As one reads this primer on Lead Pastor Congregationalism, it should become quickly apparent that I am persuaded that it is helpful to distinguish between three distinct categories of ministry roles in the biblical church. They are as follows:
1. The Role of Overseers/Elders/Shepherds (sometimes labeled as Pastors):
This is a poson of spiritual leadership, authority, management, governance, decision-making, oversight, shepherding, and teaching. There is a Team of Plural Pastors led by a Lead Pastor.
2. The Role of Servant Minister (sometimes incorrectly labeled as deacon):
In my assessment, this is a position which is not an official title of biblical polity but rather a role description of a person (or persons) who serves the Team of Pastors/Overseers/Elders/Shepherds as an AWE ministry team to accomplish tasks assigned to them by the Team of Pastors. They serve as a Ministry Team and not a committee and certainly not a board. The role of Servant Minister is not a position of biblical authority or governance. Rather, it is a role of service ministry.
Believers/members use their gifts, abilities, talents, etc. to serve Jesus Christ by engaging in Kingdom ministry (not Overseer ministry) by following the leadership of the Team of Pastors and the Servant Ministers.
B. We might as well start by tackling the Name of this Role (diaconos):
You will obviously note that I never use the name of “deacon” to describe this biblical ministry role. There is a simple reason for this. “Deacon” is not a proper translation of the Greek words diaconos (noun form) or diaconia (verb form) . In fact, it is not a translation at all. Rather, it is a transliteration which means that it is a made-up English word which is not a translation but instead an English word spelled out with Greek letters—in other words, a “sound-alike” word.
If my study of the Greek words diakonos (noun form found 29 times in the New Testament) and diakonio (verb found 34 times in the New Testament) is correct, the meaning of these words orbit the concept of “service”, i.e. we get a number of translations: servant, servant ministry, service at tables, services, ministry helper, someone who aids in service, etc. It is best translated as: Servant Minister. Nowhere in the Greek is the role of Servant Ministry referred to as an office.
Out of all of the some 50+ usages in the koine Greek of the NT, these words are consistently translated in accordance to the above meanings. According to what I have been able to research, there are only two exceptions in the NT—only two times when the Greek words are incorrectly transliterated as “deacon”—those texts are Phil. 1:1 and 1 Tim. 8-13.
Now, it will not surprise me if more than half of you reading this are saying to yourselves: “This cannot be right; we have been using the term of “deacon” for as long as I can remember.” You would, of course, be correct in the sense that the words have been improperly transliterated as “deacon” ever since the original translation of the Greek Textus Receptus into the English language.
What is not clearly known by most American Christians is why. Why did the first translation of the Word of God into English incorrectly transliterate this Greek word in these two places in the Scripture?
There is clear explanation for this error. However, it is an error which goes back all the way to the first centuries of our beloved Christian Church.
It may be a “fool’s errand” on my part to try to correct some 20 centuries of error in biblical polity when it comes to the scriptural depiction of a “Servant Minister”, but it needs to be attempted.
I am deeply indebted to the book, “Who Runs the Church”, which depicts the polity views of the four systems of church polity found in the historic Church. Using the terminology of WRTC, they are:
- Single-Elder Congregationalism
- Plural-Elder Congregationalism.
The polity view of Episcopalianism (which I believe to be fatally flawed from A to Z) is represented by Dr. Peter Toon. It is in Dr. Toon’s explanation of the foundational core of the Episcopalianism polity paradigm which was so very informative to me as I have sought to understand the comprehensive error in the English translations of the Greek word diaconos.
1. Definition of Episcopalian Polity: This church government is organized connectionally with hierarchical oversight authority over the local churches invested in bishops (episcobus) who are
“…distinct from and superior to the officers of local churches.” (WRTC, p.12)
2. The Bankruptcy of Episcopalian Polity
WRTC p. 19-70: Dr. Peter Toon insists there is no clear basis for a biblical polity taught in the Scriptures. Rather, Toon insists that it is the paradigm of Episcopalian polity which God providentially led the church to use in the history of 16 centuries before the Reformation challenged their paradigm. He appeals solely to tradition. His logic is that since the Lord allowed the church to use it for 16 centuries, then it must be right. Again, this is so wrong.
