Leadership or Polity in the Local Church

Polity refers to the government of the church. Although there is no reason to think we are limited to the forms of polity used in the New Testament era, it is instructive to see how they ran their churches as a beginning point.

How were New Testament churches led?

There were two offices evident in the New Testament church: elders and deacons.


Elders vs. Bishops: The office of elder is synonymous with the office of bishop. (See Acts 20:17,28 and Titus 1:5,7 where the two terms are used interchangeably). "Elder" comes from the word presbeuteros which means an older man, and therefore describes a person who is relatively mature spiritually. "Bishop" comes from the word episkopos which literally means an overseer. Therefore, this term describes what the person does (i.e. oversees the local church). 

The New Testament church appears to have consistently established a plurality of eldership in each local church.

  • Acts 14:23 - ". . . appointed elders (plural) in every church (singular). . . "
  • Titus 1:5 - ". . . appoint elders (plural) in every city (singular). . . "
  • 1 Pet. 5:2 - ". . . shepherd the flock (singular) of God among you (plural). . . "

The qualifications for elders

These generally fall into two categories:

He must be functionally effective in spiritual leadership

Just as Jesus said sheep would know the voice of their shepherd, (see John 10:4), it seems likely that those considered for eldership in the early church had already demonstrated the ability to lead. This is probably why Paul waited for a while after starting the churches in Ephesus and Crete before he had Timothy (ch.3) and Titus (ch. 1) appoint elders.

It took time for the true leaders to naturally emerge. 

The ability to lead others in spiritual matters is also implied by the fact that the elder must be "skilled at teaching" (1 Tim. 3:2), or, "able to exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict" (Titus 1:9). A teacher is not skillful unless his students learn. Learning includes how to do God's will, not just how to know it. (James 1:22-25) Finally, elders and deacons had to "hold fast the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience" (1 Tim. 3:9) which would not be possible if they were guilty of sins of omission (see also "above reproach" 1 Tim. 3:2). 

All of these references imply that elders had to be practitioners of the Word, not just theoreticians.

He must be morally upright and consistent.

The emphasis in the Bible is on character even over and above function. You can study a list of the qualifications for elders along with suggested definitions for each.


Likewise, Deacons were required to have functional and character requirements before they could serve. You can study a list of qualifications for deacons along with suggested definitions.

Qualifications for Elders

Paul emphasizes spiritual maturity and character over gifting. It is possible to be very gifted and knowledgeable, yet immature or carnal. Immature people often get into leadership, where they do the church much harm (see Diotrophes 3 Jn. 9). There is nothing wrong with the desire to be a Christian leader (1 Tim. 3:1), but it must be for the right reason.

Since these qualities describe spiritual maturity, they are helpful in that they describe the character that the Holy Spirit is seeking to produce in all of our lives. Not surprisingly, most of these qualities are prescribed elsewhere in the New Testament for all Christians. If we allow the Holy Spirit to transform us into a man or woman of God, we can be sure that God will put us into the roles of leadership that he has prepared for us.

Optional Discussion:
The Holy Spirit uses passages like this to turn up "blind spots" in areas so that we will allow him to change us over a period of time. As he convicts you, how should you respond?

Answers include

  • Acknowledge to him your lack, along with how you see this lack concretely manifesting itself in your life currently.
  • Agree that you want him to change you in this area.
  • Agree that you cannot change yourself, but that you believe that he can change you in this area, no matter how deeply entrenched it is.
  • Ask him to give you practical steps of faith to take.
  • Look for those who are strong in this area, observe how they exhibit this quality, and talk with them about how they developed it (Phil 4:9; 1 Cor. 11:1; Heb 13:7).

Regular Discussion:
As general roadmaps to what spiritual maturity looks like, these lists of character requirements are directly applicable to our own lives.

  • Why are each of the following character traits important in Christian living and ministry?
  • How can we cooperate with God to supply us with each requirement?

Above reproach (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6,7) - anepilempton: unaccusable; anegkleton: unreprovable

  • This is the summation of all other characteristics.
  • Not only the absence of disqualifying factors is in view, but positive things are evident
  • A good reputation spiritually (Acts 6:3; 16:2).

Husband of one wife (1 Tim. 3:2) - mais gunaikos andros: "one-woman man"

  • This probably does not refer to polygamy (which was not common in the Roman empire), but rather that sexual morality is an established life-style.
  • This qualification does not exclude divorcees; present life-style only is in view (as with all of the qualifications).
  • This includes flirting, porno habits, inappropriate "counseling" of the opposite sex, etc.

Temperate (1 Tim. 3:2) - nephalion: sober

  • This is the opposite of being mentally and spiritually dense. It is linked with alertness in 1 Thess. 5:6 and 1 Pet. 5:8.
  • The person has a clear perspective on life, and a correct spiritual orientation.

Prudent (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8) - sophrona: thoughtful, self-controlled, sane

  • The person is mentally healthy (Mk. 5:15; 2 Cor 5:13).
  • He has an honest evaluation of himself which involves neither arrogance nor self-hate (Rom. 12:3).
  • The person evidences the ability to be reasonable, sensible, able to keep one's head (Titus 2:6; 1 Pet. 4:7).

