Fivefold Ministry, Elders and Deacons Emerge in the Book of Acts

by Pastor Jim Feeney, Ph.D.

Summary:  Jesus the Son of God came from heaven to earth 2,000 years ago. He died for our sins, rose again from the dead, and returned victoriously to heaven. He had fulfilled the prophetic promises of the Old Covenant concerning His first coming to earth and instituted the New Covenant for the Church Age we are now in. During His ministry on earth, Jesus began building His Church (Matthew 16:18). When He ascended back to heaven, he left His brand-new Church in the care primarily of twelve newly-called apostles, while continuing to direct the building of His Church from heaven. From that point on, especially in the Book of Acts, we see many more ministry roles given to the Church by the Lord in heaven. Let’s look together in Acts and see the emergence of a full “fivefold” ministry of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, along with elders and deacons.

Jesus BEGAN to do and teach” many things in His ministry on earth (Acts 1:1, KJV). The Church continued in these things, and the Lord from heaven caused them to grow in their ministry. We’ll see that pattern of emergence and development in the ministry offices that Jesus began to put in His Church, and which saw much expansion in the Church in the Book of Acts.

We’ll look at the emergence and/or expansion of 7 ministries in Acts:

Apostles (the only one biblically recorded as given by Jesus while He was on earth)

1) Apostles

Luke 6:12-13, KJV  [Jesus] went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God. And when it was day, he called unto him his disciples: and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles.

While on earth Jesus chose twelve men, whom He “named apostles.” He trained them to become spiritual pillars of the early Church. He helped them mature into foundational stature for that beginning Church — “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 2:20).

Ephesians 4:8-11, KJV  When he ascended up on high … he gave gifts unto men… [11] He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers.

After Jesus rose from the dead and soon thereafter ascended back to heaven, He continued giving ministries to the Church, as we see in Acts. Keep in mind that all five of these ministries Jesus has been giving since ascending back to heaven. He gave twelve apostles while on earth. And He has continued giving apostles since His ascension. Likewise since ascending to heaven, the risen Savior has given to the Church prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. He has also guided His church in selecting and ordaining elders and deacons.

What is an apostle? As Ephesians 2:20 says, it’s a foundational ministry in the body of Christ. I think the best and briefest summary of the apostle’s ministry is seen in the apostle Paul’s words: “a wise master builder” (1 Corinthians 3:10, KJV). He is a spiritual architect, able to oversee an entire project, with the necessary, God-given skills and spiritual gifts.

We see more apostles emerging in the New Testament after the 4 Gospels. Jesus is seen calling 12 apostles in the Gospels, one of whom (Judas) fell. After ascending to heaven Jesus continued giving apostles, as we see, for example, in the Book of Acts:

• Matthias (Acts 1:15-26, esp. vs. 26), who replaced fallen Judas in the Twelve
• Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:4, 14)

For your more in-depth study of apostles, I suggest my:

Modern Day Prophets and Apostles Today, in the 21st Century?

Apostles Today? Bible Teachers? Yes, and We Need Them

“Sent Ones” | Not Everyone “Sent” Is an Apostle

2) Prophets

There were many prophets in the Old Testament. Some of their names are quite familiar: Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Moses, Elijah, and others. Also John the Baptist, who died before Jesus’ death and resurrection initiated the New Covenant. There continued to be prophets under the New Covenant, given by Jesus since His resurrection and ascension.

Ephesians 2:20, KJV  …built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets

Along with the apostles, prophets were described as foundational ministries to Christ’s Church. The prophet has deep sensitivity to hearing from God and speaking forth from God for edification, exhortation, and comfort (1 Corinthians 14:3, KJV) and at times to foretell future events, ministries, and more — for example, a worldwide famine (Acts 11:28); the apostle Paul’s future capture in Jerusalem (Acts 21:10-11).

