The New Testament mentions two official positions in the church: deacons and elders (also called pastors, bishops, or overseers).
The words elder (sometimes translated “presbyter”), pastor (which may be translated “shepherd”), and overseer (sometimes translated “bishop”) are used interchangeably in the New Testament. Even though these terms often mean different things among various churches today, the New Testament seems to point to one office, which was occupied by several godly men within each church. The following verses illustrate how the terms overlap and are used interchangeably:
In Acts 20:17–35, Paul is speaking to leaders from the Ephesian church. They are called “elders” in verse 17. Then in verse 28 he says, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God.” Here the elders are called “overseers” and their pastoral/shepherding duties are implied as the church is called the “flock.”
In Titus 1:5–9, Paul gives the qualifications of elders (verse 5) and says these qualifications are necessary because “an overseer must be above reproach” (verse 7). In 1 Timothy 3:1–7, Paul gives the qualifications for overseers, which are essentially the same as the qualifications for elders in Titus.
Furthermore, we see that every church has elders (plural). Elders are supposed to rule and teach. The biblical pattern is that a group of men (and elders are always men) is responsible for the spiritual leadership and ministry of the church. There is no mention of a church with a single elder/pastor who oversees everything, nor is there any mention of congregational rule (although the congregation plays a part).
The office of deacon focuses on the more physical needs of the church. In Acts 6, the church in Jerusalem was meeting the physical needs of many people in the church by distributing food. The apostles stated, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables”. To relieve the apostles, the people were told “to 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”. The word deacon simply means “servant.” Deacons are appointed church officials who minister to the more physical needs of the church, relieving the elders to attend to more spiritual ministry. Deacons are to be spiritually fit, and the qualifications of deacons are given in 1 Timothy 3:8–13.
In summary, elders lead, and deacons serve. These categories are not mutually exclusive. Elders serve their people by leading, teaching, praying, counseling, etc.; and deacons may lead others in service. In fact, deacons might be the leaders of service teams within the church.
So, where does the congregation fit into the pattern of church leadership? In Acts 6, it was the congregation who chose the deacons. Many churches today will have the congregation nominate and the elders ratified those that were chosen by the laying on of hands.
The basic pattern found in the New Testament is that every church should have a plurality of godly male elders who are responsible for leading and teaching the church. Also, godly deacons should be responsible for facilitating the more physical aspects of church ministry. All the decisions made by the elders should be with the congregation’s welfare in mind. However, the congregation will not be or hold the final authority over these decisions. The final authority belongs to the elders/pastors/overseers, who answer to Christ.
Acts 6; 20:17–35; 1 Timothy 3:1–13; Titus 1:5–9