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Resident Ministries: Shepherds and Deacons
In these studies at the moment we are considering the main ministries of the church as they are listed by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:11. Those ministries there listed are Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds and Teachers. I have pointed out a distinction between those ministries which we might call Mobile, which are to the whole body of Jesus Christ at any time and in any place as the Spirit of God directs, and those ministries which are local, within a given locality.
We have dealt with what I consider to be the four main Mobile Ministries in previous studies. These were Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists and Teachers. In this study we will now consider the Resident Ministries, that is those that function within a local church and whose ministry is restricted to a given locality.
Perhaps to make this a little clearer I could give you an example. Let’s take some of the cities of the New Testament we’re familiar with. If a man is an apostle by ministry, he’s an apostle whether he’s in Jerusalem, Antioch or Corinth. But if a man is appointed an elder in Antioch and he moves to Corinth, he is not therefore an elder in Corinth, unless he’s reappointed. That’s the difference. In other words, the eldership is within a given locality by nature. This is a nature of that particular ministry.
Now in Philippines 1:1 in the salutation at the beginning of this letter we are presented with the personnel of the local church. Actually there are three categories. Philippines 1:1 the greeting reads as follows:
Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.
There are the three groups that make up a total local congregation. All the saints, all the believers, and the two classes of leaders; bishops and deacons. That is the total personnel of a local congregation. There is nothing beyond that.
So we are going to deal now first of all with bishops and then very briefly with deacons. In your outline you’ll see that I have chosen the title “Shepherds.” In parenthesis I have written the King James Version uses the word “Pastors.” This is really unfortunate. The Greek word that’s used is “poimen” and it’s regularly translated “shepherd.” Only in one place is it translated “pastor” and that’s in Ephesians 4:11, but many, many people do not realize when they read that list that the word is actually “shepherd.”
Here we have to clear up quite a lot of problems arising out of language before we go into the actual study. In the New Testament Greek there are three different Greek words used to describe one and the same office or ministry. I’ll demonstrate this to you very clearly from Scripture in a short while. In addition to these three Greek words, when we look at the King James Version translation, we find that two of these Greek words are translated by two different English words in different places. So we have a total of five words in the King James Translation, all describing one in the same office or ministry. This, over the centuries, undoubtedly has led to endless confusion amongst English speaking Christians. One of our main purposes in this study is to clear up some of this confusion.
I have to confess that for years I was, myself, laboring under this confusion in part. I’ll give you an example. I used to speak regularly about the pastor and elders, as though the pastor was one person and the elders were the others. It was like a flash of lightning spiritually when in reading the New Testament one day, I suddenly realized that pastor and elder are just two different names for the same person, or office, or ministry. My study of the New Testament church order was like somebody trying to do a jig-saw with one extra piece. No matter what I did there was always one piece that there was no place for. In actual fact this extra piece was, of course, the pastor as a ministry or a person distinct from the elders. It has no basis in the New Testament. Elder is one name and pastor or shepherd is another name for the same ministry.
Now we’ll look at the Greek word and then look at various passages in the New Testament where they are used together, and I believe it will be abundantly clear that they are all speaking about one and the same person. The first Greek word that’s used there in your outline you see written in English letters of Presbuteroswhich gives us such English words as “Presbytery, Presbyter, Presbyterian” and so one. Of course, people are probably aware that the Presbyterian Church is so called because it believes in the government of elders. Now the Greek word Presbuterosmeans an elder, and is always so translated in the King James Version. There’s no problem about the translation there.
The next Greek word that we have is there in your outline is Episkopos. The literal meaning of that in Greek is not in question; Epi= over, skopos= a seer. It’s an “overseer.” However, in the King James Version this word Episkoposis sometimes translated “bishop” and many people do not realize that bishop and overseer are two different ways of translating the same Greek word.
In actual fact, if you are interested in linguistics, episkoposwas taken over into European languages as, for instance my wife’s language Danish, and became biskofwhich is just episkopos with the first E dropped off and the P changed to a B. And from Scandinavian biskof, we get English “bishop.” So bishop is not a translation, it’s really writing a Greek word in English letters which have been somewhat changed. But however you like to write it, the meaning is overseer.
The third word is one that we have already mentioned Poimenwhich means a shepherd and is so translated many times in the New Testament. Only once in the New Testament is it translated any other way and that’s in Ephesians 4:11, pastor. Now in the time of the King James Version, the word pastor was understood. Everybody knew that a pastor was another way of saying a shepherd. But today the associations of the two words are so different that they really do not go together.
