What is the difference between a Pastor, Elder, and Deacon? We see some of these positions in our local church, but do we clearly understand their distinct roles and responsibilities. Or, on the other hand, do these positions even exist in your local church? Let us take a quick look at how the Bible describes these roles and their responsibilities.
When reading through scripture, we can identify two primary leadership offices. These are the offices of “Elders” and “Deacons”. Please note that the term “Elders” is used synonymously with other terms meaning the same thing. Let us examine these.
Elders (Pastors, shepherds, overseers, bishop)
There are different terms used interchangeably for elders throughout scripture. These are:
The term “pastor” only occurs once in the New Testament, in Ephesians 4:11, and in some translations. Other versions of the Bible use the word “shepherd” instead. The terms pastor and shepherd are used interchangeably, and we can determine from this that the role of a pastor and a shepherd are the same.
Ephesians 4:11 says, “Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers.” (NLT). Notice here that the pastors and teachers are described as one group. So the role of a pastor is to feed the flock of God through teaching. As a shepherd of a flock is responsible for the sheep’s care; likewise, the pastor is also responsible for the flock under his care (Acts 20:29; 1 Peter 5:4).
Bishop/overseer is also used to describe the office of an elder or a pastor. The Greek term is “episkopos”. This same word is also translated as an elder, pastor, or overseer, and all refer to the same role as the leader of a local church. When we read in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, it gives us a comprehensive look at an elder’s characteristics.
In summary, the bishop/overseer is a role that requires a high level of character and spiritual maturity. 1 Timothy 3:1 says that the one who seeks this office desires a noble task. Not only that, but they should be able to teach God’s word effectively. The term “bishop” is used differently in today’s terms, and it is often used for someone responsible for several churches or overseeing lead elders at each church location. In contrast, the biblical definition is for male leaders who have spiritual maturity, integrity, and the ability to teach and preach God’s word effectively to others.
Whatever term is used to refer to an elder, the primary responsibility is for the church’s shepherding and direction. Let us look at six ways elders are responsible for in the church.
1 – Elders are shepherds/pastors.
Elders in the church are to lead, teach, protect, and love their church members as shepherds care for their sheep. Their flock is the church members, and elders must aim to help them grow into spiritual maturity (Ephesians 4:11).
2 – Elders must be godly.
1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 describes the characteristics of elders. They must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money.
They must be an example to the flock of God, not domineering over those in their charge (1 Peter 5:3).
3 – Elders must teach.
Elders must teach sound doctrine in the church and refute false teachers and teachings (Titus 1:9). An elder must have the ability to explain biblical truth faithfully, and this can be in various ways. It could be in small groups, preaching, classes, etc.
4 – Elders must lead.
Biblical eldership calls for His shepherds to provide leadership for the flock, and God expects the congregation to submit to that leadership (Hebrews 13:17). Elders are not to use this authority as absolute or unquestionable, nor should it be domineering but to have a measured approach to bring correction and direction according to God’s word.
5 – Elders must demonstrate their leadership at home.
Elders must demonstrate their ability to lead at home. If they are married, it should be to one woman. He must be faithful and bring up children that are submissive and not out of control. This is a demonstration of his ability to be responsible for God’s children and his flock.
6 – Elders must be men.
Although this is a debated and contested issue, the Bible passages suggest that elders must be men. All of the pronouns used about elders and overseers in the New Testament are masculine. Only men were permitted to serve as elders in the New Testament church. Even 1 Timothy 3:2 clearly states that the overseer must be “the husband of one wife” or a one-woman man.
7 – Elders are plural.
In the New Testament, “elders” are always plural. So it is essential that the congregation always have a team of shepherds and not merely a single pastor leading the church without the support of a plurality of elders.
Finally, it is wise to consider that elders must not take the place of Jesus in terms of final authority. Jesus is the chief shepherd, and elders are His temporary helpers (1 Peter 5:4). Elders must never lose awareness that they themselves are also sheep and totally dependent on the grace of the Chief Shepherd to lead the flock towards Christ and His mission. Amen!
Deacons, on the other hand, refer to someone who “serves”. The Greek word “diakoneo“, means to be an attendant, to wait upon, or one who ministers to another. This is where the English word “deacon” is derived from. Deacons, like Elders, have a qualification of character clearly outlined in the Bible (1 Timothy 3:8-13). Even though the character qualification is outlined, the responsibilities of a deacon are not clearly defined.
Reading through scripture, we can assume that their duties include the things that are not the elders’ duties, such as preach, teach, and exhort. An excellent example of deacons can be found in Acts 6:2-4, saying, “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
While the elders focus on preaching the word, rebuking, reproving, and exhorting, the deacons are appointed to take care of everything else such as administrative tasks, ushering, volunteering, building maintenance, treasurer, etc., according to their gifting used for the needs of the church.
A deacons position is also an important one to serve the church and work together for smooth running while the elders devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. Amen!