In the Bible, there are three distinct titles:

  • Episcopai — literally administrator, these were tasked with overseeing a church/region
  • Presbyteros — a lesser title, still tasked with overseeing a church.
  • Diaconos — Deacons (like Stephen)

In the Catholic and Orthodox Churches (and possibly the Anglicans?), these "translate" to bishop, priest, and deacon respectively (the quotes are because the English words are the product of linguistic shifts, and not an actual separate etymology), and we go off on a tangent about ecclesiastical lines and succession, yada yada yada...

According to the mainstream Protestant line of thought, what happened to these positions? They do not seem apparent in the Baptist, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, or Reformed church governments (I do not know the Lutheran church government).

As a side note: while presbyteros is the etymological ancestor of priest, the word has a fundamentally different meaning. Catholic "priests" are better understood as "presbyters" which is very different from the "priesthood of all believers" (the Latin for a "priest" as in a parish priest is "presbyteros", the Latin for "priest" as in "priesthood of all believers" is "sacerdos"). This is a deficiency of English itself as most others have the difference built in.

  • 1
    I once read someone who said that the transition from "episcopai" to "bishop" was an obvious process. Personally, I view it as clear as tar. Feb 28, 2012 at 16:33

4 Answers 4


The answer here will vary widely depending on which specific protestant group you ask. No one can speak to every protestant tradition.

Try to think of a continuum, with one end describing groups with a very formalized and liturgical worship style, and the other end an informal and more laid-back style. Groups using the former style tend to (may not always) place more importance on structure and leadership at the level of the entire denomination (If you're liturgical, someone fairly high up was likely privileged to write out your liturgy). Groups using the latter style tend to (but not always) place more importance on the structure and leadership at the congregational level. In this answer, I will try here to speak to the latter end of the continuum.

In many such protestant denominations, every member is a priest/presbytor. In 1 Peter 2:9, speaking to all believers:

you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood

Some will take this as far as calling any distinctions — at all — between "lay" and "clergy" backwards and evil, because the distinction discourages the individual Christian from taking up the full responsibility for their relationship with Christ. I know of groups that don't even formally ordain their pulpit ministers.

Moving on to Episcopai. This office may be called variously Elder, Bishop, Pastor, Minister, or Reverend; never Father, as that is a title reserved for God alone — some will even refuse to use the title "Father" when directly addressing a Catholic priest, as they see it akin to blasphemy. This level is notable because office holders generally (not always, especially among groups that use "Elders") draw some kind of salary to help support themselves directly through their ministerial work. This office is generally charged with oversight of a region or congregation, and the selection for this position may even originate within the congregation itself.

The final office is Deacon. Deacons may be in charge of a service area within a particular congregation, such as "benevolence", "building/grounds/custodial", "children's ministry", etc. Deacons will typically not draw a salary from their ministerial work, but are nearly always chosen from the so-called "lay" membership of the congregation itself.

  • Yes, I have found that 1 Peter 2:9 is often used in this context. It should however be noted that the phrase "kingdom of priests and holy nation" was used for all the Israelites in Exodus 19:5-6, yet God established a separate levitical priesthood. I suspect that Protestants will argue that the Israelites "lost" their priesthood through their disobedience and only the levites retained it. Jun 7, 2012 at 4:06
  • @LoveTheFaith more that the their priesthood lacked to the ability to fully atone for them, but this is now made perfect through Christ. Jun 8, 2012 at 15:43
  • I believe that just as there were "degrees" of priesthood in the Old Covenant, in the same way, a greater share in Christ's priesthood is given to some believers in the New Covenant. Jun 9, 2012 at 4:57

As Joel Coehoorn notes, there are huge variations in what Protestant congregations do with church offices. From an Evangelical congregationalist standpoint, there are two offices defined in the New Testament:

Overseers or Elders

Paul gives the qualifications for episkopos <1985> in 1st Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-16. Often the title is translated "elder" and is usually seen as synonymous with presbyteros <4245>. (The case for them being the same starts with Titus 1:5 and 1st Timothy 5 where Paul seems to be referring to just one set of people by both terms.)

Depending on local culture, tradition and usage, the group of elders are called the "Elder Board", "Church Council", "Board of Directors", or similar. In congregationalist churches, they are normally elected by the membership body. Since they often are given responsibility over the hiring and firing of pastors and staff, boards don't usually include the pastors in their membership. Since they often have control over budget and policy decisions, pastors are often invited to their meetings. Many churches only allow men to be elders (see Titus 1:6).

Exactly what the board does depends on the size of the church and the role of the pastor. Our local church has been transforming the role from being largely business-of-the-church focused to spiritual-leadership focused.


The office of deacon seems to stem from Acts 6:1-7 and Paul gives the qualifications for diakonos <1249> in 1st Timothy 3:8-13.

