Ask the Pastor: What are the Biblical Qualifications of Leadership?
Don’t forget to submit your Bible questions to us – firstname.lastname@example.org or in the “Question Box” outside the sanctuary.)
One question submitted this week by a congregation member is:
What are the biblical qualifications for leadership in the church?
Good question! This question will be broken down into 1. Deacons; 2. Elders/Pastors/Teachers; and 3. General leaders in the church
As Christians, we believe in the sufficiency of Scripture in many areas of faith, doctrine, and living (2 Tim. 3:16-17). We do find in the New Testament some basic aspects that should be present in the structure of a biblical local church. The scriptural basis for our discussion is Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 3.
Ample room in the Bible for deacons and elders is clearly made. Let’s take a look.
(For a very in-depth article on deacons, please see this 9 Marks article.)
The word for deacon refers to service. When used in a specialized sense in the first century, it meant waiting on tables. In the Greek world at that time, service was despised and looked down upon. What was popular and admired was developing your own character (sounds like today, doesn’t it?). But Jesus insists on service (see Matthew 20 & 23).
At TVBC, we’ve taken our cues from Acts 6:1-7:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.
2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.
3 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.
4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch.
6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
Three important aspects of what deacons are biblically called to do:
- Deacons care for physical needs (Acts 6:1).
This is especially for other Christians and for other members of our own congregation. They care for physical needs and spiritual needs, and are a witness to the outside world of Christ’s love.
- The unity of the Body of Christ (Acts 6:3-7).
In caring for the widows, the deacons were making sure the division of food was equitable. This is true. But this is significant because the imbalance was causing division in the Body. One group of Christians was complaining about another group of Christians, and this was what got the attention of the apostles. The larger aim wasn’t just to solve the immediate problem. No, it was to preserve unity in the church.
This is the point of all God’s gifts to the church: to build each other up and encourage each other (1 Cor. 12). The more anxious a person is to being an “upbuilder,” the higher Paul wants him to be regarded. Deacons are especially urged to do this.
Finally, note that a local church can’t have people serve well as deacons who are unhappy with the church. They are to be the buffers and the uniters. They are called not to jealously guard their area of responsibility, but to serve particular needs to bless the whole and to bind us together with cords of kindness in God and His Gospel for His glory.
- The support of the ministry (6:3).
These men were appointed to support the apostles (verse 3). The deacons were helping the elders—not supporting a power block—but serving the church and doing things the elders could not. Your most supportive people serve the church as deacons.
Here at TVBC, deacons coordinate specific ministries in the church (such as benevolence, hospitality, Lord’s Supper, and more). We recognize that this service to the church is costly. We also recognize that they devote themselves to a particular area as their main ministry rather than spreading their service out in several places.
The qualifications for a deacon are clearly given in 1 Timothy 3:8-13:
8 Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain.
9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.
10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless.
11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.
12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.
13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
(For an in-depth look at elders, please see this link from 9 Marks.)
Every time the New Testament mentions elders/pastors/teachers, it uses the plural of the word (Acts 14, 16, 20; Titus 1), though a particular number for a church is never mentioned. The qualifications for an elder are dealt with in 1 Timothy 3:1-7:
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.
2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,
3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.
4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive,
5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?
6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.
7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
The list is remarkable in that it is unremarkable. Everything in this list is true of all Christians with one exception: he must be able to teach. Of course, Paul never intended this list to be an end-all or catch-all list.
And, yes, there are lots of other characteristics a Christian must have. These characteristics listed are what we might call “public.” They would’ve been recognized by everyone as virtues. These make the Gospel attractive to outsiders. This doesn’t mean we follow the world’s standards—that is unhelpful for the Christian and biblical, local church. But we do search for those of good character, who exhibit fruitfulness in their lives.
Again, biblically speaking, all elders are pastors. The apostle Peter tells the elders (notice the plural) among his readers to “shepherd” (literally in the Greek—pastor] the flock of God that is among you” (1 Pet. 5:2).
Paul told the Ephesian elders in his farewell to them to “care for” (literally in the Greek—pastor] the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Lastly, the only noun form of the word “pastor” in the New Testament is used where there’s no hint that it is a different office from elder (Eph. 4:11).
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DEACONS AND ELDERS/PASTOR/TEACHERS?
- Deacons from Elders.
The concerns of deacons in the New Testament are practical. The qualities required in 1 Timothy 3 are similar for deacons and elders, but they are distinct offices. The difference comes in what they are doing.
Acts 6, as we saw above, makes it clear: the ministry of the Word of God is central to the role of elders (Acts 6:4). The most important thing in any church you should attend or join is the ministry of the Word of God. Choirs, committees, etc. are optional.
In Acts 15 & 20, too, we find that the role of the elders is basically to lead God’s people by teaching God’s Word. Elders need to be able to lead the church by explaining and teaching God’s Word, and their lives should teach it as well.
- Church staff from Elders.
Many churches today confuse staff and elders. The staff are people the church has set aside for full-time or part-time ministry and have their salary paid by the church. Staff may be elders. For example, the pastor should be an elder. However, the staff aren’t automatically elders, even if they work in ministry, biblically speaking. An example of ministry staff would be an office manager or an intern.
