I received the following question:

Can you explain the different positions episkopos (bishop/overseer), presbuteros (elders), diakonos (deacon)?

I’d be happy to explain! The word episkopos comes from two words, skopos which means to look, and epi which means upon or over. The problem with translating this is that the English words “overseer” and “overlooker” both would carry connotations which are not in the Greek word. We think of an overseer as a taskmaster or even a slave driver, which is not the idea of the word. We think of overlooking as failing to notice something you should have noticed. Therefore, I like the idea of a translation of “over-watcher,” understanding that that means someone who watches over others to care for them and for their good.

I don’t know if there was an official position or office of an over-watcher in Ephesus or in Crete, where Timothy and Titus were when Paul wrote to them. Even if there was an official position with that name, the importance was not the office, but the task of over-watching. God’s people often need those who are older or wiser in the faith to watch over them as they seek to mature and grow in their faith. This is what one who is an over-watcher would do. I would say that one does not have to have any kind of official position to do this, but it is something that older and wiser believers can do for others without any kind of office, if those people are willing to let them. Alas, we in the United States do not like to admit to needing any help, nor do we like answering to anyone for our behavior. One who seeks to be an over-watcher today will find a lot of resistance.

An elder is a pretty good translation of presbuteros, though we need to understand elder in the sense of a representative, not just of an older person. The leaders in Israel, especially in the days of the Judges, were largely the elders, and throughout its history they had power. Each family would really have its elder, who would be the father or patriarch of the family. The firstborn son, if he had been adopted as the son, could act as the elder of the family as well. Then towns and cities would have their elders, chosen from the elders of the families of that town or city. Then tribes would have their elders, or those who would represent them. Thus an elder could go all the way from the head of a family all the way up to the King, who was the chief elder or representative of the land.

The function of the elders in Timothy and Titus has to be understood in light of the fact that the believers were not just considered a religious organization separate from the community, but that the believers at the time were largely Israelites, and that they were living together in community. Thus their elders were not just religious leaders, but community leaders as well.

I suppose that anyone today who is chosen as a leader or given authority by a group of believers over themselves could be called an elder. Yet also I think a true elder would have the important task of representing the believers to those outside the community. For this reason, among others, God demands that elders have an outstanding reputation and background. He wants the believers to be represented by someone who reflects the way He wants His people to be, not someone who was recently saved out of the muck and still has it dripping from his arms.

Also of note is that elders need not only be men, as female elders or presbutera are spoken of as well. Their tasks appear to mainly have involved leadership over the younger women. I suppose they could have represented believing women to women outside the community as well.

The diakonos or deacons are really quite simple. This word means “servant,” and anyone who serves his fellow believers or the community of believers would qualify as a diakonos. Again, the title may or may not have been officially given, but the important thing about it was the job itself. Believers today can act as servants to their fellow believers at any time they see the opportunity, and no election or bestowing of a title is necessary. Just serve, and you are acting as a diakonos.

Yet anyone who is marked out as an official servant of the community might be looked upon as representing the community by those outside, so even for servants the Lord looks for a proper character. One whose life is in disarray should get it in order, learning to serve his own family first, and then worry about serving other believers.