Let’s Go to Theology Class: Hierarchy of Church Functions

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University.

After you read Grudem and McGrath, as well as any appropriate Elwell articles, determine a hierarchy of church function. Your post should classify church functions into primary/essential, secondary/important, and tertiary/optional categories of importance. For example, baptism would be a primary/essential function. Cite a source or give a good justification for those functions which may be contentious, in terms of which category you place them. For example, be prepared to defend your (questionable) decision to place worship in the tertiary/optional category. In last session’s discussion we dealt with what the church is. Here we discuss what the church does, based on what it is.

Over the centuries, hierarchy and structure of the Christian church has become somewhat cumbersome and convoluted at times. Scripture is not silent on proper organization and governance. Christ is the Head of the Church; its chief cornerstone; the First Apostle. Arguments over church operation have included whether women should teach or lead a church congregation. Consider Grudem’s conclusion as an indication that these types of concerns are open for discussion without compromising church hierarchy. He indicates that the form of government adopted by a church is not a major point of doctrine.

Proper church function is vital to the success of a local congregation. Regarding authority, Christ is the “head” of the church. To deviate from this is to risk losing the true mission of the Church: to go forth into all nations, teaching, and making disciples of all men. New Testament churches should operate according to the Greatest Commandment—love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. The bulk of primary/essential functions at my church include evangelism, pastoral teaching, water baptism, Sunday school teaching, and corporate worship. Secondary/important functions include outreach ministry (visiting the sick, shut-ins, inmates in local prisons), AWANA (a nationwide program directed toward children K through 5th grade); teen outreach; charity programs (including our benevolent fund), marriage ceremonies, memorial and funeral services, and liaison with other local churches and faith-based radio stations. Our tertiary/optional functions include holiday and other celebratory activities, operation of a church library, coffee meets between Sunday school and worship service, support of our parochial Sunbury Christian Academy (K-12), housing for visiting speakers and guests.

I also prepared and submitted the following definitions relative to church hierarchy:

Pastor (Pastoral Theology)

To me, it is quite revealing to understand the scope of a “pastor.” The Greek word used in the New Testament for pastor (poimēn) is not used elsewhere to identify elders or other church officers. Typically, pastor is a verb, meaning “to act as a shepherd.” For example, the apostle Paul instructs elders to shepherd the church of God (see Acts 20:28). Additionally, believers are often referred to as the flock. This is a good lead-in to pastoral theology. J.A. Lyon says pastoral theology incorporates all the key doctrinal components of ministry as they relate to shepherding the Church. [1] Admittedly, this guideline is a bit too broad for defining pastoral theology as it deals specifically with the office of pastor as shepherd. A pastor has many responsibilities. How he administers them has a lot to do with the call God has placed on him. The so-called five-fold ministry indicates the following gifts given for ministry: apostles; prophets; evangelists; pastors and teachers (see Eph. 4:11).

Leading biblical scholars believe the last of the gifts (pastors and teachers) should be referred to as pastor/teacher. Perhaps the answer lies in the Greek Interlinear translation. The Greek word for “pastor” in verse 11 indicates “shepherds,” which is distinct from the Greek word that clearly means “teachers.” Clearly, pastors teach; they shepherd and lead. Obviously, not all teachers are pastors or shepherds. The head elder in my home church assumes a great deal of responsibility whenever our pastor is ill or away for a seminar or vacation. Several other elders have also given the message, but none have ever presided over the Lord’s Supper when our pastor is away. This has always fallen to the head elder.

Whenever “pastor” refers to shepherding in the New Testament, it is in relation to the congregation, and usually encompasses preaching, counseling, care, prayer, evangelism, worship, corporate leadership, ecclesiology, and all other practical responsibilities that lend themselves to leading and teaching a congregation in the ways of Jesus Christ. Certainly, it is for this reason that a “universal” definition of pastor is difficult to determine. Admittedly, pastoral theology is a new term; however, the New Testament contains numerous examples of the duties typically performed by a pastor. The role of one called to the office of pastor is multifaceted, but it is always specific to his relation to and responsibilities for the “flock,” his congregation. He is the head of his congregation as Christ is the head of the Church.

