As part of a group of Christ-followers who meet and live together outside of organized Christianity, I’ve come across the question of whether or not we appoint elders and deacons several times recently. At this time, we have not appointed any elders or deacons, and I don’t think we have any plans to do so. Therefore, I’m also asked why we wouldn’t want to do that.
First, let me say that bishop, overseer, and elder simply mean older, more experienced, or mature. These are ones who demonstrate maturity in how they live out their life in Christ.
Deacon means servant. These are people who are serving the body in some way. In Acts, the Apostles chose seven servants to help distribute food and help widows in the church.
I don’t believe either of these were ever intended to be “appointed” as “offices”. Rather, these are describing functions that the body recognizes people doing to serve the Lord. Note that the body is recognizing something that is already naturally occurring, not handing out an assignment of leadership or authority.
The question was recently posed in a Facebook Group that I am subscribed to. Ross Rohde gave an excellent explanation that I am sharing here with his permission:
Elder means exactly what the word implies, more mature. So an elder is someone, male or female, who demonstrates spiritual maturity and therefore is someone who can become an example and who can help people move closer to Jesus (discipleship). Deacons are those who concentrate on serving others and are recognized and respected as such based on their gifting and skill.
Because most of us have never experienced Christianity other than in an institutional format, where titles carry power, control and authority we tend to view these kind of people as positional, which is how the term is used and expressed in institutional Christianity. If, however, we view them organically, such people tend to emerge and are recognized rather than appointed and ordained into a position. I’m aware that Titus 1:5 uses the word “appoint.” This is a translation issues, where the translators assumptions biased the way they chose to translate the word. This could just as easily have been translated “recognize.”
So, in organic Christianity, we recognize and respect those who are mature and can be viewed as examples of spiritual maturity. Such people become examples to us and often disciple us by helping us draw closer to Jesus. We also respect and recognize those who have special calling and/or gifting to serve others, particularly through organizational skill. This calling and ability is recognized, respected and appreciated. In fact, in some contexts it is so necessary that it is sought out, which I believe is what was happening in Acts 6.
These people don’t have official power over others but rather influence. Power has the ability to control through punishment. If someone doesn’t do what those in power believe they should or have done, or they believe they shouldn’t have done, such a person can be punished through experiencing negative consequences. Even if punishment isn’t used the implied threat is still there. Influence, on the other hand is a gift from the person being influenced. It is also a gift from God because others notice the spirituality of such people and that enlightenment comes from the Holy Spirit. One cannot demand that they are influential nor does it automatically come through position. They either are influential, because of who they are, or they are not.
Positional power can be (and often is) harsh. It doesn’t have to be, but the threat is still there, even if the threat isn’t intended by those who have such power. The mere existence of the power can, and often does wound and harm relationships, even if this wounding isn’t intentional.
This is why, by the way, there is so much talk about “servant leadership” in institutional Christianity based on Luke 22;25-27. Jesus, in this passage, isn’t saying, “As leaders we should serve others.” He’s just saying serve others. We don’t need a position of power to do that. In fact, a position gets in the way, which is why we struggle and talk about servant leadership so much. Jesus didn’t talk about servant leadership at all. He just said serve. The “leadership” idea is introduced out of our institutional context and is not biblical.
Influence, on the other hand, is gentle and loving. It is often not even noticed. It does not need position or title, merely maturity. It doesn’t need to force or control. In other words, it is an expression of I Cor. 13 love. And, it is a reflection of Jesus behavior. While he had all the positional power in the world, he chose influence. See, Phil. 2:5-11. That’s what eldership and the deaconate looks like (or at least should look like) in organic church.
To add a caveat, in my experience not “appointing” a specific elder(s) or deacon(s) is more healthy for the community because there
is not a single person that can fully express Christ by themselves. Each person may be mature in some areas and weaker in others, so the body needs the functioning of all.
One person may be mature in revealing Christ in the Scriptures, while another person may be very mature in counseling people through problems, and another may be mature in drawing non-believers to Christ, and so on.
These attributes are discovered naturally in body life where all are equal and appreciated and free to serve and express themselves as they are led. The Spirit is able to teach and lead the body through anyone depending on the situation.
Functioning together in this way builds up the body and focuses on Christ as Head while humbly recognizing that we all have weaknesses and we need each other to fully express Christ and live together in Him.
I’m not saying any of this as an armchair observer. I’ve been part of group that functions in this way for the past five years, so what I’m sharing on this topic is from that experience.
For more excellent discussion on this topic, see chapters 8 and 9 of Reimagining Church by Frank Viola and 58 to 0: How Christ Leads Through the One Anothers by Jon Zens.
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