Respectable (1 Tim. 3:2) - kosmion: well-ordered

  • A habit of orderliness and stability has been established (see 1 Tim. 2:9; 1 Pet. 3:4).

Hospitable (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8) - philoxenon: "lover of strangers"

  • The person takes a genuine interest in new people. This would include both an outreach orientation and the willingness to open his home to others (Heb. 13:2).

Able to Teach (1 Tim. 3:2) - didaktikon: skilled at teaching

  • The elder must understand Scripture well enough to be able to effectively exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict (Titus 1:9).
  • This does not necessitate being a gifted large-group teacher.
  • "Grounded in the Word" means that the elder can explain and apply biblical concepts in your his words, and discern error when he hears it.

Not Addicted to Wine (1 Tim. 3:3; Titus 1:7) - me paroinon: "not lingering over wine"

  • The person has a demonstrated freedom from drunkenness, or substance abuse. There is no dependence on alcohol or other drugs.
  • Able to give up freedom to avoid stumbling a weaker brother (1 Cor. 8)

Not self-willed (Titus 1:7) - me authade: not a usurper

  • This is linked with rebelliousness in 2 Pet. 2:10, and with usurpation of rightful authority in 1 Tim. 2:12.
  • There should be a proven ability to defer to others.
  • Avoids a "my way or the highway;" attitude.
  • To "defer" means that you actively get behind the others' way and help it to succeed.
  • Implies he is able to apologize

Not quick-tempered (Titus 1:7) - me orgilon: not inclined to anger

  • The person is not vengeful or violent, brooding or bitter (see Eph. 4:29,31), especially when he doesn't get his own way.
  • When Moses struck the rock (Num. 20) he was refused entry into Canaan. When leaders misrepresent God by making him seem more angry than he really is, it's a serious thing (Jas. 1:19,20)
  • Leaders may get angry, but they should be slow to anger rather than having a short fuse.
  • The leader must be under control, avoiding violent outbursts
  • Elders must be able to drop offenses, not hold onto them

Not pugnacious (Titus 1:7; 1 Tim. 3:3) - me plekten: not a striker

  • The person is not prone to physical or verbal abuse (i.e. slander, put-downs, etc.)
  • Not a fighter

Gentle (1 Tim. 3:3) - epieike: gracious, forbearing

  • The person is not unduly rigorous or legalistic in his treatment of people.
  • He is kind, empathetic and patient with all people.
  • The opposite of quick-tempered, or pugnacious.
  • People are fragile. We need to consider how our words and actions will affect them. See 2 Tim. 2:24,25; 1 Thess. 2:7; Gal. 6:1; Eph. 4:3; Col. 3:12,13; 1 Tim. 6:11; Gal. 5:22,23; Jas. 3:17.

Uncontentious (1 Tim. 3:3) - amachon: peaceable

  • This means not looking for ways to disagree or oppose; not loving to fight or quarrel.
  • The person possesses a positive and constructive point of view.
  • This is the opposite of being self-willed.

Free From the Love of Money (1 Tim. 3:3) - aphilagruron: not greedy

  • This means the ability to be content with what one has materially (1 Tim. 6:8).
  • The person is not motivated by financial considerations in ministry goals (see Acts 20:33)
  • True love for Christ and his work will become eclipsed by greed (see Mat. 6:24). Our day is replete with newsy examples of the error of money-love in the church.
  • See 1 Tim. 6:6-11,17-19. Mature elders should give away much to others, and should live a simple life-style in order to curb temptation.

Manages own household well (1 Tim. 3:4,5; Titus 1:6) - prohistemenon: to stand before; manage; to lead, used of an army commander standing before his men

  • This is a demonstrated ability to lead spiritually and effectively in marriage and/or a rooming situation
  • The elder's family should respect him and voluntarily follow his leadership
  • Examining one's family life tends to ensure that the person is spiritually authentic and not two-faced.
  • Christian leader's first responsibility is to their own family. Prioritizing and practicing biblical principles with family and home is crucial in cooperating with God

Not a new convert (1 Tim. 3:6) - me neophuton: "newly planted"

  • The person has been a walking Christian long enough to be tested by God (see 1 Tim. 3:10)
  • The person should have experienced success without becoming conceited

Having a good reputation with those outside (1 Tim. 3:7) - exothen: used by Paul for non-Christians (Col. 4:5)

  • Non-Christians are unable to discredit the person.
  • They speak well of him generally, and accusations are easily exposed as false (1 Pet. 3:16).
  • The person is spiritually authentic and not two-faced. This is has important, obvious implications for evangelism.
  • The elder resists a Christian ghetto mentality, and fosters a constant awareness of the watching world

Loving what is good (Titus 1:8) - philagathon: loving good

  • The person's lifestyle demonstrates that God's way is enjoyed (see Rom. 12:2)
  • There is no questionable dichotomy between the person's recreational life and ministry

Just (Titus 1:8) - dikiaon: righteous

  • The person is fair and impartial in his dealings with people (1 Tim. 5:21).
  • When favoritism and particular biases are adopted, the biblical concepts of righteousness and goodness fade, and with that, God's agenda and priorities.
  • To gain victory in this area, one must be well aware of what his own bias tendencies are, and must resist those in favor of biblical truth

Devout (Titus 1:8) - hosion: Practical seriousness and zeal for God's will

  • A single-mindedness for God and His work.

