Truth That Matters

"What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" - Jesus Christ

Offices within and outside the church

Let's understand the various offices that God has planned for New Testament times.

Offices within a local church

From the New Testament we learn the following about the leadership of a local church:-

  1. The following are the Greek words that have been used to refer to the leaders of the church, with their renderings in the King James Bible (in brackets) and their dictionary meanings.
    1. "Episkopos": (overseer/bishop) person in charge, whose job is to see that things are done properly
    2. "Presbuterion": (Presbytery/elders) person advanced in age or maturity and therefore presiding over others
    3. "Poimaino": (feed - verb form of poimen - pastor or shepherd) care, nurture and protect
  2. All the above terms refer to the same office. For example, note the interchangeable use of presbuterion (elder) and episkopos (bishop) in Titus 1:5-7 and the use of poimaino (feed) with presbuterion (elders) in 1 Peter 5:1-2.
  3. The leadership is plural: There are several leaders for a single church (Acts 14:23, Acts 20:17, James 5:14, Philippians 1:1). Concerning the last reference, someone may argue that there could have been more than one church at Philippi, but the wording of Philippians 4:15 suggests that there was only one church. Similarly, in Titus 1:5, we read of "elders in each city". It would really be stretching things to insist that each city must have had multiple churches and the plural came from one per church.In 1 Peter 5:3, the elders are asked to be examples (plural) to the flock (singular). A flock is a group of sheep that feed together, and thus can refer only to a local church.
  4. The leadership is single-tier. The Bible does not mention a senior poimen, associate presbuterion, etc. In terms of office, all have the same position (though each person will obviously have a different maturity level).
  5. These leaders have no special costume or title
  6. Their office is confined to a single local church
  7. They need not have a Bible college degree to be eligible
  8. They are not recruited by the church from outside. They are "homegrown". What about Timothy?
  9. Their qualities and responsibilities are given in 1 Timothy 3:1-9, 1 Peter 5:1-3 and Titus 1:6-9
  10. Their responsibilities include teaching the whole local church (1 Peter 5:2, 1 Timothy 3:2) and thus only men can occupy this office (1 Timothy 2:12)
  11. These leaders are never appointed by a central authority because the Bible does not recognize any such central authority - local churches are to be autonomous
  12. These leaders are appointed ultimately by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28). In the case of fledgling churches, the Holy Spirit may use an evangelist or pastor/teacher who was instrumental in the formation of these churches to appoint elders (Titus 1:5). In older churches, the next generation of elders are recognized by that local church itself. We can conclude this because in Revelation 2 and 3, the Lord Jesus holds each church fully responsible for its own affairs.
  13. The Bible does not prescribe any specific time when new elders are to be appointed; rather from time to time, some people desire it (1 Timothy 3:1) and others recognize that a new person is worthy of being an elder.
There is one more office within the local church: the deacon. This is an untranslated Greek word for servant. Thus a deacon is a specifically recognized servant of the local church (I say "specifically recognized" because in a general sense, we all are servants of each other (Galatians 6:2, Galatians 5:13)). The qualifications of a deacon are given in 1 Timothy 3:8-12 where we see that deacons are male. However, women also performed deacon-related work. The deacon's responsibilities include helping out with some church activities (Acts 6) and carrying out errands. Phebe traveled from Cenchrea/Corinth to Rome to deliver Paul's letter to the Romans (Romans 16:1).

Offices across local churches

The epistle to the Ephesians deals with the universal church. Thus it is here (Ephesians 4:11) that we learn of the offices that apply for the church as a whole, that is, across various local churches. 

