I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant [diakonos] of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well. (Rom 16:1-2 ESV)
I am often asked to discuss my view of biblical, New Testament church leadership. I support a 3-tiered structure of biblical leadership: elders, pastors, and deacons.
Elders are clearly biblical leaders and overseers of a specific local congregation (1 Tim. 3, Titus 1). A senior pastor is most defintely an elder. A pastoral staff member could be an elder if they meet the qualifications and are deemed so by the church. Other men in the church (not on the paid staff) make up the rest of the elder body. Their role is to protect the teaching and doctrine of the church, to be diligient in fervent prayer, to provide leadership in keeping a church biblically faithful and its people accountable to Christ.
Pastors (or shepherds) are those responsible for caring for the flock. A senior pastor is definitely a pastor, but so is a children’s pastor, a senior adult pastor, or a worship pastor. A shepherd provides care, guidance, protection, discipline, and instruction to his or her sheep. Most staff members are shepherds in that they take care of various segments of the church body.
The role of deacon is probably where I get the most questions. My view supports both men and women deacons, as long as deacons do not act as elders. When deacons are acting in the biblical role of elder, then I believe deacons should only be men. Unfortunately, many churches in my faith tradition have chose to abandon the role of elder and therefore place an overarching burden upon the deacon body.
But when deacons act solely as servants and ministers to the physical needs of the congregation under the leadership of the elders, you have a really good thing. A biblical thing.
It then becomes imperative to look at all the examples of deacons in Scripture. We see the firstdeacons chosen in Acts 6 and then several others are listed through out the New Testament. Phoebe is mentioned as a servant/deacon in the church of Cenchrae in Romans 16. This is the only mention directly of a female deacon, however, many believe Priscilla (Romans 16:3-6) would also be included in this role. Women deacons are not new. Most conservative denominations had women deacons in the past, including Baptist (my tribe).
There is a Baptist historical tradition that women deacons would help with female baptismal candidates as they would come up out of the river soaking wet. In order to protect the modesty of the candidate, the women deacons would surround the female baptismal candidate down into the water and then again as she was escorted back to the bank to be properly covered.
They had roles of caring for the sick, the widowed, the dying, and other ministries of compassion and mercy showing, which is most often given by the Spirit to women more than men.
When you seek to adopt and practice biblical leadership models in your church, you must consider the full counsel of the New Testament. You must do your best not to assume your current, presently active leadership model is completely evident in Scripture. Start from the Scripture and let it tell what leaders to have and not to have in your church.