Church Leaders in the New Testament


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Click to see types of church leaders in the New Testament.


Bishops: The Greek word episkopos means simply “overseer” and could be used in the secular world to refer to many types of administrators or supervisors. In 1 Peter 2:25, it is used of Christ. See also Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1–6; Titus 1:7–9.

Deacons: The Greek word diakonos means “one who serves” and is often translated “minister” or “servant” in English Bibles. It is used widely in the New Testament and is not always intended to designate a formal office. It is applied to Phoebe (Rom. 16:1), Apollos (1 Cor. 3:5), Tychicus (Eph. 6:21), Epaphras (Col. 1:7), and Paul himself (1 Cor. 3:5; 2 Cor. 3:6; Eph. 3:7). In the book of Acts, the seven men appointed to “wait on tables” (Acts 6:2–5) are usually regarded as deacons. See also Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8–13.

Elders: The Greek word presbyteros can refer to one who is advanced in age or experience. We read of elders in Israel throughout the Old Testament (e.g., Exod. 3:16; 1 Sam. 8:4), and Jewish elders are frequently mentioned in the New Testament Gospels (e.g., Matt. 21:23; Luke 7:3). In the book of Acts, elders are appointed in many Christian churches (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2–6, 22–23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18), and in the book of Revelation, elders have a privileged position in heaven (Rev. 4:4, 10; 5:5–8, 11, 14; 7:11–13; 11:16; 14:3; 19:4). Elders are never mentioned in any of the undisputed letters of Paul, but see 1 Timothy 4:14; 5:17–19; Titus 1:5–6; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1–5.

Widows: We hear of widows who have been enrolled for special service in the church only in 1 Timothy 5:3–16. Paul, however, does encourage all widows to devote themselves to “the affairs of the Lord” rather than remarrying in 1 Corinthians 7:8, 34, 39–40. The church’s commitment to caring for widows is apparent in Acts 6:1; 9:39; James 1:27. See also Luke 2:37.

Others: Paul refers to other varieties of church leadership in Romans 12:8; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Galatians 6:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:12.

Other early Christian writings testify to the development of these offices. Both 1 Clement (ca. 96) and the Didache (ca. 100) mention “bishops” and “deacons” as separate positions, giving the impression of a two-tiered hierarchy. By the time of Ignatius (ca. 110), a three-part structure had developed, according to which “bishops,” “deacons,” and “elders” represented three distinct offices. Ignatius also refers to “the virgins who are called widows” (Ignatius, To the Smyrnaeans 13:1). Is this a later development of the tradition: never-married women taking vows of lifelong celibacy?