Some New Testament prophets in Acts were:

Agabus (Acts 11:28; 21:10)

• One or more others, unnamed, with Agabus (Acts 11:27)

• 2 or 3 “prophets” (plural) among the 5 men named in Acts 13:1

Judas and Silas (Acts 15:32)

For your more in-depth study of prophets, I suggest my:

Modern Day Prophets and Apostles Today, in the 21st Century?

The Two Witnesses in Revelation | Who Are These 2 End-Time Prophets?

3) Evangelists

Jesus was, of course, the great Evangelizer of souls. In this Church Age in which we live He has continued (Ephesians 4:8,11) to give evangelists to further the winning of souls to salvation in Christ.

The evangelist seems to have two primary functions:

(1) to speak both to crowds and to solo individuals about the Savior Jesus Christ.

(2) to teach and help others to win souls to Christ — Jesus gives “some evangelists ... [12] His intention was the perfecting and the full equipping of the saints (His consecrated people), [that they should do] the work of ministering toward building up Christ’s body (the church)” [Ephesians 4:11-12, Amplified Classic].

There is one notable evangelist in ActsPhilip. We see him in both of the evangelist’s ministries to the lost:

Acts 8:5-6, KJV  Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them [plural]. And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did.

Acts 8:26-39, KJV  [35] Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto [singular] him Jesus.

Acts 21:8, KJV  …Philip the evangelist, which was one of the seven… — He had earlier been one of the first seven deacons in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:1-6).

For your more in-depth study of evangelists and evangelizing, I suggest my:

Evangelist’s Ministry: Gospel Preacher, Soul Winner, Equipper

Sermons on Evangelism

4) Pastors

Ephesians 4:11, KJV  [Jesus] gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers.

In the King James Version, as well as in many other respected translations, the word “pastors” in the New Testament, referring to spiritual leaders in local churches, occurs only one time, in the verse above. That need not puzzle us, though. The Greek word has the sense of a “shepherd” and occurs 17 times in the New Testament, referring some of those 17 times to Jesus and at other times to shepherds caring for natural sheep, in addition to this one verse referring to the “pastor” role of a human leader caring for a church flock. The meaning of the pastoral ministry is clearly that of being “shepherds of His flock,” as the Amplified Classic translates it.

Of the five ministry offices of Ephesians 4:11, the one most widely used worldwide for the primary leader of a local church congregation is “pastor.” The pastor feeds the church flock with God’s Word (see Jeremiah 3:15, KJV) and with personal love and watchful care. Although he is not directly called so in Scripture, it is widely believed that Timothy was the pastor of the church in Ephesus. For that reason, the apostle Paul’s two epistles to Timothy are widely known as “Pastoral Epistles,” sent to help the young church leader in his ministry.

On a personal note: My 34 years of Christian ministry (1972-2006) were spread over 22 years of local church pastoring and 12 years of Bible College teaching. In the 17 “senior citizen” years since then, I’ve been enabled by the Lord to stay active in writing this website, which you are now reading, and for which I thank you.

5) Teachers

One of Jesus’ main ministries while on earth was that of a Teacher. Even the Jewish leaders of that day recognized this in Him. For example, “There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto Him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God…” (John 3:1-2, KJV). Since His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension to heaven, Jesus has continued to give Bible teachers to His Church.

This is the area of the fivefold ministry I have personally experienced the most. I was ordained as an Ephesians 4:11 Bible teacher in 1975 at Abbott Loop Christian Center in Anchorage, Alaska. I have felt great personal delight and gratitude to the Lord for the privilege of serving Him and His people in that capacity these nearly 50 years since. I foresee an expanded role for Bible teachers in the local churches during these exciting last days many believe us to be in.

Acts 13:1, KJV  Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.

At this point in Acts Saul (later known to us as Paul the apostle) was one of the Bible teachers in the local Antioch church. Even after much travel in later apostolic ministry, Paul would return to that local church and teach the Word of God to them (Acts 15:35).

