1) The early church worked out their leadership based on the mission and method of Jesus.
2) The elders were the pastors in the early church.
3) The elders managed the tasks they were responsible for through delegation.
4)The elders delegated ministry to all disciples, also known as servants (diakonos, deacons).
According to Ephesians 4:11-13, the task of the church leaders/elders (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers) was to equip the Lord’s people for works of service. The word for ‘service’ here is ‘diakonias’, from which we get ‘deacon’. One of the Latin words for serving is ‘ministro’, from which we get the word ‘minister’. Originally all members were called to be ministers and deacons (servants), training as disciples to serve in the mission of the church. There were specific assignments to which disciples were commissioned.
Following this original sense of the word ‘deacon’ (and ‘minister’), every leader and worker in the church is a deacon. The task of the elders is to train and empower the members for serving in some aspect of the churches work. If people are needed to manage the food distribution for widows (Acts 6:1-7), then servants (deacons/ministers) are selected and commissioned. If people are needed to lead worship, then servants (deacons/ministers) are selected and commissioned. If people are needed to manage the facilities, then servants (deacons/ministers) are selected and commissioned. If people are needed to manage benevolence or stewardship, then servants (deacons/ministers) are selected and commissioned.
In other words, in the early church there was no limited office called ‘deacon’ whose task was managing the collections or benevolence requests. There were deacons who may have handled this stuff (again, see Acts 6:1-7). But there were also deacons who led worship, managed the finances, taught the children, etc. Even the apostles/elders were servants (ministers/deacons) in the church (1 Corinthians 3:5, Titus 1:1, 2 Peter 1:1). All were called to their work. No need for special titles or offices.
Please do not misunderstand me, I am not devaluing the good work of those we presently call ‘deacons’ in the church. Their ministry is extremely important. But so is the ministry of every other servant (deacon) in the church. All those who serve in the church should be honoured as ‘deacons’ fulfilling an assignment from the Lord.
By setting aside a few ‘special offices’, the church has undermined the office of all believers, and the good work of many volunteers. There is no such thing as an unspecial office!!! The custodian is a special office, so is the treasurer, so is the GEMS counselor, so is the bulletin folder… all of them are servants (ministers/deacons) in the church of Jesus Christ who are, or ought to be, commissioned.
The early church model of leadership was simple: Some members (more mature disciples) were set apart as leaders (apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastors and teachers, Ephesians 4:11). Their job was to gather, equip, empower and unleash disciples for ministry (service) in the church (Ephesians 4:12). Some disciples were commissioned as servants/deacons to fulfill certain tasks in the church. In some way, every member was a deacon, serving in some capacity in the church. This is how the whole church was built up, as every member did its part (Ephesians 4:12-13,16).
As long as we cling to worldly titles of hierarchical office and ‘specialness’, we undermine the mission and method of Jesus and hinder the growth of the church. The church needs to turn back to Jesus’ example of gathering, equipping and empowering disciples. The elders (overseers/pastors) as a leadership team of more mature disciples need to stop thinking about their ‘office’ and start focusing on their calling: to equip all disciples in the office of servant and minister in Jesus’ Church!
In my next post we will look at the work of pastoral care in the church.