“SAINTS, OVERSEERS AND DEACONS”
January 9, 2005
At the request of our Elders, we are beginning today a three-part series of studies which will lead us up to the process of working together to select some additional brethren to serve the Lord and serve this congregation in a special way. What we are beginning can be one of the most beneficial and uplifting and rewarding times in the life of a congregation. It is a process which means that we are alive and, as you know, a very natural part of the journey of life means that we move along and new people have to assume responsibilities as others get to the point where they can no longer do so. This is also an expression of the fact that we are growing. We are growing as individuals; we are growing as a congregation. That means there is more work to be done, and it also means that brethren grow and develop to the place where they are prepared to assume other responsibilities than they have had before. This is a process which means that we have a purpose and a goal. We are seeking to become like Jesus, and we are intending to be able to do the work which he came to do and which he has given to the church to do.
I hope you will join me in studying along, not in a way which says “this is just a process we have to go through,” as if this were an opportunity for us to see more clearly than perhaps we have before what the nature of the church is and how the heart of Jesus expressed in his people leads to roles of leadership and service which can bless everyone. This is an opportunity for those who are already serving to examine what their tasks really are and to be renewed in what they are doing for the Lord. This is an opportunity for all the rest of us to recognize the kind of maturity we are obligated to develop in our own spiritual lives.
The Role of Elders and Deacons
We will begin this morning by just noticing the roles of leadership and service which we find in the New Testament church. The organization of the church as it is described in the New Testament has two or three leading characteristics. The first is that Jesus is the head, the only head there is, of the church. In Ephesians 1:22, 23, the Bible says that “God gave him to be head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” The Lord has no rivals and he needs no help in being the head of the church. There is not another head of the church in this congregation or in this earth or even in heaven besides Jesus.
And then we notice that under the headship of Jesus in this world the congregation, the local church, is the only organization of the church that we find in the Bible. Beyond this congregation there is not another level of leadership that somehow rules over other congregations in the world or in the state or in the city.
And then within the congregation there are two roles which are named in the New Testament and which have qualifications provided for the continual selection of these workers. In Philippians 1:1-2, for example, I read, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Notice that the saints at Philippi (which simply means Christians) are with the overseers, or bishops, and the deacons who serve them. In I Timothy 3:2, 8, we discover that Paul addresses the office of a bishop, or overseer, again – the elders – and that he also speaks to the selection of deacons. He provides various characteristics that are required of those who would serve in either of these two roles, and he says in verse 10 that those who would serve must first be proven, apparently in accordance with these qualities that should grace their lives and their experience.
There are other passages that we will notice as we go along, but just for now observe that there are two roles that were intended to be permanent, for which there are qualities that enable men to fill them, and those are the tasks of elders and of deacons in the Lord’s church.
The role of elders involves more than one man, a plurality of brethren whose role is described by three different terms. It is one role but is described by three different terms in the New Testament, likely because this one role involves three different responsibilities. In Acts 20:17, 28, we will notice that when Paul meets with the elders of the church at Ephesus, he tells them that they are to feed (v. 28) or to shepherd or to tend the flock of God which is among them, and that they are to exercise the oversight. There are those three terms – elder, shepherd, overseer. In Titus 1:5, 7, Titus is left to appoint elders or bishops for the same work. In I Peter 5:1, 2 again the terms are used – elder, shepherd, overseer.
These three words which are variously translated in our English versions all are quite significant. The one which is translated elder, or presbyter, refers to someone who is an experienced person, someone who is mature in the faith, someone who has sound judgment which enables him by his example to be an influence for good.
The second term, the one translated bishop or overseer, refers to a responsible person who watches over someone’s household. He is the superintendent or a steward or a manager or a guardian. His work is about ministry and care. He takes the initiative to see that dangers are avoided and that the proper path is taken.
And then the third word, the one that is translated pastor or shepherd, refers to an active person who has such a heart for people that he notices and cares for and seeks after and leads when it is necessary. This is a person who will be concerned with feeding people what they need to grow and to develop and to be healthy spiritually in Christ. We notice that this term pastor in the New Testament refers to those who serve as elders or bishops. There is always more than one in a congregation, and these men who serve by setting example, by watching and protecting, and by feeding and leading and taking the initiative are brethren who are such a tremendous blessing to those whom they serve.
