Elders and Deacons Are Essential to the Grace-Giving Mission of the Church

Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus: To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons. (Philippians 1:1 HCSB)

In Paul’s greeting to the Church in Philippi, Paul greets “all the saints” but specifically calls attention to the overseers and deacons. Since this is the only time Paul specifically greets both the overseers (or elders) and deacons, it’s interesting to note how he begins his letter to this particular church.

“Grace to you”

In the first eleven verses of Philippians, Paul uses the word grace twice and the word gospel twice. “Grace” and “gospel” play leap frog in this text, and to Paul, these words are two sides of the same coin. The gospel is the story of God’s grace. Paul’s first use of the word grace is in a common greeting formula: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This was a common greeting because continuing in grace ought to characterize the common practice of the church.

The second time Paul uses grace is in verse seven: “you are all partners with me in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and establishment of the gospel.” The gospel is the story of how God displays grace and trades death for life in our hearts through His Son Jesus. Our partnership in grace actually establishes the gospel, promotes the gospel, illustrates the gospel. Our partnership in grace is our mission.

  • The church community is drawn together by grace. “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35 HCSB)
  • The church community is sent out to tell the story of grace “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)

God’s grace is a force that creates a gravitational pull that draws us in to deep community. That same force also spins us back out again to serve God on mission. The mission of the church is to make disciples of all nations but mission without community has no foundation and a community that forsakes the mission grows stagnate. Without leadership, the church community could fall into imbalance; stagnating in our own self-absorbed community or communicating a gospel that is superficial. The rotation around the axis of God’s grace grinds to a halt.

Leaders Make the Church World Go Round

Paul emphasizes grace and gospel in his thanksgiving and prayer for the saints “including the overseers and deacons”which gives us a clear picture of the role of our church leaders in helping us to show and tell of God’s grace.

We would need to explore all the pertinent passages on the qualifications and roles of overseers and deacons, but for now, a simplification would be to say that overseers primarily lead and teach and deacons primarily serve (realizing that overseers aren’t exempt from serving and deacons often lead and/or teach).

  • Overseers are responsible for the overall mission of the church. They mobilize the members for the mission. They lead and teach so that we might advance the gospel until everyone has heard. Overseers are responsible for the big picture. They see the forest.
  • Deacons are responsible for the community of the church. Their primary concern is to keep the gravitational pull of God’s grace strong. They set an example of showing grace and compassion to one another. Deacons are responsible for the practical needs of the community. They see the trees.

Overseers and deacons play a vital role in maintaining balance within the church community. There isn’t much more organizational structure necessary to ensure that the church will be faithful to the mission. Without leaders, the church could fall into the trap of being too inwardly or too outwardly focused. God has graced us with the gospel and God has graced us with leaders who help us become better grace-receivers and grace-givers.

Remember your leaders who have spoken God’s word to you. As you carefully observe the outcome of their lives, imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7 HCSB)

Have you seen this inward and outward focus established by the leaders in your church? What are some ways that this Biblical “organizational model” has been abused or ignored? What were the results?

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