Now, here’s the statement that I make and I’m going to substantiate these different words all denote one and the same office or ministry. Now we’ll look together at these passages that are listed below and we’ll see how this is established. Turn first of all to Acts 20:17, speaking about Paul on the return from his second missionary journey or his third missionary journey. It says,
And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called [or summoned] the elders of the church.
Here they are called elders. Now most of the rest of this chapter is the address that he gave to these elders. He is still speaking to the elders in verse 28, and this is what he says:
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God...
Notice that they were elders. They were also overseers, overseers over a flock, and flock of course is always connected with the activity of a shepherd. And where the King James Version says “...to feed the church...” the Greek word is “to shepherd the church.”
You don’t need to know Greek, but just let me give you the two words and you will se how close they are together. The Greek word for shepherd is poimen, the Greek word that’s translated feed is poimino. In other words a verb formed from the noun shepherd. And to render it correctly we have to turn the noun, shepherd, into a verb, otherwise you will loose the whole sense; to shepherd the church.
So these men were elders, they were overseers, and their duty was to shepherd the church which was the flock. These were not three different groups. They were one in the same group. And notice without any question, they were the acknowledged leaders of the local church. There was no one above them in the local church. If somewhere in the background there had been a pastor as we understand it, then Paul’s conduct would have been extremely unethical to summon these elders and give them his instructions and ignore the pastor whose supposed to have been somewhere in the background. But Paul didn’t do that because there was no pastor in the background to ignore. These men collectively were the pastors or shepherds, they were the elders, they were the overseers or the bishops.
Then we turn to the epistle to Titus 1:5,7. Paul says,
For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee:
One main responsibility was to ordain elders. Then in the 6th and following verses, Paul goes on to describe the type of person that an elder should be.
If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless...
He’s talking about an elder and he calls him a bishop. The way he does it shows that they way he uses the two words is absolutely interchangeably. An elder is a bishop, and a bishop is an elder.
Now this is the usage not only of Paul, but of Peter. Turn on to the first epistle of Peter and we’ll see that Peter, likewise, assumes the same for of church government and uses the same words interchangeably. In 1Peter 2:25 Peter says of these people who had been lost and found salvation in Christ,
For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
This is the King James Version, and my present King James Version where it has bishop, the alternative reading in the margin is overseer. So Jesus is the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls. Notice, it’s in the same person. The one who is the shepherd is also the overseer or in older English, the bishop.
Then in 1Peter 5:1–2 we have all three concepts joined together and all applied to the elders.
The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder [we’ll deal with that later, but actually it’s a single word, a compound noun who am also a co-elder. We’ll see the significance of that later.], and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof...
We do not need to read further. Notice, in verse 1 they are called elders, in verse 2 they are told to feed the flock of God, and it’s the same word. It means to shepherd, the verb from the noun, “...shepherd the flock of God, taking the oversight...” So the same men were elders, shepherds and overseers. The word oversight in Greek is episkopaedirectly connected with the other noun, episkopos, the overseer of bishop.
So both Peter and Paul assume in all that they say that the leaders of the local church are elders, and that they are also called overseers or shepherds. Now you might say, “Well, why three different words for the same person?” And I have suggested there in the outline that you might think of it this way. The qualification is to be an elder. The spiritual ministry is that of a shepherd, and the work that has to be done is overseeing. So although it is the same person, he’s viewed from three different aspects, but they all meet in the same person or ministry.
Now the next fact that we need to establish which is of tremendous importance, in fact, it is vital, it’s basic, and at the same time it’s intensely revolutionary. If this one fact is ever again recovered generally by the church of Jesus Christ it will lead to the most profound spiritual revolution in the church. So, I want to warn each one of you that are listening, this is revolutionary. Don’t just swallow it as though it was an ordinary “pep tablet” because there’s a lot more to it than that. Now here is the statement. In the new Testament elders, or the leaders of the local church, are always mentioned in the plural. There is not a single case in the New Testament of a local congregation which is led by one man who is thepastor. It’s a concept that we are familiar with today, but is not found in the New Testament. In fact, it is totally alien to the whole order and picture of the New Testament church. Not merely does it not occur, but it’s absolutely out of line with everything that the New Testament teaches about the leadership of the local church.
Let’s look at some, but not all, of the examples where this word elders is found in the plural. Then we’ll also look at some examples where other words describing the leaders of the local church are used, and in every case, no matter which particular word is used, the word is always in the plural. When you put all these cases together, the impact is absolutely irresistible. Acts 14:23 it says,
And when they had ordained them elders in every church...
