What are deacons, elders, bishops and pastors?

Jun 1st, 2010 in After you Believe, Church, Tough Questions by Jim Denison

One of the most obvious differences between Christian denominations regards the various leadership roles which churches recognize. Most Baptist churches have deacons but no elders. Presbyterian and Bible churches have both. Catholic and Methodist churches recognize “bishops.” Why the differences? What difference do they make?

Who are “deacons”?
The Greek word diakonia means “service”; in the noun form it translates as “servant.” Its first reference in church history occurs in Acts 6, where the apostles state, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2). Both italicized words translate the term in question. The seven men who were chosen by the church for this important service became known in time as “deacons.”

It is clear that their first responsibility was meeting needs, not leading or managing the affairs of the church. Over time, however, the church came to view the office of “deacon” as preparation for the work of pastor or other ecclesiastical leadership. And so the servant role of deacon became a managing responsibility. In recent generations, some Baptists have seen deacons as managers, often called the “board of deacons.” Others view deacons as servants without administrative or leadership roles in the church.

Who are “elders”?
The Greek word presbuteros, translated “elder” in English, is found 58 times in the Greek New Testament. “Elders” were used to distribute aid for the Judean church (Acts 11:29-30); they were appointed in churches by Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:23); they were visited by Paul and Barnabas in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2); they “direct the affairs of the church,” and some do the work of “preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17); since they are “entrusted with God’s work,” they must be “blameless” (Titus 1:5-7); and they are to pray for the sick (James 5:14). Peter appealed to the “elders” as a “fellow elder” (1 Peter 5:1).

And so it seems that early churches were led by “elders,” though there is some question as to their number in each church. The Judean church possessed “elders,” for instance, but they may have led numerous house churches and so worked as a single elder for each local congregation. This question will assume greater importance in a moment.

Who are “bishops”?
The Greek word episcopos is found five times in the New Testament (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 2:25). It is typically translated “overseer,” and refers to one who supervised the work of others in Christian ministry. While this office became part of the Church’s hierarchy in succeeding centuries, in apostolic Christianity it appears to relate specifically to local congregations.

Who are “pastors”?

Only once in the New Testament are congregational leaders called “pastor.” In Ephesians 4:11, “pastor” (translating poimen, “shepherd”) and “teacher” are apparently one office (as the absence of the definite article before “teacher” shows). Congregational leaders are sometimes called “shepherds” elsewhere (cf. 1 Peter 5:2; Acts 20:28; John 21:16).

How is the church to be led today?
These four leadership functions or “offices” have been understood in a variety of ways across Christian history and tradition. The Methodist tradition recognizes all four offices as separate leadership roles, though most interpreters view “bishop” and “elder” as interchangeable. The two words can by synonymous (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5,7; 1 Timothy 3:1; 4:14; 5:17,19). Many interpreters believer that “elder” refers to the person and “bishop” to the office that person occupies in church leadership. Some also suggest that “elder” is a Jewish description of this office, as there were “elders” in the Hebrew tradition (cf. Ruth 4:2), while “bishop” may have been used in the Gentile culture. And so Presbyterians and Bible churches recognize “elders” but not “bishops,” while the Catholic Church recognizes “bishops” but not “elders.”

Baptists typically see “elder” and “bishop” as descriptions of the office of “pastor” (cf. Acts 20:17, 28). Jesus was called both “bishop” or “overseer” (episkopos) and “shepherd” or “pastor” (poimen) in 1 Peter 2:25. Building on Paul’s recognition of “overseers and deacons” in the Philippian church (Philippians 1:1), Baptist theology teaches that these are the two offices of the church. Those who advocate the office of “elder” as separate from or including the pastor note that “overseers” is plural, indicating several such persons in the Philippian church. Baptists counter that there were likely several house churches in Philippi, each with its own pastor or “overseer.”

Three leadership models prevail today. The “episcopal” model invests authority in bishops and/or other hierarchical offices (cf. the Episcopal and Catholic models). The “presbyterian” model affirms the rule of “elders” within the local congregation (cf. the Presbyterian and Bible church approach). The “congregational” model locates authority with the local, autonomous congregation and those to whom it delegates leadership (the Baptist model).

Whichever approach your denomination follows, one commonality should prevail: all Christian leaders are first servants. After Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, an act of the humblest service, he taught us to follow his example (John 13:12-17). Leaders are to be motivated by the desire to serve Christ and his people, not by personal ambition. When those called to Christian leadership stand one day before Jesus in judgment, he will not examine their credentials, achievements, and titles. But he will examine their towels.

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