Elders and deacons are important in God’s design for the church. We’ll address three important questions here:
- What are elders and deacons again? What’s the difference?
- What are the biblical qualifications for elders?
- What are the biblical qualifications for deacons?
What are Elders and Deacons Again? What’s the Difference?
According to the New Testament, elders are not simply a board of directors or a board of trustees; rather, they are understood as shepherds—men called to pastoral oversight of the church. Simon Peter identified himself as an elder and challenged elders in other local churches to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1–4).
In sum, the elders’ role is to shepherd the local church together through teaching and overseeing the flock.
The function of deacons (to put it simply) is to administrate servanthood.
This definition aligns with the meaning of the Greek word for deacon (diakonos) which simply means “servant.” To learn more about deacons, you can find several helpful blog posts on our website about “What the Bible Says about Deacons” and “Why Do Deacons Matter for the Church’s Health?”
What are the Biblical Qualifications for Elders?
The New Testament has specific qualifications for elders that we must take seriously. Paul says in 1 Tim. 3:1-7 (with a very similar passage in Titus 1:5-9):
“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.”(1 Timothy 3:1–7)
Notice that in Christian leadership, there is no substitute for character. An elder must have a track record of trustworthiness and godliness. Without these qualities in his life, teaching, family, and community, a man should not be commissioned as an elder. When we notice the importance of character, we must also recognize that the New Testament does not expect flawless perfection of anyone. At one point, Simon Peter, for example, fell into a doctrinal error that led him to withdraw from fellowship with people of other ethnicities. Paul confronted him because his “conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:11-14). In humility, Peter listened and repented. And, by grace, years of faithful ministry followed.
It is also significant that in Paul’s list of requirements for elders, the most unique qualification is that an elder must be “able to teach” (or perhaps a better translation: “skillful to teach”). This requirement does not mean that every elder must be equally skillful in Sunday morning preaching. But it does mean that every elder must be adept in spreading sound doctrine to others. Consider the way Paul describes the teaching requirement for elders in Titus 1:9: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” In Paul’s description of the teaching requirement for elders, there is little emphasis on communication skills, but a deep emphasis on doctrinal fidelity and effectiveness in passing on sound doctrine. In light of this, we put a significant emphasis on the doctrinal vetting of elder candidates.
God expects elders to be men of consistently commendable character who are skillful in teaching sound doctrine, and we must consider these factors as we evaluate elder candidates.
What about Qualifications for Deacons?
The biblical qualifications of deacons are listed in 1 Timothy 3, just after the passage we quoted above about the qualifications for elders:
“Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 3:8–13)
The New Testament is clear that with deacons, as with elders, character matters.
The most significant difference between the qualifications for deacons and elders is this: while elders must be skillful in teaching, there is no requirement about ‘skillfulness in teaching’ for deacons. (Although we should remember that a deacon’s doctrine still matters; they must “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.”)
Is that all?
It’s almost surprising that the New Testament doesn’t give more qualifications. A deacon does not have to be a certain age. An elder does not first have to master the Hebrew language. There’s no mention at all of how “successful” they must be in their line of business. These things have their value, but in God’s view, they are secondary to a candidate’s character, doctrine, and proven faithfulness in the church.
* With only a few light edits, this post was originally published on our blog in 2016.