Toon then unpacks the historical traditions embedded in the Christian Church for the 16 centuries prior to the Reformation. He describes this historical tradition as “The Threefold Ministry” of the early century Catholicism.
The Mother Church (Episcopalean or Anglican or Catholic) tradition framed in the second or third century is often referred to as the “Threefold Ministry” of the church which consists of three levels of offices in church polity with the first two levels being “stepping stone” levels leading up to the bishopric:
- level 1: the office of deacon
- level 2: the office of elder/pastor
- level 3: the office of overseer/bishop
This is the hinge pin upon which the Episcopal form of polity is built. This paradigm creates a ladder effect in which the role of Servant Ministry (deacon) was transformed from a biblical role of service to an office of spiritual authority which then became a stepping stone to the role of Pastor which further became a stepping stone to the office of Bishop.
Error #1: This “Threefold Ministry” concept arbitrarily changed the biblical meaning of the Overseer/Pastor office and decided that the functions and roles of the Overseer and the Pastor should be separated and viewed distinctly. As I have covered earlier, the scriptures clearly depict that the functions of the Overseer and the Pastor refer to one- and-the-same office. It is crystal clear in the Word of God that Titus 1:5-7, Acts 20:28, Acts 20:17, and 1 Peter 5:14 all teach that the biblical words for Elder (presbyteros), Overseer (episcopos), Pastor/Shepherd (poimen) are all describing the one and the same office. When this Catholicism paradigm seeks to separate the role of Episcopos from Presbyteros/Poimen, they have created a man-made tradition which is in direct contradiction with the Scripture and therefore bankrupt.
-“The New Testament beyond any shadow of a doubt teaches that the office of elder and bishop are equivalent. When anyone (including Ignatius) teaches contrary to this by distinguishing the two offices, they contradict the teaching of the New Testament” WRTC p. 288.
Error #2: Additionally, the role of Servant Ministry (diaconos) in the bible is clearly not a role of spiritual leadership or oversight, but rather a role of service, help, and aid in ministry functions.
What gradually happened in these first few centuries is that the meaning of the word diaconos was transformed from the biblical function or role of “Servant Ministry” to an office of a spiritual oversight position in training to become an elder/pastor. Apparently, this transformation of the biblical role grew out of a pragmatic need to ascertain leaders for the churches. Unfortunately, this pragmatic deviation from the paradigm of biblical polity has had a devastating ripple effect upon the centuries of polity development. This early corruption of the meaning of diaconos has tragically resulted in the current misunderstanding of “the office of deacon” which has no resemblance whatsoever to anything in the Scriptures. This transformation of the understanding of deacon is heretical, in my opinion. The church historically has never recovered from this misunderstanding of the role (not office) of Servant Minister.
After 13- 15 centuries of an uncontested understanding that the word diaconos described an “office of Deacon”, the translation of the Textus Receptus into the English tragically followed the historic traditionalism of “The Threefold Ministry” of pragmatic early Catholicism and did not translate the words as they should have done. Rather than the biblical role of a Servant Minister, we have now inherited an incorrect view of diaconos as created by early church history traditionalism.
Now, I realize that this is more than many of you wanted to know, but if we are ever to recover for our churches a biblical polity, then we must get it right as to what exactly is this role of the Servant Minister. The quagmire today in the DVMBA is that many of the “deacons” in our DVMBA churches bear no resemblance at all to the biblical picture of a “servant minister”. Instead of serving as Servant Ministers, they are incorrectly viewed by the church membership to be the church overseers (a biblical aberration)
C. What are the differences in the Role of Servant Minister and the Role of Pastor?
1. The Role of Pastors is essential and a necessary component to biblical polity; the Role of Servant Minister is not.
It is important to note that the Apostles obviously did not consider that the “Office of Deacon” was essential to a biblical polity.
