What is the difference between a pastor and a deacon?

I often get asked this question, as many churches affirm the distinct roles between pastors and deacons, yet confuse these roles functionally.  Particularly in SBC churches, the deacons commonly carry the title of “deacon” but actually function like a pastor with “pastoral type” authority.  Many factors can cause this, but a primary reason for this confusion is short-term pastorates.  Pastors come and go.  But the deacons remain and feel the absence of this missing office.  Nevertheless, the Bible has distinct roles for these two biblical offices.  Here are three distinctions:

  • Teaching vs. Well-taught 

Paul’s list to Timothy (1 Tim. 3:1-13) demonstrates one main distinction that is significant to understanding the different roles of these two offices: the pastor is to be able to teach (v.2). The pastor’s calling is one of preaching and teaching God’s word in such a way that guards the good deposit of the gospel that is entrusted to this office (2 Tim. 1:14). Though we have a narrative account in Acts 8 of a deacon who instructed others in the faith, nowhere does Scripture require public teaching as a responsibility of a deacon. Holding fast to the clear teachings of the faith is required of both pastors (Titus 1:9) and deacons (1 Tim. 3:9), the implied reason being that neither would swerve from gospel faithfulness. But the added reasons of exhortation and refutation of false teaching are applied only to the pastor.

  • Oversight vs. Service 

The office of a pastor is also referred to as ‘an overseer’ (v.1), which captures well another distinct role from the role of a deacon. Peter affirms this distinction as he exhorts his fellow elders (pastors) to shepherd the flock by ‘exercising oversight’ eagerly, sacrificially, and humbly (1 Pet. 5:2-3). A deacon’s primary role is that of service. This is not to say that deacons do not oversee certain ministries, nor does this imply that pastors should not serve. But this refers to the primary biblical role of each office where the pastors exercise oversight (lead, oversee, administrate) over all matters within the local church and the deacons lead in service, under the submission of the pastors.

  • Shepherding vs. Practical Doing

Peter exhorts the elders (pastors) regarding their primary calling—shepherding the flock (1 Pet. 5:2). The office of a pastor is an extension of the care of the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4). Most of the qualifications of the pastor (1 Tim. 3:1-7) demonstrate the heart of a shepherd who should be willing to lay down his life for his flock. Although there is shepherding involved in the role of a deacon at times, the primary gifts needed in a deacon are one of skill sets that allow a deacon to serve in a variety of roles that fill the unique and pressing physical needs of a church. Though the men selected to serve the widows by the Apostles in Acts 6:1-7 are not called deacons, they present a helpful proto-type of the role of deacons that is established later in the church. Ultimately, deacons will not give an account to the Chief Shepherd for the souls of their flock—the office of the pastor is the only office that assumes this weighty, joyful burden (1 Pet. 5:1-4; Heb. 13:17).

Each of these two biblical offices have a unique, important, and beautiful design by God in the church.  The absence of one or the other will leave a gapping whole that cannot rightfully be filled by a gifted teacher, committee, or board of trustees.   Embrace God’s design and allow these distinct roles to flourish side by side with the other to the glory of Christ and his bride.

Posted in Discipleship, Oversight of Souls, Training for Ministry
5 comments on “What is the difference between a pastor and a deacon?
  1. Drew G says:

    Can you suggest ways to encourage deacons to serve? Is assigning them families for the purpose of serving needs too much like shepherding? I am trying to develop some plan to get the deacons serving. Thank you!

  2. Steve says:

    Brian,

    I always appreciate your comments/insights. But I will admit to being a bit confused on your thoughts on pastors/deacons.

    This post seems to want to take today’s current designations/structure (at least for the SBC) and apply them or match them up to the 1st century’s church.

    But that appears to be a stretch. Interestingly the New Testament never gives indication that a church had only one pastor–in the true sense of the word. The word was always used in a plural–as a group of pastors (except when Paul is describing the character of a pastor) when applied to churches. That doesn’t add up to the majority of today’s arrangements in churches, does it?

    And being “apt to teach” doesn’t appear to be the same as ready to preach–though they certainly could overlap. So the ministry of the elders/shepherds/bishops/overseers (all describing one ‘office’–used interchangeably in Acts 20 and 1 Pet 5) looks like a pastoring role of leadership and oversight, distinct from the deacons (Phil. 1:1, as you pointed out)–and the deacons would have been under the oversight of the group of pastor-shepherds, which is clearly not the arrangement in today’s SBC.

    I am missing something?

    • Brian Croft says:

      Thanks Steve for writing. I actually hold to a plurality of pastors and would affirm your biblical assessment you mentioned. That was assumed on my part as I am pretty well known as one who affirms a plurality of both pastors and deacons. Maybe I shouldn’t have assumed that. Apt to teach is the gifted to teach, but Paul also says pastors are to be ready to preach “in season and out of season.” This post is written with SBC church in mind, but not affirming the current set up. I will say that more and more SBC churches are moving to plurality and better understanding of the distinct roles of these offices. I hope that helps clear up some confusion.

      • Steve says:

        Brian–yes, that was helpful, thanks.

        But not to belabor the point, Paul is writing to his youthful protégé Timothy, giving him the charge to “preach the word–to be ready to preach in season and out of season.” (2 Tim. 4:1f) Timothy may have had a birthday or two since his first letter from Paul, but when Paul encourages him to not let anyone look down on him because of his youthfulness (1 Tim 4:12)–at an age that might well contribute to some of his timidity (2 Tim 1:7), Paul is speaking to a young man about his preaching–the work of an evangelist (4:5).

        In 3:1f, Paul seems to be addressing those of a much more mature age–thus the overseers (see Acts 20:17, 28 — equivalent to elders/shepherds).

        My point is that Paul appears to be addressing two separate (but related) roles — those whose responsibilities overlap (elders-teaching; evangelist-preaching), but in today’s parlance, the pastor is the preacher/evangelist–when in the first century, that doesn’t appear to necessarily be the case.

        OK..Enough of that–whoever and however, let’s get on with some good teaching/preaching…and shepherding (Eph. 4:11)!

        Blessings/Steve

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