Biblical Church Structure
When a Church is approaching
the time when it will move from the mission stage to a fully
operational church ministry. It is crucial that the operational
structure be established in a way that is both Biblical and
practical. It should also be structured for the “long haul”
rather than expediency to fit current leaders and current
It is noteworthy that the
New Testament does not specify a detailed order of church offices.
All scripture references describe "what was" at the time
of writing. If God wanted a hard and fast structure in every
church He would surely have revealed it. History reveals that God
has often worked powerfully in poor church structures and has also
been crowded out in very good church structures.
It is also helpful to
understand that the structure of the earliest church grew out of
current Judaism. The apostles believed that the church was just a
new phase of His covenant relationship with Israel. This can be
seen in that:
They continued to
conduct their public activities in the Temple court
They did not cross one
Gentile threshold until Peter was directed by God to do so in
Acts 10. This was years after the church age began, and
They adopted the
organizational structure of the Jewish synagogue.
Those in charge of the
synagogue facilities were called elders and the teachers were
called Rabbi's. At the first church council the presiding elder
was James, who many believe was the step-brother of Jesus. The
decisions about policy were made by "the elders". When
we remember that the synagogue had no scriptural basis in Hebrew
scriptures, but was invented during the time of Judah's captivity
in Babylon, we begin to see how God is gracious to work in
organizational structures devised by expediency and tradition.
The church in the beginning
years is referred to as the apostolic church, led by apostles and
elders. The Roman Catholic church expanded on the office of
"Overseer" (Bishop) to form a complex hierarchy that
includes priests, bishops, vicars, archbishops, cardinals and
pope. All authority flows from the pope. Presbyterians, and
others, have a rule of "elders". The name is taken from
the Greek word for elders. Episcopalians also take their name from
the Greek word translated "bishop" in many English
versions. They have bishop led churches.
Terms Used For Church
Offices In The New Testament
Listed are five terms used
to define the church government derived from the Greek language.
They will be explained more fully:
Bishop - Overseer
Pastor - Shepherd
The basic meaning of “apostle”
is “messenger”. The apostles were the first propagators of the
gospel of Christ and gave to the church New Testament revelation.
There were twelve apostles that were required to have the special
having followed Jesus
from His baptism by John, and
having been eye
witnesses of Jesus after His resurrection.
Peter brought this out when
Judas was replaced.
therefore necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all
the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us -beginning
at the baptism of John, until the day that He was taken up from
us-one of these should become a witness with us of His
resurrection”. Acts 1:21, 22.
These twelve apostles had no
Paul was set apart to be the
apostle to the Gentiles. (See Romans 11:13). Barnabas is referred
to as an apostle when he accompanied Paul on his first missionary
journey. (Acts 14:14) It is possible (but not conclusive) that “apostle”
may have been used of others in the sense of “messenger”, but
there is no clear evidence that they held an office of leadership
in the church. (Acts 2:42; 4:35, 37; 5:2;)
Bishops - Overseer
About 280 BC Hebrew
scholars translated the Hebrew scriptures
into Greek. Tradition says that there were
seventy-two men involved. The translation was called the
Septuagint, meaning "the translation of the 70".
Adapted from Theological
Dictionary Of The New Testament
- Gerhard Kittel
The Greek words in our New
Testament translated "bishop" or "overseer" in
its various forms.
The root meaning of "episkopos",
or overseer in secular Greek was "the looking down of
the gods." Hebrew usage expanded on this with the meanings of
"to visit"; "to search"; to be concerned
about something; to "care for something". In the
latter two cases it was used to describe the benevolent care of a
shepherd for his flock. "Episkopos" had the meaning of
"to muster" 43 times. The idea is to gather the people,
troops or flock together to see if any are missing. David was an
example of this meaning when he said to Jonathan,
"If your father(Saul)
misses me at all…" 1 Samuel 20:6. It was also used often to
describe God's benevolent watchcare over His people: "a land
for which the LORD your God care; the eyes of the LORD your God
are always on it, from the beginning even to the end of the
year." Deuteronomy 11:12.
was used of God in the sense of "to visit". It could
mean to visit in mercy and grace or in judgement. It is used in
both senses in Zechariah 10:3
"Mine anger is
kindled against the shepherds, and I will punish (visit in
judgement) the goats: for the Lord of hosts is gracious to (visit
in grace) his flock the house of
The verb form episkeptomai
can mean "to punish" (as in Exodus 32:34) or it can mean
to "bring blessing" as in Genesis 21:1.
Lord visited Sarah as He had said…and Sarah conceived."
