A Chart on Elders and Deacons: Two Offices in the Local Church

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Download a PDF chart/handout: “Elders and Deacons.”

The chart/handout above provides an overview of two offices in the local church: elders (also called pastors and overseers) and deacons.

Scripture teaches that there are two offices in the local church. In Philippians, Paul addresses “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons” (Php. 1:1). In 1 Timothy 3, the Apostle sets forth qualifications by which overseers and deacons must be tested: “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, … Deacons likewise must be …” (1 Tim. 3:1, 8).

The office of overseer is more commonly referred to as the office of elder. In at least three places, Paul makes clear that overseer and elder are terms that refer to the same office. In Titus 1:75, Paul tells Titus to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5), then immediately begins giving the qualifications for being “an overseer” (Titus 1:7). In Acts 20, Paul calls for “the elders of the church” at Ephesus (Acts 20:17), then reminds them that “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). In 1 Peter 5, Peter exhorts “the elders among you” (1 Pet. 5:1), and reminds them that they are called to “[exercise] oversight” (1 Pet. 5:2).

In Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5 above, Paul and Peter also refer to elders/overseers as shepherding or pastoring the flock: “elders … the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God”; “elders shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.” While elder is by far the most common term in the NT, pastor/shepherd is by far the least common. When Paul writes in Ephesians 4:11 that Christ “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” to the church, he’s clearly referring to elders/overseers. “Shepherds and teachers” could be translated as pastor-teachers, since pastors/elders must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2) and labor in teaching and preaching (1 Tim. 5:17).

The venn diagram on the right side of the chart demonstrates that elder (or presbyter, from the Greek presbuteros), overseer (or bishop, as the Greek episkopos is translated in the KJV), and shepherd/pastor are three terms for one office.

From among the plurality of elders/overseers/pastors who rule the church, there may be a senior elder/pastor who is primarily responsible for public preaching and teaching. Paul addressed Timothy as lead pastor in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:2). However, every elder must be capable of teaching (1 Tim. 3:2; cf. Titus 1:9).

The chart also summarizes the duties, qualifications, and appointment of elders and deacons. Both elders and deacons are expected to be mature members of the congregation with blameless character (1 Tim. 3:1–13). The key difference in qualifications is that elders must be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2); they are responsible for the spiritual oversight of the church and this includes doctrinal guidance and instruction (Titus 1:9). Elders are to rule the church (1 Tim. 5:17); deacons assist the elders and serve under their authority. Elders are more focused on spiritual oversight; deacons are most focused on meeting practical needs in the church (Acts 6:1–6).

Both elders and deacons are to be tested and ordained to their offices (1 Tim. 3:10; Acts 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:22; 1 Tim. 4:14). There should be a serious process for identifying potential elders and deacons, then vetting and formally appointing them to their offices in the local church.

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Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is a husband, father, and aspiring pastor-theologian, as well as the founder and president of holyjoys.org. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.