Government & Ministry in the Early Church (pt2)

The emergence of deacons, apostolic delegates and elders.

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3. DEACON, OR SERVANT (διακονος – diakonos)

3.1 The Role of the Servant

We do not find any use of the term ‘deacon’ in Acts, although it appears a number of times in the Epistles. Its primary meaning is that of ‘servant.’ This makes it difficult to define its governmental scope with any certainty, as all who aspired to leadership in the early church had to be servants first and foremost (Mt 20:26, 23:11, Mk 9:35, 10:45). Thus Paul applies the term to Jesus (Rom 15:8), himself (2 Cor 3:6,6:4,11:23, Eph 3:7, Col 1:23,25), Apollos (1 Cor 3:5), Timothy (1 Thess 3:2), Tychicus (Eph 6:21), Epaphras (Col 1:7) and Phebe (Rom 16:1).

However, passages such as Phil 1:1 and especially 1 Tim 3:8-13 do make it clear that the term was used to denote a specific position in the church structure.

3.2 The Seven

The first appearance of a formal second tier is in Acts 6:1-8, when the seven are appointed to care for the widows. It had been the custom to bring offerings for sharing amongst the disciples “to the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:35,37, 5:2). However, the fact that the murmuring was against the Hebrews in general (Acts 6:1), not the apostles in particular, coupled with Peter’s statement ‘it is not reasonable that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables’ (Acts 6:2) indicates that such responsibilities had been informally delegated for some time. The fact that they were appointed to ‘serve (διακονεω) tables’, suggests that they would have been regarded as deacons.

3.3 Other deacons

As we have seen, in one sense all church leaders were deacons, not simply of Christ or the gospel, but of the church (cf. Col 1:23,25). Leaving aside any ambiguous references, however, we can identify two who appear to be deacons to specific churches:

Phebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchrea (Rom 16:1),

Epaphras, a deacon of the Colossian church (Col 1:7, 4:12).

The precise position of Tychicus and Timothy is less easily defined.

3.4 Function and Qualifications of Deacons

The word used by Paul to describe Phebe in Rom 16:2 literally means ‘one who stands before,’ and can be rendered as both ‘helper’ and ‘protector.’ Epaphras is described as ‘always striving for you in prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God’ and as having ‘great zeal for you’ (Col 4:12-3). Clearly, this man was very much a shepherd at heart.

The seven were primarily concerned with ministry to the material needs of the widows and do not appear to have exercised any authority beyond their specific remit. However, the development of Stephen’s ministry indicates that his function also gave scope to minister on the supernatural level to those for whom he was responsible and to defend the gospel against its critics (Acts 6:6-8).

In 1 Tim 3:13 Paul says that ‘those who have served well (as deacons) gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.’ Thus, although the deacon’s function is primarily that of a servant; it should not be seen as being limited to ministry in material affairs.

The qualifications laid down for deacons and their families by Paul in 1 Tim 3:8-12 are almost identical to those for overseers in the preceding verses (1 Tim 3:2-7). Essentially, they must be clear in their faith, they and their wives must be of impeccable moral character and their family life should be well-ordered.

Certain of the requirements for overseers are relaxed, however. Overseers could not be recent converts (1 Tim 3:6): deacons could be appointed after being proved (1 Tim 3:10). Overseers had to have teaching ability (1 Tim 3:2): deacons were required only to have a sincere, in-depth grasp of their faith (1 Tim 3:9). Overseers were expected to show hospitality (1 Tim 3:2): was it felt that less mature believers might not yet be ready for such invasion of their domestic bliss?

Note that, although most translations of 1 Tim 3:8-12 imply that deacons were always male, Phebe was a woman (Rom 16:1). The word translated as ‘wife’ in 1 Tim 3:11&12 basically means ‘woman’ (in the AV, for example, it is translated as ‘wife’ 92 times and ‘woman’ 129 times). This means, since the possesive ‘their’ is not actually present in the Greek, that the opening words of 1 Tim 3:11 can equally be rendered as, ‘Women similarly …’! It is interesting to note that there is no such comment in the preceding verses dealing with ‘overseers’ (1 Tim 3:2-7 – see 5.6). Which is more probable: that the behaviour of a deacon’s wife attracts more attention from Paul than that of an overseer, or that he added this comment because he was mindful of certain lady deacons, such as Phebe?