Episkeptomai was also
used in the sense of "to appoint, to commission, to
install someone". An example is Numbers 27:16,
"Let God the Lord…
set a man over the congregation… that the congregation of the
Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd."
Another verb form "episkeptesthai"
is used in the sense of "to visit" with a sense of
concern and responsibility. Stephen used the word in this sense in
regard to Moses.
"But when he (Moses)
was approaching the age of forty, it entered his mind to visit his
brethren, the sons of Israel."
Acts 7:23. Likewise, Paul
said to Barnabas,
"Let us go again and
visit our brethren in every city…and see how they do."
Peter gives us a very
illuminating comparison between Jesus as Episkopos and those who
serve as episkopos in the Christian congregations:
"For you were
continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd
and Bishop (episkopos, overseer) of your
souls." 1 Peter 2:25
Episkope' emphasizes the
idea of visit or visitation. It can be a visitation of grace or
judgement. See Luke 19:44 and 1st
Peter 2:12. Episkope' is also used of the apostolic office in Acts
Episkopos (singular) and
Episkopoi (plural) only occur six times in the New Testament. In
each case the idea of overeseership is paramount. Strong's
Concordance gives this definition: "a superintendent, e.i.
Christian officer in general charge of a (or the) church (literal
or figurative): - bishop, overseer.""Be on guard for
yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has
made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God
which He purchased with His own blood." Acts 20:28
"It is a trustworthy
statement; if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a
fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above
reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent,
respectable, hospitable, able to teach…" 1st
"For the overseer must
be above reproach as God's steward, not self-willed, not
quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of
sordid gain…" Titus 1:7
The basic meaning of “elder”
is “older” or “senior”. The idea of spiritually older (or
mature) rather than physically older seems to be the more dominant
meaning for church leaders.
The Greek word "presbuteros"
means "older" and in relation to church office means
"spiritually mature". We often read about "priests
and elders" as leaders in Judaism in the gospels and the book
of Acts. It seems that both apostles and other leaders in the
early church were referred to as "elders".
Peter speaks clearly that elders
(at least those who bear the title of episkopos) are to have
the attitude and actions of a benevolent shepherd as they
follow the example of the Chief Shepherd and Bishop, Jesus Christ.
"Therefore, I exhort the
elders among you, as your fellow-elder…shepherd (pastor)
the flock of God among you, not under compulsion, but voluntarily,
according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with
eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your
charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the
Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of
glory." -1 Peter 5:1-4
An offering was sent to
suffering Jewish believers in Judea.
this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the
elders - Acts 11:30.
At the close of the first
missionary journey Paul and Barnabas retraced their steps to the
churches they had planted.
“And when they had appointed
elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting,
they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” Acts
At the first church council
there are several references to “elders” in the Jerusalem
church. Acts 15:2, 46, 22, 23 and 16:4.
The leaders of the church at
Ephesus are referred to as “elders.”
Acts 21:17. This is true of
both Jewish and Gentile (non-Jewish) churches. 1st Timothy 5:1, 2,
17, 19: Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1st Peter 5:1, 2; 2nd John 1 and
3rd John l.
This exhortation was made to
the elders of the church of Ephesus whom Paul had summoned.
"Paul and Timothy,
bondservants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus
who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons." Philippians
"For you were
continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the
Shepherd and Overseer of your souls." 1st
In regard to men episkopos
is used twice in the plural and three times in singular. When used
of Jesus Christ it is obviously used in the singular.
The leaders of the early
churches were referred to as elders (presbuterio) and overseers (episkopoi).
Elder emphasizes the status of recognized spiritual maturity.
emphasizes the responsibility and activity of a benevolent
overseer. This activity is likened
to the benevolent watchcare of a shepherd over his flock. Indeed,
the very word for shepherd (poimen) is used to describe Jesus
seven times in our New Testament. It is also used of overseeing
in the church but is translated "pastor". Other
scriptures allude to sheperding activity such as "feed
Qualifications for the
office of overseer are given only in 1st Timothy 3 and
Titus 1. In Timothy, only the title of overseer is used. In
Titus both elder and overseer are mentioned. These qualifications
An honorable and exemplary
life of moral reliability.
Evidence in his own family
that he is qualified to lead and administrate the congregational
family (Very difficult for celibate priests to do this).
A skilled teacher.
A sufficiently mature
Christian so that he will not fall to the temptation of pride to
which immature Christians placed in the office of overseer so
Blameless according to the
standards of the non-Christian world.
