BISHOP (elder)( overseer , one older in years, presbyter ). In the NT the words are used interchangeably for the same officer of the Christian churches.


Titus 1:5 -9  (NIV) Titus’ Task on Crete

5 The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint (ordain) elders  (Traditionally bishop) in every town, as I directed you. 6 An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. 7 Since an overseer (Traditionally bishop) is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. 8 Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. 9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.


1 Timothy 3:1 (NIV)  Overseer

      Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer (Traditionally bishop; also in verse 2), he desires a noble task. 2 Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 7 He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap[1]

Acts 20:17-18, ……28–29 (NIV) Paul’s Farewell to the Ephesians Elders

17 From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. 18 When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia.


28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.


1 Timothy 3:1 The word “overseer” receives such translations as “bishop” (KJV, ASV), “Presiding-Officer” (TCNT), “superintendent” (Goodspeed), or “pastor” (Williams). In such passages as Acts 20:17, 28 and Titus 1:5, 7 the terms “elders” and “overseers” appear together to suggest that the positions are partially, if not fully, interchangeable.

In discussing the office of an overseer, Paul was not requesting that Timothy begin a new office in the church. Men were already functioning in the position (Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28). What Paul stipulated was that those appointed to the office were to possess qualifications of commitment. Four general statements summarize the qualifications Paul listed in 3:2–7. First, the overseer was to be obedient in observable behavior (3:2–3). Both Christians and non-Christians needed to see commitment in his life-style. Second, the overseer was to lead his own family well (3:4–5). Paul viewed leadership in the family as a proving ground for leadership in the church. Third, the overseer needed experience in his Christian walk (3:6). A neophyte believer appointed to a place of leadership could be blinded by a cloud of pride. Finally, the leader needed the respect of outsiders (3:7). These outsiders might not prefer his doctrines and morals, but they had to respect his integrity and commitment.

We must not confuse the office of overseer or bishop mentioned here with the ecclesiastical office of bishop that developed later. In later times a bishop was a superintendent over a diocese. This office did not appear in a fully developed sense until the second century. Paul was not discussing a hierarchical office, but he was presenting someone who directed the affairs of the church (1 Tim 5:17). This was a noble, important task; and Paul commended it as desirable. Paul’s object in commending the office was to add force to the following request for church leaders to have the highest qualifications.[2]


IV.      The Officers, Ministers And Leaders
Of the Church

The amount of scriptural material relative to the organization and leadership of the apostolic church is not large. The titles borne by New Testament church leaders were more descriptive of their ministries than of their office and rank. Since the first members and leaders of the Early Church were Jews, familiar with the synagogue, they patterned church organization somewhat after that of the synagogue; in fact, in one New Testament passage, the Christian assembly is called a synagogue (Jas. 2:2, Gr.).

That there was organization in the New Testament Church is clearly seen from the following:

(1) when problems arose in certain ministry activities, leaders were appointed to administer those activities (Acts 6:1–7)

(2) the disciples met regularly for worship; at first, every day; later, they met on the first day of the week (Acts 2:46, 47; 5:42; 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2)

(3) diligence was given to the appointment of proper leadership (Acts 1:23–26; 14:23; Ti. 1:5)

(4) qualifications for elders (bishops) and deacons are set forth in some detail (1 Tm. 3:1–13; Ti. 1:5–9; 1 Tm. 5:1, 17–22; 1 Pt. 5:1–4; Acts 6:1–7; 20:28–35)

(5) each church had the authority to discipline or exclude certain members (Mt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:1–5; 2 Thes. 3:6–16; 1 Tm. 1:18–20)

(6) members are admonished to respect and obey church leaders (1 Thes. 5:12, 13; Heb. 13:7, 17, 24)

(7) missionaries are sent forth by the church with official sanction (Acts 13:1–3)

(8) a council was convened in Jerusalem to settle for the whole Christian Church a dispute over doctrine and practice (Acts 15:1–35).