Elder

Specific to the Old Testament, “elder” was often used to identify “elders of the people” or “elders of Israel.” As such, Moses was considered an elder. The office of elder went through several transitions under the Old Covenant. Joshua 20 provides a detailed guide for how to properly deal with a person who has killed a man by accident (without malice aforethought). The individual who killed a man in such fashion was to present his case to the elders of any city designated as a refuge. He was then provided asylum and the avenger was denied access to the offender. Elders had a hand in political and governmental decisions (see 1 Sam. 4:3; 8:4; and later in Ezra 5:9-17). Under society in the Old Testament, elders were given authority relative to their age and experience. R. S. Wallace also notes in “Elders” that during the Maccabean period “elders of Israel” indicated membership in the Sanhedrin. [2]

In the New Testament, elders are most often associated with scribes and chief priests. Elders were also identified as “presbyters” (Gr. Persbyteroi) who worked alongside apostles, prophets, and teachers. In this regard, “elder” does not refer to a specific “office” or separate ministry; rather, they are adjunct to ministry. Elders often assumed the role of church governance in the New Testament. For example, when Paul and Barnabas “and some of the others” were called to Jerusalem to debate the theological impact of circumcision for non-Jewish believers in Christ, they presented their argument to the apostles and the elders. The Greek “apostles” is different from the word for “elders.”

Elders today frequently perform oversight of the business and spiritual operation of a local church. My home church has a board of seven elders, which features a head elder and six others. The head elder does not have single authority or “veto” privileges over the others. Rather, he is charged with maintaining order whenever the elders meet, and he provides the board and, ostensibly, the congregation, with guidance. In addition to his oversight duties with the board of elders, our head elder is “second” in line of teaching duties to the congregation on Sunday mornings, in individual Sunday school classes, and at Wednesday night Bible study. One of our elders has extensive experience in banking, finance, and budgeting, and is responsible for advising the board of elders accordingly. He also prepares and present a semi-annual financial report to the congregation en mass. Another elder oversees our benevolent fund.

Deacon

The term “deacon” typically indicates a helper or servant of a ministry or church. I could find no reference to deacon in the Old Testament. The office of elder in the early Christian Church was based on the same office in Jewish synagogues as described in the New Testament. In Philippians 1:1, Paul writes to the church at Philippi, addressing the saints in Jesus Christ, together with the bishops and deacons. A notation regarding deacons in The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) identifies them as “overseers or helpers.” [3] The Greek word for “deacon” (diakonos) translates as “server.” The position seems to have morphed from server of meals at church (see John 2:5, 9) to care for the home and/or personal help. In Judaism, service was accomplished through alms.

In the Greek interlinear Bible, a literal translation of John 12:26 says, “If me anyone serves [sic], me let him follow [sic], and where Am I, there also the servant my will be [sic]; if anyone me serves [sic], will honour him the Father [sic].” [4] The word “serves” in the Greek is diakonia, which translates “service” or “to serve,” and the word “servant” is from the Greek word dianonon. Acts 6 provides a perfect explanation for the debut of a formal diaconate, or office of deacon. The disciples had become quite busy with their ministry, saying it was not effective for them to take time away from their official duties to wait on tables (providing food to the poor and the widowed). Acts 6:3 says, “Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” The original seven deacons referenced in Acts 6:1-7 are identified as the first deacons by later tradition, but they held no ecclesiastical office. “To wait tables” literally meant to feed the hungry.  

Deacons at my home church are typically involved in greeting, collecting the offerings, serving communion the first Sunday of each month, and are usually on the serving line during church meals. Men appointed to the position of deacon in the Early Church were brought before the apostles, who laid hands on them (see Acts 6:6). My home church accepts annual nominations for the office of deacon, and a “blind” election is held wherein the congregation is given ballot forms with the names of the nominees. We merely check “yes” or “no” without putting our names or any indicating marks. The votes are tallied and announced before the congregational meeting is adjourned.

Footnotes

[1] J.A. Lyon, “Pastoral Theology” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 644-45.

[2] R. S. Wallace, “Elder” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 266.

[3] The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), 5th ed., Michael D. Coogan, editor (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 1702.

[4] The Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament, Alfred Marshall, translator (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,1976), 420.

 

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