What is it?
Q. What is the difference between deacons, elders, pastors, bishops and priests?
The Greek word diakonia means a "servant." The Philippian church had bishops and deacons (Phil. 1:1).
"Paul and Timothy, servants (slaves, bondservants) of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers (bishops) and deacons (servants or ministers)" (ESV).
It is thought by some that females can be deacons. Phoebe was called a "servant," or diakonies. Yet, others think that a "deaconess" is a female married to a deacon. Some churches feel that a deaconess does not refer to the office of deacon, but only means certain women have a gift for serving in the church.
The word "pastor" means "shepherd," and comes from the Greek word poimen. We see it referenced in Ephesians 4:11:
"And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry…" (ESV).
Christ was the Chief Shepherd who appointed "undershepherds."
The word "bishop" comes from the Greek word episcopos, which means an overseer referenced in Phillipians 1:1 (see above). A bishop had administrative responsibilities over the local church. He normally served this office as a shepherd or pastor.
On Paul's first missionary journey we read that "when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed" (Acts 14:23). It is evident that Paul's normal practice was to establish a group of elders in each church.
In a letter applicable to many churches, James writes, "Is any among you sick? 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" (5:14). This signified that James expected there to be elders in each church who would read his letter!(Grudem 1994).
In a similar, significant way, 1 Peter says, "So I exhort the elders among you…Tend the flock of God that is your charge…" (5:1-2).
Elder - Presbyteros
The word "elder" comes from the Greek word presbyteros from which we get our term "Presbyterian." During biblical days elders were often pastors of local churches. But, the chief elder (pastor) had other elders who shared the responsibilities with him.
Elder - Other Names
Other names for elders are pastors, overseers, and bishops in the New Testament. Oddly, the least common name for elder is "pastor." It only occurs once in the New Testament in Ephesians 4:11 where Paul writes of the separate gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.
Paul spoke to the Ephesian elders:
"Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him (Acts 20:17)…Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God"…(Acts 20:28)…
Elders were known for their wisdom and for decision-making. The terms elder, presbyter, and bishop were interchangeable designations in those churches founded by the apostles (Acts 20:17).
"Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching" (1 Timothy 5:17).
Elders by 44 A.D.
There were already elders in the churches at Jerusalem by 44 A.D.:
"Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world…So the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul" (Acts 11:27-30, ESV).
Elder is an Office in Synagogue
Finally, there was an office of elder among the Jews, and it may be from here that the church elders emerged as an official title. Elders practiced taking care of the spiritual needs of church members, ruled, and gave instruction (1 Tim. 3:5,17, Titus 1:9, James 5:14, 1 Peter 5:1-4, Hebrews 13:17).
Elders were ordained to their office (1 Tim. 4:14): "Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you" (ESV). Just as in the synagogues so it was in the early Christian churches. Preaching was not the sole responsibility of chief elder and was not limited to him.
There is no New Testament term called "priest." It was an Old Testament designation for men who served as mediators between God and man. All priests came from the tribe of Levi. At this time in history, Jesus Christ is our High Priest. 1 Timothy clearly says, "For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…" (2:5-6, ESV).
Grudem, Wayne. 1994. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Towns, Elmer. 2003. Bible answers for almost all your questions. Nashville, TN: Nelson.