Elders & Deacons

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The New Testament epistles regularly speak of a plurality of church leaders, commonly called “elders,” “overseers,” or “shepherds.” In addition, deacons were appointed to meet various needs in the local church. As early as c. A.D. 50, Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders . . . in each church” (Acts 14:23). A decade later, Titus is instructed to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5). Paul’s epistle to the Philippians is addressed to the “overseers and deacons” at Philippi (Phil 1:1). This conforms to the pattern stipulated in 1 Timothy 3 where qualifications for overseers (male only: 1 Tim 3:2; cf. 2:12) and deacons (both male and female) are given (1 Tim 3:1–7 and 8–12, respectively).

The synonymous use of “elders,” “overseers,” and “shepherds” is widely accepted today. Three primary New Testament references can be cited:

  • Acts 20:17, 28: “Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. . . . Keep watch over . . . the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds . . .”
  • Titus 1:5–7: “appoint elders . . . . An elder must . . . . Since an overseer . . .” (qualifications are the same as those for overseers in 1 Tim 3:1–7).
  • 1 Peter 5:1–2: “To the elders . . . . Be shepherds . . ., serving as overseers . . .”

“Elder” refers to a stage of life, possession of life experience, and commensurate status in the church. “Overseer” refers to the function of giving oversight to the entire church. “Shepherd” (“pastor”) is a metaphor for personal care given to members of the church (Eph 4:11–12).

While elders are to lead by example (1 Pet 5:3), they do have genuine authority, and church members are enjoined to submit to them. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.” 1 Thessalonians 5:12 likewise commands believers “to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you.” The biblical pattern is therefore for a body of male elders jointly to give oversight to the entire church, including one or several pastors who are devoted primarily to teaching and pastoral care (see esp. 1 Tim 4:14: “body of elders,” Gr. presbyterion; 1 Tim 5:17: “elders who direct the affairs of the church . . ., especially those whose work is preaching and teaching).

For a fuller treatment of elders and deacons, see my commentary on 1–2 Timothy and Titus in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 12 (rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan). See also “Hermeneutical and Exegetical Challenges in Interpreting the Pastoral Epistles,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 7/3 (Fall 2003): 4–17; “The New Testament Pattern of Church Government,” Midwestern Journal of Theology 4/2 (2006): 24-42; and Chapter 12 in God, Marriage & Family.


  1. Someone asked where were female deacones mentioned in the bible?? When Reading Romans 16:1-2 this is what I found…..”16 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. 2 I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.”

  2. A man and woman decides to get married, both are members of the same church. The man has never been married, but the woman has. Can the man ever be put in a decons position? And is there anything wrong with kissing before marriage?

  3. Explain 1 Tim. 3:24

  4. explain apt to teach

  5. are ordain deacons required to preach the gospel.please explain apt to teach.thank you. May you be bless for the work you are doing for GODS Kingdom.Deacon F.R.

  6. I am a member of a United Methodist Church and my new Pastor wants to put in place elders and deacons. The congregation is up in arms or stressed out over this. Another thing is the District Superintendent says we have to follow the book of discipline and I am assuming that is not part of it. How can I help the pastor to put in place what Jesus told his follows to do? And how can I get the congregation to believe that the pastor is listening to God’s calling to implement this? I am now in charge of the Administrative and PPR boards which should be an elder which would be a man not a woman. Our church does not have very many men in it and that is another problem.

  7. Pertaining to leadership or the order of which it is within the church what do you think about deacons (all males) and trustees (mostly females) having a greater leadership role over associate ministers male and female, but mostly females)?

    Our associates have no more leadership rights than a pew warmer ( a person that joins and ONLY seats on the pews).

    Personally I think most pastor that run their churches like this are fearful that the associates will challenge them. They want full control without having to share it. That too is one of the main rasons we have so many churches even in small towns.Every pastor wants control of their own congregation without sharing power with others.


  8. How come we hear so many pastors preach the good side of being a christian and not what will happen if a christian turns his back on God. I miss the ol time “Hell, Fire,& Damnation” preaching that is sometimes really needed to make folks realize that if you do turn your back on God, he will say “I never knew you”!
    What’s your thoughts on Once saved always saved?

  9. seeing as how all elders were to be married it’s obvious that there was one female deacon or elder for every male deacon or elder in the church.

  10. What’s your take on whether or not one has to married to pastor? Is there a biblical restriction against unmarried elders and was every pastor of the first and second century married?

  11. in regards to KJV guy, to say that Baptists have a standard translation of the bible, is pushing the boundaries of reality. Some careful language study will reveal things of great worth.

  12. How do you deal with a pastor living in sin and is not managing his family well?

  13. In fact, a thorough, careful exegesis of the NT texts show clearly that woman DID hold the office of deacon in the first century church. I submit this well written paper by Christian Adjemian, Dipl. Div., Ph.D.
    Pastor, First Reformed Presbyterian Church,
    Cambridge, Massachusetts, regarding this topic. The link for this paper can be found here http://www.reformedprescambridge.com/articles/Deaconess.03jul02.pdf. As Dr. Adjemian ably points out, deacons/deaconesses are servants of the churches, and are NOT in places of authority like the elders/overseers, so a woman would NOT, on Pauline/scriptural grounds, be violating Paul’s admonitions of taking authority over men in the church by holding the office of servant.

  14. Yes, I agree that Phoebe is a deaconness but NOT an officer of the church because officers of the church have specific qualifications indicated in the scriptures. Phoebe is a deaconness in the sense that she is a servant. What is listed in I Tim 3:11 are NOT qualifications of deaconnesses but they are the qualities of the wife of a deacon. A woman or a female member of the church cannot become an officer of the church. They can be called deaconness in the sense only of a servant, that is, serving the church as member but not as an officer. This was the role of Phoebe. She was never an officer of any congregation.

  15. Our church is having problems about the qualifications and roles of decons. It seems to me the only thing that disqualifies someone from being a decon in my church is if they have been divorced. The only role I see our decons involved in is financial matters. Please help me with scripture to understand what is right.

  16. If the pastors are calling from God, how about the deacons?

  17. James:

    Thank you for your comment and questions. First of all, please remember that a lot depends on how one defines the role of a deacon. The problem is often that churches use an unbiblical definition that involves deacons in authority of churches. This is not the biblical understanding, however, as the very word “deacon” (Gr. diakonos) means “servant.”

    In light of this, there seems to be no reason why only men should be “servants” in the church. Most likely, Phoebe is identified as a woman deacon in Romans 16:1, and 1 Timothy 3:11 lists qualifications for deaconesses.

    English translations vary in the way in which they render the Greek word diakonos, including the KJV, though some recent Baptist translations such as the HCSB certainly allow for women deacons.

    I hope this helps. See also my commentary on 1-2 Timothy, Titus in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary and my separate post on Deacons.

  18. Where does it say in the KJV Bible, (the stanard for baptist) that
    a female can be a deacon ?? Name a female deacon in the Bible as an example ???

  19. In reviewing the qualifications for elders/bishops and for deacons, it struck me that Paul is identifying various spiritual gifts (teaching, wisdom, knowledge, helps, and governments, etc.,)and then identifying objective evidences or fruits the Church should examine to see if the candidate actually has those gifts. What are your thoughts on breaking down the qualifications in that manner?


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