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.