In fact, although most think of Paul only as an apostle, he wrote of himself that God had given him several ministry gifts: “I am appointed a preacher, and an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles” (2 Timothy 1:11). Another Bible teacher in Acts was Barnabas (Acts 13:1 with 15:35).

It should not surprise us that the early Church was very actively involved in teaching the Word of God. The churches of today should be doing that too.

Acts 5:42, KJV  And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.

Acts 15:35, KJV  Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.

Acts 18:11, KJV  And [Paul] continued there [in Corinth] a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.

Acts 28:30-31, KJV  And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, Preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ…

For your more in-depth study of Bible teachers, I suggest my:

Bible Teachers in the Bible’s Fivefold Ministry (Ephesians 4:11)

6) Elders in the New Testament Church

First a couple of Old Testament similarities. God had Moses (the leader) add elders. These godly men were added to help Moses. Although in this instance not specifically called elders, they were to “bear the burden with [Moses],” particularly in judging the people (Exodus 18:22, KJV). The importance of adding elders to help the leader do his ministry was even clearer in Numbers 11:17 — “I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them [‘elders of the people,’ vs. 16]; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone.”

The Old Testament principle of godly men being added to help the leader has emerged very clearly in the New Testament in the office of church elders. It has been wisely said, I believe, that local church elders are like “under-shepherds” who help the pastor(s) care for the flock. The leaders in the Book of Acts were diligent to add elders to help the leader(s) of the church in ministry.

Acts 14:23, KJV  And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord…

Acts 15:2,6, KJV  They determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question… [6] And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.

Acts 20:17, KJV  And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church.

Acts 21:18, KJV  And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present.

For your more in-depth study of elders, I suggest my:

Church Elders: Local Church Leadership the Bible Way

7) Deacons in the New Testament Church

There was no ministry role specifically called “deacon” in the pre-cross, Old Covenant Scriptures. In the New Testament church, “deacon” identifies those whose ministry is in practical service. The deacon ministry arose in Acts from a crisis in the early Jerusalem church. The apostles were spending much time making sure that the widows’ support needs were not neglected. But the time they needed for their God-assigned spiritual ministry was being taken up by those important natural needs in the church. So they came up with the very helpful deacon idea, as follows:

Acts 6:2-6, KJV  …It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch: Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.

(For those who might be curious, our English word “deacon” comes from the Greek word diakonos, which has a basic meaning of “servant.”)

The natural support needs of the widows were important. To place over that needed ministry they chose “seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom.” Notice that these were spiritual men appointed to relieve the apostles of natural tasks in the church. Important: Some spiritual believers might be called to primarily spiritual ministry (here in Acts 6, the apostles). And other similarly spiritual believers might be called to ministry in natural areas. It’s all for the Lord! There is no greater-or-lesser value judgment. Every task done for the Lord is honorable in His eyes.

In the churches I’ve been part of, there have been outstanding deacons overseeing and/or doing valuable natural tasks — things such as building and grounds maintenance, opening and closing the building pre- and post-service, food ministries to the needy, looking out for the well-being of the elderly widows and others, taking care of various administrative tasks, and a wide variety of other activities that take immense pressure off the church elders and fivefold leadership team. That allows them, like the early apostles, to “give [them]selves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).

For your more in-depth study of deacons, I suggest my:

Deacons in the Church Serve in Practical Ministry Areas

To Sum Up

Philippians 1:1, ESV  Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.

The apostle Paul wrote to the local church in Phillippi. In brief, this verse describes the biblical, New Testament local church.

“Saints” — a common Bible term for all the born-again believers in the Lord

“Overseers” — those in spiritual leadership: one or more of the 5-fold ministry of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers; also church elders.

“Deacons” — those over the necessary natural ministries of the church.

If your church has those three: saints, spiritual leaders, and deacons, you are well established on New Testament biblical principles. May God continue to bless!


Check out our related sermon: 'Body Ministry' (Team Ministry) Means We're ALL 'Ministers'


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