Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Dear catholic.com visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, catholic.com would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find catholic.com helpful? Please make a gift today. SPECIAL PROMOTION FOR NEW MONTHLY DONATIONS! Thank you and God bless.

Dear catholic.com visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, catholic.com would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find catholic.com helpful? Please make a gift today. SPECIAL PROMOTION FOR NEW MONTHLY DONATIONS! Thank you and God bless.

Background Image

Bishops, Priests, and Deacons

Jimmy Akin

DAY 316

CHALLENGE

“In the New Testament, Church leadership wasn’t divided up among bishops, priests (aka presbyters/elders), and deacons. In particular, the office of bishop and elder were the same (Titus 1:5–7).”

DEFENSE

The offices of Church leadership developed during the first century under the guidance of the apostles.

Originally, the only office in the Church was apostle. Jesus appointed the Twelve to serve as apostles toward the beginning of his ministry, around A.D. 30 or 31 (Matt. 10:1–4). He appointed others to temporary assignments, but not ongoing offices (Luke 10:1). Thus the apostles are the only leaders of the Church at the beginning of Acts (A.D. 33).

As the Church grew, its pastoral needs exceeded what the apostles themselves could provide, and they appointed additional officers. By the early A.D. 40s, they were being assisted in Jerusalem by a body of elders (Acts 11:30), with elders soon being ordained in other churches, such as by Paul and Barnabas around A.D. 48 (Acts 14:23).

Bishops and deacons are mentioned by name for the first time in the literature of the A.D. 60s (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1–2, 8–13; Titus 5:7). The terms for these offices originally had non-Christian uses. “Bishop” (Greek, episkopos) meant “overseer”; “presbyter/priest” (Greek, presbuteros) meant “elder”; and “deacon” (Greek, diakonos) meant “minister, servant.” Consequently, it took time for them to acquire stable, technical meanings. Thus on occasion even apostles could describe themselves as “elders” (1 Pet. 5:1) or “deacons” (Eph. 3:7). This fluidity is why “elder” and “bishop” are sometimes applied to the same office. By the end of the apostolic age, a threefold ministry had become universal in the churches, with the loftiest term (“overseer”) being attached to the highest office and the humblest term (“servant”) being

attached to the lowest.
Thus, writing around A.D. 110, St. Ignatius of Antioch stated that

apart from the threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons, “there is no church” (Letter to the Trallians 3). He also refers to a threefold ministry operating in the churches of Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Philadelphia, and Smyrna.

For the threefold ministry to be so widespread and considered so essential at the beginning of the second century, its origin must be placed in the second half of the first century, as the final form of the structure bequeathed to the Church by the apostles.

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!Donatewww.catholic.com/support-us