by Walter Henegar, senior pastor
A primer on why and how we elect Elders and Deacons at Atlanta Westside.
Why do we need officers?
Because the local church is a Body composed of many different people with different gifts and perspectives, every member or “body part” is necessary for the whole to function well. That means the vast majority of its work is done by regular people just being the church. At the same time, a smaller number of people are necessary to help guide and coordinate the efforts of others. These servant leaders can play many different roles in the church, both formal and informal.
An even smaller number of servant leaders must accept the formal responsibility to oversee, govern and set an example for the whole church. We believe the bible teaches that local churches should be led by elders, with deacons serving alongside and under the elders’ authority. We also believe that the people who are best qualified to identify their officers are the church’s own members. So, every couple of years we announce a season for open nominations from the membership. The current elders then vet the nominations and invite some of them to officer training. After officer training, a slate of elder candidates is put forward for election by the membership, and those who receive enough votes are ordained. Trained deacon candidates are approved and appointed directly by the session.
What is an elder?
The word elder literally means “old man,” without specifying what qualifies as old. In the Bible, groups of elders (never just one one) were responsible to lead tribes, villages, cities, synagogues and eventually churches. In Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5, the Apostle Paul emphasizes the importance of appointing elders “in every church,” suggesting that elders represent the basic structure for local church leadership. The term presbyterian comes from presbuteros, the Greek word for elder. A presbyterian church, then, is essentially a church governed by elders. This is why churches in other denominations can also be “presbyterian” in structure.
Based on 1 Timothy 5:17, we also recognize two kinds of elders: pastors are “teaching elders,” and laymen are “ruling elders.” While pastors often function as “first among equals,” both kinds of elders have the same vote in church decisions. More important, 1 Peter 5:2-3 charges elders 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.” Elders are above all shepherds whose lives reflect, however imperfectly, the character of the Good Shepherd himself.
What about bishops?
Some denominations recognize a separate office of bishop (episkopos), who typically oversees multiple churches and their officers. Two key passages persuade us that bishop is not a separate office: 1) In Acts 20:17-38, Paul explicitly addresses the elders of the Ephesian church, in which he also refers to them as overseers. 2) In Titus 1:5-9, Paul directs Titus to appoint elders in every church, and then begins to lay out qualifications for them – but halfway through his list, he starts referring to them as overseers.
In addition, the whole list of qualifications in Titus 1 is functionally identical to the qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. Therefore, we believe elder and overseer are two ways of talking about the same office.
Who is in authority over the elders?
Based on the model of the first Jerusalem council in Acts 15, we believe church leaders should be accountable to larger groups composed of other church leaders. In Presbyterianism, these groups are referred to as “church courts,” and there are three levels. A local church court is called a Session, a regional court is called a Presbytery, and the national court is called the General Assembly. All courts are composed of ruling and teaching elders, and each court is subject to the authority of the lower court. In our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), our denominational committees and agencies, which help the churches communicate and cooperate in ministry, all operate under the authority of the General Assembly.
What is a deacon?
The Greek word for deacon simply means “servant.” Our central paradigm for the office of deacon is in Acts 6, where the apostles are getting worn out distributing food to widows, so they ask the church to choose from among them seven men, “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of Wisdom” – so that the apostles themselves can focus on prayer and the ministry of the Word.
Acts 6 does not explicitly refer to those seven men as deacons, but we understand them as kind of proto-deacons who lead the church in tangible acts of mercy and care. Later on, in 1 Timothy 3:8-13, Paul gives explicit qualifications for deacons. These qualifications for deacons do not include the ability to teach, so we believe elders have a greater level of responsibility and authority than deacons.
What is the difference between an elder and a deacon?
It’s similar to the Old Testament division between priests and Levites. Both priests and Levites were from the tribe of Levi, but only the sons of Aaron could be priests. The priests performed sacrificial work, whereas the Levites assisted with the more practical duties of maintaining temple worship.