There is one group of men who are difficult to classify as either apostles, elders or deacons. These were appointed by the apostles to undertake specific tasks overseeing some of the new churches, often for a limited period of time.

4.1 Barnabus

In Acts 11:19-26 we read of Barnabus being sent from Jerusalem to the new church at Antioch. It is not clear what his official status was at this time; since he is nowhere called either elder or overseer, nor was he referred to as an apostle until after he and Paul had been sent out on their first missionary journey from Antioch. Nevertheless, it is clear that he went with the apostles’ delegated authority and that he took a leading role in the church from the time of his arrival.

4.2 Judas and Silas

Judas and Silas, described as ‘leading men among the brethren’ (Acts 15:22) are sent by the apostles to confirm their ruling concerning circumcision (Acts 15:25-7). Both men were prophets (Acts 15:32). Their mission had evidently been a temporary one; but it appears that Silas on his own initiative decided to remain at Antioch (Acts 15:34 – although this verse is missing from some manuscripts).

4.3 Timothy, Titus et al.

Paul also frequently left chosen men for a limited period to oversee new and developing churches (Acts 17:14-5 & 18:5, 18:19-9, 19:21-2). 1 Timothy and Titus (see below) both reveal that these men had been given the right to exercise authority in the local churches, even to the extent of ordaining elders. However, they themselves are not referred to as either apostles or elders.

5. ELDERS (πρεσβυτερος)

5.1 At Jerusalem

Acts 9:32 shows Peter moving out into itinerant ministry. Shortly after his return (Acts 11:1) we find the first explicit reference to ‘elders’ in the church in Acts 11:30; where famine relief is sent to the Jerusalem elders from Antioch. No mention is made of the apostles in Acts 11:30 in connection with this purely administrative issue; although it appears from Acts 12:1-25 that Peter and James the brother of Jesus were probably in Jerusalem at this time. (N.B. although Acts 11:30 is the first unambiguous reference to elders, it is arguable that Gal 1:18-9 is not a reference to this visit; but to Paul’s first visit in Acts 9:26-31. This would imply that James was already recognised as an apostle and serving as an elder in the absence of the twelve.)

When Paul and Barnabus visit Jerusalem concerning the doctrinal issue of circumcision (Acts 15:1-31), it is interesting to note how the whole church participated. There was an initial reception by the church, at which the issue was first raised by Pharisee converts (Acts 15:4-5). It was then resolved at a meeting of the apostles and elders (Acts 15:6-21), as the Antioch church had evidently expected (Acts 15:2). The decision was then apparently presented to and endorsed by the whole church (Acts 15:22). It is also worth noting the strong disapproval in the resulting letter of those who, seemingly with no recognised ministry as teachers (Acts 15:1), had taught the necessity of circumcision without authority from the leadership (Acts 15:24).

When Paul returns to Jerusalem at the time of his arrest he is presented to James and the elders (Acts 21:18); who now appear to be responsible for the affairs of the Jerusalem church. These men were greatly concerned with avoiding offence to those Jewish believers who remained ‘zealous of the law’ (Acts 21:20). Paul, however, was by no means indifferent to Jewish observances himself (Acts 16:1-3, 18:18,21), and apparently raised no objection to their proposed solution (Acts 21:23-6). The plan of appeasement backfired: but there is no way of knowing if things would have gone any better had they acted otherwise.

5.2 At Antioch

Despite there being a number of detailed references to the manner in which the Antioch church was organised and decisions taken (Acts 11:20-30, 13:1-3, 15:1-3,30-40) there is no mention of elders.

It appears from Acts 11:20-30 that Barnabus was originally appointed by the apostles to oversee the work at Antioch; and that he subsequently called upon Paul to assist him in teaching the church.

In Acts 13:1-3 the decision to send out Paul and Barnabus from Antioch indicates that the leadership in Antioch was comprised of prophets and teachers. It is possible that Lucius of Cyrene (v1) was one of the original pioneers of this church (cf. Acts 11:20).

