Deacons, Elders and Bishops

Part 8 in the Series:

Questioning Church Authority

by Don Enevoldsen

In the beginning, church titles described function. Human beings quickly subverted them to denote status, particularly “apostle,” “prophet” and “pastor.” When speaking of leadership positions, however, there were three words that appeared with great frequency, and they weren’t from the five fold ministry list. They were deacon, elder and bishop (translated “overseer” in the NIV). Even these designations were originally more concerned with function than with position. In fact, they were used almost interchangeably. The titles commonly in use today to identify our leaders were generally used in a much different fashion two thousand years ago.

“Pastor,” for example, is the title used in most Protestant churches to identify the person who leads a congregation. In the first century, the word for pastor was poimen, the same word as shepherd. It described the ministry of someone who shepherded people. A bishop might demonstrate a pastoral ministry, but in the context of leadership positions, he was called a bishop, not a pastor. In Acts 20:28, Paul instructed bishops (or overseers) to guard themselves and to shepherd or to pastor the flocks entrusted to them. The leader is called a bishop. Pastor is what he does.

Likewise, prophets were recognized as those who fulfilled the ministry of a prophet, but if he also functioned in leadership, he was known as a bishop or an elder. The same can be said of evangelists and teachers. All of these terms described a ministry, much more than an office. If asked to point out the leaders, a member of the congregation would speak of his bishop, not his pastor or prophet or evangelist.

(The one term from the fivefold ministry list that took a little different path was “apostle.” For a history of this word, see the Word Study: apostolos.)

The basic definitions of the three leadership titles are:

1. Deacon: diakonos—One who renders service to another. This term is perhaps one of the most poorly understood of the words denoting leaders. A deacon has come to mean a person who ranks just below a priest or who helps the pastor with various functions, a man who executes the commands of another. In Protestant churches, this is often relegated to things like building maintenance. A Catholic deacon generally holds a more respected position than his Protestant counterpart and is more actively involved in services. The word itself, however, just means servant. It is the same word that is translated “minister.”

2. Elder: presbuteros—Elder or senior, older and more advanced in years. This term refers to those whose age and experience have brought them wisdom. They are looked to as leaders primarily because they have proven that they have wisdom.

3. Bishop: episkopos—An inspector, overseer, a watcher, a guardian. A bishop is a man charged with the duty of seeing that things to be done by others are done rightly. Inherent in the term is the idea of investigation and inspection. A bishop functions as a manager, helping people to find their place. He coordinates their efforts for maximum effectiveness. The word episkopos is also translated “overseer.”

In the early church, these words were used almost interchangeably. In Acts 20:17, Paul sent for the elders of the church in Ephesus. In verse 28, he called them bishops who also pastor or shepherd. Paul often called himself an apostle, yet in 1 Corinthians 3:5, he says that he and Apollos are only deacons, or servants. There was some distinction between the various titles, especially between deacon and bishop, but the boundary between them is blurred at best.

There was a process for appointing people to these offices, but the exact system is somewhat obscure. Paul told Titus, for example, that the reason he was left in Crete was to “straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5), yet the appointment was based on service performed for the congregation. The best we get from biblical descriptions is a list of qualifications a person should have before being recognized (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).

It is noteworthy that the first leaders appointed in the church were deacons, not bishops. Acts 6:1-7 describes those assigned the task of organizing a specific service of distributing food. The men chosen for the task had already demonstrated the qualities necessary for the job. They were “seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). They were not arbitrary appointments, as so often happened in later years. They were proven leaders whose character and devotion had been demonstrated.

The historical record also indicates that the congregation in that first century had an active involvement in the choices. The Didache, a book of guidelines for church functioning, described a process consistent with the biblical record:

“Appoint bishops for yourselves, as well as deacons, worthy of the Lord…” (Didache 15:1)

All of that to say that leadership in the early church was not as hierarchical as it is recognized today. Leaders became leaders because they led. Even the titles for leaders were descriptive of the function, not the position.

Next, Part 9: Paul and the Twelve Apostles

Go to the beginning of the series, Questioning Church Authority: Part 1: False Prophets

Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.

Deacons, Elders and Bishops
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8 thoughts on “Deacons, Elders and Bishops

  • May 1, 2012 at 9:22 am

    Just wanted you to know that I am enjoying this series. Love the way you break down the ministry gifts as gifts not necessarily positions.

    • May 1, 2012 at 9:26 am

      Thanks, G Sam. There’s a little more coming, too. I’ve prepared a short history of church hierarchy that notes how quickly the use of leader titles changed over the first few centuries of the church. Call me sometime. I’m not sure my number for you is right.

  • May 1, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    Ephesians 4:14, Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their
    deceitful scheming.

  • May 2, 2012 at 8:35 am

    Hey Don,

    Excellent break down of the conceptual differences between the 5-fold ministry and the roles of bishops, deacons and elders.

    I think I would first comment that the reason the Apostles had deacons appointed prior to bishops was because the apostles were the first bishops appointed by Christ himself when they were breathed apon and the gift of remission of sins was passed on to them (John 20:23). Thus, the apostles – the first bishops – were appointed prior to deacons.

    My second push back would be to ask why you might think that a hierarchical structure is inherently bad. Sure hierarchical structure can be a bad thing when abused, as can anything, but what is the alternative? The evangelical movement is a perfect example of what happens when the structure is forsaken and men “go it alone” in their own intelligence and pride. The truth about the early church is that it was very hierarchical from the beginning. The writings of the apostolic Church Fathers (Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement of Rome, etc) are evidence enough that this was the case. However, the structure was given by Christ and the Apostles for the benefit of the Church; the leaders on top were always commissioned to be the servants of all. What I’m getting at is that just because some would abuse the structure doesn’t mean the structure is bad. Counterfeit coins do not make authentic coins bad.