Consider the instruction of Paul to Titus (Titus 1:5) and the actions of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14:23. They were instructed to appoint plural Pastors/Elders in each church. Note that they were not instructed to appoint deacons or Servant Ministers in each church, only the Pastors (Overseers, Elders, and Shepherds). Obviously, the role of Servant Minister (or deacon) is not an office inherently necessary in order to have a biblical polity in a local church. If a church can biblically exist without any Servant Ministers, then one cannot avoid the conclusion that it is definitely not the biblical role of the Servant Ministers to oversee the bulk of the local church’s ministries
The Apostles clearly understood that diakonos was not a group of deacon officers but rather were a number of “servant” believers who were ever so often organized by the Lead Pastor or Team of Pastors as a Ministry Team in order to accomplish certain ministry tasks assigned by the Pastor (s).
2. There are key biblical differences in the office of the Elder/Pastor and the role of “Servant Minister” Consider a serious study of the qualifications of the Servant Minister as prescribed by 1 Tim 3:8-13.
While it is accurate that there are some similarities between the description of the qualifications of the role of Overseers/Pastors and the qualifications of the role of the Servant Ministers, they are patently different. This statement was made the other day by a DVMBA member, and it is totally and completely false:
The office of Pastor and the office of a Deacon have essentially the same qualifications.
A serious comparison between the two roles reveals several biblical qualifications of the Pastor(s) which are not required for the Role of Servant Minister.
a) The Pastors are Overseers
- there is no such requirement for Servant Ministers.
b) The Pastors must have these traits (needed for the Overseer role)
- prudent or sensible
- orderly or respectable
- a good reputation outside the church, there are no such requirements for the Servant Ministers
c) The Pastors must have these traits (needed for a Shepherd role)
- hospitable (warm, open, friendly, caring)
- forbearing or gentle
- not pugnacious (prone to violence or fighting)
- uncontentious (not quarrelsome or belligerent), there are no such requirements for the Servant Ministers
d) The Pastors must have these traits (needed for the Elder-Teaching role)
- able and apt to teach
- not a new convert (implies a certain amount of spiritual growth is necessary)
- there are no such requirements for the Servant Ministers
1. Prescriptive biblical passages prescribing the responsibilities of Servant Ministers are non-existent?
There are no biblical passages anywhere prescribing what are the tasks or responsibilities of the Servant Ministers? Therefore, I cringe whenever I hear the statement: Oh, we all know what deacons are supposed to do in the church. No we don’t, because the Word of God does not tell us prescriptively. This is strike one.
2. The title of the role of Servant Minister does not help us either.
With the role of Pastors, the Greek words themselves constitute “prescriptive dynamics” assigned to the role: To Oversee, To Teach (Elder), and To Shepherd.
The title of diaconos (Servant Ministers) gives us no help at all as to what the Servant Ministers should be doing. In fact, the Greek words associated with this role are used repeatedly simply to mean a person of ministry service, a person with a servant’s heart, a person serving in the church. There is no help whatsoever in determining the specific tasks of the Servant Minister. Strike Two.
3. There is one “descriptive” passage (Acts 6:1-6) which “might” describe a possible task for a Servant Minister. I say “might” because there is no mention anywhere that this task is to be identified with diaconos. If Acts 6 does not refer to diaconos, then that is Strike Three and we are out—having no biblical options to help us understand the responsibilities of the role of Servant Minister. Three strikes and you are out.
However, if this text is indeed to be utilized to apply to diaconos, it is still somewhat complex as to what the responsibility of the Servant Ministry actually is. There are often three distinct options as to how to understand the responsibilities of Servant Minister in a local church according to Acts 6:1-6:
The Bad Option for understanding the responsibilities of Servant Ministers:
- the Pastors’ tasks are only Prayer and the Word (Acts 6:4)—these are the spiritual tasks of ministry
- the Servant Minister’s tasks are to do everything else; they are to run the church for the congregation
The Better Option for understanding the responsibilities of Servant Ministers:
-Servant Ministers should be responsible for all tasks related to a church’s mercy ministries to the “have-nots” (widows, orphans, poor, etc.)