If all elders are overseers
then all are required to measure up to these qualifications. To
this is added the responsibility of being a benevolent overseer of
the entire spiritual flock of which the overseer is placed in
If the overseer is a unique
office it is evident that the overseer must first be an elder
(spiritually mature). There were some “elders” who were
appointed or ordained to be “overseers”. The Greek word is
“episcopos” and is usually translated “bishop” in our
English versions. Peter refers to Jesus as “the Shepherd and
Bishop of your souls”. 1 Peter 2:25.
When the vacant position of
Judas had to be filled Peter commented, “…and his bishopric
(overseership) let another man take.” Acts 1:20. Paul’s
greeting to the Christians at Philippi included, “…all the
saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops (overseers)
and deacons.” This is the first time that “bishops” and
“deacons” are spoken of as an office in the early church.
As Paul concluded his third
missionary journey and was enroute to Jerusalem we read that
“…from Miletus he sent
to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church.”
In verse 28 he made this
charge to them,
“Be on guard for
yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit
has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He
purchased with His own blood.” Acts 20:28.
Taken alone, this would seem to indicate that all elders were
Qualifications for bishops
(overseers) are given in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. They
deal with inner character, outward behavior, family leadership,
responsibilities of overseership, faithfulness to God’s word and
effectiveness in teaching God’s people.
Titus was charged to “appoint
elders in every city” as Paul had previously directed him.
Titus 1:5. This is what Paul and Barnabas had done at the end of
their first missionary journey.
Some Interesting Scriptures
Ephesians 4:1-16 speaks of
those who have received gifts to minister edification to the
church. Those gifts are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors
and teachers. It is most likely that bishops are referred to as
having the gifts of pastoring and teaching (although these
gifts are not limited to bishops).
The apostle Paul was
undoubtedly referring to the office of bishop (overseer) when he
wrote to the Thessalonians
we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who
diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the
Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very
highly in love because of their work ” -1
Thessalonians 5:12, 13.
Paul gave these directions
in his first epistle to Timothy,
“Let the elders who
rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially
those who work at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says,
‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The
laborer is worthy of his wages. Do not receive an accusation
against an elder except on the basis of two or three
witnesses.” - 1 Timothy
We have these interesting
words from Hebrews. “Remember those who led
you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the outcome
of their way of life imitate their faith…Obey your leaders,
and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls, as
those who will give account. Let them do this with joy and not
with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” Hebrews
I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow-elder and witness of
the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is
to be revealed, shepherd (pastor)
the flock of God among you, not under compulsion,
but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid
gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those
allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.
And when the Chief Shepherd (pastor) shall appear, you will
receive the unfading crown of glory.” 1st Peter 5:1-3.
Taken all together it would
seem that all leaders of the early church were considered elders.
It is possible (but not conclusive) that some of these elders with
the gifts of pastoring, teaching, or administrating were appointed
(ordained) as bishops (overseers).
Deacons - Ministers
The word “deacon” appears twice in our
English New Testament.
let these first be proved; then let them use the office of a
deacon, being found blameless.”
“For they that have used
the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree,
and great boldness in the faith, which is in Christ Jesus.” -1
Timothy 3:10, 13
The plural form “deacons” appears three
“Paul and Timotheus…to
all the saints in Christ Jesus, which are at Philippi, with the
bishops and deacons.” Philippians
“Likewise must the
deacons be grave, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not
greedy of filthy lucre;
“Let the deacons be the husbands of one
wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.” 1st
Timothy 3:8, 12
From Strong’s Concordance deacon is
defined as: Diakonos (to run on errands; an attendant, i.e.
(gen.) a waiter (at a table or in other menial duties).
Greek English Lexicon
“One who executes the commands of another,
esp. of a master; a servant, attendant, minister.”
whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister”
(i.e. deacon). Matthew 20:26.
“Then the twelve called
the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the
word of God and serve (diakoneo) tables. Wherefore, look ye out
among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and
Wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.”
“I commend unto you Phebe
our sister, which is a servant (diakonos) of the church which is
at Cenchrea; That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints,
and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of
you: for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also.
The ministry of a deacon was
to serve the needs of others. Anyone who served the needs of
others was performing a deacon ministry. Those men who were
characterized by serving the needs of others were set apart to the
office of deacons.
Scriptures from the pastoral epistles to
Timothy and Titus that shed light on church organizational
And for this I was appointed
a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not
lying) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.” 1st
This word “appointed” is
also translated “ordained” in some versions.
Women - 1 Timothy 2:11-14.
In the context discussing the qualities
required in deacons, 1 Timothy has some special interest.
