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November 20, 2007



Do we have any idea what the proportion of Baptist churches have this threefold approach of minister/s, elders and deacons?

I tend to agree with you, based on what I've seen, that churches with elders tend to become less Baptist in their governance, often because those they appoint as Elders aren't really Baptists in the first place but baptistic others.

In this little neck of the woods we are mostly still good old-fangled minister/deacons churches (thankfully without the dreaded life-deacons!!!) with all its blessings and frustrations.

Pete Lev

Thanks Andy, helpful reflections. My home church has elders and 'coordinators', we eliminated the deacons a few years ago!
I wonder if partly a 3 tier system has fallen into a unhelpful split between the 'practical' and the 'spiritual', elders being spiritual, deacons being practical. That seems to me what's going on with the "deacons have become more marginalized and limited" that you describe.

I was also struck recently by the notion of Deacon that I saw on the wesbsite of Redeemer church in NY (http://www.redeemer.com/care/diaconate/).
Not Baptist, but interesting especially if people do want to go down the deacon as practical response idea.


Some NT data should come in helpful here. First, NT language of 'diakonein' is not language of servile humility (and thus 'waiting ion tables' but of divine commission for service: see John Collins work and recent engagement with it in Ecclesiology. Second the term 'elder' was reserved in the OT for people who were appointed to positions because they were ... well OLD. It is a term which belongs within an entirely different cultural environment in which age = wisdom and authority. See Alisdair Campbell's monograph, The Elders, for details.

simon jones

I too would recommend Alisdair Campbell's book on elders (which I'm just re-reading) as well as a raft of recent works exploring the structure of church in New Testament times (especially Maier, Clarke, Jeffers, Harland, Hellermann and Gehring).
In our church we are pondering doing away with elders (not literally, of course!) in favour of many more deacons, some responsible for specific areas and others without specific responsibility. The idea is to flatten the implied hierarchy of having elders and deacons.
My problem with the whole discussion about church leadership, however, is that we never seem to include ministers in this. Our word minister is derived (via latin) from the greek word that we render deacon. The early church didn't have 'ministers' in the sense that baptist churches have them; it had servants some of whom taught the word in various ways.
But it would be a mistake to suggest that there was no leadership in the early church. Indeed many of the issues addressed by Paul and others were precisely because there was leadership but that it didn't function in a way that built disciples. Campbell points out that people led by virtue of hosting congregations - whatever their gifts. This meaans that leaders in society had more influence over the development of the church than members who weren't leaders in the wider world - hence the difficulties Timothy was experiencing in Ephesus with older heads of households who were exercising often unhelpful influence over churches.
One of the things I'm pondering in the light of all this is whether we should have any kind of 'ecclesiastical' structure in our churches at all or whether we'd be better off doing what the early Christians did which was to take over organisational forms that were ready to hand - mainly voluntary associations and households. Perhaps we should call those who help to organise the activities in our churches trustees and managers like a any 21st century charity would.


Hi Andy,

I don't think I can agree with you here:

'We must prize the language of 'deacon' and 'minister' with its roots in the Greek word for 'servant'. We should avoid if at all possible language of 'leader' unless we use it reference to Christ or the Spirit.'

Why are we compelled to stick with two words that mean little to contemporary hearers (them often hearing the opposite of what is meant)? And why should we ditch a term that has NT precedent (leader)?

andy goodliff

I'm not sure 'leader' is a NT word and I just don't like it.


Sure it is. Hebrews 13.

It can certainly be abused, as can minister and deacon, but it has the nice added aspect of leading by example.


I'm the minister of a church with both elders and deacons and am not sure it works well practically; it seems the cause of misunderstanding, hurt and frustration rather than releasing people to do good things. (I don't think it works theologically either.) I believe in ordained ministry and, unlike Simon, think that one of the implications of the NT texts is that ministers are a necessary part of church life if the church is to be holy, catholic and apostolic (hence the comments in 1 Cor, Ephesians, PE). I also believe in shared administration of local congregations (whatever name we have for those who are involved in this; PE seem to call them deacons but I'm not fussed). However, I want to encourage church structures that enable people to participate, to serve and to use their gifts. For me that means making more use of working groups / teams who take responsibility for particular areas of church life.

Bob Almond

Isn't one of the complications the existence in most churches of another, frequently unnamed layer - the 'people who have jobs/roles in church life' - who are exercise a diaconal role, but without the title. My feeling is that while in the NT there were almost always those who had an oversight ministry - call them bishops, leaders, ministers or elders - and there were those whose ministry was confined to a particular area of service - call them deacons, or people with jobs, or don't give them a name at all - there doesn't seem to be a warrant for a three-level system.

On top of that, it also seems to me that while Jesus insists on principle - that leadership is fundamentally servant leadership, and authority is not about power - the NT doesn't really care much about structure. Most of the NT material is either descriptive (telling us what they did, not what we must do) or it addresses issues of the character of those who lead.

'Elder' as a title carries so much baggage, and isn't easily re-shaped. So as long as the tasks of oversight, and a good quantity of deaconing are going on, I'd rather not use the E-word!

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