One difficulty the church often runs into is making proper distinctions. We confuse laws with principles of wisdom. We don’t know what Jesus meant when he said communion bread is his body. We hear about grace and think it is licentiousness. And when it comes to the church offices of deacon and elder, we can experience a similar difficulty in seeing the differences.
Some churches do not have deacons. Others call their leaders deacons and do not have elders. Many congregations that have both elders and deacons run into problems because the lines of authority and responsibility are not clear.
As with any confusion, the best place to return for clarity is to the Scriptures. For they make clear that the diaconate is a distinct office from that of the eldership. Paul wrote to the church at Philippi and greeted “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi,” then addressed both “the overseers and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). In giving the qualifications for office to Timothy, he offered separate lists for both of these positions (I Timothy 3:1-13). From the testimony of the rest of the New Testament, we can see how deacons are differentiated from the overseers or elders. Clearly deacons, whose office is generally agreed to have originated in Acts 6 in caring for the widows in Jerusalem, are to lift the hands of the elders in caring primarily for the physical needs of the church.
One resource for understanding this distinction is in Samuel Miller’s book The Ruling Elder. In the tenth chapter, “The Distinction between the Office of Ruling Elder and Deacon,” Miller develops the biblical and historical foundation of the two offices and their differences. He then summarizes his conclusions at the end of the chapter.
A healthy exercise for the leadership of a congregation, beyond reading the book itself, would be to take this list of distinctions and discuss them. They are given below to encourage the careful outworking of the church’s leadership, service, and mutual cooperation in the ministry of the gospel and service to the needy.
- That the Deacon is a divinely instituted officer, and ought to be retained in the Church.
- That the function to which the Deacon was appointed by the Apostles, was to manage the pecuniary affairs of the Church, and especially to preside over the collections and disbursements for the poor.
- That Deacons, therefore, ought not only to be men of piety, but also of judgment, prudence, knowledge of the world, and weight of character.
- That preaching was not, in the primitive Church, any part of the Deacon’s duty, but came in, among other human innovations; as corruption gained ground.
- That there is no warrant whatever for assigning to Deacons the function of government in the Church; and that their undertaking any such function, is nothing less than ecclesiastical usurpation.
- That confounding the office of Deacon with that of Ruling Elder, is an unwarranted confusion, both of names and offices, which are entirely distinct.
- That even the uniting of these two offices in the same persons, is by no means advisable, and tends materially to impair the comfort and usefulness of both.
- That Deacons ought to be ORDAINED by the imposition of hands. In this ordination the hands of the Pastor and of the Eldership ought to be laid on.
- That the Deacons, although they ought always, if possible, to be present at the meetings of the Church Session, for the sake of giving information, and aiding in counsel, can have no vote as Church Rulers.