Paul’s Teaching on Bishops, Elders, Deacons

 Paul’s Teaching on

Bishops, Elders, Deacons


It is not clear what kind of leadership existed when ecclesias were first started. There is no New Testament mention of elders or overseers in Corinth or Rome or Syrian Antioch[1]. On their return journey to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting” (Acts 14:23), probably copying the organisation of the synagogues where elders were responsible for seeing that the Law was observed and for representing the Jewish community in any dealings with the local Roman magistrates. When Paul addressed the elders of Ephesus, he advised them:

Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (episkopoi), to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son.                    (Acts 20:28)

Paul asked Titus to appoint elders in Crete. Presumably the ecclesias there had not had elders previously and he considered that the lack of responsible leadership was at the root of the problems there.

I left you behind in Crete for this reason, that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.                                                                     (Titus 1:5, NRSV)

In Philippians 1:1 he wrote to

 ... all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops (episkopoi) and deacons....

The word for “elders” is presbyteroi, which gives us the English words “presbytery”, “presbyterian” and “priest”. Paul described the elders as “overseers” (episkopoi), the word translated as “bishops” in Philippians; so too in Titus 1:7 the word episkopos (“overseer”) is used in describing the character of elders. Paul lists either overseers and deacons or elders and deacons, which suggests that elders and overseers were, for the most part, interchangeable terms.

The elders at Ephesus had not successfully heeded Paul’s warning about men (andres) arising from their number who would lead them astray. Paul, therefore, in 1 Timothy 3, had to spell out to them the qualities of character necessary for those who held positions of authority within the ecclesia. The specifications for elders or overseers in 1 Timothy 3:2-6 and Titus 1:6-9 indicate a considerable background problem of drunkenness, greed and lack of self-control. That they are men is shown by the comment “husband of one wife”. Since the elders would have a public profile in dealing with authorities, we would not expect a woman to be appointed among them.

The deacons in verses 8-10 are also men (verse 12 “the husband of one wife”), but verse 11 can be read in two ways as many translations indicate. It can be translated as “their wives” (i.e. the wives of deacons). There is good reason, however, to translate it as “the women deacons”. The behaviour of the wives of elders would be as important as the behaviour of the wives of deacons, but no comment is included on the wives of elders (verses 3-7). This section of 1 Timothy is specifically about office-bearers in the ecclesia, rather than the behaviour of believers in general. There is no word for “their” attached to the word “women”. If there had been, there would have been a strong case for translating “women” as “wives”. Translations often add “their”, but it does not exist in the Greek text. The specifications are almost exactly parallel, except that “not greedy for gain” is omitted for the women:

Deacons (verse 8) must be:

(a) serious,

(b) not double-tongued,

(c) not addicted to much wine,

(d) not greedy for gain;

(e) they must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.

The women likewise (verse 11) must be:

(a) serious,

(b) no slanderers, but

(c) temperate,

(d) —

(e) faithful in all things.

The adjective “faithful” can mean “reliable, trustworthy” but it regularly means “believing” which is similar to the phrase used of the male deacons. The women should be “believing in all things”.

The two descriptions are therefore closely parallel. This parallelism, introduced by the word “likewise” (verse 11), and the fact that the whole section in verses 8-13 is about deacons, strongly suggest that we should understand Paul to be giving instructions here about women deacons rather than the wives of deacons.[2]

The REB translates “Women in this office”, and many modern translations add a footnote which says “or, deaconesses”. TNIV (2004) puts the footnote: “Probably women who are deacons, or possibly deacons’ wives”. Since Phoebe in Romans 16 was described as a deacon, there is precedent for this. So too later. When Pliny wished to acquire information on the Christians about 112 AD in Bithynia, he interrogated two slave-women who were described as ministrae, the Latin translation of “deaconesses”.

The word “deaconess” (i.e. a feminine form of “deacon”) is not used in the New Testament. Phoebe is called a diakonos, “deacon”. When, therefore, the word “deacon” occurs, as in Philippians 1:1, it is quite probable that some of the deacons were women, such as Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2-3). It is easy, but incorrect, to assume that the word diakonos does not include women.[3]


The Work of Bishops, Elders and Deacons

There is little direct information on the precise duties of an episkopos (translated “bishop” or “church leader”), presbyteroi (“elders”) and diakonoi (translated “deacons” or “church helpers”). Nor is it known how those described as “workers” and “fellow workers” fitted in. Did their work overlap, coincide, or was it additional?

Teaching was part of the work of overseers/bishops.[4] It was important that an overseer (“God’s steward”, Titus 1:7) should be a good teacher (didaktikos, 1 Timothy 3:2), because of the false teachers.

...he must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it.                                                                        (Titus 1:9)

The elders had a pastoral responsibility to “care for the church of God” like shepherds looking after a flock (Acts 20:28). They are described as ruling[5], but not all were involved in preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17). They also are described as acting collectively to lay their hands on Timothy, a way of dedicating someone to a God-approved task, as happened to Barnabas and Saul in Acts 13:2-3.

Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the elders laid their hands upon you. (1 Timothy 4:14)

A single word (presbyterion = “presbytery”) is translated here as “the elders”, suggesting that they especially assembled together for the purpose. In James 5:14 the elders were encouraged to gather together to anoint a sick person and pray for him.

The institution of deacons is often attributed to Acts 6:1-4 where Stephen and six others were chosen to help with the daily distribution (diakonia) to widows, so that others could devote themselves to prayer and “the ministry (diakonia) of the word”, rather than serve (diakonein, the verb) tables. But Stephen also preached, and since diakonia was used either of practical service like providing food or of “the ministry of the word”, which is preaching and teaching, or of the work of Jesus (Mark 10:45 – diakonein, again), the work of the deacons should not be thought of as restricted to practical activities. In later centuries the work of deacons tended to be more practical, but this is not indicated within the New Testament. When financial support was sent to Jerusalem, it was to the elders it was delivered (Acts 11:30), not deacons. Deacons are not mentioned in the Jerusalem church, despite Acts 6:1-4, though “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” (to quote a saying from archaeology).

