Baptist churches recognize two official duties according to the New Testament: pastor and deacon. 1 Corinthians 12:28 says, “And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues.” It mentions apostles, prophets, teachers, workers of miracles, those with gifts of healing, those who can help others, those who can administrate, those who can speak in other tongues, and so on. These are not seen as duties authorized by the church.
A pastor is also called an elder or overseer. Each of these titles are used differently today. Biblically speaking, these are all one duty. These names only emphasize different functions. ‘Elder’ means ‘senior worthy of respect’. ‘Overseer’ means ‘leader entrusted with taking care of the church’. ‘Pastor’ means ‘person entrusted with giving spiritual nourishment to saints and guiding them.’
Paul gathered the elders of the Ephesian church. Acts 20:17-21 mentions his farewell speech to them. It says, ‘From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. And when they had come to him, he said to them: “You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.”’ It says in verse 28, “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” Paul called them ‘elders’, entrusted them with feeding the sheep as ‘shepherds’, and the Holy Spirit appointed them as ‘overseers’.
1 Peter 5:1-2 says, “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly.” Peter exhorted the ‘elders’ to do work as ‘shepherds’. Since Peter entrusted them with the work of shepherds, he saw them as pastors. The Bible mentions the word ‘shepherd’ several times. The term ‘pastor’ is mentioned in Ephesians 4:11. It says, “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.” This is the only mention of ‘pastor’ in the Bible.
Acts 14:23 says, “So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” Paul and Barnabas set up churches and appointed elders in each of them. These ‘elders’ refer to appointed pastors of today.
Furthermore, Paul told Titus to appoint elders in each church. Titus 1:5 says, “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you.”
1 Timothy 3:2-7 (NIV) mentions the qualification of overseers. It says, “Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.”
Philippians 1:1 (ESV) says, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” Why does Paul classify them as saints, overseers and deacons, but not mention the elders? This is because elders refer to the overseers.
Some denominations do not regard ‘pastor’, ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’ as the same thing. They regard ‘elder’ as distinct from ‘pastor’ and ‘overseer’. In Presbyterian churches, pastors are regarded as elders responsible for administration and management. Regular ‘elders’ have responsibility for administration alone.
The second duty mentioned in the New Testament is the deacon. Deacons are mentioned in the Bible as receiving ordination. ‘Deacon’ in ancient Greek is ‘diakonos’. This means ‘person who carries out commands’, ‘performer’, ‘ambassador’ or ‘clerk’. Interestingly, Jesus referred to Himself with this word (Matthew 22:13, Mark 9:35). Jesus said, “Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). The Greek word for ‘servant’ is the same word for ‘deacon’.
This does not mean people with duties (including pastors) rule over the congregation. It is better to see them as ‘public servants’ who labor for them. Jesus saw Himself as a ‘clerk’ or ‘one who serves’. Likewise, pastors should not see themselves as head of the church. They should see themselves as clerks of church.
The duty of deacon is originally mentioned in Acts 6. It talks about the church of Jerusalem. The apostles could not both teach and deal with daily distribution. They needed workers who could do this. They called an assembly and chose seven deacons. The apostles ordained and commissioned them to do their duties (Acts 6:2-6).
When the church at Jerusalem chose their deacons for the first time, their requirements were that they be full of the Holy Spirit, filled with wisdom, and have good reputation. Later on, Paul listed qualifications for deacons. 1 Timothy 3:8-12 says, “Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. But let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless. Likewise, their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.”
The official duties by ordination are pastor and deacon. We must realize how important deacons. Churches need workers. But it is dangerous to hastily ordain deacons because they show a little zeal. 1 Timothy 3:10 says, “But let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless.”
Paul mentioned a female deacon, Phoebe, as ‘a servant of the church in Cenchrea’ (Romans 16:1). The word for ‘servant’ in ancient Greek is the same word for ‘deacon’. Paul talked about qualification for deacons, saying, “Likewise, their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things” (1 Timothy 3:11). It follows that the Early Church acknowledged female deacons.
Deacons were chosen in the church at Jerusalem to handle daily distributions. Nothing further is mentioned in the Bible. If we consider the ministerial environment of today’s church, deacons can do many things. They can manage finances, help carry out ceremonies, help the congregation, distribute supplies, set the example by participating in good deeds, assist the pastor’s ministry, and so on.
In the Bible, deacons are appointed by the church and ordained by the apostles. Since the duty of deacon is given by ordaining, if something special does not happen, the duty of deacon is lifetime. You cannot be deacon in one church and also be one in another.
In today’s churches, there are problems with the duty of deacons. When the deacon’s term of duty ends, he might not be appointed for another year. But people still call him deacon. As a result, almost everyone is a deacon. Those who are not deacons feel alienated. If they are called deacons when they are not, it brings confusion. Deacons who finish their term are sometimes called ‘honorary deacon’. ‘Deacons’ are workers in the church, and do not refer to higher positions.
The basic attitude of Baptist churches is to permit the greatest freedom. This is so each saint can do their utmost to demonstrate faith and love. There is no appointed class or rank for each pastor or deacon. The person with a duty is not higher than the person without one. The former does not rule over the latter. Rather, as representatives for all saints, they act in service to them. The exception is the pastor, who is the leader appointed by the Holy Spirit. The congregation follows and obeys him, thus fulfilling God’s kingdom.
Peter did not regard himself as ruler over leaders of other churches. In 1 Peter 5:1, he says, “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed.” He regarded himself as ‘a fellow elder’. This is the faith and attitude of the apostles. This is the attitude of Baptist churches. Within a Baptist church, there is no hierarchical system: a higher department rules over a lower one, and a lower department obeys a higher one.
Pastor Ki-Taek Lee
The director Sungrak Mission Center