Apostles and prophets: The word "apostles" (literally: sent ones) refers to the disciples of Jesus Christ and Paul. The ministry of apostles and prophets was across different churches, and it included the delivery of new revelation (see for example Ephesians 3:3). The apostolic office is temporary.We can be sure because of the following reasons:-

  1. The apostles and prophets are the foundation of the church (which is compared to a building), as Ephesians 2:20 tells us. A foundation of a building is laid only once - at the start. This proves that apostles are characteristic of the start of the church - not the entire church period. Note that in Ephesians 2, Paul is describing the universal church (singular) - the entire body of Christ, and not local churches (plural) - groups of disciples meeting separately at various places.
  2. When the Lord Jesus appointed the 12 apostles, he did not mention anything about their succession. In contrast, God gave succession formulas well in advance when He wanted succession: Aaron's descendants were to be priests in Israel (Exodus 29:9) and David's descendants were to be the kings of Israel (2 Samuel 7:12-16).
  3. Not once does the Bible mention a successor to an apostle - even though apostles such as Paul and Peter wrote epistles when they expected to die soon.
  4. The marks of an apostle include seeing Jesus Christ physically (1 Corinthians 9:1) and working signs and wonders (2 Corinthians 12:12) - the kind described in Acts 19:11-12 and Acts 5:14-16. The "church fathers" do not have these features and thus do not qualify as apostles.
  5. The distinctive role of the apostles and prophets was to deliver new revelation from God to His people. With the Bible being delivered once and for all (Jude 1:3), their unique role became redundant. Thus, no successors were needed.
To summarize, these offices ceased at the close of the first century AD; there are no apostles today, that is, no legitimate individuals exercising authority at the scale or level that the apostles did.

In the New Testament, the word "apostle" is also used in a more general sense - messengers. In this sense, Barnabas (Acts 14:14), Andronicus, and Junia (Romans 16:7) are also called apostles.

Evangelists are those who have a special calling to preach the evangel (gospel or good news of salvation in Jesus Christ) to others. Their field is the whole world and this office will last as long as the church lasts on earth. The existence of evangelists does not negate the fact that all Christians are called to be witnesses for Jesus Christ. Paul, Barnabas, Silas, etc are examples of evangelists. Missionaries are not succeeded in the way the Old Testament kings were. The missionary office is a gift of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:8-11). Therefore, it is given when a person gets saved. As time passes, old missionaries die, and God calls new ones from among those who are getting saved.

Pastors/Teachers: [Note the absence of the word "some" between pastors and teachers in Ephesians 4:11.] The Greek word poimen that has been translated as "pastor" in the King James Bible means a shepherd or one who protects, nourishes and guides. Thus some people are called to be Bible teachers or shepherds with ministries not confined to a single local church. This office will last as long as the church lasts on earth. The word "pastor" is never used as a title in the Bible. Apollos may have been a pastor-teacher (1 Corinthians 3:6) as were Paul and Barnabas (Acts 11:26). Note that this office does not imply a church hierarchy. Pastor-teachers simply teach in more than one church. New pastor/teachers arise in the same way as new missionaries.

Terms with misunderstood meanings

In connection with church offices and their related terms, we have two unfortunate situations.

  1. Some common terms used today have absolutely no basis in the Bible.
  2. Some common terms used today appear in the Bible, but their assigned meanings today are totally different from their Biblical meanings.

Let's look at some of these terms.

Pope, patriarchate, apostolate, arch-bishop, parish, diocese, clergy, laity, synod, board, church headquarters, reverend (as a title): These terms or even the underlying concepts, are completely foreign to the Bible. The term archipoimen (archbishop, or chief shepherd) occurs once in the Bible (1 Peter 5:4), but it refers to the Lord Jesus Christ! The term "reverend" occurs once in the King James Old Testament to refer to God's name (Psalm 111:9)!

Pastor: It is used today to refer to a single leader of a local church (often an outsourced paid employee). We also have assistant or associate pastors today. But as we observed above, the leadership of a local church is plural, homegrown and single-tier. We also observed that "pastor" is used in Ephesians 4:11 to refer to a Bible teacher or guide whose ministry is not confined to a single church.

Minister: This term is used today to refer to a clergyman, but in the Bible, "minister" is the English translation of diakonos whose dictionary meaning is a servant or someone who serves (like a waiter who serves food). 

Bishop: In modern terminology, a bishop is part of a hierarchical structure, above the rank of parish-priest. He wears a long, holy-looking robe. No such concept exists in scripture. The Biblical bishop is one of the leaders in a single local church.