Some commentators consider that the instructions about widows in 1 Timothy 5:3-15 do not refer simply to welfare but to a particular arrangement where, in return for support, the widows would undertake certain duties for the ecclesia. Good character is particularly specified, as in the case of bishops, elders and deacons:

Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband; and she must be well attested for her good deeds, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the feet of the saints, relieved the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way.                                         (1 Timothy 5:9-10)


Teachers of What is Good

In Titus 2 Paul tells Titus that he is to “teach what befits sound doctrine”. This “sound doctrine” is explained in the instruction he then gives about the behaviour and character of the “older men” and the “older women” in the ecclesias. Older sisters, though not included as “elders” (presbyteroi), are given an important teaching part. The instructions to the older men (presbytai) are:

Bid the older men be temperate, serious, sensible, sound in faith, in love, in steadfastness.                                                             (Titus 2:2)

Similar instructions are given to the older women (presbytides), but with the significant addition that they are to be “teachers of what is good” (kalodidaskaloi), or the word may be translated as “good teachers”. It is often assumed (and translations sometimes give the impression) that they are to teach what is good only to the young wives, and as a consequence they are not to teach brothers.

Bid the older women likewise to be reverent in behaviour, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, and submissive to their husbands....                                                                                               (Titus 2:3-5, RSV)

The word “so” does not appear in the Greek, nor is there any particular reason to put a semicolon after “drink” and to add the words “they are”. These have been added because the RSV translators have decided to presume that the older women were to be “teachers of good things” solely in order to train the young women. Paul’s actual command is that the older women are to be four things:

(a)   “reverent in behaviour”

(b)   “not slanderers”

(c)    “not enslaved by drink”

(d) “teachers of good things”

These are qualities of character in their own right, and need diligent attention and careful application to achieve. The older women are to be all these things, for two reasons: firstly, as given in Titus 2:1, because this “befits sound doctrine”, and secondly so that they can train the young women “to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be discredited.” Only if they have the qualities described, are they in a position to train the young women. The KJV and the NIV indicate this better than the RSV:

The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given much to wine, teachers of good things; that they may teach the young women to be sober….

(Titus 2:3-4 KJV)

Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women....                      (Titus 2:3-4 NIV)

“Teachers of good things” suggests a wider teaching role than to the young sisters. How do they become “teachers of good things” other than by actually teaching? And there is no reason to suppose that brothers may not also in the process be taught “good things”. This passage does not support the commonly held view that sisters may not teach brothers but may only teach other sisters or children.

In some households women were kept separate from the men. Teaching by brothers would be difficult in such circumstances, and therefore teaching by older women would be the most acceptable way for them to be taught.

Obviously the young wives are to be engaged in a domestic role (Titus 2:5), but this does not exclude other roles of service within the ecclesias for sisters in general. The young women would eventually become older women, and in turn, it would be hoped, “teachers of good things” – to the benefit of all who would listen to their teaching.

Paul’s concern was that the leaders in the ecclesias should behave in a sober, upright manner. His stress was constantly on behaviour, not the gender of the leaders, which was incidental to the main aim of good quality service. It is not stated that women should not be leaders, and it is not stated that only men should be leaders. In view of the general male leadership which existed in society in the first century, and in view of the problems in Crete which Paul was aiming to tackle, it is not surprising if the elders there were all male, for believers had to conduct themselves in a manner which was, as far as possible, beyond reproach in the opinion of pagan society. One reason given why wives had to submit to their husbands was “that the word of God may not be discredited” (Titus 2:5). Titus was told to be “in all respects a model of good deeds ... so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us” (2:7-8). Slaves were told to obey their masters “so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour” (2:10). The intention expressed is that Christian commitment should be seen as creditable, a positive help towards the smooth-running of society. Specific organisational arrangements were therefore made as necessary in the male-dominated environment of the first century, but these should not be thought to be setting the scene for ecclesial arrangements for all time.


[1] Although absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, it is surprising that elders (if they existed there) are not mentioned in the case of these three ecclesias, especially when we have considerable detail about Corinth, the only one of the three to have been established by Paul.

[2] “Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View”, Kenneth E. Bailey (1994)

– see

[3] “Since Ro. 16:1 clearly demonstrates that a female could be called diakonos (the masculine word), one can argue on linguistic grounds that the diakonos of Phl. 1 could be male or female. In Ro. 16, the masculine diakonos is used in conjunction with the feminine prostatis. Diakonos need not be limited to males in any passage on linguistic grounds unless the context indicates that only males are implied.” J. Stephen Sandifer, Deacons: Male and Female? (1989), page 35. This book provides a very detailed examination of the work ascribed to deacons from pre-Christian times up to the 20th century.

[4] By the 2nd century a distinct hierarchy had developed: one bishop in a city, under whom were elders, then deacons. This must have emerged from the practice begun in the 1st century, but is not evident in the New Testament where there can be several bishops/overseers in the one place, as in Philippians 1:1

[5] Not “ruling” in a worldly sense obviously. The word is proestotes, from proistemi, which has a range of meanings: “be a leader, have authority over, manage; care for, give help, engage in (good works), practice (good deeds). “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour” (RSV); “The elders who direct the affairs well…” (TNIV); “Elders who are good leaders should be paid double” (Tom Wright, Commentary), “The elders who do good work as leaders…” (GNB). Literally proistemi means “stand before”, hence “to lead, attend to (indicating care and diligence)”, W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words.

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