Jesus is the King and Head of the Church. He is the church’s leader and its Chief Shepherd. The church belongs to Jesus, exists for Jesus and is under the authority of Jesus. In God’s sovereign plan and under his authority, he chooses men to serve as elders and deacons to lead, guide, serve and protect his church.
So the question becomes, what’s the difference? The office of elder is an office of teaching and rule. The office of deacon is an office of service. In practice though, it’s less about different roles and more about starting point, as the above illustration demonstrates. The elder typically starts by assessing spiritual needs in people’s lives and moving toward meeting physical needs. The deacon, on the other hand, starts by serving people, moving to a place of teaching people how to grow in maturity as a means of helping them grasp the spiritual implication of the practical assistance provided.
Example: Say a couple’s marriage is struggling and they are falling behind on their bills. Let’s see how the elder and the deacon are likely to respond, starting from the distinct perspective of their respective office.
The elder may begin counseling the couple, assessing their selfish motivations, areas where they are pursuing their own desires rather than seeking to pour the gospel onto the spouse. Out of that counseling and assessing the spiritual needs of the couple, the elder may learn that the couple is having financial problems that are contributing to the marital discord. At that point, the elder may move to provide assistance in meeting the financial problems of the couple.
The deacon, conversely, may start by helping meet the physical needs of the couple: helping with the rent or paying the couple’s electric bill. The deacon, then, started by serving the practical needs of the couple… but not ending there. The deacon then asks diagnostic questions such as:
- How did you get into these financial difficulties?
- Is this a one-time challenge or likely recurring? If recurring, what lifestyle changes must the couple make?
- How is your marriage doing? Are these money problems getting between the two of you?
The elder may start with counseling or teaching a class and move to helping with practical needs. The deacon may start with the practical needs and move to counseling or teaching the couple about Godly approaches to money.
While the starting point may be different, good eldering and good deaconing both require engaging the spiritual and the physical needs of the congregation. And, when done well, they will join hands as partners in the process…