How Many Offices are in the Church?

This was my final paper for English Comp 2 (meaning I put a whole semester of work into it!). I think it turned out pretty well so I’d like to share it with anybody who has wondered about the number of offices in the Church.

How Many Offices are in the Church?

Throughout the years there has been much confusion over the number of offices in the church. Some churches say there are two, others say there are three, and still others disagree with even these numbers. What should be known however, is that however many offices man says there is, a look into what the Bible has to say is enough to figure out the exact number of offices. By examining the Scriptures, the evidence clearly shows that the church should have only two offices: that of deacon and pastor, as evidenced by research from the Bible.

The first office, deacon, is one that many churches understand to be an actual office. In 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul gives the requirements that a person needs to fulfill in order to become either an elder or a bishop. Paul is very clear in stating the first office of elder must fulfill set standards, and that the second office of deacon must fulfill another set of standards (1 Tim. 3:813). The Greek word for deacon is “deakonos,” it means minister or servant.  There is no real debate over this office. The real debate is in the office of pastor. Because the terminology used in the Bible is different some people have decided that there is more than one office to fill this role. Some churches may have a three-tiered office system of pastor, elder, and deacon, while many stick to a system that has only two offices, that of only pastor and deacon.

In the Bible there are several different terms used to describe the pastor: elder, overseer, and bishop. To start getting an idea of whether or not these terms apply to the office of pastor, one should first take a look at how the words are used historically. Jackson points out that “throughout the Old Testament, the function of oversight was assigned to specific individuals” (Jackson 564). In the Old Testament, the word overseer is assigned to different individuals. Take for instance Joseph, when he was sold to the Egyptian Potiphar, Joseph “found grace in his sight and he served him: and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his hand” (Gen.  39:4). David A. Mappes, associate professor of systematic theology and Bible Exposition at Baptist Bible Seminary, states that “in the Septuagint, “episkopous” depicts priestly oversight (Num. 4:16), military leaders (31:14), stewards (Judg. 9:28), and superintendants of those who repaired the temple (2 Chron. 34:12, 17)” (164).

John E. Johnson states that “The Old Testament offices provide a solid framework from which to measure pastoral identity and function” (201). He believes that many pastors today face an identity crisis as to how they are supposed to fulfill the role of pastor or even what that office entails. Johnson believes that looking at the various offices in the church will provide the people of today with an excellent picture at what the pastors of today should be.

The English word overseer is translated from the Greek word “episkopos.” It comes from the Greek word “epi,” meaning over, and the word “skopeo,” meaning to watch or look. The word for elder is “presbuterous,” which is a play on the Greek word for old man, and occurs sixty six times in the New Testament (Strong 362-63). “Poimen,” is the word for pastor and literally means “a shepherd” and is translated as “pastor” once in the New Testament, The relationship between these three terms is highly debated. But David A. Mappes makes the correct statement that “the terms are used interchangeably to emphasize various functions of the same office” (166). Overseer carries the idea that the individual is in charge and watching over the workings of the church. Benjamin L. Merkle, professor of New Testament at Malaysia Baptist Theological Seminary, states that “the term overseer spoke more to the work of the individual whose duty it was to provide ‘oversight’ to the congregation. The term conveyed the idea of protection and supervision and supervision over those under his care” (Merkle 40). Elder carries the idea of wisdom and maturity, while pastor (which literally means shepherd) identifies the individual as someone who is to take care of and protect the members of the church. Different names do not necessarily mean they all refer to a different office or person. Take for instance, the man who is a father to his children. As father he has to provide for and nurture his children. But this man is not just a father, he is also a son, a husband, a brother, a cousin, an employee, etc.  Although the man can be called anyone of these titles, he is still the person. The different titles just signify a different role or responsibility he is supposed to fulfill.

Knowing all of the intricacies of the Greek language, as well as the historical context of the pastoral terms can help someone make their decision in the number of church offices. This method however, can be time consuming as a result of studying. The best way for a Christian with no knowledge of Greek to determine the number of offices is to simply look at the modern day English translation of the Bible. There are multiple instances in the Bible that show the interchangeability of elder, overseer, pastor, and bishop. One of the most argued and debated passages concerning the issue of the number of church offices is 1 Timothy 5:17, “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine.” Some people will inevitably look at this passage and vehemently proclaim that there are two different kinds of elders. They will use this verse to support their claim that there is a distinction between pastor and elder. Pastors are supposed to take care of their flock, and this passage is simply stating how a congregation is to reward their pastors for such work. Pastors were required to rule over their congregation, so one who did it well would be rewarded with double honor. But since the primary focus of the pastor is to teach and educate his people, the pastors who excelled in this area were to receive even more honor. This verse does not suggest that there are more than two offices (Walvoord and Zuck 744).

