With the close of the first Christian century the office of apostle seems to have died out and prophets have become increasingly rare. Well before then, charismatic leadership was increasingly replaced with appointed leadership. Timothy and Titus are excellent examples. As a successor of the apostles, Timothy was ordained both by a council of elders (1 Tim 4:13-15) and by Paul himself (2 Tim 1:6) to leadership over multiple churches (see 1 Tim 5:17-22). Titus not only exercised authority over multiple churches, he also appointed elders and overseers to guide them (Tit 1:5-7). But although Timothy and Titus functioned like apostles, they were not themselves called apostles. The second generation of leadership functioned under three titles in particular.
The term episkopos was a common title in the ancient world for someone “who watches over,” therefore it is often translated “overseer.” It means something like “supervisor,” a position of responsibility within a wide range of contexts and applications, “one who has the responsibility of seeing that something is done the right way.” In the non-biblical context episkopos was associated with very specific responsibilities, in today’s terms, the title came with a job description. There can be an element of service and caring relationship in the broad usage of the term.
The word occurs only three times in the New Testament (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:7) and the related noun episkopē (evpi,skoph) occurs twice (1 Tim. 3:1 and Acts 1:20). 1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:5-7 offer a lengthy list of qualifications and disqualifications for those holding the office, things like gentleness and ability to teach while avoiding arrogance and greed. There is very little overlap in the two lists so the job description had not yet been standardized in Paul’s lifetime. Overseers had the same qualifications as deacons (compare 1 Tim. 3:2-7 with 1 Tim. 3:8-12), with the one exception that they must be “able to teach.”
Presbuteros refers to someone of relatively advanced age in comparison with others. Elders, as a leadership group, existed as far back as patriarchal times in the Old Testament. Based on usage within Judaism and also in the Greco-Roman world, presbuteros became a major title for church leaders in Jerusalem (the apostles and the elders– Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23; 16:4) and much more widely throughout the Empire later on (1 Tim. 5:17; Tit. 1:5; Heb. 11:2; James 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1; 2 John 1; 3 John 1). It usually occurs in the plural, suggesting that elders did not normally function alone, but as part of a ruling council. A heavenly version of such a council is found frequently in the Book of Revelation. According to 1 Timothy 5:17-18, elders were normally paid for their efforts, which implies that they were to have a full-time focus on their ministry. While not all elders engaged in teaching, many did. They may have been somewhat equivalent to congregational pastors today.
To some degree the titles of overseer and elder seem to be used interchangeably, as a comparison of 1 Timothy 3:2-7; 5:17-18 and Titus 1:5-7 indicate. According to Acts 20:17-35, the overseers and elders together are the guardians of the traditions of the apostles. Having said this, however, episkopos in Timothy and Titus is always in the singular and presbuteros is always in the plural, which would suggest that the overseer has a top leadership function. So it is likely that overseers were drawn from the council of elders as their leadership qualities were recognized.
The term diakonos in the ancient world designated a person who served at tables or took care of other people. There are many terms for service in the Greek, but diakonos particularly emphasizes the personal touch, a one-on-one kind of service. It was widely used for an intermediary or a courier, so like apostolos there is a sense of delegation. But serving others was not highly regarded in the ancient world; ruling, not serving was what brought dignity to a man. So the use of this term for leadership in the church went strongly against the culture of the time.
Diakonos is used in the New Testament, first of all, for Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:8), the ultimate diakonos. All human ideas of greatness were reversed when the Son of God Himself not only served at table (John 13:13-17; 21:11-13) but laid down His life for His friends (John 15:13). The Christian diakonos learns the position by serving Jesus and following Him (Luke 22:24-27; John 12:26).
Over time the word naturally came into wide Christian usage for individuals singled out for special ministerial service in Christian communities (see Rom. 16:1; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12), but these texts do not tell us much about the nature of the office. Evidently, both men and women were permitted to serve as deacons (Rom. 16:1).The original task of the deacon may have been to assist overseers in their work of caring for the church. It is possible that early Christians built on the synagogue model which had a “head of the congregation” (archisunagôgos) and an assistant, who was called a hupēretēs rather than a diakonos.
The office of deacon is often thought to have been established in the early Jerusalem Church by the direction of Peter in Acts 6. But the title diakonos does not appear in the chapter, instead the verb form (Acts 6:2, 4) and a related noun form (diakoni,a– diakonia: Acts 6:1) are used. The seven “deacons” selected in Acts 6 all have Greek names and function more like apostles than deacons. But since they were appointed so that the apostles would not neglect “prayer” and “the ministry (diakonia) of the word,” it may be inferred that the office of deacon came to focus more on the social and practical side of ministry than the teaching-oriented roles of overseer and elder.
It is clear from these titles that the New Testament church valued service above dominance or “power over” when it came to leadership. But the question remains of how the early church eventually moved away from the servant characteristics of leadership to more structured and hierarchical models.