“Women must likewise be dignified, not
malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.” 1st
In the NASB there is this note, “i.e.
deacon’s wives or deaconesses.”
“Until I come, give
attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhortation and
teaching. Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was
bestowed upon you through prophetic utterance with the laying on
of hands by the presbytery (body of elder ." 1st Timothy
The inference is that
Timothy was “appointed” or “ordained” to an office of
considerable importance. We presume this to be the office of
Bishop since “Bishop” (piscopos) and “Elders” (presbuteros)
are the only titles used in regard to recognized leadership of
the church. “Deacons” held the office of “ministry” or “service”.
Other scriptures indicate
that Timothy was not only the primary leader of the church at
Ephesus, but exercised considerable influence among other churches
of Asia Minor. (Virtually the entire contents of 1st and 2nd
Timothy makes this assumption.
elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor,
especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.”
1st Timothy 5:17
Here are elders serving with
multiple gifts: administrating, preaching and teaching. Verse 18
indicates that “double honor” refers to financial
compensation. It seems strange that if these “elders” were
also “bishops” that Paul did not refer to them as “bishops”.
The weight of the inference is that they were equivalent to what
we refer to as “paid staff” in our churches today.
“Do not lay hands (to
appoint or ordain) upon any one too
hastily and thus share responsibility for the sins of others; keep
yourself free from sin.”
1st Timothy 5:22
It appears that the
authority of deciding who to ordain to the position of bishop was
vested in Timothy, but he was exhorted to use this authority with
the good fight of faith; take hold of eternal life to which you
were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of
1st Timothy 6:12
The inference is that before
Timothy was “ordained” or “appointed” to the office of
Bishop he was interrogated about his doctrinal and moral positions
and gave satisfactory answers before many witnesses.
Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you…”1st Timothy
This indicates that Timothy
had been entrusted with a position or responsibility of great
“And for this reason I
remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you
through the laying on of my hands.” 2nd Timothy 1:6
Paul was present when
Timothy was “ordained” or “appointed” to the position he
held in the church at Ephesus.
which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher.”
2nd Timothy 1:11
Paul identifies his
spiritual gifts and position to which he had been appointed by
things which you heard from me in the presence of many witnesses,
these entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others
also.” 2nd Timothy 2:2
Paul will shortly die a
martyr’s death. He will have no successor as the apostle to the
Gentiles. It appears Paul is giving the formula by which church
leadership was to be passed on from generation to generation.
solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus,
who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and
His kingdom: Preach the word; be ready in season and out of
season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and
instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure
sound doctrine, but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will
accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own
desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth and will
turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in al things, endure
hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your
ministry." 2nd Timothy 4:1-5
Paul’s closing charge to
Timothy requires both zeal and faithfulness in a broad range of
responsibilities. This indicates he occupied the position of the
bishop or overseer that required far more from him than the
this reason, I left you in Crete, that you might set in order what
remains, and appoint elders in every city as I directed
you.” For the overseer (bishop)
must be above reproach as God’s steward…” Titus 1:
Titus had the responsibility
and authority to “appoint” elders in every city. The word “appoint”
is sometimes translated “ordain”. It literally means “stretching
forth the hand” and refers to pointing someone out and bestowing
on them a new position and/or responsibility. The entire book of
Titus concerns the responsibility of Titus to “set in order”
things that still needed to be set in order in the churches on the
island of Crete. Chief among those things was “appointing” or
“ordaining” elders in every city. Although not 100% conclusive
the weight o the pastoral epistles seems to indicate that the
leadership and administration of the early churches was entrusted
to elders., It also seems to teach that from the elders one or
more were “appointed” or “ordained” to be benevolent “overseer(s)”
to “pastor” or “shepherd” the church in the manner a
literal shepherd “watches over” his flock.
Elders and Bishops were
servant leaders who ministered primarily but not exclusively to
the spiritual needs of the church. “Deacons” or “Ministers”
ministered primarily, but not exclusively to the physical and
material needs of the church. Every bishop was an elder, but it
seems that every elder was not necessarily a bishop or overseer.
Leaders Are To Be Servant
"Jesus called them to
Himself, and said, 'You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord
it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It
is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you
shall be your servant…" Matthew 20: 25,
Preferred Church Structure
It cannot conclusively be
proven that any one structure is required by scripture. Those who
prefer a different structure can not conclusively prove that they
have a scriptural mandate. Our goal should be to have a structure
that is harmonious with scriptural revelation and then present
every aspect to God for Him to use according to His purpose.
Copyright © 2002 Thomas E Berry