It is not easy to classify the various ministers and officers mentioned in the New Testament; several terms, such as “pastor, elder, and bishop,” which we take for titles, are probably different ways of describing the same function. Some terms like “minister” and “deacon” are different translations of the same Greek word diakonos. Some offices, such as “apostle and prophet,” are strictly by Divine appointment of the exercise of a spiritual gift; while other offices are by human election or appointment based upon specified qualifications. “Pastors and teachers” may be two kinds of ministers; or the terms may simply represent two functions of one office. In spite of the difficulties involved, effort will be made to analyze each New Testament office.

A.  Apostles.

The first exponents of the Christian gospel were the Apostles, who were also God’s first ministry gift to the Church.

And when it was day, He called unto Him his disciples: and of them He chose twelve, whom He named APOSTLES (Lk. 6:13).

And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the APOSTLES and elders which were at Jerusalem (Acts 16:4).

And He gave some, APOSTLES; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints (Eph. 4:11, 12b).

Ye … are built upon the foundation of APOSTLES and prophets, Jesus Christ being the chief corner stone (Eph. 2:19, 20).

The word “APOSTLE” is a transliteration of the Greek word apostolos which means “a messenger” or “one sent on a mission.” The original Apostles were those whom Jesus chose to be with Him, whom He personally commissioned and sent forth (Mt. 10:2; Lk. 22:14). They were twelve in number. When Judas Iscariot betrayed the Lord, leaving only eleven, another Apostle was chosen in his place (Acts. 1:15–26). The names of the twelve Apostles are written in the twelve foundations of the new Jerusalem (Rv. 21:14).

The requirements for apostleship were: (1) to have been with the Lord (Acts 1:21, 22) (2) to have been a witness of the Resurrection (Acts 1:22) (3) to have seen the Lord (1 Cor. 9:1) (4) to have wrought signs, wonders and mighty deeds (2 Cor. 12:12). The foundational Apostles were a fixed number of twelve.

There are others, however, who are called “apostles,” such as: (1) Paul, who was given a vision of the Lord and called personally by Jesus to be the apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13; 1 Cor. 9:1), who twelve times declared himself to be an apostle (2) James, the brother of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:7) (3) Barnabas (Acts 14:14) (4) certain kinsmen of Paul (Rom. 16:7) and (5) certain unnamed apostles (1 Cor. 15:7). Apparently the term “apostle” came to be used in a wider sense for those who had been with Jesus, such as: the seventy, the one hundred twenty, etc., and especially of those who seemed to have a special commission to found new churches. The terms “apostle” and “missionary” have the same meaning. That the term “apostle” was used in the wider sense is obvious from the fact that there were those who falsely claimed to be apostles (2 Cor. 11:13; Rv. 2:2). If only the original Twelve had been recognized as apostles, no one else could have made a claim to apostleship. It is important to keep clear, the distinction between the original Apostles and those who were called “apostles” in the wider meaning of the term. Closely identified with the Twelve, would be men such as: Paul, Mark, Luke, James, Jude, and the writer of Hebrews; all of whom were used by the Spirit to write the New Testament.

Discussion often arises of whether there could be modern apostles. It would depend upon the meaning given to the word “apostle.” Obviously the Church can have only one foundation. After the close of the New Testament Canon, no additional apostolic writers have been commissioned to add to Scripture. However if the term “apostle” is used in the wider sense of one commissioned of the Lord to open new mission fields, whose ministry is accompanied with signs and wonders, it would not be an inappropriate use of the word. Nevertheless, it should be kept clear that apostles are a gift from God, commissioned by Him. The Church was never authorized to create apostles. No apostolic succession was ever established. When Jesus the Chief Shepherd returns, He will come to crown pastors (elders), not apostles (1 Pt. 5:1–4). Peter, who was certainly an apostle, happily identified with the elders (1 Pt. 5:1). Will the end-time be a period of great pastors who evangelize their whole areas?

