Presbyterianism: Elders and Deacons

Elders and Deacons

Eldership in the local church 
We have seen that each congregation is to have elders and at least one of these elders is to be a minister of the Word (1 Timothy 5:17). In the Reformed Presbyterian Church each congregation has a body of elders (traditionally called the 'Session'). The minister usually acts as Moderator (another name for chairman). Where there are insufficient elders or no minister 'interim elders' or an 'interim moderator' are appointed so that each congregation has a session of at least one minister and two other elders responsible for its care.

Behind the official language a biblical principle is being upheld, namely that each congregation should be under the oversight of a body of elders, including both kinds of elders (ministers/ruling elders). If we can distinguish scriptural principle in the midst of customary presbyterian language it helps!


1. Deacons are different from elders. 
The Philippian church had 'bishops and deacons' (Philippians 1:1). 1 Timothy chapter 3 gives separate lists of qualifications for bishops (elders) and deacons (see verses 1-8).

2. Deacons were new. 
Although in Israel the poor were cared for in various ways, the office of deacon, unlike the eldership, apparently began in New Testament times. Acts 6:1-7 is regarded as the beginning of the diaconite. The newness of the office perhaps explains the specific and detailed account of its origin under the apostles of Christ, whereas the eldership simply appears on the pages of the New Testament as the continuation of a thing known in the Old Testament.

Indeed, it is a good general point to remember that the book of Acts focuses attention on the differences between the church in the Old Testament and the church in the New. What is not repealed by God simply continues. For example, the evangelisation of the nations is given prominence whereas the building up of the church through the family is largely assumed to continue as in the Old Testament. The introduction of Baptism, rather than circumcision, as the sign of the covenant and of church membership is spelled out, but the place of the children of believers in the covenant and visible church is mainly taken for granted. The change of the weekly day of worship to the first day of the week to commemorate the resurrection of Christ is clearly indicted, but that this is the continuation of the weekly and universally required Sabbath of creation is assumed. Likewise, the beginning of the diaconite is given whereas the eldership simply appears as a thing already known.

3. The Deacons work is with physical needs. 
They are to look after the material side of the church's affairs. In Acts chapter 6, it was to relieve the apostles of the work of caring for the poor widows of the church that the diaconite was formed.

When the church has lost sight of the true functions of the eldership, the distinction between elders and deacons will hardly seem necessary, since the handing round of the bread and wine at communion will be virtually the only distinctive eldership activity observable. This happens either when a church is so dead that spiritual matters no longer feature and there is only money and fabric left to think about or when a church sincerely but wrongly sees the spiritual care of the flock as basically the concern of the minister alone. Alternatively, the need for deacons can be lost sight of by a low view of the ministry of the Word altogether. People who only want a minister to give a trifling little talk once a week will inevitably expect him to be an ecclesiastical 'Jack-of-all-trades'. Nevertheless, for church members to call a man to be first and foremost a 'minister of the Word' while wanting minimal ministry of the Word is hypocrisy and deceit. On the other hand, where there is an appetite for the truth and a real commitment to attending upon the preaching and teaching of God's Word, then the apostolic division of labour makes sense, "It is not reason that we should leave the Word of God and serve tables. Wherefore brethren look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the Word" (Acts 6:2-4).

4. The Deacons must be spiritual. 
Whilst in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 the qualifications for deacons place less emphasis on doctrinal ability, they must still be spiritual men in the Biblical sense of 'full of the Holy Spirit' (Acts 6:3). To handle the temporal affairs of the church under Christ and to His glory requires more than being good with figures. It requires godliness.