- Pastors from other Elders.
The Bible doesn’t directly teach that their needs to be what many churches such as ours have today known as a “senior pastor” who is in charge of the other elders. Again, all the elders are called pastors (Acts 20:17-28).
However, we can make some notes about New Testament practice that may suggest someone set apart in leadership of a church:
- When Paul wrote to Timothy, he wrote to him alone, though there were other elders in the Ephesian church.
- The letters of Jesus to the seven churches in Revelation are addressed to the messenger (singular) in each church.
In short, the pastor is basically one of the elders in a true, biblical local church, and having elders brings the church many benefits.
WHAT’S THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CHURCH LEADERSHIP AND THE LOCAL CHURCH MEMBERS?
There are many things that can be said here, but primarily, here are at least 5 things to pray for between deacons, elders, and the local church:
–Clear recognition of the elders/pastors/teachers by the congregation.
–Biblical, heartfelt trust. The church should trust, respect, honor, and obey the leadership as they seek to honor God, His word, His Gospel and His glory (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Cor. 16:16; Heb. 13:24; 1 Thess. 5:13, etc.).
–A growing and evident godliness (2 Peter 3:18). The elders should be blameless. This doesn’t mean sinless or perfect. They should, by God’s power and Spirit, live a life open to inspection.
–Sincere carefulness. The elders should understand the church belongs not to them but to God and that they will give an account to Him for their leadership (James 3:1; Eph. 3:9-11; 1 Pet. 5:1-5, etc.)
–Beneficial results. A humble acknowledgment of rightful authority brings blessings (1 Cor. 3:1-11).
WHAT ABOUT NON-DEACONS & NON-ELDERS SERVING IN THE CHURCH?
Esteemed pastor, worship leader, and author Bob Kauflin noted the following that is worth mentioning about general workers in the church:
I think those with a public ministry (however you define it) in the church should be held to a higher standard of conduct that those who serve more behind the scenes. The reason is that they’re more visible and more prone to be critiqued or seen as an example. So someone who sets up chairs or wraps wires might be working through significant character issues but still be able to serve. The more pronounced the leadership role or visibility in the church, the more concerned we should be about whether or not a person’s life is in line with the Gospel.
One last thought. It’s true that things always go better when pastors explain the qualifications for serving in different roles. But it seems that the emphasis in Scripture is always on leaders and Christians being examples (Heb. 13:7; 1 Tim. 4:12; 1 Pet. 2:12) and the church being made up of those who have repented of their sins and trusted in Christ for salvation.
This article from 9 Marks also hits “the nail on the head” in reference to this question:
The activities of public ministry, generally speaking, represent the “church.” When a person stands in front of the church, or behind a counter to receive children into the nursery, most people will identify that person with the church. Most people will make assumptions about the church based on any knowledge they have of those individuals.
Those who represent the “church” represent Christ. That’s why Jesus tells Saul (who had been persecuting Christians) that Saul has been persecuting not the “church” or “Christians” but “me” (Acts 9:4).
The activities of public ministry, therefore, are a trust, not an entitlement or an outreach device. No one is entitled to public ministry, no matter how long they’ve attended a church. And at no place in the New Testament does God or Jesus use non-Christians to represent him. God graciously calls out to all sinners, yes, but he identifies himself and dwells together with only with those who are repentant (“where two or three are gathered together in my name [identification with Christ], there am I [Christ’s presence],” Matt. 18:20).
Reserving public ministries for members, therefore, protects the reputation of the church and of Christ. Allowing individuals who have not submitted to the church to be publicly identified with the church is to allow unaccountable people to inform onlookers of what Christ is like. The church has an interest in teaching the world that Christ is gracious and loving, but it also has an interest in teaching the world that he is holy and calls sinners to repentance. Therefore, it should take care to not allow false professors and hypocrites to publicly represent the church and Christ. Also, see 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1!
It also helps the church’s outreach to non-Christians. It’s the church’s holy distinctness which is compelling to those non-Christians in whom the Spirit of God is moving (e.g., Matt. 5:10-16).
It teaches non-Christians that God calls all men to repent, and there is an inside and outside of God’s special, salvific love. Again, Christ is gracious and welcoming, but he confronts people with a decision: “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Matt. 12:30).
It discourages Christian nominalism—Christians who don’t want to be held accountable by Christ’s body. Christians who stubbornly want to serve and yet not be held accountable by the church body will get frustrated and go elsewhere. Yes, other churches might accept them on those terms, but each of us are to be faithful to God for our own turf, not someone else’s.
It is a great privilege to serve in leadership and one not to be missed. Paul says being an elder is a noble task–it is good to desire it (1 Tim. 3:1).
In our fallen world, the nature of authority is distorted. Suspicion of all authority is very bad. To live as God meant us to live, we have to be able to trust Him and His authority and in some ways to trust those he puts over us. To reject authority is short-sighted and self-destructive.
In the church, we are helping display the character of God to His creation. Lifting up Christ is the point of all this. Christ has loved us enough to lay down His life for us (1 John 3:16), so that by repenting of our sins and putting our trust in Him we could gain heaven and be with Him forever (Acts 17:30-31). Christ is our Lord. Let us follow His example.