A 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 situation.

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:

  1. Apostle

  2. Bishop - Overseer

  3. Pastor - Shepherd

  4. Elder

  5. Deacon/Deaconess - Ministers


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 qualifications of:

  • 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.

It is 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 successors.

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

Editor - 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.

Sometimes episkopos 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 Judah."

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.

"The 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." Acts 15:36

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 1:16

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 Timothy 3:1,2.

"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.

And 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 14:23.

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 1:1

"For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls." 1st Peter 2:25

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.

In Summary

The leaders of the early churches were referred to as elders (presbuterio) and overseers (episkopoi). Elder emphasizes the status of recognized spiritual maturity.

Overseer (episkopos) 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 my sheep."

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 are:

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 easily succumb.

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 charge.

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.” Acts 20:17.

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 bishops (overseers).

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 About Bishop/Elders

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

But 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 5:17-19.

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 13:7, 17

”Therefore, 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.

And 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 times:

Paul and Timotheus…to all the saints in Christ Jesus, which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” Philippians 1:1

“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).

From Thayer’s Greek English Lexicon

“One who executes the commands of another, esp. of a master; a servant, attendant, minister.”

…but 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.” Acts 6:2,3

“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. Romans 16:1,2

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.

Church Organizational Structure

Scriptures from the pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus that shed light on church organizational structure.

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 Timothy 2:7

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 Timothy 3:11

In the NASB there is this note, “i.e. either 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 4:13, 14

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.

Let the 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 great care.

“Fight 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 many witnesses.”

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.

O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you…”1st Timothy 6:20

This indicates that Timothy had been entrusted with a position or responsibility of great importance.

“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.

“…for 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 Jesus Christ.

“And the 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.

“I 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 average elder.

“For 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: 5,7

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 Leaders

"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, 26.

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