Similarly, we believe the office of elder is characterized by rule, and the office of deacon is characterized by service. More specifically, elders focus on meeting spiritual needs, while deacons focus on meeting physical needs. If you need someone to help you with your broken heart, call an elder. If you need someone to help with your broken-down car, call a deacon.
Why do we only have male elders?
Not because it is popular, and not because we are misogynist or traditionalist, either. We believe the Bible teaches that in two particular contexts, the home and the church, men and women should relate to each other according to a pattern often called headship. Ephesians 5:21-33 and 1 Peter 3:1-7 describe this relationship between husbands and wives, and 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, and 1 Timothy 2:1-15 describe its implications for the church. At the same time, dozens of passages describe both men and women serving alongside one another in vital, essential roles in the church. When elders are leading the way Jesus models leadership, other men and women are not suppressed but empowered, affirmed and deployed to use their gifts throughout the church.
So why do we have female deacons?
1 Tim 3:11 includes qualifications for “the women” in the same paragraph as the qualifications for deacons. Some translations, including the ESV, translate the original Greek gunaikos as “their wives” – that is, the wives of deacons. However, there is no “their” in the Greek, and gunaikos normally just means woman (it’s where we get the term gynecology). We believe Paul is saying that qualified women should be recognized alongside qualified men in diaconal service.
Some PCA churches will appoint women in roles like this as “assistants to the deacons,” but that language implies a subordinate status that 1 Tim 3:11 does not suggest. And because all deacons are already subordinate to the Session, there’s no reason to create a separate sub-class. Another possible support for female deacons is a woman Paul refers to in Romans 16:1 as “Phoebe, a diakonia of the church at Cenchrae.” Strongly complementarian translators render it with the generic “servant,” but since her service is explicitly connected to a particular local church, it makes more sense to understand it as calling her a deacon.
Does our denomination allow female deacons?
The PCA Book of Church Order, which governs decisions like that, does not allow women to be ordained as deacons. However, because many churches in our denomination, like ours, believe that the Bible does allow them to serve as deacons, they “appoint” or “commission” both male and female deacons, rather than electing and ordaining any of them.
This practice, which has been going on for decades, is kind of an open secret. Every few years, elders at the General Assembly make overtures that seek to either forbid this practice or make it official, but so far none have succeeded. In the meantime, we are operating according to our best understanding of scripture, which is our ultimate authority.
But don’t deacons have to be the “husband of one wife?”
Yes, they do, in 1 Timothy 3:12. Elders must meet the same qualification in 1 Timothy 3:2. Some churches read this expression to prohibit single elders and deacons, but we think they are interpreting it overly literally. We understand it to mean “walking in biblical sexual integrity” – i.e., fidelity in monogamous marriage or celibacy in singleness. As such, we have several elders and deacons who are single, and several married female deacons who are the “wife of one husband.”
What about apostles?
Some denominations recognize a separate office of apostle. The original Greek word apostolos simply means “one who is sent,” so there is a sense in which all believers are apostles, sent by Jesus to preach and live the Gospel. Most often, however, the title refers to the original twelve apostles who were with Jesus in his earthly ministry and eyewitnesses to his resurrection, plus Matthias who replaced Judas, and Paul, to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection. As such, we believe the apostolic office ended with the closing of the New Testament canon. Some scholar also make a lot of the Greek preposition “en” in Romans 16:7, where (depending on how you translate it) a woman named Junia is either “well known to the apostles,” or “well known among the apostles.” The latter view would imply that a woman held the highest office of that era, which seems unlikely given everything else Paul wrote on the subject, and also that it rests only on a grammatical possibility.
Regardless, the variety of people that Paul sends greetings to in that chapter paints a beautiful picture of all kinds of men and women serving and leading side-by-side in the local church – including husband-and-wife team Priscilla and Acquila, who together helped instruct one of the most famous preachers of their day, Apollos (see Acts 18:24-26).