-While this option is somewhat better, this option takes what I believe to be the erroneous posture that the Acts 6 assignment of “widows’ care” was intended to be perpetual. There is nothing in the text that would indicate that at all; rather, this smells much more like a temporary Ministry Team functioning to help alleviate a temporary ministry problem.
-As I have taught elsewhere in the arena of hermeneutics, this is the danger of utilizing “descriptive” passages of Scripture (in contrast to “prescriptive” passages of Scripture) and then treating those “descriptive “ passages like they are intended to become the norm for all of time (e.g. remember the six hour sermon of Ezra—should this be our norm for preaching today?).
The Best Option for understanding the responsibilities of Servant Ministers:
This option is simple and straightforward. Ministry needs arose in the early church prompting the Team of Pastors (Apostles) to make a determination that they needed to form a Ministry Team and to delegate certain tasks germane to that church at that particular point in time which they needed to be done by qualified Servant Ministers so that the Pastors could focus on other key ministry tasks.
-The Team of Pastors makes the decision concerning which tasks they desired to delegate
-The Team of Pastors decided how many persons to be on the Ministry Team
-The Team of Pastors decided how the Servant Ministers were to be chosen
-These could be short-term tasks or long-term tasks as determined by the Team of Pastors
-The nature of the tasks are determined by Team of Pastors, not the congregation
There is absolutely nothing in this passage to suggest that Acts 6 is creating some sort of permanent role in the local church with permanent responsibilities going forward in perpetuity forever; rather, the responsibilities of the Servant Ministers in a church clearly seem to be whatever tasks the Team of Pastors assign to the Servant Ministers in order to assist the Team in their leadership (Acts 6:2)
-Personal note: in my opinion, this is the very best exegesis of the passage concerning Servant Ministers
E. A Summary of My Understanding of the Biblical Role of “Servant Ministers”:
In my assessment, the role of the “Servant Minister” was never intended by the Holy Spirit to be an office of authority in the church . They were never intended to have oversight authority in the church. There is no biblical warrant anywhere for the Servant Ministers to be organized into some organization or board to govern or oversee the ministries of the local church
The role of the Servant Minister is biblically intended to be an AWE Person(s) role to help the Elders/Pastors in the work of the church.
Acts 6:1-6 creates a paradigm for an AWE Ministry Team whose tasks, qualifications and appointment comes from the Lead Pastor and His team of pastors (not the congregation). They should be identified, be equipped, and be accountable to work for and to help the Team of Pastors.
The responsibilities of the Servant Ministers may be short-term (temporary) or long-term (semi-permanent) as needed by the Team of Pastors.
They should have the biblical qualifications of the Servant Minister as described in 1 Tim 3: 8ff.
My friends, we may have uncovered here a serious polity flaw which has infected many of our DVMBA churches. Most of our churches have a heretical view of Servant Ministers (which they call deacons) which has become institutionalized in our constitutions and bylaws. They often function as Overseers and not as Servant Ministers. We have them organized into a Board with substantial “Authority of Oversight” delegated to them. This may be our polity “Sin of Achan”.
Summary of Polity Paradigm so far:
1. Team of Pastors:
A. The local church is lead, governed, and managed by a Team of Pastors
B. They function as the Overseers, the Teacher/Elders, and the Shepherds of the church
2. Servant Ministry Diaconos
- these are qualified lay people who are assigned ministry tasks by the Team of Pastors
- they are not a board, but serve with direct oversight by and accountability to the Team of Pastors
3. Gifted Believers
- these are the gifted believers who serve with and for the Servant Ministers and the Team of Pastors
What is next in our polity journey?
Polity Part 6: A study of the Two Aspects of Congregationalism
Polity Part 7: A study of the Biblical Role of the Congregation
Polity Part 8: A discussion of how to actually change your “polity paradigm” in your local church