Having identified our leaders from the qualifications above, we come to the question of what they are supposed to do. What are their functions? We can begin with Paul's charge to the elders of the church in Ephesus:
"Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood." (Acts 20:28)
This is highly similar to Peter's exhortation to the elders among "the pilgrims of the Dispersion." (1 Peter 1:1)
"Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly." (1 Peter 5:1-2)
An elder, or bishop, is an overseer. He watches over the work, directing as required to be sure it is properly completed. We have noticed that the word bishop is a translation of the Greek word episkopos, meaning supervisor. This agrees perfectly with these Scriptures. While all elders must be able to teach, they do not all do so regularly; for 1 Timothy 5:17 says, "Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine."
But an elder's primary work is to act as a shepherd. A shepherd guides the flock, directing them to safe pastures. According to Titus 1:9, he must "be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict." This is the function of a shepherd. He must protect the flock. Why is this necessary? The verses immediately following tell us:
"For there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole households, teaching things which they ought not, for the sake of dishonest gain." (Titus 1:10-11)
This work involves danger, for the enemies of the flock of God are sometimes vicious. In John 10:13 our Lord told us that:
"A hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep."
While Jesus was speaking in particular of Himself, these words also apply to those acting as under-shepherds. This is why Peter exhorted the elders not to serve for "dishonest gain." Those who are in ministry for the money will always cave in under pressure from large contributors. A threat of withdrawal of support will send them scurrying to revise their programs. But a faithful shepherd will stand firm, whether the danger is internal, as in the loss of support, or external, as in media attacks, antagonistic legislation, lawsuits, or even open persecution.
Many think deacons performed only physical tasks, such as those done by the seven appointed in Acts 6:1-6, but this is questionable. Preachers of the gospel were often called diakonos. Timothy was told; "If you instruct the brethren in these things, you will be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished in the words of faith and of the good doctrine which you have carefully followed." (1 Timothy 4:6) The Greek word translated minister in this passage is diakonos. Even apostles were called diakonos in 1 Corinthians 3:5; 2 Corinthians 3:5-6, 6:4, and 11:23; Ephesians 3:7; and Colossians 1:23 and 25. The Greeks used this word in as many ways as we use its English equivalent, servant.
The Scriptures do not define the work of a deacon. We can best judge his function by the basic meaning of the word diakonos. Skill in teaching was not among his qualifications. As we have noticed above, the Greek word simply means a servant, or an attendant. When we compare this to the bishop, whom, as we have seen, is a supervisor, the relative meaning of the words becomes clear. The bishops supervise, the deacons serve.
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