Notice, the church is singular, but the elders are plural. Every church had elders. Not anelder, not apastor, not aminister, but eldersin every church. The word ordained, more literally in Greek, is chose. If you are wondering what kind of choice is involved—you don’t have to turn there now—but I have given in the outline two other places where the same word for choose is used. Acts 10:41 where Peter says that he and the other apostles were chosen of God as witnesses of the resurrection. And 2Corinthians 8:19 where Paul speaks about a brother who was chosen by the churches to travel with the offering that we was taking up to Jerusalem. So that just gives you an idea of the kind of association of this word that’s here used for the choosing of elders.
Acts 20:17 we’ve already looked at. We don’t need to dwell over it. It says there, “Paul called the elders of the church...” Not theelder, not thepastor, not thebishop, not thesuperintendent, but the eldersof the church. Titus 1:5 also we have looked at. We don’t need to turn there again. Paul told Titus to ordain elders in every city. It’s another significant thing that the church and the city are coextensive as we saw in one of our earlier studies. So where in one passage it’s ordaining elders in every church, in another passage it’s ordaining elders in every city because the city and the church were coextensive. One city, one church.
Now the word that’s used in Titus 1:5 is not the same, but it’s a word that means “to set” or “to place”—set elders in every city. James 5:14 which is a Scripture that most American Christians just apparently haven’t noticed, says this,
Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; [not for the doctor]...
Now in my understanding, any Christian that does not do this when he is sick is disobeying the word of God. It’s that simple. But notice, it is not call for the pastor. It’s call for the elders. Even one sick Christian did not appeal to one other person to come to his help, but to a group—the elders of the church. And it is clear from the context, that every believer was expected to know who his elders were and all the elders were expected to know who were the sheep committed to their care. There was a mutual recognition at both ends.
My personal opinion is one main reason why so many Christians are sick today in the church is simply that they do not do what God tells them to do. It’s just plain disobedience. I’m not saying that everybody that’s prayed for by the elders will be healed, but at least it’s one step towards healing.
Now we’ll look at a few other passages where the leaders of the church are called by another title but again are plural. Philippines 1:1 we looked at and you’ll notice it says there the bishops and deacons. There’s no mention of the pastor, the minister, or whatever you like to call him, he just isn’t there. It’s the saints, the bishops and the deacons.
Then in 1Thessalonians 5:12 we could notice that one for a moment. We haven’t looked there before.
And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you;
So the people who are over them in the Lord, their leaders, are in the plural. They do three things. They labor, they are over them, they admonish them. Obviously they are the spiritual leaders of the congregation. They are in the plural.
Then in the epistle to the Hebrews, the 13th chapter, the last chapter of Hebrews, three times in this chapter the writer refers to the leaders of the church to which he is addressing his letter and in every case they’re in the plural. Hebrews 13:7,
Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow...
Notice it’s plural. Those who rule over them and they are the ones who speak or preach the word of God to them. They’re preachers are in the plural and they are also the people who set an example, “whose faith follow.” It’s perfectly clear that there was plurality of leadership and ministry.
Then in verse 17,
Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves [clearly this must be to the leaders]: for they watch for your souls...
They’re the people who are watching for the souls of the congregation. They’re plural.
And then in verse 24,
Salute all them that have the rule over you...
There’s not the faintest shadow of a suggestion anywhere that there’s one man who is the ruler. The whole emphasis of every passage is exactly in the opposite direction.
Now notice some other associations that go with this. Let’s turn to Acts chapter 15 for a moment and quickly look at a few verses there. We’ll see that apostles and elders are often associated together in leadership. Acts 15—in this chapter the main theme is a discussion held in Jerusalem as to what was to be required of Gentiles who put their faith in Jesus Christ. What did they have to do. Did they have to keep the law of Moses? Did they have to be circumcised? Did they have to follow the dietary laws? Or what did they have to do? This is the theme of this chapter and a great assembly of the whole church in Jerusalem was held to settle this question. We don’t need to go into the answers they arrived at, but this is the theme of the chapter. So let’s look—Acts 15:2,
...It was decided that Paul and Barnabas should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.
Who were the leaders of the church up in Jerusalem? The apostles and elders. Notice, never is there a mention of one man.
And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders...
Who represented the church and received these messengers? The apostles and elders. And verse 6,
And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. [The question of what was to be required of the Gentiles.]
And verse 22,
Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church...
So here are the leaders plus the whole congregation. Never once is there a suggestion that there was one man who was theleader of the congregation. And in Acts 16:4 we have a reference to the same thing. It says,
...they delivered to the Gentile churches the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem.
