Who are the leaders in local churches, and what should they be like? Shepherds, deacons, and evangelists are some of the leaders in God’s family. We’ll look at some others and the importance of submission next time, but, for now, let’s focus on these three roles.
Shepherds (also called pastors, elders, bishops, and overseers) are tasked by the Holy Spirit to lead the church of God. Curiously, Acts 20.28 juxtaposes two words: “overseer” and “care”. We tend to equate “overseer” with “taskmaster”, but that isn’t the case here. The God-given responsibility of shepherds is not to take control of a congregation but to safeguard, protect, and care for them. Remember, it is worldly rulers who lord themselves over others. In fact, ἐπίσκοπος (overseer) was used in Gentile culture to refer to someone who governed a region with autocratic power.¹
Their will was law. God has taken the concept of worldly leadership and turned it on its head, even co-opting authoritarian words and making them servile roles (cf. Mark 9.35).
Shepherds care for the flock by tending to the saints’ spiritual needs, including comfort, instruction, admonition, and discipline at times. Like Paul, they should refuse to exercise power over another person’s faith and point to the Scriptures as the authority for all things (cf. 2 Cor. 1.24). Using the Bible, shepherds lead us away from danger and toward all the spiritual blessings in Christ. They help us to see spiritually, trust completely in God’s promises, and make our lives living sacrifices.
Deacons, or ministers, attend to physical necessities in local churches. In Acts 6.1-6, disputes over food hindered the apostles’ work in preaching the word of God. The apostles refused to turn their focus away from spiritual things and instead appointed seven men to the duty of “serving tables”. These men met the immediate, physical needs of the group for the purpose of maintaining spiritual growth.
Benevolence is the realm of the deacon. I don’t mean that no one else can be involved or that shepherds should be unaware of what’s happening, but meeting immediate, physical needs is the primary purpose for the deacon’s role. Why must deacons be “not greedy for dishonest gain?” Why must they “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” and “prove themselves blameless”? Because they’re dealing with money given in good faith to help needy saints. Because they are to use physical things for service, not personal enrichment.
Some resist this concept of deacons and ask, “How will elders shepherd the flock if they don’t control the money?” The answer is simple: they’re shepherding people, not funds. I think we ask this because we associate money with power. When we view shepherds as rulers, we find it difficult to see them governing a local church if they don’t control the money. There are certainly times when shepherds are directly involved with finances. However, the Bible presents fiscal affairs as secondary to the purpose of shepherds. Notice what happens in Acts 6.7 when the deacons take on the work of benevolence: “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” How amazing is that!? When those teaching the word of God were unleashed, even the priests were being converted!
Again, we see differences in worldly power and God’s plan for his family. In our culture, money is power, and power is leadership. But God’s people lead through service and even money becomes nothing more than a tool to make spiritual growth possible. I’m not saying shepherds can’t have anything to do with benevolence or contributions; that’s not the point. The point is that God has set them free to serve in other, more important ways.
Evangelists are also leaders in local churches. If shepherds and deacons are focused inwardly, then preachers take the lead in focusing outward with evangelism and bringing the lost to Christ. Their job is to “destroy strongholds…arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God”. They should be “[preaching] Christ crucified,” which is “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Their primary concern is to persuade people to believe the gospel of God and become Christians.²
Evangelists are still heavily involved with the saints and local churches. Paul told Titus to teach the saints in Crete with “all authority” and to appoint elders in every town. It would be impossible for Titus to do these things if he had nothing to do with Christians; it would likewise be impossible if he weren’t a leader among them. If we remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 20.25-28, then Titus couldn’t force shepherds upon the people in Crete; he could, however, influence them into choosing godly men themselves and then appoint them as shepherds. Titus’ power wasn’t positional or personal. He couldn’t coerce people into obedience simply because he was an evangelist. All the authority for any leader, whether a shepherd, deacon, or evangelist, must come entirely and solely from the word of God.
At this point you may be thinking, “It sounds like leaders in the church aren’t leaders at all; you’re practically saying they have no real power.” In a sense, you’re right; they have no authority or power in the ways our culture typically views those things. Jesus didn’t come as one with authority demanding to be served but humbled himself and took the form of a servant. He came to serve and minister to others. He came to lead the world in a completely different way than anyone had ever really seen before. Leaders in the church should follow the footsteps of Jesus in servant leadership.
When we divest ourselves of typical leadership models based on power, wealth, and punishment, we are set free to make something else the basis for biblical leadership: love. Shepherds care for the saints because they love them; love becomes the basis for influencing people to listen to God’s word. Deacons help people with physical needs because they love them; they put the world’s goods to the best possible use and reap spiritual fruit. Evangelists preach Christ to a lost, dying world because they love those trapped in the darkness; they point to God’s love so Jesus can draw everyone to himself.
Shepherds aren’t a board of directors, deacons aren’t middle managers, and evangelists aren’t employees. They’re all leaders in local churches with specific, God-given areas of emphasis. Shepherds care for the spiritual needs of a local church, deacons are present for the physical necessities, and evangelists lead the way in reaching the lost. God designed a beautiful system which ensures no one is left out and all our needs are met.
1 Zodhiates, Spiros. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000. ἐπίσκοπος.
2 Cf. 2 Cor 10.4 and 1 Cor 1.20-25.