Some churches lack formal deacons, others have leaders who are appointed similar functions, and still others have "Deacon Boards". The primary distinguisher between an "elder" and a "deacon" is that deacons are normally appointed by the elder board. Some churches allow deaconesses (see Romans 16:1) but others limit the office to men (see 1st Timothy 3:12).

They are usually volunteers and often assigned to specific functions. For instance, our church has a Missions Deacon, a Hospitality Deacon, a Hispanic Ministries Deacon, and etc. It's not unusual for these leaders to be chairs of ministry committees, whether they are formally created or not. They almost always have a focus on practical service.


Congregationalist churches tend to model their church offices on the positions Paul describes in 1st Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-16.


Amongst Baptists, the title deacon (or more typically the Board of Deacons) is the highest office in the church. It actually functions as a board of Prebyteros, but even the Baptists knew that name was taken :). Baptists retain the notion of deacon, because when the office of deacon was established in Acts, it was clearly a servant role, really nothing more than a glorified waiter. (in the eyes of a Baptist at least).

That Baptists reject any form of an establishment cannot be made strongly enough. Baptists subscribe to the priesthood of all believers (John Smythe going so far as to baptize himself, before baptizing Samuel Helwys, the first two Baptists). In reacting against the establishment of church as an institution beyond the local congregation, they necessarily abolish the other offices.

Because Baptists reject any authority beyond the local church, there is no need for a Bishop, although I know that the head of the NorthStar Baptist Asociation (in Northern Virginia) jokingly refers to himself as a Baptist bishop.

Baptists tend to believe that the first church had no ecclesiastical offices, and see the ranks of episcopos and presbyteros as aberrations. They have elders which are mentioned in the NT, but note that the very few references to bishops are confined only to the latest of the NT works.

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    this is only true in certain Baptist denominations - Reformed Baptists, for example, do not hold that a Deacon is at a higher level than a Pastor/Elder/Overseer : they view them to be equal-but-different roles in that deacons handle the mundane, day-to-day aspects of church life whilst the pastors concentrate on the "spiritual" aspects (using the pattern of Acts as their justification)
    – warren
    Feb 28, 2012 at 14:26

The Presbyterian model does not tend to see a distinction between these classes, though particular Presbyterian churches may differ in the details. This is founded in (what the Reformers believed to be) the practice of the early Church, according to evidence from the Bible and from the Church Fathers.

In short:

  • Deacons are still around. But they are not trainee priests, or assistant priests, or anything like that; their role is pastoral or administrative or both.
  • Everybody is a priest, but only some people are ministers.
  • The unique functions of bishops are distributed among various assemblies.

The priesthood is typically held to be common to all believers; the relationship between us and God is not interrupted by any intermediate layer. However, there is still a function of ministry to which certain people are called:

The duties of ministers are various; yet for the most part they are restricted to two, in which all the rest are comprehended: to the teaching of the Gospel of Christ, and to the proper administration of the sacraments. 1, Ch. 18

Ministers are meant to be associated with a particular local congregation. No minister has any more authority than any other, and in particular, "bishop" is taken to be a term that puts emphasis on the administrative or governing role of the minister, rather than denoting a distinct class.

Now the one and an equal power or function is given to all ministers in the Church. 1, Ch. 18

In giving the name of bishops, presbyters, and pastors, indiscriminately to those who govern churches, I have done it on the authority of Scripture, which uses the words as synonymous. 2, IV.3.8

All, therefore, to whom the office of teaching was committed, [the early Church] called presbyters, and in each city these presbyters selected one of their number to whom they gave the special title of bishop, lest, as usually happens, from equality dissension should arise. The bishop, however, was not so superior in honour and dignity as to have dominion over his colleagues ... And the ancients themselves confess that this practice was introduced by human arrangement, according to the exigency of the times. 2, IV.4.2

In the Catholic system, bishops do many different jobs. They are in charge of their diocese, they exercise discipline over the local priests, they ordain new priests and assign them to parishes, and so on. In the Presbyterian system, these tasks are the responsibility of an assembly/presbytery/session/synod instead (whose members are ministers and elders - representatives of congregations). The same jobs are being done, but it's no longer a single man doing all of them. For example, the local congregation will "call" a minister to the parish; he is not sent there by the bishop. The authority of these assemblies does not come from a notion of apostolic succession; it's simply a matter of what is considered an appropriate way to make decisions.

That leaves deacons. There are some differences between various churches here. Deacons may be chosen as administrators (looking after church finances), or as having a special pastoral office directed towards the poor, or both.

There will be two classes of deacons, the one serving the Church by administering the affairs of the poor; the other, by taking care of the poor themselves. 2, IV.3.9

[Deacons in the early Church] received the daily offerings of the faithful, and the annual revenues of the Church, that they might apply them to their true uses; in other words, partly in maintaining ministers, and partly in supporting the poor. 2, IV.4.5

1 The Second Helvetic Confession. Heinrich Bullinger, 1562.
2 Institutes of the Christian Religion. John Calvin. 1559. Translated by Henry Beveridge, 1599.

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