So about four times there in those verses or five times, you have apostles and elders joined together as the leaders of a local congregation.
And in Acts 15:23 you have a yet more complete phrase and it’s rather, a formal one because it’s put in a letter which was sent to the church of Antioch, and this is what it says,
And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles...
Well, who are the brethren? They’re not the apostles, they’re not the elders. My suggestion is they are all the other mature male believers in the congregation. This is not important, but that’s how I would understand it.
Now we have to resolve the question of what is the relationship between apostles and elders in a local congregation. How do they relate to one another. We know that an apostle is primarily a mobile ministry to the whole body of the church in every area at any time. On the other hand, even an apostle has to have a home somewhere. At least most of them. They have to live somewhere and it’s of course natural and even obligatory that an apostle shall be identified in fellowship with a local congregation wherever he resides. So we have this question that arises naturally, what is the relationship of the apostle to the congregation where he resides? You might say he’s a member by residence. And particularly what is his relation to the elders, the local resident leaders, of that congregation?
Now I think this is indicated pretty clearly in the language of Peter. Let’s go back to 1 Peter 5, which we have already looked at, and just look at verse 1 again. We only need to read the opening part of the verse,
The elders who are among you, I exhort, who am also an elder...
As I’ve already pointed out, where the King James says “also an elder” it is translating a single compound noun, which the best translation that I can think of is “co-elder.” It’s obviously a somewhat official phrase. So resident in that particular city, a member of that particular church, Peter as an apostle within that congregation took his position as a co-elder—an elder together with the other elders. This he had by virtue of his ministry as an apostle. I’ve already pointed out that the apostolic ministry includes the others listed in Ephesians 4. It includes the prophet, the evangelist, the shepherd or pastor, and the teacher. So when an apostle is resident, though he’s not, if I may use the word “apostleing”, he’s still exercising a ministry as an elder or shepherd in the local congregation.
One thing very important to see is that he does not come on a higher level than the elders. There is no one over the elders. This is one of the great fundamental principles that we cannot ignore. The elders are the leaders and there is no leader over the elders. You cannot get higher. The moment you get anybody over the elders, then you’re going to get somebody over the people that are over the elders, and you’re going to get somebody over the person that’s over the people that’s over the elders, and you end up inevitably with some kind of papacy. Once you take that one step, ultimately you cannot avoid arriving at a papacy. You may not call it a papacy. As Brother David DuPlessis points out there are Roman Catholic Popes and there are Pentecostal Popes, but they’re basically the same. For instance, without being critical, in the Assemblies of God this is precisely how they have arrived at it. They have the local pastors, and then they put the superintendent over the pastors, and then in a state they have a superintendent over the superintendents, and then nationwide they have a general superintendent over the superintendent over the superintendents. Without, in any sense being critical, basically that general superintendent is an elected pope. That’s what he is. And that is because they’ve taken the one fatal step of allowing anybody to be on a level higher than the local elders in the local congregation. This is an absolutely basic principle of Scripture that we cannot violate without completely upsetting the whole pattern of New Testament church government.
Now notice in Acts 13:1 that you may also have other ministries resident in a local congregation.
Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers...
And five men are listed. They were in the church that was at Antioch. They were for the time being resident in Antioch. Antioch was their local congregation. Within that local congregation they had a position of leadership. That’s clear from the whole account. Their leadership was due to their ministry as prophets and teachers. But they still took their place within the congregation along with the other local leaders.
Now if we turn to 1Corinthians 12:28 we have a picture of the main offices or ministries in a local congregation. Certainly it is not all, but it’s the main ones. It’s put there in a rather emphatic way, “God hath set...” Here is something that man cannot change, or turn upside down. It’s an ordinance, a setting of God. We’ll read it,
And God hath set some in the church [and then there follows an order, and this is very interesting because in most places the Apostle Paul does not list things specifically in numerical order, but here he says,], first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.
All these as I understand it refer to the local congregation. As I pointed out when we were studying evangelists, the fact that the evangelist’s ministry is not mentioned is an indication here we are dealing with the local congregation of believers. And as an evangelist he has no place with that ministry because there’s no one to evangelize. They are already believers. But in this total set up there’s a certain order of ministries. The senior one is apostle, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers. They are all co-elders. But when it comes to authority, to making determinations on matters of doctrine, then it’s first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers. Then come the ministries that arise out of the exercise of spiritual gifts—the ministry of miracles, gifts of healings, etc.
