Church Leadership – Elders and deacons: who are they and what do they do?

We thank God for the election of new deacons to the Session last Sunday in the annual congregation meeting. Because of limitations of space, let me address the “who” and “what” questions briefly. The apostle Paul pointed out the roles of elders and deacons to Timothy in: a) 1 Tim 3:2 “Therefore an overseer (episkopos) must be above reproach…; and, b) 1 Tim 3:8 “Deacons (diakonos) likewise must be dignified…”

I would like first to focus on diakonos.  Basically its root meaning is “servant”, therefore, it refers to one who serves. The various forms of this word appear nearly 90 times in the New Testament signifying its importance. Consider the following two examples:


  • John Luke 22:25-27 (NIV): “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves (diakonon) . . . I am among you as one who serves (diakonon) .


  • John 12:26 (NIV): Whoever serves (diakone) me must follow me; and where I am, my servant (diakonos) also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves (diakone) me.


Hence, a deacon is a servant of Christ and His church. But not everyone who serves God or the church does so in the official capacity of deacon. In other words: while every deacon is a servant, not every servant is a deacon.

A distinction may be drawn between elders and deacons here. The main task of elders is theological oversight; the main task of deacons is practical ministry. Only one important qualification distinguishes elders from deacons: elders must be “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2) and “able to… refute those who contradict [sound doctrine]” (Titus 1:9).

It seems that the office of pastors/elders/overseers is given primacy in the New Testament because of the importance of sound doctrine and biblical teaching in the life of a young church (1 Timothy 1:3-7). Elders must be raised up as soon as possible in order to guard the gospel and refute error (Titus 1:9). Deacons were appointed later as the practical ministry needs increase.

Let me end by echoing the apostle Paul: “If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister (diakonos) of Christ Jesus…” (1 Tim 4:6). .

Pastor Robert Chew