In Acts 15:2 Paul and Barnabus played a leading role in challenging the visitors who taught circumcision: but the decision to send them to Jerusalem was a corporate one. On their return they report to the entire church, together with the apostolic delegates Judas and Silas. Afterwards, Paul and Barnabus continued to teach and preach at Antioch, along with many others (Acts 15:35).

The leadership of Antioch thus appears to have been strongly oriented towards teaching and prophetic ministries. The lack of reference to elders is rather strange, bearing in mind Paul’s evident commitment to eldership in the churches he pioneered (see below): but the most probable explanation is that these leaders had become de facto elders.

5.3 The Gentile Churches

It is clear that Paul and Barnabus had embraced the concept of eldership, as we see them appointing elders in all the churches they had recently established before returning to Antioch (Acts 14:23).

In Acts 20:17-38 Paul addresses the elders from Ephesus. These had been appointed some time previously, and Paul’s first letter to Timothy, who was left at Ephesus while Paul revisited Macedonia (1 Tim 1:3, cf. Acts 20:1-3), contains detailed teaching on the qualifications for overseers and deacons (1 Tim 3:1-13). Evidently Timothy had been delegated by Paul to exercise discipline in the church (1 Tim 1:3, 4:11-2, 5:19-21) and to lay hands on others where appropriate (1 Tim 5:22). Thus it seems reasonable to conclude that the Ephesian elders had been appointed at about that time.

Paul again shows his belief in eldership when they sheltered for some time at Crete, en route to Rome (Acts 27:7-13). When they sailed on he left Titus behind to ‘ordain elders in every city’ (Tit 1:5). His letter to Titus is very similar to 1 Timothy, and likewise contains teaching on requirements for eldership (Tit 1:5-9).

5.4 The Apostles as Elders

In 1 Pet 5:1 Peter addresses elders as being himself a ‘fellow-elder.’ John also refers to himself as an elder in 2 John 1:1 and 3 John 1:1. As noted previously, James the brother of Jesus is described by Paul as an apostle: but he is generally regarded as a senior elder, even though never called such, as his ministry appears to be centred around the internal leadership of the Jerusalem church. It is not clear whether this viewpoint was generally applied to the apostles; although it is to be expected that, just as all apostles had to be servants (‘deacons’) first and foremost, any apostle would have been competent to serve in this capacity.

5.5 Function of Elders

In Titus 1:7 elders are described as ‘stewards of God’, emphasising their accountability to the Lord for those under their care. Paul’s address to the elders from Ephesus in Acts 20:17-38 shows that Paul saw elders as ‘overseers’ (επισκοπος), whose function was to ‘shepherd (ποιμαινω) the church of God..’ (Acts 20:28).

The term ‘overseer’ (AV ‘bishop’, but literally ‘over-watcher’) is used interchangeably with ‘elder’ in Tit 1:5-7 and distinguished from ‘deacons’ in Phil 1:1. In 1 Tim 3:1-7 Paul defines qualifications for ‘overseers’, followed in 1 Tim 3:8-13 by those for ‘deacons’. It is used once with reference to Jesus in 1 Pet 2:25 and nowhere else. The derived word ‘oversight’ (cf. 1 Tim 3:1) appears in Acts 1:20, where it is applied to the fallen apostle Judas: however, it only appears here as a quote from the Septuagint version of Psalm 109:8 and should not therefore be taken as representative of N.T. terminology. Thus it appears reasonable to conclude that the terms ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’ are virtually synonymous in the N.T.

Oversight could take a variety of forms. In Acts 20:29-30 they are told to be on the look-out for those who were heretics and/or seeking to draw men after themselves,. In 1 Tim 3:5 they are described as ‘taking care of’ the church and in 1 Tim 5:17 as ‘ruling’.

The concept of ‘shepherding’ (ποιμαινω) figures extensively in old and new testament symbolism. However, the title of ‘shepherd’ (or ‘pastor’ – ποιμην) is only used once of church leaders, in Eph 4:11, where there is no clear definition of the term or its function (indeed there is some debate as to whether it should be translated as ‘pastors and teachers’ or ‘pastor-teachers’).

