Bishops and Deacons

In Eph 4:11-12, Jesus Christ gave four groups of men to the church for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.  These men were apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.  This study will show the transition from the Acts of the apostles to the current structure of bishops and deacons.

The early church started out with the apostles, two of whom were Paul and Barnabas.  Then there were prophets like Agabus.  And there were evangelists like Philip.  And then there were pastors and teachers like we have today.  Eph 4 is the only place in the New Testament where the word pastor appears.

When Paul and Barnabas began their missionary work, at some point, they ordained elders in every church, Acts 14:23.  They didn’t call these men pastors.  Calling these men elders was consistent with the Jewish custom of calling men in responsible leadership positions elders.  For example, in the Old Testament, there were “elders” in Israel, as in Num 11:24-25.

When Paul was in Miletus, “he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church”, Acts 20:17.  Notice that their principle responsibilities were to oversee the flock, to feed the church, and to watch, Acts 20:28-32.  In 1 Pet 5:1-4 the elders were to take the oversight, feed the flock, and be ensamples to the flock.  By these instructions, we clearly see their pastoral duties.

As Paul traveled from city to city, he was the one who had the “care” of all the churches, 2 Cor 11:28.  His letters to Corinth dealt with matters a pastor would handle in his local church today.  Yet, at the end of Paul’s ministry, he was no longer able to care for all the churches.  So, he set up a way for others to care for the local churches that had been planted.

Paul, and apparently other men, ordained bishops over at least some of the local churches to “take care of the church”, 1 Tim 3:5, since he would no longer be able to “care” for them, himself.  These men who ordained Timothy as a bishop were called the presbytery in 1 Tim 4:14.  These were a group of elders, by definition.

Timothy was ordained the first bishop of the church of the Ephesians.  Titus was ordained the first bishop of the church of the Cretians. And bishops were ordained in Philippi, Phil 1:1.  This provided a way for the local churches to have someone to care for them and to rule, 1 Tim 3:4-5, in matters pertaining to each church.  Ordaining bishops established local church autonomy, which we still honor today.

When Paul wrote to Titus, he instructed him to ordain elders in every city, just like he and Barnabas had done in their travels, Titus 1:5.  As Paul described the character and qualifications of the elder whom Titus would ordain in each city, Titus 1:6-9, he called this elder “a bishop”, Titus 1:7.  Thus, the bishop is obviously the person whom we typically call “pastor”, today.

In 1 Tim 3:1, Paul refers to men who desire the “office of a bishop”.  Interestingly, when you cross reference Acts 1:20 with Ps 109:8, you see that a bishoprick is an office.  So, the bishop has the office of caring for the local church.

Because the work of caring for the local church can entail more than one man can effectively do, Paul also set up a way for men to serve as assistants to the bishop.  These men are called “deacons”, 1 Tim 3:8-13.  They also have an “office” and their qualifications are very similar to the bishop.  Notice that there is “a bishop” and yet there can be “deacons” plural.

As the apostles ended their “acts”, they started calling the man who cares for the church “bishop” rather than “elder”, and his assistants “deacons”.  This is how the church developed from apostle leadership to the leadership of bishops and deacons.

Paul describes the bishop’s character and quality in 1 Tim 3:1-7.  He describes the deacons’ character and quality in 1 Tim 3:8-13.  They are both to be blameless.  Each is to be the husband of one wife (not polygamists), mainly because of the picture of Christ and the church.  They are to be sober or grave, not given to wine or much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre, and they are to rule their house well.  The bishop is not to be a novice and the deacons are to be first proved.  There are other qualifications for bishops and deacons, as well, and more for the bishop are listed in Titus 1:6-9.

Deacons, then, are men who assist the bishop in carrying out his “care of the church”.  Their’s is a spiritual office; they are “holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience”, 1 Tim 3:9.  See the charge Paul gave Timothy in 1 Tim 1:19.  Additionally, deacons purchase to themselves “great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus”, 1 Tim 3:13.  So, they are doing much more than serving tables, see Acts 6.

Furthermore, the deacons can’t be double-tongued and their wives can’t be slanderers.  In their position, they could use their mouth to cause great division in the church.

The duties of the deacons are vague because the office might vary from church to church.  In smaller churches there wouldn’t even be a need for a deacon.  The way they are appointed is also somewhat vague.  It appears that they are appointed by the bishop as his assistants after he has “proved” them.

Other men who are given responsibility in the church are called “elders” 1 Tim 5:17.  Some may labour in the word and doctrine; and some may not. For example, the men we call directors today would have been called elders according to this description.

Paul gave instruction to Timothy to lay hands suddenly on no man, 1 Tim 5:22.  This is an indication that Timothy was to ordain elders in other cities like Titus was instructed to do in every city in Crete.  So, this process established by Paul for bishops and deacons was to be continued by Titus and Timothy.  And to this day, we continue.

What has happened in many churches that don’t follow these doctrines is that elders have become a governing board who rule the pastor and the church.  And deacons have been elected to deacon boards, often running the pastor and the church.  Neither of these is Biblical.

Furthermore, in many churches, where deacons are “elected”, following something similar to what the apostles did in Acts 6, more problems have been caused than solved, making the pastor’s job more difficult.  They haven’t helped the ministry; they have often hurt it.  Thank God this isn’t always the case.

Clearly, though, elders and deacons are not a governing board.  They are there to help the church and the pastor and to assume some of his responsibility.  Deacons are truly more like associate pastors than they are like the deacons of today.  And elders are more like deacons and our corporate directors are today.  They are men who have “rule” over a certain aspect of the church that the pastor can’t or shouldn’t handle, given his other spiritual responsibilities.

We should follow this Biblical pattern for bishops and deacons and elders in the future.  Though, this won’t solve the problem with men who want to take over a church, it will help us in identifying their duties.