This morning we will continue our study of “Baptist Distinctives'' with the third message of this series which I’ve titled “Two Offices”. We have already discussed “Biblical Authority” and the “Autonomy of the Local Church”. Last week we highlighted the fact that Baptists emphasize and uphold the individuality and independence of each local church. In today’s sermon, we will dig a bit deeper and take a closer look at the specific offices and operation of the local church.
Before we begin, let’s clarify that the offices of high priest, priest, levites, and so forth are associated with Judaism - not Christianity. Therefore, they do not pertain to this message. Looking to the New Testament, we find that the Bible uses several titles to describe the officers of the early Christian church including bishops, elders, shepherds (pastors), and deacons.
In keeping with their governing structure, some denominations have bishops who are responsible for overseeing a regional collection of local congregations. Others have bodies of elders, sometimes referred to as assemblies, that perform this same function. Following either of these models, the leadership of individual congregations is distinct from and falls under the purview of these higher officials. Baptists, however, do not place authorities outside of or over the local church and instead acknowledge only 2 offices - the pastor and the deacons.
I. PASTORS (1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, 1 Peter 5:1-3)
While some interpret the words bishop, elder, and shepherd (or pastor in Latin) as 3 distinct positions, Baptists assert that they are 3 names for the same position. Consider, for example, that a man might simultaneously be called a husband, father, and employee. In like fashion, the pastor of a church is properly understood to be its bishop, elder, and shepherd. Thus, they are different roles of the same office. Paul and Peter use these titles interchangeably in their epistles to accentuate the various duties of the pastor.
The Greek word for bishop, which is sometimes translated in the English Bible as overseer, is episcopos. It refers to the supervisory and/or administrative role of the pastor. The Greek word for elder is presbuteros. It refers to the life experiences and, therefore, the acquired knowledge and wisdom of the pastor. Finally, the Greek word for shepherd is poimaino. It refers to the love and care of the pastor for his flock. Together these words describe a pastor who lovingly provides spiritual leadership for his congregation by rightly teaching and dividing the Word of God, by boldly protecting the flock from heresy and false teaching, and by making sound, righteous, and God-honoring decisions that keep his church operating in an orderly and effective manner.
Most Baptist churches, especially those aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention, limit the office of pastor to men only. This limitation is not due to sexism or chauvinism, but rather is based upon their sincerely held understanding of Scripture. Such Baptists insist that God established a particular order in both the home and the church in which men are assigned the leadership role. Women are scripturally precluded from preaching to or teaching men publicly in the church. Though there are some objections to this interpretation, as a rule Baptist churches have far fewer women pastors than other denominations do.
II. DEACONS (Acts 6:1-6, 1 Timothy 3:8-13)
The Greek word for deacon is diakonos, which is defined as a servant or waiter. Deacons are tasked with the critical responsibility of taking care of the physical needs of the congregation, thereby freeing the pastor to focus on the spiritual needs. As the fledgling New Testament church began to grow, the first deacons were chosen in order to manage the distribution of food to the church’s widows. These were godly men, highly respected among the congregation, who committed themselves to Christian service. They set the enduring standard for deacon ministry.
Many Baptist churches do not formally require deacons to be men, though practically speaking the overwhelming majority of them are. Even the conservative Southern Baptist Convention takes no definitive stance on this issue. As always, each local church is free to decide for itself. Deacons are, by definition, helpers who minister to the needs of others. Women are certainly permitted to do this - in fact, they are often much better at it than men! The Biblical qualifications given for deacons are regularly interpreted to include women. Furthermore, in his letter to the Romans, Paul uses the word diakonos to describe Phoebe. Was she, perhaps, a deacon or deaconess? It can’t be totally ruled out. Either way, this matter should not cause division within the church.
III. CONGREGATIONS (Acts 13:1-3, 1 Timothy 4:14)
While Baptists recognize pastors and deacons as the 2 offices of the local church, neither is seen to have any special authority over it. Pastors are to be spiritual leaders, not dictatorial tyrants. Deacons are to be servants of the congregation, not domineering rulers over it. Each autonomous church practices a democratic form of congregational governance in which each member has a voice and a vote. While some reasonable and limited control may be delegated to church officers, committees, teams, and so forth in order to conduct routine operations, the congregation retains the power to make all major decisions. Most Baptist churches have a written and approved “constitution and by-laws” document in place to help define and guide their operating procedures. It is imperative to remember that congregational governance is still subject to the Lordship of Christ, who is the head of the body, and the assembled members of the church should prayerfully strive to discern and follow His direction in all matters.
The New Testament church practiced congregational governance in several ways. First, the entire church was given the responsibility of implementing church discipline. Second, the ordinances were committed to the entire church. Third, the congregation chose its own deacons, missionaries, and other representatives. While it was necessary for the apostles to appoint pastors during the first century to start new churches, established congregations selected their own leaders going forward. The process of selecting and formally endorsing individuals to serve as pastors or deacons in the church is known as ordination. Most Baptists see ordination as an important safeguard for protecting the doctrinal integrity of the church.
To sum up, local Baptist churches adhere to the congregational model of church governance. Following a democratic process, all members may freely participate in the discussion and decision-making of the church. The 2 offices of the church are pastors and deacons. Pastors are primarily responsible for providing spiritual leadership for the flock, while deacons are tasked with addressing the congregation’s unmet physical needs. Both pastors and deacons should be Biblically qualified, tested, and proven to the extent possible. That said, age is not always the best measure for making such determinations...
So far in this series we have talked about how individual Baptist churches operate internally and how they relate to one another externally. In next week’s message we address their position on the church’s proper relationship with the state or secular government. That promises to be a fun sermon that you’ll not want to miss! Have a blessed week.