Who shall lead, teach and pastor the Church? Scripture is clear.
Many Christians assume that the Bible does not prescribe a pattern of church structure. It’s a common assumption in a world that values the efficiency, productivity and hierarchy found in successful corporations. But Scripture does in fact prescribe a particular church structure which is God’s good design for His church, clarifying who are the leaders we should submit to, and what we should expect from them.
There are several reasons why New Testament patterns of church structure are prescriptive to all Christian churches. First, as Christians we affirm that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The Apostles’ teaching on church structure sets a binding precedent – just as with every other point of doctrine.
Second, Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus give general patterns for all churches. Yes, Paul, moved by the Holy Spirit, is writing to a particular situation – just as all parts of Scripture are written by a specific author to a specific audience. Yet Paul clearly had in mind an audience broader than the Ephesian church. Paul’s encouragement to prayer is universal (“all people”, 1 Tim. 2:1) just as he encourages “men everywhere” to pray in intercession (1 Tim. 2:8). He also makes clear that his instructions in chapters 2 and 3 are not confined to the Ephesian situation but are universal instructions on “how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household” (1 Tim. 3:15).
‘Elder’ stresses godly wisdom and maturity, ‘overseer’ points to oversight and rule, and ‘pastor-teacher’ points to feeding and tending the flock.
Third, and contrary to some arguments, there is a clear and consistent pattern of church structure in the New Testament. Yes, it does involve careful synthesis of various textual data, but it’s a discernible pattern nonetheless. So let’s spend some time putting the key passages together.
What is the difference between overseers, elders and pastors? Those who govern local churches are called by a variety of names in Scripture: leaders, elders, overseers, and pastors. Paul also speaks simply of “those who are over you”.
While there might be disagreement among scholars on whether the New Testament patterns are prescriptive, most scholars today agree that when Scripture writers speak of “elders,” “overseers,” and “pastor-teachers” they are speaking of the same office. The most common appeal is made to Acts 20, where the synonymity is undeniable. Paul summoned the elders of the church in Ephesus to give a final speech to them: “Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders [presbuteros] of the church to come to him. And when they came to him, he said to them … ‘Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [episkopos], pastoring [poimein] the church of God, which He bought with his own blood’.”
As can be seen, Paul tells the “elders” that the Holy Spirit has made them “overseers,” and that their job is to “pastor” the flock of God among them. So it’s clear in Acts 20 that the terms elder, overseer and pastor are different designations for those who occupy the same office. Elder and overseer are also used synonymously in Titus 1 and 1 Peter 5.
Likewise, the “pastor-teachers” of Ephesians 4:11 are the same group of leaders. The same shepherd imagery is used to describe their functions, and the designation “teacher” corresponds with the command for the elder-overseers to teach (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9).
When the Scripture writers speak of “elders”, “overseers” (traditionally “bishops”) and “pastors” they are using functional words to describe the same office. “Elder” stresses godly wisdom and maturity, “overseer” points to oversight and rule, and “pastor-teacher” points to feeding and tending the flock.
The first question that arises for reformed churches is the legitimacy of distinguishing between “teaching elders” and “ruling elders.” The only passage that might suggest a distinction is 1 Timothy 5:17. Paul writes, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour [i.e. paid], especially those who labour in preaching and teaching.” The first clear observation is that those who labour in preaching and teaching are plural. A second observation is that these paid elders are those who are labouring; working hard at it. It’s not a distinction of office, but a distinction of function within the one office. It most likely refers to those who spend more time preaching and teaching.
What about deacons? The noun diakonos is usually translated “servant”, “minister” or transliterated “deacon”, and it refers to a servant in relationship to their activity. In its narrowest and most common use in the first century, the verb diakoneo meant “to wait at a table”.
Deacons are one of the two groups distinguished from within the whole congregation in verse 1 of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, so by the time Paul was writing, the office of deacon was established. What we also know about deacons from 1 Timothy 3:8–13 is that their qualifications are almost identical to that of elders. Both are heavily based upon godly character; the difference is one of function. Perhaps the most noticeable distinction between overseer and deacons is that deacons do not need to be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2).
Deacons are called to “hold” to the faith with a clear conscience, but they are not called officially to “teach” that faith (1 Tim. 3:9). Like overseers, deacons must manage their house and children well (1 Tim. 3:4, 12). But when referring to deacons, Paul omits the section where he compares managing one’s household to taking care of God’s church (1 Tim. 3:5). The reason for this omission is most likely due to the fact that deacons are not given a ruling position in the church— that function belongs to the overseers.
Deacons’ qualifications are almost identical to elders’. Both are heavily based upon godly character; the difference is one of function.
There is also good reason to think that deacons can be both male and female. The grammar of 1 Timothy 3:11 could be speaking of women deacons (hence the NIV footnote “deaconess”). It also seems most probable, given Paul’s later reference to Phoebe, a deacon of the church (Romans 16:1), as well what would go on to be practiced by the early church.
Deacons are essentially ministers who do whatever is necessary to allow the overseers to accomplish their God- given task of shepherding and teaching the church. Just as the Apostles delegated administrative responsibilities to the Seven (Acts 6:1-6), so the overseers are to delegate certain responsibilities to the deacons. Whereas Scripture charges overseers with the task of teaching and leading the church, the deacons’ role is more service- oriented. That is, they are to care for the physical or temporal concerns of the church. By handling such matters, deacons free up the overseers to focus on shepherding the spiritual needs of the congregation.
My prayer is that, until our Senior Pastor Jesus return, all Christians will be able to read their Bible, and then walk into their local church and see clearly who are the overseers and deacons, what they should expect from these leaders, and what’s also expected from themselves as members. Each congregation is to be governed and taught by a team of overseers, and served by a team of deacons. This is the Apostolic model for the Christian church.
Stephen Moore is the new pastor at Cowra Presbyterian Church, NSW.