What's the difference between a deacon and an elder?
When you compare the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 (elders/overseers, vv. 1-7; deacons, vv. 8-13), there doesn’t seem to be much difference. This, quite simply, is because the qualifications speak more to the issue of character than they do of role. To be an elder or to be a deacon you must be a man --or a woman in the case of deacons (cf. v. 11 NASB)-- who is temperate, faithful, etc.
To understand the difference in role, we would do better to look at what the actual titles are meant to convey. First, elders are overseers. Paul makes this clear in Acts 20 when he gathers together the elders of the church of Ephesus (v. 17) and says to them that the Holy Spirit has made them overseers to shepherd the church of God (v. 28). Elders, then, are supposed to provide the kind of oversight that a shepherd provides for his flock. They are to lovingly lead and direct the congregation in terms of both doctrine and a vision for the ministry; they are to come alongside and encourage or rebuke where necessary to get individual sheep back on course. This is why we call our elders “pastors.” The title “pastor” has the same root as the English word “pastoral” which, according to Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Desk Dictionary, is used of things “pertaining to shepherds, rustics, or rural life.”
Deacons, on the other hand, are called to “deac.” I find it interesting that the English translators didn’t even try to translate the original Greek word, diakonos (dee-a-con-os), in 1 Timothy 3. They managed to do a great job in Matthew 22:13 (“servants”), Colossians 4:7 (“servant”), and Romans 15:8 (“servant”). A deacon is a servant; he or she is one who has been called to serve. Practically speaking, this means putting hands to the work of the ministry. This is why we have deacons serving in the sound booth or deacons organizing co-ed breakfasts. T heir primary role is one of service.
To summarize, then, elders are primarily responsible for the spiritual oversight of the church whereas deacons are primarily responsible for attending to the physical matters of the church (service).