    Just some thoughts. Great article my friend.

    • May 2, 2012 at 10:00 am

      A good point regarding the apostles. I think there are some nuances there that might make for some good debate, but in general I can’t argue with you.
      I don’t agree, however, that the early church was as hierarchical, at least in the first generation, as you contend. I believe that the more rigid hierarchy developed rapidly from a relatively fluid structure. In the first generation, the ministry was the highest priority, and whatever structure enabled a congregation to connect with the needs of the community around it was appropriate. Within a generation, however, I see a change beginning that made the structure more important than the ministry that it was supposed to facilitate. At least that’s the impression I get from reading the early writings of the church, beginning with the Didache and including Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement of Rome, etc. (I’ve already written the rest of this series, so I can tell you that Ignatius is the primary subject of Part 10. Some of this discussion might be better left for that post.) The shift in priority was the problem, and today remains the problem. Is the structure more important than the ministry? Then the structure will be abusive and controlling. Is the ministry more important than the structure? Then the structure will adapt to the needs of the community.
      So I agree that the structure was given for the benefit of the church, but the structure was not intended to be sacrosanct. In answer to your question, “why you think that a hierarchical structure is inherently bad,” it’s because hierarchy inherently facilitates control. I’ve never seen it work any other way, and control is not how ministry functions well. I understand that for church to work, there has to be some organization. Anarchy is inherently more destructive than hierarchy. A structure that allows the kind of flow through all the parts of the organization does not work where there is control. Part 5 of this series outlined what I see as necessary characteristics of a healthy church organization. (Part 5: Church Hierarchy and Democracy) I don’t think of that kind of structure as hierarchical.

      • May 2, 2012 at 4:51 pm

        Don, I would be interested to hear your take on Ignatius. He is indeed a pillar in discussions of devotion to clergy and unity of the faith. He was used by the Catholic Church against the Reformers early on (unfortunately Rome didn’t challenge themselves with the same ammo when splitting from the Orthodox, but I digress). One cannot read him or Polycarp without the deep impression that the Church is meant to be structured and protected by overseers for her own survival and the protection of the true faith. And these are both men hand picked by the Apostles.

        There’s not much I can add to their writings to convince you if they haven’t. But what I hear coming from you is more of a concern over the abuse of power and control that some have taken as a result of being in a position of hierarchical power. Knowing your history – and sharing it – I fully understand where you’re coming from. But again, I would say that what you and I experienced in the WoF movement was absolute abuse of power by imposter, self-appointed ministers. And thus the problem – imposter, self-appointed ministry. This is the very thing the Apostles and Church Fathers sought to protect the Church.

        It is not whether or not you can have a Church without a hierarchy, no church is without it. It is a matter of which one is the healthy, God-breathed one. Depending on how one uses the word, I can’t imagine that your very own church is not hierarchical. Do you decide what will be preached, who will preach, who will lead, what you’ll spend, what you won’t, etc? Someone in your church has the power and control over these things. Bam! hierarchy.

        • May 2, 2012 at 6:13 pm

          I think I’m giving the word hierarchy a more negative definition than the sense in which you use it, and if we get the definitions squared away, we’re probably not much different. Everything you said about our shared experience at LWBC is true, and yes, there is always some structure to any organization, as you’ve pointed out. When I speak of the growth of hierarchy, I think of a tendency toward control rather than management, dictating rather than leading. The part of this series that quotes Ignatius is perhaps shorter than does justice to this discussion, but I don’t read his letters, or Polycarp, either, in the way you suggested. And this is a more subjective observation, perhaps than I normally like, because history of the church from that period is relatively sketchy. Seeing a more fluid operation of the church as it is described in the New Testament, I read the concern Ignatius had for submission to the bishops (in fact, one could almost call it obsession, since it is the dominate theme of all of his letters), and seeing the trends that the various councils took toward tight control over the following two centuries, I can’t help but think Ignatius was concerned by the lack of hierarchy that must have been prevalent. I suspect his motives were good, as they are by most pastors today. In concern with false teaching creeping into the church, most leaders gradually exert more and more control, all in the name of unity and protecting the flock. The end result is more control and less reliance on the Holy Spirit to work through teaching and example. There are always some good leaders who stand out precisely because they use their position of influence the right way, but they tend to be the exceptions. I see in the writings of Ignatius the beginning of what became control disguised as unity. The tone he strikes, which I’ll look at more in Part 10, is foreign to the New Testament, and even to the Didache. The fact that the Catholic Church used him against the Reformers is not surprising, since that is the historical outcome of enhanced hierarchy. That they didn’t challenge themselves with the same ammo when splitting from the Orthodox is typical of a hierarchical approach. The Orthodox history is not free of the same problem, any more than Protestantism would later be free of it. I have read Ignatius without the deep impression that the Church is meant to be structured. Just the opposite. I see the beginning of what became so stratified that it lost connection to its origins. I know we are not likely to agree on this, but your observations should give some balance to what I’m writing. Admittedly my goal is to strike at abuse of hierarchy more than hierarchy itself. I’m just not convinced they can be separated that easily. Theoretically it’s possible, but I don’t know… I haven’t read much of church writing past Eusebius, but I’ve read as much as I could find up to Constantine, supplemented with a little Augustine and quite a bit of Origen. The trend toward oppressive hierarchy seems pretty obvious to me, but that might be because I’m actively looking for it.

  • December 29, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    In my experience with a mega church, “elders” were basically those who knew the right people or gave the most money. There were many qualified, humble servants in the background doing the work of elders, while those with the titles were in their own world just patting each other on the back or off “in a meeting”.


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