Now I think this is extremely logical and also practical, so that we have to have a very careful balance especially in the relationship between the apostles and the local elders. They cannot become a group above the elders. They are co-elders with the elders. But nevertheless, because of the apostolic ministry in certain matters, particularly those of doctrine, theirs is the highest authority. This is exactly how it was as we looked at it in Acts 15. It was the apostles and elders and then sometimes the brethren as well. The apostles are not a group above the elders. They were co-elders with the elders, but nevertheless, when it came to a matter of doctrine which was primarily in the apostolic field of ministry, then their determination was the most authoritative. I think this is simple and practical.
You see in many, many things in the Scripture we have to achieve a balance. I just take this illustration between husband and wife. The Scripture says the husband is the head of the wife, the wife it so submit herself to her husband, then the husband is to cherish the wife. There are responsibilities on both sides. Many, many marriages go wrong because one or both partners do not fulfill their obligations. It requires a mutual fulfilling of obligations for the marriage to be successful. The wife has to submit, but the husband has to cherish. If the husband doesn’t cherish, then the submission of the wife becomes a kind of bondage. On the other hand the husband is to lead, but if the wife doesn’t submit then the husband’s leadership becomes a kind of dictatorship. So for the thing to function, both parties have to take their place and respect and acknowledge the ministry or the position of the other.
Now it seems to me this is exactly the same with apostles and elders in the local congregation. The apostles are not say, “We’re a super group and you just have to do what we say because we’re apostles.” They are co-elders. But on the other hand, within certain spheres that are particularly under the apostolic ministry, their opinion is the most authoritative. Therefore, the elders cannot say, “Well you’re just elders and we don’t need to pay any more attention to you than anybody else.” No. You’re co-elders, but on the other hand because of your apostolic ministry, we are obligated to give heed and attention to what you say. There is not to be dictation from either side.
Notice also, which I didn’t point out, there was in your outline that not only does Peter call himself an elder, but also John. Turn to the last two epistles of John, that’s the second and third epistle, the short ones that don’t have any chapters. 2John, the introduction, the salutation begins this way,
The elder unto the elect lady and her children...
And the third epistle begins,
The elder unto the well-beloved Gaius...
In other words, John styled himself an elder just as Peter did. He was an apostles, but he chose here to take his position as an elder. On the other hand, if you look further on in the third epistle it becomes clear that in the church situation in the city where Gaius lives to whom this letter was addressed, there was trouble amongst the elders. And the trouble was due to one particular man, Diotrephes, who had a very common disease amongst Christians. He wanted to be lord over everybody else. He wanted to be theoneto whom everybody else had to look and obey, and he wanted to have the last word on everything. The language of John who was a very gracious and loving man, about Diotrephes is pretty sharp. I think we’ll read it. The ninth and tenth verses,
I wrote unto the church [that’s the church where obviously where Gaius was living]: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, speaking against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church.
There’s a very typical church situation. Diotrephes has decided that he is going to be thepastor and everybody else is going to have to do what Diotrephes says. And anybody that doesn’t go along with Diotrephes, he kicks them out of the church. But notice that John as an apostle says, “If I come along I’ll be with Diotrephes.” So that there is again this interplay of authority. And if there is usurpation of authority within a local church by one many or possibly a group, when the apostle comes along he has the authority to straighten that thing out. You will find that the Apostle Paul likewise wrote at certain times to certain groups in a pretty strict way. For instance, he said to the Corinthian church, “What do you want? Should I come in meekness or should I come with a rod? Do you want me to come meek and bring my blessing, or do you want me to come with authority and discipline?”
So we face the fact that in every aspect of the Christian life and every aspect of the local congregation, there is this element of authority and discipline. And where Christians refuse Scriptural discipline, the result is chaos and disaster. This is one of the great problems in America today. The majority of Christians haven’t got the faintest concept of what it means to be under discipline. And, alas, many times when people receive the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, they get a false idea of what freedom is. They say, “Now, I’m free. I can do what I like.” But that is not freedom. As I said the other day in one of my studies, that’s to be extremely childish. That’s like the people of Kenya. When we were there and they were getting their political independence, the word was “Uhuru” and everybody was talking about Uhuru. What will happen when Uhuru comes? And one poor illiterate African woman thought Uhuru was the name of a politician who was coming to solve all their problems. But anyhow, they really thought, and this is not exaggeration, they said amongst themselves, “When Uhuru comes, independence, we can ride our bicycles on any side of the road. We will travel in the buses without paying fares, we don’t have to pay any more taxes.” That was their idea of independence.