One verse that proves the idea of a two office system can be found in the book of Acts. Chapter twenty of this book finds Paul calling together the elders of Ephesus: “And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church” (Acts 20:17). Here Paul opens up his conversation with the Ephesian men by calling them elders (here Paul is using the word “presbuterous”). The context is that Paul has called these men together to tell them that the Holy Spirit is directing him to go to Jerusalem. The entire chapter is Paul speaking to the same group of people. In verse 28, Paul calls these men a different title. He says “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” So given here, is an example of interchangeability of the pastoral terms. Although he uses different terms, Paul is referring to the same men, in the same office. First, he calls them elders (“presbuterous”), and then straightaway he proceeds to call them overseers (“episkopous”). Since the context remains the same, and Paul is talking to the same group of people without acknowledging any sort of change of office, it can be plainly understood that the terms used refer to the same office.

Another example of interchangeability of terms the Bible gives us is found in the book of Titus. Here, Paul is giving Titus instructions on appointing elders. “For this cause I left thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee” (Tit. 1:5).  Paul here has given his reason for leaving behind Titus and for writing this epistle. But a look into the first few verses shows that once again Paul will use different terms for the same office. In verse 5 of the first chapter, Paul says Titus is to appoint elders (“presbuterous”) in every city. In the next few verses Paul lists the requirements that an elder is supposed to fulfill. But in verse seven, Paul switches up his terminology again. This time he says, “For a Bishop must be blameless” (Tit. 1:7). Just as with the Acts passage, Paul here is staying in the same context, and talking about the qualifications for only one office. From this example it can be easily seen that there is only one office besides that of deacon.

A look at the first epistle written by Peter will show that the pastoral terms can be used interchangeably. In his farewell remarks in the final chapter, Peter gives an exhortation to the elders, “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed:  Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly” (1 Pet. 5:1,2 NKJV).

Another small example of a two office system in the Bible would be Pauls letter to the Philippians, in which he greets only bishops and deacons. The first verse of this book states “Paul and Timothy, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” Paul only gave greetings to men of two offices because there are only two offices. If there existed more than two offices, Paul would have of course opened his letter with salutations to men of all three offices.

Again, a major problem with thinking elder and overseer are separate offices is that “nowhere are the three offices (elder, overseer, and deacon) mentioned together, which suggests that a three-tiered ecclesiastical system is foreign to the Pastoral Epistles” (Merkle 37) Merkle also states that “the fact that elders and overseers are said to have the same function in the church (i.e. ruling) also suggests that the two terms refer to the same office” (Merkle 38).

From these scriptural passages, it is easy to see that the terms elder, overseer, pastor, and bishop are all titles of the same office. However, if they are indeed separate offices, then there are problems that arise in that line of thinking. For starters, Merkle points out “if overseer and elder are two separate offices, it is strange that Paul never lists the qualifications of elders in first Timothy, especially since the character of the one who is to fill the office of elder is so important” (Merkle 37). Indeed, if they are separate, then certainly Paul would have at least said something about the qualifications of such an important office. His silence on the issue is as much evidence as anything else.

There are very clearly holes in the thinking of those who would follow a church system that includes three offices. It is evident that the clearest and most Biblically accurate system of church management is one that has only two offices: that of pastor and deacon. To make the mistake of saying that there are more than two offices in the church is to make the mistake of not reading the Bible clearly enough.  Any other system just does not fit with Biblical guidelines and scripture passages. The deacons are meant to minister as servants to both the congregation and pastor, while the pastor is supposed to serve both as teacher and servant to the congregation.

Works Cited

The Holy Bible: New King James Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

Jackson, Walter C. “The Minister as Overseer.” Review and Expositor 83:4 (1986): 560-72.

Johnson, John E. “The Old Testament Offices as Paradigm for Pastoral identity.” Bibliotheca Sacra 152:606 (1995): 183-201.

Mappes, David A. “The New Testament Elder, Overseer, and Pastor.” Bibliotheca Sacra 154:614 (1997): 163-74.

Merkle, Benjamin L. “Hierarchy in the Church? Instructions from the Pastoral Epistles Concerning Elders and Overseers.” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (2003): 33-40.

Strong, James. New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, inc, 1996.

Walvoord, John F., and Roy B. Zuck. The Bible Knowledge Commentary. Colorado Springs: Victor, 1983.

3 thoughts on “How Many Offices are in the Church?

  1. while i didn’t have time to read every word, I got the impression that you confirmed the Biblical accuracy of the Presbyterian model- elders and deacons. you called the 2 offices pastor and deacon, but pointed out that pastor, elder and overseer can be used interchangeably, and all fit the description of what these men do in our church body. our “Senior Pastor” is actually just the head teaching elder.
    incidentally, i grew up in a 2 office system that was referred to as pastor/deacon, but i’m pretty sure it was very flawed. the pastor was more of a dictator, and the deacons acted more like elders.
    I was very pleased to truly see the elder/deacon system at work at RPC!

    1. @Jason: I think you’re right about them being pretty much the same. I think the main difference between presbyterian and baptist church government is congregational rule. of course there are probably discrepancies on both sides. …and if i’m not mistaken most presbyterian churches are also under a higher presbytery, while baptists are historically autonomous.

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