What kinds of things would you expect to occur in the case of an elder who meets the functional requirements, but not the moral requirements? 

Now Flip the coin: what if the elder had the moral, but not the functional requirements? Of the functional requirements and the moral requirements, do you think one is more important than the other? Why?

Qualifications for Deacons

What Deacons Do

The role of deacon in the New Testament is ambiguous. The word literally means "servant", but no further elaboration of the office is given. This word can also be translated "minister." Some argue that the deacons administrated the physical needs of the church because of the example of the six men selected in Acts 6:1-6. While the word "deacon" is used in vs. 1 ("ministry" or "distribution"), and the verb form is used in vs. 2, ("to serve") the noun form is also used in vs. 4 to refer to the apostles proclamation ("ministry of the word"). Therefore, we have no reason to believe that the usage of diakonia in Acts 6 is a technical usage, or that the ministry of the deacon is limited to administration.

We think of deacons as "under-shepherds" who were responsible for shepherding a smaller sphere of the local church or other tasks as assigned, while the elders were responsible for the overall leadership of the church. Deacons appear to be under the authority of the elders. This is evident from the fact that they are always mentioned after the elders, and also because the requirements for deacons are slightly less strict than for elders.


Deacons were both male and female. While some say the "women" in 1 Tim. 3:11 are deacons' wives, this seems very unlikely. If Paul was concerned that deacons' wives be dignified so as to avoid reproaching deacons, it is unimaginable that he would not make the same point to the wives of elders. In addition, in Rom. 16:1,2, Paul tells us that Phoebe was a "deaconess" of the church in Cenchrea, and that she held a position of considerable influence.

Differences From Elders

The qualifications for deacons are very similar to those for elders, but omit certain requirements which are expected of elders. Evidently, deacons could be very young Christians (there is no "not a new convert" requirement). However, they were still to be "tested" to ascertain that their character and service were genuine and consistent. They do not seem to need as much scriptural knowledge as the elders. They are to "hold to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience," which stresses obedience to what they know more than a sophisticated knowledge of the Word. They are not required to be able to "refute those who contradict" as were elders.

Qualifications for Deacons (1 Tim. 3:8-12)

The following qualifications are all of a subjective nature, and therefore must be understood as comparatively true for deacons, never as absolutely true. Also, we recognize that this is our particular interpretation, applicable to Xenos Fellowship. The English is taken from the NASB.

  1. Dignity. "Likewise" means the foregoing description regarding elders applies in principle. Dignity speaks of a respectable reputation especially in spiritual matters.
  2. Not double tongued means not insincere--not saying one thing to one and something different to another. Not a liar. Straight forward.
  3. Not addicted to much wine means no abuse or dependence on any drug--may include regular use of alcohol even though not getting drunk, if inappropriate dependence is demonstrated. There should be a demonstrated freedom not to drink.
  4. Not fond of sordid gain. Not willing to manipulate or resort to illegitimate means for personal gain, either for money or recognition, especially in the area of ministry. The person demonstrates a proper values system, including a willingness to give up money making opportunities for the sake of the gospel. This also implies that the deacon should be giving consistently and sacrificially of his/her money.
  5. Holding fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. "Holding fast" speaks of knowing the Word, and "clear conscience" speaks of doing the Word. This includes having a clear conscience with regard to the service being rendered to the church (i.e. sins of omission are also wrong).
  6. Tested first and beyond reproach. Deacons must have a proven ability to do the work of shepherding and service effectively and without any grounds of accusation. In other words, we don't decide that someone is a deacon, we recognize that someone already is a deacon.
  7. Not malicious gossips. They demonstrate care not to exaggerate or to abusively speak of others. This implies the ability to keep a secret where appropriate. If the failings of others are shared, it is only with those in a responsible position and for proper reasons.
  8. Temperate comes from a word meaning serious, not given to excess, self-controlled and emotionally stable.
  9. Faithful in all things indicates reliability. It implies that we don't have to worry when this person is given a job to do--the deacon will do his/her best.
  10. Husband of one wife. Literally a "one-woman man," this means specifically that there is at most one person of the other sex in the deacon's life. It means in principle that the deacon has his/her sexuality resolved and under control.
  11. One who manages his own household well. The primary application is to married men meaning that their family life is good. In the case of the unmarried, it means that they have close relationships and that those relationships are generally healthy and stable. A pattern of broken relationships suggests an inability to get along with others (especially your own family and friends) and disqualifies a would-be deacon