Some Christians, when they get the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, are just as naive and foolish in the spiritual plane as those people were on the political. In every area of Christian living, in church life there is authority and there is discipline. A Christian in the New Testament is a disciple. The first people who were ever called Christians, Acts 11:26, were disciples. A disciple is one who is under discipline. That’s part of the name.
Now let me sum up this discussion which is really very far reaching in its significance, about the relationship between the elder and the apostle. To me this is the most important feature of the ministries. The elders are the vital link between the mobile ministries on the one hand and the resident members of the local congregation on the other hand. Therefore there must be a good working understanding between the mobile ministries on the one hand, and the local elders on the other.
On the one hand, the mobile ministries cannot dictate to the local leaders. You will find that the apostles never did that. On the other hand, the local leaders are obliged, or required to recognize the authority of the mobile ministries. And only where both parties act rightly can the results that God desires in the church be achieved.
Now let’s look briefly at deacons. The word “deacon” comes from a word that means “to serve” and you really could translate deacon in modern English as “servers.” I’m not going to deal at length with deacons. One reason being just purely practical that the church as I deal with it in my travels around and locally, just hasn’t arrived at the stage where deacons are of great practical importance. I trust there will come a time when the church will be doing those things which will require the exercise of deacons. But at the present time there is so little of the activities that deacons are supposed to supervise that we are not going to deal with them at length.
However, if you turn to Acts 6 you’ll read briefly there the reason why deacons were appointed.
And in those days, when the number od the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.
Notice that deacons were not appointed when the church first came into being. They were only appointed when the number of disciples multiplied. In other words, they’re not basic to the church. They’re secondary.
Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. [It’s not our job to administer this kind of charity, whatever you like to call it.] 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. [This is the backbone of the apostolic ministry, it’s prayer and the ministry of the word. And it’s a disaster when men called to that ministry allow themselves to be sidetracked into other forms of practical administrations.] And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen [and six others whose names are given]... When they had chosen them they set before the apostles: and the apostles prayed and laid their hands on them.
And when the apostles laid their hands on them, then they were acknowledge and established as deacons.
Notice the requirements for deacons are by no means little. They had to be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, they had to be honest or good report. In 1Timothy 3, the latter half of the chapter, you’ll read a detailed list of the various requirements which are very, very similar of the requirements for an elder. But we notice that the method of choosing is slightly different. The apostles did not initially choose the deacons. They said to the congregation, “You look out the men. And when you’ve found them, if they’re acceptable we’ll appoint them.” I think there’s tremendous wisdom in that. You see, they were going to handle finance and material things. I don’t know whether you’ve been in church situations like this, but where we have, let’s say, the pastor and the board, I’ve been in not a few situations where the church members say, “Well the pastor puts on the board the people that will do what he wants with the money.” These wily Jewish apostles avoided this criticism. They said, “You look out the people. You be responsible. All we’ll do is just check them to make sure that they meet the requirements.”
So if there was any maladministration after that of these funds and these other items, the church couldn’t point to the apostles and say, “You put the wrong people in because they would do what you wanted.” I think this is simple but it’s extremely practical.
Anyhow, as a result of this, we come back to Philippines 1:1, where we have this enumeration of the total personnel of the local church. Bishops or elders or shepherds, whatever you like to call them; deacons serving in the practical realm; saints. That’s all. It’s that simple.
Now let’s deal briefly with this question of the principle of plurality of local leadership. This means that in any given locality, there need never be more than one local church, even though there may be many thousands of believers. You see, this is what we discovered in our earlier study of the local church. There never was more than one church in one city. It was never a situation where there were churches in Jerusalem, or churches in Antioch, or churches in Corinth. It was always the church in Jerusalem, or the church in Antioch, or the church in Corinth. And yet the number of believers was very, very large. I’ll show you a simple calculation about Jerusalem in a moment, but historians estimate that in Antioch there were at least 40,000 believers and in Corinth there were at least 25,000 believers. Yet only one church. Well, how could this be? Under the present system of one man who’s responsible for his church, it becomes actually impossible. The reason why it cannot work there is because of the principle of one man leadership. It limits the number of people that can be in one congregation.
Actually one man cannot effectively serve as a shepherd to 500 people, let alone 5,000 or 50,000. Some men are trying to do it for as many as 5,000 or even more, but it is impossible to do the job the way it should be done with that number of people.
Now the alternative is not to have one man who is the leader, but to have plurality of leaders; elders, overseers, shepherds. This way it doesn’t matter how many members there are, there’s no problem. You never have to split the congregation up. All you do is appoint new extra leaders each time the congregation grows, and you keep a kind of proportion between the number of leaders and the number in the congregation.