The eldership, then, is a group of faithful brothers whose example makes them leaders, whose responsibility is to watch for the welfare of the Lord’s people, and whose activity is that of faithful shepherds, caring and seeking and guiding to help people make their way toward heaven. What an important role of leadership this is!
On the other hand, there is the role of deacons. This task is caught with one term in the New Testament – a word that is translated normally minister or servant. It is a word that is used to speak of anything from serving food (John 12:2) to waiting on tables (Acts 6), to taking care of money (Romans 15:25-28), to caring for the sick and the imprisoned (Matthew 25:44), and even of preaching the gospel of Jesus (Colossians 1:23). The same word is used in a special way to describe the deacons of the Lord’s church. Perhaps it indicates the wide range of service which this role may involve.
It describes a person who is trustworthy and dependable in getting things done. He doesn’t think of himself as being over anything. He doesn’t tell someone what to do. He has no turf to guard. He is not the director of anything. He is a servant, and he sees to it that work which has to be done for the congregation to thrive and survive actually gets done. This is a responsible, trustworthy person. He is a project helper and a unity builder. He also is such a tremendous blessing to his fellow members of the body of Christ!
The Nature of the Church
Roles of leadership and service help us and enable us to see a little more clearly what the nature of the church in the Bible really is. This is a crucial part of this study.
What the Lord expects the church to be can be observed from the kind of roles which he has envisioned for its leaders and for its special servants. That is why departure from the revealed will of the Lord regarding the organization of the church is so dangerous. It affects the nature of the church. If we ignore what kind of standards the Lord has called for, then we ignore what the church is supposed to be. And if we begin to organize or allow roles to be assumed that are not in scripture, then we change what the perceived nature of the body of Christ in this world really is.
The church is not a corporate entity to be run by a CEO. It is not a non-profit organization directed by a Board of Directors. It isn’t a social club to be operated as a democracy. The church is not a worldwide religious organization ruled by a human head from an earthly capitol. The church is not anything like any of those. The church is people who belong to the Lord. That is all it is. It is people who have been cleaned up and forgiven and purchased through the blood of Jesus Christ.
In Acts 20:28 when Paul spoke to the elders at Ephesus, he said to them, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood.” The church is people who have been bought with his blood. They belong to him. Any leadership or service offered in behalf of the church needs to recognize that. Members of the flock of God are subject to the Lord’s unrivaled authority. No preacher or elder or servant has any authority of his own apart from what Jesus has given him to do according to the word. And all members of the body are of equal standing before the Lord. They may have different roles and different tasks to fulfill. The Lord may use them in different ways. But these are possible only when the nature of their relationship to him and to each other is always kept clearly in view.
The church has a nature like this. It is a spiritual community in which the experience and good judgment of men who have proven themselves through faithful living is respected and where their example is followed.
The church, secondly, is a household – a family – which trustworthy stewards watch over to protect and to care about. It is a household within which servants can minister effectively and diligently and fruitfully.
The church is a flock. It has to be fed because the people have to be healthy and to grow. It has to be guarded because, as I read in Acts 20 there in Ephesus, there are wolves abroad who might not teach what scripture teaches. It is a flock which has to be lead by those who care for each soul under their care. It may require the rescue of the straying. It may require the discipline of the wandering. It may require the gentle care of the weak, but it is a flock made of people who are in some ways like sheep. The nature of the New Testament church has to be kept in view to understand the roles of leadership and service which we are studying.
The Heart of Jesus
Within the church the doing of these kinds of tasks of leadership and service is possible only because of the heart of Jesus. I want to ask you to reflect for a moment with me on how the heart of Jesus is what breathes the power and the authority into the tasks that we are talking about here. What makes people, after all, interested in leaving the comfort of minding their own business and living their own lives to accept the responsibility of doing works like these? Why would anyone accept the responsibility? How is it that the church will voluntarily recognize men to fill these roles and then submit to their example and to their service? What produces this kind of man? Well, it certainly isn’t a desire for power or interest in prestige or in campaigning for an office that leads to this role. It is simply that individuals grow and develop various aspects of the heart of Jesus. The heart of Jesus lived out in men’s lives is what fits them for roles of leadership and service, and the heart of Jesus within members of the congregation is what causes them to honor and to recognize that kind of service.
