Church Leaders in the New Testament

Click the underlined words below for a description of the office in question and biblical examples of the term.

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 Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:16; Titus 1:79.

"Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28).

“The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money” (1 Tim. 3:13).

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 6:25) are usually regarded as deacons. See also Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:813.

"I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae” (Rom. 16:1).

“Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Tim. 3:89).

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, 4, 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, 6, 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; 5:1719; Titus 1:56; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:15.

"When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave” (Luke 7:3).

"The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea; this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:2930).

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, 3940. The church’s commitment to caring for widows is apparent in Acts 6:1; 9:39; James 1:27. See also Luke 2:37.

"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (James 1:27).

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. In 1 Clement (ca. 96) and the Didache (ca. 100) there are mentions of “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?

"And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues" (1 Cor. 12:28).