Questions on roles, expectations, training, and evaluation of deacons and elders come to CBWC offices regularly. What is often really behind the question is not what is biblical but a curiosity of what might be culturally common within those roles. Yes, in the Western World we have a fairly well developed ‘church culture’.
Culturally there has been the development of some rather rigid roles for deacon and elder. Biblically deacons served tables, but not many do that specific role any more. The roles for an elder can vary quite widely in Scripture, but certainly there were some that were used to administrate or ‘rule’ with regard to a church’s functioning. Biblically there is no specifics on the election or appointment processes for those who would serve as elders. Timothy was to appoint elders, but not much is there on how he went about the pragmatics of making those choices.
Too often we think of elders as those serving on an elders’ board. In reality, however, if an elder takes a year or more off from the elders’ board, are they no longer one of the elders for that church community? We may have used the term ‘elder’ too rigidly. It is my belief that it is a good thing for people to desire to be an elder in character and role and that they do not need to be elected as such to serve in that capacity.
There are Biblically no details regarding meetings of elders or deacons, unless one would possibly include Acts 15. Was there a committee chair, the taking of minutes, a schedule of meetings, or a devotional? All of these are additions from our culture. True, they may be helpful assets to committee type roles in our modern world, but they are extra-biblical pieces.
The word ‘elder’ can be used scripturally as those whose jurisdiction was over a very broad region, not merely a specific church family. In the small town in which I was a pastor I think the town’s elders could have been a fellow who was a printer from the Pentecostal church, a high-hoe operator from the Lutheran church, and a few farmers from the Nazarene and Baptist churches. If people wanted reputable Christian advice the community knew who these elders were. Community members were likely to go to them as much as to the pastors of those churches if they needed advice or counsel.
One church I worked with intentionally did away with elder and deacon boards. They had a ‘leading committee’ and that committee had ‘committee members’. This took away much of the inappropriate attachments of trying to tie biblical verses, which were for a more ancient context, into a more contemporary one.
I am not against deacon or elder boards, but at least let’s be honest about the cultural pieces attached to how we use the terms. Those serving in those roles are to be humble, careful not to ‘lord it over others’. There is nothing more dangerous than someone having responsibility without accountability. Everyone needs to answer back responsibly to the congregation. Entitlement and self-inflated egos over being a deacon or elder need to take the way of the dodo bird.