B.  Prophets.

The Church is said to be built upon a foundation of apostles and PROPHETS (Eph. 2:20): “And He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets” (Eph. 4:11). While the prophets were next in rank to the apostles, they were subject to the apostles (1 Cor. 14:37). Paul seemed to give the gift of prophecy the highest priority among the spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 14:1–3). Prophecy is defined by Paul as follows: “But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort … he that prophesieth edifieth the church” (1 Cor. 14:3, 4). This definition is demonstrated in Acts chapter fifteen: “And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them” (Acts 15:32). A less frequent function of the prophet was that of predicting the future. On two occasions, a prophet named Agabus predicted future events (Acts 11:27–29). His prediction of a future famine enabled the church to make preparation to assist the poor in Judaea. Later Agabus predicted Paul’s imprisonment by the Jews in Jerusalem, a prediction that came to pass; although, Paul made no attempt to avoid the trouble (Acts 21:10–15). Prophecy had a vital function in relation to Timothy’s enablement for ministry (1 Tm. 4:14). In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Peter identified Joel’s prophecy (2:28) with the Spirit’s outpouring on the Church: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall PROPHESY” (Acts 2:17).

The gift of prophecy remains in effect in the Church today, where spiritual gifts are recognized. In much pentecostal preaching, the spirit of prophecy is manifested.

C.  Evangelists.

The evangelist is less easy to identify in the New Testament, because almost everyone did the work of evangelism. Philip is the only one actually called an “evangelist” (Acts 21:8). Judging from Philip’s ministry in Samaria, an evangelist is one whose ministry is directed primarily toward winning the unsaved: “Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ to them” (Acts 8:5, NKJV). It is noteworthy that his soul-winning ministry was accompanied with miracles and signs. Afterward, Philip was called to preach to one man in the desert, the Ethiopian treasurer, whom he led to Christ. It is interesting to note that, as much space is taken to tell of the one man’s conversion as is taken to narrate the Samaritan revival story. Timothy is not called an evangelist; but Paul admonishes him to do the work of an evangelist (2 Tm. 4:5). In the Greek, the word “evangelist” is derived from the verb that is translated “to preach the gospel.” An evangelist, then, is one whose chief goal is to preach the Gospel with the object of soul winning. The above described ministries of the apostle, the prophet and the evangelist were ministries to the Church in general; those that follow are ministries to the local church.


The term “evangelist” comes from the Greek and means “one who announces good news.” The word evangelist occurs only three times in the New Testament: (1) Philip is called an evangelist in Acts 21:8; (2) Among God’s gifts to the churches were evangelists (Eph.4:11); (3) Timothy is urged to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5).[3]

D.  Pastors.

While the term “PASTOR,” as the spiritual leader of the local church, is found only once in the New Testament (Eph. 4:11), it will be treated fully here for two reasons: (1) it is the term most commonly used in the church today, and (2) the pastoral metaphor is employed in several passages (1 Pt. 5:2–4; Acts 20:28, 29; Jn. 10:1–16; 21:15–17; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pt. 2:25; Mk. 6:34; 1 Cor. 9:6, 7). The favorite terminology of Jesus to express His relationship to the people was as the “shepherd and sheep.” It is natural, therefore, that those entrusted with the care of the Lord’s flock should be called “pastors.”

It is difficult for people of the Western world to understand the close intimate relationship that existed between the Palestinian shepherd and his sheep. No word could have better expressed the loving care and mutual trust that should exist between the spiritual leader and his congregation than the word “PASTOR.” Other synonyms for pastoral office are used more frequently in the New Testament, but the title that has persisted is that of “pastor.”

