(This was a written response to question posed by a friend concerning elders. It is by no means exhaustive nor does it answer the debate about a woman becoming an elder.)
Premise: You can have a church without deacons but you cannot have a church without elders.
Wow! Make a statement like that at most places and you will probably get mugged trying to get out the back door. The dickens you say no deacons. The church would never go for it. As a matter of fact, they are more likely to add to the “deacon board” before they even consider adding one elder. But why has it come to this? I like to think the answer lies either in ignorance (don’t know) or arrogance (don’t care). If you are reading this, you can never claim ignorance.
The New Testament mentions only two offices in the local church – elders and deacons. The qualifications for these offices are clearly outlined in 1Timothy 3:1 – 13. That is not to say church that has ministry leaders or servant leaders of various ministries is wrong. It simply means that the overall leadership of the church should recognize two bodies – first elders, second deacons. The New Testament’s use of the word elder does not refer to a senior citizen. The Greek word is presbuteros. It is also interchanged with the word bishop (episkopos – epi “over” skopos “seer”) or overseer as seen in Acts 20:17 and 28. An overseer shepherds the church. Many use the term pastor. I like how Dr. G. Harry Leafe puts it, “Elder is the title, overseer is the function.” Notice how in Acts 14:23, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders, not deacons in the churches. Paul sent Titus to Crete to appoint elders (Titus 1:5), not deacons. Even John wrote to the angels or messengers of the seven churches in Revelation 2 – 3. I acknowledge there is much debate what angels means in this passage, but I believe those angels or messengers are the top human elder (man never wrote to heavenly beings), or what some call the senior pastor. But notice he did not write to the deacons. The only church of that seven that had an accompanying epistle was the Ephesian church. You may have noticed that in Ephesians, the words deacon or servant, are not mentioned, but pastors (4:11) is. I surmise this church functioned with elders but no deacons. In 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, Paul wrote what are called the “pastoral epistles”, but you will find there are no “deacon epistles.”
You may have also noticed there is a plurality of elders. Those you call ministers in your church are really other pastors (elders). It is equally sad that most of these do not see themselves as elders. They continue to claim God called them to preach. The Bible teaches the Holy Spirit (I sure hope He did) appointed them as overseers (Acts 20:28), not just preachers. There is one more thing to stimulate your thinking. I mentioned “deacon board” earlier. You may be surprised to know there is no such animal in the New Testament. However, there is a board of elders (1 Timothy 3:14). So based on what we have uncovered, there are at a minimum, six churches that functioned with a board of elders only.
I do want to leave a word of caution. Lest you think I am belittling deacons, let me say nothing could be further from the truth. I was once a deacon. I have the utmost respect for anyone who desires to serve. Those who serve well have “a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” According to Acts 6:1, there was a need in the body. Seven men were selected by the body (not the apostles) to minister to the needs of the body. Like others, I believe these men were deacons (diakonos, a servant). But look at 1 Timothy 3:8 – 13. The qualifications for a deacon are given, but have you noticed no specific function is mentioned? I believe it was clearly understood deacons were to serve the needs of the body. Today’s culture has the deacons as the “pastor’s helpers.” How did it get this way? The Bible clearly teaches the elders are the “pastors’ helpers” while the deacons are the “body’s helpers.”