The Distinction between Deacons and Elders

Many congregations that have both elders and deacons run into problems because the lines of authority and responsibility are not clear.

One resource for understanding this distinction is in Samuel Miller’s book The Ruling Elder. In the tenth chapter, “The Distinction between the Office of Ruling Elder and Deacon,” Miller develops the biblical and historical foundation of the two offices and their differences. He then summarizes his conclusions at the end of the chapter.

 

One difficulty the church often runs into is making proper distinctions. We confuse laws with principles of wisdom. We don’t know what Jesus meant when he said communion bread is his body. We hear about grace and think it is licentiousness. And when it comes to the church offices of deacon and elder, we can experience a similar difficulty in seeing the differences.

Some churches do not have deacons. Others call their leaders deacons and do not have elders. Many congregations that have both elders and deacons run into problems because the lines of authority and responsibility are not clear.

As with any confusion, the best place to return for clarity is to the Scriptures. For they make clear that the diaconate is a distinct office from that of the eldership. Paul wrote to the church at Philippi and greeted “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi,” then addressed both “the overseers and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). In giving the qualifications for office to Timothy, he offered separate lists for both of these positions (I Timothy 3:1-13). From the testimony of the rest of the New Testament, we can see how deacons are differentiated from the overseers or elders. Clearly deacons, whose office is generally agreed to have originated in Acts 6 in caring for the widows in Jerusalem, are to lift the hands of the elders in caring primarily for the physical needs of the church.

One resource for understanding this distinction is in Samuel Miller’s book The Ruling Elder. In the tenth chapter, “The Distinction between the Office of Ruling Elder and Deacon,” Miller develops the biblical and historical foundation of the two offices and their differences. He then summarizes his conclusions at the end of the chapter.

A healthy exercise for the leadership of a congregation, beyond reading the book itself, would be to take this list of distinctions and discuss them.

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