Suppose you say that you need one elder for every fifty persons. Let’s say that. I think you probably need more, but let’s say that. Alright, you have a congregation of 500, you have ten elders. You have a congregation of 5,000, you have a hundred elders. You have a congregation of 50,000, you have a thousand elders. But you never need to split the congregation up and make two churches in one locality simply because the church grows.
Now let’s see this as applied in the church in Jerusalem. It’s very interesting. Acts 18:22 tells about Paul. He landed at Cesarea, and went up and saluted the church. Now the context indicates clearly it was to Jerusalem that he went up. And in Jerusalem he saluted, he gave his greetings, his respect, his reports to the church. Not to the churches, but to the church. One church in Jerusalem.
Now lets look at the number of people that believed in Jerusalem.Turn to Acts 21:20. The leaders of the church in Jerusalem in a subsequent situation were talking to Paul and it says this,
And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe;...
And they were talking about Jerusalem. Where the King James Version says “thousands,” the Greek is “myriads.” And everybody knows a myriad is ten thousand. So it’s not how many thousands, but how many ten thousands. And I think you’ll agree with me, the language indicates that it must have been at least five ten thousands, which makes 50,000 of the one congregation in Jerusalem.
And then it says in verse 22 of the same chapter,
What is it therefore? the multitude must needs come together:...
It speaks about a very large concourse of persons—the multitudes and yet it’s one church. How could that be? Because they had elders in proportion to the number of members in the church.
So we are brought to, what I consider to be, two mutually exclusive alternatives. They are stated there in your outline. I’ve tried to make them as clear as possible. The first is the situation that we have almost everywhere today, which is many local churches, each with one leader. And it may not be one. It might be two or it might be three. There might be a pastor, associate pastor and music director, youth director, education director. Let’s give them five. But beyond five, most churches don’t go. Basically the thought is is a congregation with one man who is thepastor. This is the basic contemporary thinking of most Christians.
The other alternative is one local church, no matter if there are 40,000, 50,000, 60,000, 80,000 believers—and many leaders. No problems. Of course, there will always be personal problems. We can’t get away from that. Brother Smith doesn’t find it easy to get on with Brother Jenkins. But you see, you can never avoid personal problems. No one is suggesting that this is exactly easy for the old man. It isn’t. But what most Christians have failed to realize that God has no program for the old man. As far as God’s concerned, there’s only one solution to the problem of the old man, and that’s execution. Our old man was crucified in Christ on the cross (Romans 6:6). God has never provided a program that will work with the old man. I look back over church history which I don’t know too much about, Praise the Lord!, and I see about 18 centuries of people struggling to come with some program that will get the job done with the old man. And there isn’t any program that will get the job done with the old man. You cannot do the job. God has made no provision for the old man except execution.
So if we’re thinking in terms of what you and I are in our carnal, Adamic nature, then this just doesn’t work. That’s all there is to it. It’s impossible. But it isn’t impossible when we’re living in the grace of God and walking in the Spirit of God. God is not interested in any other kind of program other than that which will function when the Spirit of God leads people who are living as children of God. We can’t change God’s standards to come down to ours. We have to be changed by the grace of God until we come to a place where we can live and flourish and be happy and at peace within the standards of God. I am sure the same is true for the church. God is going to lower His standards. He isn’t going to change His requirements. You see, any time God launches anything, He launches it right. And any change would be a change for the worse.
I always think about this in connection with Noah’s ark. Noah’s ark was designed by God, executed by Noah in exact agreement with God’s design, and Noah’s ark never had to be recalled. It never had to go into dry dock. It never had to be modified. It never had to be repaired. It was right the first time. If anybody had come along and said, “Well, it’s to difficult to do a Noah’s ark this way, let’s try it another way.” The result would have been that the ark would have sunk. It would have been a change for the worse, and I’m convinced that the same is true of God’s pattern for the ministry.
Let’s take the ministry of Jesus Christ. He’s the perfect apostle, the perfect prophet, the perfect evangelist, the perfect shepherd, the perfect teacher. When He started that ministry off He started it off right, and God has never had any program for ministry other than the ministry of Jesus Christ. All we have to do is do the same as Jesus. It’s that simple. John 14:12, Jesus said,
...He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also...
We have seen many, many other forms and types of methods of ministry over the years but they have never got the job done that God wanted done. Because God started with the right method and He’s not going to change.