Jesus’ heart, for example, is such that when he came, he came not to be served but to serve. He didn’t come and say, “Someone get my attention, someone provide for me, and someone do for me.” Jesus did not just serve; he was a servant. He emptied himself; he took the form of a servant; he humbled himself in obedience even to death. The Lord’s greatness is found in that he delighted in the giving of himself for the benefit of others. Friends, if you are listening, that is what service is: delight in giving of self for the benefit of others. It is the servant heart which fits men to serve the church or to oversee the household of the Lord. A person without the servant heart of Jesus cannot do the work of an elder. He is not fit for the task of a deacon. But one with the servant heart of Jesus won’t be found seeking a position. He will already be doing what Jesus did, and he will be humbled that his brothers and sisters in Christ recognize that and ask him to serve even more responsibly.
Jesus’ heart is such that when he served, he did so as a shepherd. A shepherd has a task that may not be as familiar to us as it needs to be. Nevertheless, in the Bible is the truest picture there is of how the Lord wants leadership in his church to be done. From Ezekiel 34 we get a picture of both the failure of shepherding and then what shepherds are to do. We learn that a shepherd feeds the sheep, that he makes them lie down in safety, that he seeks out the lost ones, that he brings back the strays, that he binds up the injured, that he strengthens the weak, and he does it all with a certain gentleness and unselfishness. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” That spirit is never truer than what we see in good, godly elders in the body of Christ.
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” The great concern of elders is to know those whom they shepherd. “They will listen to my voice,” Jesus said, “so there will be one flock and one shepherd.” The service rendered by these men has as its first and greatest fruit unity among those who love the Lord. “My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they will never perish and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10). Those kinds of statements tell us that elders help their brothers and sisters toward heaven. That kind of heart in a man leads him to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not of compulsion but willingly as God would have you and not for shameful gain but eagerly, not domineering, those in your charge but by being examples to the flock.” (I Peter 5:2,3) “A man like that will be ready to admonish the idol and to encourage the fainthearted and to help the weak and most amazingly, to be patient with them all.” (I Thess. 5:14)
Let me mention that the heart of Jesus not only affects those who serve, those who shepherd, but it also must be prominent within the hearts of the saints – the servants, the shepherd, the saints. Do you see the picture developing? It is a heart of unselfish love and submission to the Father’s will and patient respect for people that fits saints who are able to be with overseers and deacons. It says we are ready to do our job, too. We are prepared to recognize thankfully the unselfish and devoted efforts of godly men, and we are willing to work with them. Away then with the spirit of the special interest which wants a man in so it can have its own way! May we rise above the spirit of the surly arrogance of the fellow who has never shown any willingness to serve and hasn’t made a single effort to qualify himself, but is quick to sit back and criticize and second guess and belittle those who try! Let’s outgrow the spirit of a person who doesn’t want her loved one to serve because it would inconvenience them but who reserves the right to harshly judge those who do serve! Among saints there must be the appreciative heart of the Lord who, according to the Hebrew writer, “is not so unjust as to overlook the love you showed for his sake in serving the saints.” This is a time, maybe above all times, which calls for a spirit of obedience, respect and faith from all of us.
My brothers and sisters in Christ from the North National church, the heart of Jesus prepares men for the roles of leadership and service which enables the church of Christ to be the spiritual community and the household of faith and the flock of God which the Lord wants it to be. It starts then with me in my own heart. The truth is that we cannot even begin such a process as we are talking about here without each of us going through the painful experience of examining our own hearts first. Am I seeking to become what I am supposed to be? Am I willing to be lead by godly men? Do I understand that I have a role in serving and will I work shoulder to shoulder with special servants the church may choose or have I departed from the heart of Jesus to the point that I am simply wanting my way and I want people to pay attention to me without having any obligation beyond just how I feel myself? It makes you stop and think, doesn’t it? It starts with me. So when the loving shepherd calls, what is my answer? I would like you to reflect on that today. He, of course, calls us the abundant life that he came to provide.
Today there might be one present who would like to lay hold on that precious gift. Maybe you would like to be obedient to the gospel. Maybe you would like to come home to the Lord. Do it now!