, and the number of disciples of Jerusalem increased rapidly. We are the church, ladies and gentlemen; we are the church. We are all ministers.
Even when we acknowledge and affirm and honor deacons, in just a moment for the first time, they will lead us in service, but we are all serving. We are all the church, and we are all intending to multiply the gospel throughout the world. That’s the end goal in this picture of the church, and deacons help us get there.
And so, what I want to do is I want to invite Chris Nichols, who I introduced to you a couple weeks ago, to come and to join me up here, and he is going to lead us in a time where we affirm, honor, and pray for leading servants all across this faith family.