E.   Teachers.

Teachers are the fifth category of ministry gifts bestowed upon the Church by the Ascended Lord (Eph. 4:11). It is not absolutely clear whether the term “TEACHER” represented a distinct office or merely a function of apostles and pastors (elders). That “teacher” was a distinct ministry is indicated by the fact that there were “prophets” and “teachers” in the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1); and that “teachers” are listed along with apostles and prophets as offices which God had set in the Church (1 Cor. 12:2). On the other hand, in Eph. 4:11, “teacher” is not preceded by a definite article as are the other offices; therefore, the term may merely indicate teacher as a function of pastors (pastor-teachers). Teaching is listed as a spiritual gift in Romans 12:6, 7; therefore, it might be exercised by any believer who is so gifted. Paul refers to himself as one “appointed a preacher, and an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles” (2 Tm.1:11). Paul admonishes Timothy, a pastor, to exercise a teaching ministry (2 Tm. 2:2). The Great Commission strongly infers that teaching is of primary importance in the ongoing work of the Church: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: TEACHING them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.…” (Mt. 28:19, 20). Although teaching was a part of nearly all of the New Testament ministries, there were those whose primary calling was that of teaching the Word of God. Undoubtedly, there are those today whose ministry could be best identifed as that of a “teacher.”

F.   Elders (presbyters).

“Elder” was a title borrowed from the synagogue and from the congregation of Israel. The term is used in the New Testament about thirty (30) times, with reference to the elders of Israel. The Hebrew word for “elder” was zaquen which meant “an older man.” The Greek word presbuteros has the same meaning, and is the source of our word presbyter. When Paul had founded a number of churches in Asia, he appointed elders to be in charge of them (Acts 14:23). The elder was equivalent to the pastor, and was the most common title for the person in charge of a local church (Acts 20:17, 28; Ti. 1:5; 1 Pt. 5:1–4). The elders were supported materially by their congregations, which were exhorted by the Apostle Paul to grant double honor (honorarium) to the elders who ruled (governed or directed) well their churches. Worthy of very special honor were those elders who labored in preaching and teaching (1 Tm. 5:17–19). Since the word “elders” is usually plural, it is assumed that each church had several elders; the probable reason being that larger congregations had to meet often in smaller groups in homes of members (1 Cor. 11:20; 16:15, 19). Some have reasoned from the passage in 1 Timothy 5:17 that there were both “ruling elders” and “teaching elders.” The elders were men of faith and spiritual power, for the sick were directed to seek them out for anointing with oil and the prayer of faith:

Is any sick among you? let him call for the ELDERS of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him (Jas. 5:14, 15).

G.  Bishops (overseers).

The King James Version translates the Greek word episcopos (from which is derived our word “Episcopal”) with the English word “BISHOP.” A better translation of the word would have been “OVERSEER,” which is the literal meaning. The Church of England influence can be seen in the use of the word “bishop.” In the New Testament, “bishop” and “elder” are names for the same office, as can be seen clearly from a comparison of Titus 1:5, 6 with 1:7–9, and Acts 20:17 with 20:28, where the word “overseer” is from the same Greek word translated “bishop” in other passages. In New Testament times the bishop or overseer was over one church; it was not until the second century that the bishop or overseer came to be over several churches. After the passing of the Apostles, there probably was a need for more extensive organization; it is regretable that this trend led to the Roman Hierarchy. (See also 1 Tm. 3:1–9, a passage in which qualifications for the office of overseer (elder, pastor) are set forth.)

H.  Deacons.

The Bible makes it quite clear that the two set offices of the local church were those of the elder and the “DEACON.” Deacons are mentioned directly in only two passages (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tm. 3:8–13); however, rather detailed qualifications for deacons are set forth in the same chapter where the qualifications for overseers are given. The Scriptures do not delineate the duties of deacons in the later New Testament church; but it is taken for granted that their duties had to do with the management of the charities and business affairs of the churches. The word “deacon” is from the Greek word diakonos which means “servant.” The deacons, then, served the church in such a way as to free the elders for prayer and the ministry of the Word.

