What kind of organization should there be in each local congregation of the Lord’s people? It seems in the New Testament they followed the example of the organization of the synagogues to a large degree. As far back as Acts 11:27-30 there were elders in the church in Jerusalem. In Acts 14:23 Paul and Barnabas set apart elders in every church as they returned from their first missionary journey. In Acts 20 Paul met with the elders from Ephesus to talk about the future. He warned them of coming apostasy that would arise from their ranks. In Philippians 1:1 Paul addressed his letter to the church with it overseers and deacons. In I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 he gave the qualities one should have to be an elder and in I Timothy 3 he also gave the qualities of a deacon.
Paul left Timothy in Ephesus and Titus in Crete to set apart additional elders. He said to Titus he was to straighten things out and set apart elders in every city. Sometimes these elders also served as the preacher in the churches. In I Timothy 5:17 Paul said, “The elders who lead well are to be counted worthy of double honor especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”
While the New Testament clearly teaches that there must be leadership in the church for it to be what God intended, it doesn’t teach any kind of hierarchy for the church. There is just one head of the church and that is Jesus (Colossians 1:18). Every Christian is a priest of God to offer up spiritual sacrifices to God (I Peter 2:5; 9). It has been said that the ground is always level at the foot of the cross. The New Testament doesn’t teach that there is to be some kind of clergy-laity arrangement. In truth every Christian is clergy. As priest we don’t need to go through any man to reach God. “There is one God and one mediator between God and man. The man is Christ Jesus.” (I Timothy 2:5)
There are different gifts and different ways of serving God in the church but not difference in rank. Jesus said the greatest among you will be the servant of all. He told the disciples not to call any man rabbi, master, teacher or Lord for you are all brethren. There is a distinct difference in the work of an elder, a deacon, and a preacher. But none rank higher than the others. They are all to be humble servants of God through Christ. Those who exalt themselves will be brought down and those who humble themselves will be lifted up.
When the preacher is preaching the word of God he is under the authority of God and to preach and rebuke with all authority. While a preacher might also be an elder, he would have to meet the same qualifications as anyone else. His work isn’t limited to preaching to the congregation. He is to be reaching out with the gospel to try to bring others into the family of God. Those called “elders” are also called “pastors” or “shepherds”, “overseers” or “bishops”. These leaders are also referred to as leaders and stewards or managers at times. Their work is over the local congregation. In Acts 20:28 Paul told these elders from Ephesus “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock of God over which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Shepherd the church of God which he has purchased with his own blood.” They are there to work with the church, encourage the members, train each for service in the kingdom and go out after those who stray to bring them back to God. It is a huge task and there is no wonder to why Paul would say to choose those who are mature in their faith so they won’t be lifted up with pride and fall in the same way Satan did.
The deacons in the church are special servants who work with the preacher and the elders in special areas of work. The first deacons mentioned in the New Testament were in Acts 6 when the seven men were set aside to be over the business of feeding the widows in the church. Paul said to Timothy that the deacons who served well purchase for themselves a good standing.
For any church to function well it needs Shepherds to work with the people and lead the people to greater service all the time. It also needs a preacher or preachers who will preach and teach the word of God clearly and with love. It must have deacons that lead in particular areas of ministry so the body can grow. When elders leave their work for the preacher and deacons leave their work for the elders it means that the church can’t grow much because the work of the leaders has been put into too small a box.
When James and John came to Jesus wanting the right and left hand when he came into his kingdom Jesus told them they didn’t know what they were asking. The other apostles were angered by their request but Jesus told them that among the gentiles those with leadership exercised authority over them but it won’t be that way among you. He that is greatest among you will be your servant and the first among you will be your slave. For even the Son of Man didn’t come into the world to be served but to serve and give his life a ransom for many. Every church needs more leaders, more workers and more teachers of the word of God. Where do you fit into God’s plan as a Christian?