There are few direct references to the ‘shepherding’ function of church leaders. In Acts 20:28-35 Paul later tells them to be helpers of the weak and givers rather than getters (Acts 20:35). Peter stresses the importance of setting an example of voluntary service which others can emulate in 1 Pet 5:2-3. Jesus told Peter ‘shepherd my sheep’ in John 21:16: but in John 21:15 & 17 used the same shepherding image with another word which has a more literal meaning of ‘feed.’ 1 Cor 9:7 makes the point that a shepherd is entitled to receive something from his flock.

However, consideration of the wider context shows us that a shepherd leads the flock, setting a pattern for them to follow; and that for this to work the sheep must recognise his leadership (John 10:3-4). He will if necessary give up his own life to defend the sheep from danger (John 10:11-15). He gathers the sheep together (John 10:16) and keeps them from straying (Mt 18:12, Ez 34:12-3), feeds and waters them (Ez 34:13-15, Rev 7:17) and cares for the sick and injured (Ez 34:16, cf. Jas 5:14-5). He will also act firmly if necessary to prevent disorder or exploitation within the flock (Ez 34:16-22 & Rev 2:27, 12:5, 19:15 – ‘shepherd’ with a rod of iron).

We may thus expect that the functions of elders would include all these aspects: leadership by example, guarding against doctrinal and personal dangers, building unity and sense of direction, ensuring people are properly taught and spirit-filled (as well as being adequately provided for materially) and healing of emotional and physical weaknesses.

Note however that when elders are mentioned, it is nearly always in the plural. Paul’s words in Acts 20:18-38 were addressed to the Ephesian eldership as a group. We should not necessarily expect all of the above functions to be exercised by each individual elder: but we should expect them to be adequately covered by the local eldership as a whole.

Note also that elders appear to be associated with churches in specific locations (Acts 14:23, 20:17, Tit 1:5), with the possible exception of those apostles describing themselves as elders.

5.6 Qualifications for Eldership

The requirements for elders are defined in 1 Tim 3:1-7 and Tit 1:5-9. As previously discussed with deacons, they must be clear in their faith, they and their wives must be of impeccable moral character and their family life should be well-ordered. It appears to have been expected that elders would be married men (1 Tim 3:2,4, Tit 1:6) – Jewish thinking appears to have been that unmarried men had insufficient experience of ‘real life’ – although this can be seen more as a requirement to avoid polygamy or inconsistency in the home than an insistence on marriage. (As noted above, the requirements for deacons imply likewise: but at least one deacon was a woman.)

As the title ‘elder’ implies, there was an emphasis on maturity to the effect that an elder could not be a recent convert (1 Tim 3:6). This should be understood relatively, though. It would seem that some of the elders appointed by Paul in Acts 14:21-23 must have been comparatively recent converts: even though Gal 2:1 appears to put a number of years between Acts 12:25 & 15:4, there is uncertainty as to how long he spent in each place.

Elders had to have teaching ability and be able to counter false doctrine (1 Tim 3:2, Tit 1:9). Those who specialised in this area were highly valued (1 Tim 5:17).

Another special qualification, distinct from that of deacons, was that they were expected to show hospitality (1 Tim3:2, Tit 1:8). Being involved with people was an essential part of the job: so only those who genuinely welcomed this could be considered suitable.

Curiously, in view of the governmental aspect of their role, there is no special test of suitability in this respect, other than the insistence that an elder should be one ‘that rules his own house well’ (1 Tim 3:4-5, Tit 1:6): but this is no more than is required of deacons also (1 Tim 3:12).

The relatively mundane level of basic qualification required in these last two areas lends little support to the view that an elder must be particularly adept at handling and communicating with people; although such skills would clearly be of great value in any eldership. It appears more probable that elders were not a homogeneous breed, but rather that the composition of the local eldership was chosen such that between them they could cover all necessary pastoral functions. This would explain Paul’s comment to Timothy, ‘Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.’ (1 Tim 5:17). He is not suggesting that some elders aren’t very good at their job: but stressing the value of particular ministries.

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