The first deacons were probably the seven who were chosen in the sixth chapter of Acts to serve tables and administer the charities to the widows of the Jerusalem church. They are not called deacons in Acts chapter six, but the verb form of the word deacon is found in the clause: “their widows were neglected in the daily MINISTRATION” (Acts 6:1). Two of the seven, Philip and Stephen, were also preachers, so it must not be assumed that deacons performed only menial tasks.

I.    Ministers.

The word “MINISTER” comes from the same Greek word that is translated “deacon.” But there are a number of passages where the word diakonos cannot refer to the office of the deacon. For instance, Paul, writing to the Corinthians, said: “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but MINISTERS by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?” (1 Cor. 3:5). And again, to the Ephesian church: “Whereof I was made a MINISTER, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of His power” (Eph. 3:7). Paul refers to himself as a minister five times, and several times refers to his younger workers as ministers. The term apparently emphasizes the servanthood role of the preacher. The goal of the spiritual leaders is that of equipping the saints for “ministry” (Eph. 4:12). All saints are expected to minister (verb), but the title “minister” (noun) is in every case used only of those called to spiritual leadership. When the pastor is called “the minister,” the title “minister” is being used in a perfectly scriptural way.

J.    Leaders (rulers).

The words “rule” and “ruler” are used several times in the King James Version to designate church leaders (Rom. 12:8; 1 Tm. 5:17; Heb. 13:7, 17, 24). The New American Standard Version employs the words “lead” and “leader,” which seem more appropriate. “Remember those who LED you, who spoke the Word of God to you … Obey your LEADERS and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give account … Greet all your LEADERS and all the saints” (Heb. 13:7, 17, 24, NASB).

There are some who are prone to depreciate leadership in the Church. That duly constituted and recognized leadership is a biblical teaching is undeniable: “And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are OVER YOU in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (1 Thes. 5:12, 13a).[4]



NT term referring to an elder in the church. Following the OT pattern of synagogues governed by a council of elders, the church of the NT had officers (presbuteroi, “older persons”) whose task was to “tend the flock of God that is in your charge” (1 Pt 5:2). Thus they were called to “labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tm 5:17); visit, pray over, and anoint the sick (Js 5:14); administer famine relief (Acts 11:29, 30); and generally oversee the affairs of the church (Acts 15:4; 16:4). There is evidence to suggest that all elders were of equal status and that the terms “presbyter” and “bishop” were at first used interchangeably (Acts 20:17, 28; Phil 1:1; Ti 1:5, 7).

In the 2nd century, however, the presiding presbyter gradually emerged as a distinctive figure with a position of preeminence and as in some sense the source of authority. As the years passed, the designation “presbyter” was contracted to that of “priest,” and in churches of the episcopal order it remains so today. It is significant, nevertheless, that the NT nowhere links priestly functions with the office of presbyter. With the spread and development of Christianity, the priest became a powerful figure. With eucharistic theology there grew up unbiblical accretions. These were exposed and rejected when the Reformers triumphed in the 16th century and stressed the priesthood of all believers. In Protestantism priests became ministers, pastors, or (in more modern times) clergymen. In non-Roman Episcopal churches, “priest” is found again today. Even where it is interpreted differently from Roman usage, most evangelical Anglicans refuse to use it. In Presbyterian and similar churches the elders (whether teaching or ruling) are still officially called presbyters, and all are of equal status.[5]





[1] The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996 (electronic ed.) (1 Ti 3:1–7). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

[2] Lea, T. D., & Griffin, H. P. (2001). Vol. 34: 1, 2 Timothy, Titus (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (108). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[3] Jones, G. C. (1986). 1000 illustrations for preaching and teaching (120). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.

[4] Duffield, G. P., & Van Cleave, N. M. (1983). Foundations of Pentecostal theology (423–430). Los Angeles, Calif.: L.I.F.E. Bible College.

[5] Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (1750). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.