Precisely the same is true, I believe, with the church order. God started with the right pattern. It was given to the apostles and to the early leaders by the Holy Spirit, and God is never going to accept another pattern. It’s not going to be that God’s going say, “Well, I found this is too hard and people don’t seem to understand it and don’t seem to be able to fit in with it, so I’ll change My standards and My patterns.” He will not. God is waiting patiently. I marvel at the patience of God. He’s waiting until Christians will fit in with His standards and His pattern. I believe this is one of the significant things that is beginning to happen in the United States. I see traces and evidences here and there that at last people are says, “Why don’t we find out the way God wanted the church organized. Why don’t we try to fit in with that instead of trying to make God do things the way that we thing that He ought to do them.”
Now let me, in closing, just point out a couple of significant facts about the position of elders. I’ve dealt at length with elders because at the present time my impression is that the two vital ministries that need to be established again in the minds of Christians are those of apostles and elders. So I don’t apologize for dealing at some length with elders. As far as I’m concerned, they’re absolutely a key to the whole present situation.
Let me point out, therefore, in closing these two final facts about elders. Turn back to Acts 14 and we read this time from verse 21 to verse 23, speaking about Paul and Barnabas.
And when they had preached the gospel to that city [and that incidently is an example of evangelize—when they had evangelized that city], and had taught many [had made many disciples], they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith,
In Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, they had already preached—probably a number of months previously. And certainly I would say, not more than one year previously. When they left those cities after their first visit, they left behind them people who were called “disciples.” They did not leave churches. There’s no reference to churches. But on their return, they went back and gave those disciples further teaching and exhortation and it says they confirmed the souls of the disciples, they established them in the faith, exhorted them to continue in the faith and warned them,
and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. [Having done this, it says in verse 23] ...they ordained them elders in every church...
What I want you to notice is the transition from being just disciples to being a church. When did it come? When the elders were appointed. Without elders, you just amorphous group of disciples. But as soon as the proper leaders are appointed—elders—then those groups of disciples are recognized scripturally as churches.
So what makes a group of disciples into a New Testament church is the scriptural appointment of elders. This is the point of transition. Now what we have as I see it, and I would venture to say probably as God sees it in the United States today, is multitudes of disciples and hardly any churches. Oh yes, we have the Baptist church, the first Baptist and the last Baptist, and we have the church of the Nazarene, and the Assembly of God and the church of Four Square Gospel, the Church of God and the Church of God In Prophecy, and the Church of God in Prophecy in Christ, and the Church of God in Prophecy in Christ and in the Father. I mean, we have come as far as that, but as far as God is concerned, I don’t believe those are churches. All we have is amorphous group of disciples. And now, praise God, we have these groups coming together in little house prayer groups and Bible study groups. But that still doesn’t make a church. When will those groups of disciples become in the sight of God and by the standard of Scripture, churches when elders are Scripturally appointed and begin to function Scripturally? There will be a point of transition from the chaos of just amorphous companies of disciples, to the order of church life.
As I understand it, the vital transaction that produces the change is the appointment of elders. This is very significant because if I am right, then you can understand it’s logical that if there’s one thing the devil will oppose more than anything else in the present situation, it is the Scriptural appointment of elders. As far as my personal experience over the recent months goes, this is exactly the way it is. In fact, when we of this particular area began to take this step it was no accident that all hell broke loose. It was Satan’s reaction against a vital step that will reduce his ability to impede and harm and disorganize the believers in Jesus Christ.
Now with regard to these men that were appointed elders let me just point this out. According to my calculations, they could not have been believers for more than a year and probably less. And yet they were appointed elders. You say, “They weren’t very old elders.” No. But you see the word “elder” is relative. In a group of children age six, a child age eight is an elder. But if the average age of the group is twenty, you have to be twenty-two to be an elder. But it’s always relative. These were not tremendous Bible students that had been through a Bible college or sat for fifteen years in Sunday School. They were just men that had used their time to get acquainted with God and the basic truths of His word. When Paul and Barnabas came back the Holy Spirit showed them these are the men that are going to be leaders. Now is the time to set them in their position. So remember that an elder is essentially relative to the group. It’s not so much natural, physical age, nor is it even so much the number of years the person’s been converted. The person may have been converted ten years, and spiritually six months old. What matters is spiritual maturity. This is primary.
Notice this one final statement, and we close, in Titus 1:5 which is exactly in line with what I’ve been seeking to show you.
For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city...
In other words, until elders are ordained in every city there is something wanting. The order of the church is not as it should be and I believe this is precisely the truth and it’s the thing that we have to face today and act upon.
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