Church Organization

In the beginning: The early Church was organized the same way as the synagogue, though many Bible translations obscure this fact. Both the Church and the synagogue were led by one or more presbyters, which means elder and became the English word priest. If there were several elders, the leader was called the episkopos, which means supervisor and became the English word bishop. In the early days, bishops rode circuits, as the Apostle John did (Revelation 1-4). Deacons were the invention of the early Church. Their function is incompletely described in the New Testament, but they seem to have been administrators. Thus the early Church consisted of congregations served by deacons, run by priests, and supervised by bishops. Or if you dislike words of Greek origin, we could say that early congregations had a board, ministers, and a district superintendent.

However, if you get twenty people from different backgrounds to study the Bible in order to determine what the Bible says about how the Church should be organized, you will get about forty answers. They will all have very cogent arguments for their positions. Probably the reason why there is so much disagreement on this subject is because the New Testament doesn’t prescribe church government so much as it describes it. Here are some terms that are used by various churches and their general definition.


An acolyte is a lay person, often a child or a teenager, who performs minor duties during the worship service to assist the ministers, such as lighting candles, carrying books, directing traffic during communion, and so forth. Acolyte comes from a Greek word for follower.


The word archbishop is Greek for chief overseer. Therefore, archbishop is not a separate order of clergy, it is just a bishop who has administrative duties over fellow bishops in a geographical region. In some areas, bishops elect one of their number to be the archbishop; in other areas, the bishops rotate the office. The head of the Episcopal Church of the USA is called a presiding bishop rather than an archbishop, but the meaning is the same.


Bishop is the English version of the Greek word επισκοπος (episkopos), which means overseer or supervisor. (Note the progression from episkopos to piskop to bishop.) The qualifications for bishops are given in 1 Timothy 3, but there is no scriptural description of their duties. In the first century, the local church was headed by a bishop and the priests served as a board of advisors who also functioned as clergy under the bishop’s direction. By the time of Ignatius at the end of the first century, the Church had grown. By that time, bishops had territorial supervision over several churches, while the presbyters were responsible for pastoral care of individual churches. Ignatius describes a system identical to the modern practice, well in accord with Titus 1:6-9 and the situation in the seven letters in Revelation. Bishops wear purple clericals.

In the historic church, a bishop is a regional minister, a priest with administrative duties over a group of churches in a territory called a diocese. Only bishops can preside at the rite of ordination. An individual bishop can ordain a deacon or a priest, but it takes three bishops to consecrate a new bishop. A Roman Catholic bishop must remain unmarried. An Anglican, Lutheran, or Methodist bishop can be married. In the eastern Church, only unmarried priests can become bishops, and bishops are not permitted to marry.

Canon (person)

A canon is a priest who serves on the staff of a cathedral. The duties of a canon include conducting worship and performing pastoral services, especially when the bishop is visiting other churches in the diocese. If John Smith is a canon of a cathedral, he is called the Rev. Canon John Smith.

(The word ‘canon’ also has another meaning.)


Cardinals have a long history in the western Church, but today they are peculiar to the Roman Catholic Church. Cardinals are bishops who serve as advisers to the pope. The pope can make any priest or bishop a cardinal; however, when a priest becomes a cardinal, he is consecrated a bishop. Upon the death of the pope, they administer the affairs of the Roman Catholic Church and elect the new pope. Cardinals are the only clergy in the Roman Catholic Church who wear red clericals.


Catechumen is an ancient term, not often used today, for a person who is taking instruction in Christianity, but is not yet baptized. In the ancient Church, catechumens were dismissed from the service between the Service of the Word and the Eucharist. (In the Western Church, announcements are made at this point.)


A term for the minister who is the moderator of a worship service that includes communion. In most cases, only a member of the ordained clergy can be a celebrant.

Choir Robes

A term for the vestments worn by members of the choir. In some churches, no other vestments are used.


The word clergy comes from a Latin word that means “office holder.” It refers to ordained ministers who are authorized to conduct the rites and sacraments of the church. Some clergy may have administrative duties at various regional and national levels of a church.

In some legal jurisdictions, clergy status may automatically empower a person to perform legally binding weddings; in others, clergy must obtain a license from the court. Courts generally do not require clergy to divulge what people have told them in confidence; this is often called the sanctity of the confessional. However, there can be exceptions. Many legal jurisdictions impose criminal penalties on clergy who do not immediately report information about certain types of crimes, such as suspected child abuse, even if the information was given in confidence.


Literally, the people who have gathered for worship. The term has two meanings:

  • Those presently assembled for worship.
  • All of the people who make up the local church’s constituency.

In many churches the word congregation is only used in the first meaning, and the word parish is used for the second meaning.


Crucifer is a Latin word meaning cross-bearer, used for the acolyte who carries the cross in a church procession. It is an ancient custom for the clergy and the other ministers to enter the church after the worshipers have already assembled. When this is done in a procession, the procession is led by the crucifer, usually a young person, bearing the cross. The crucifer is followed by the choir, the acolytes, the lay ministers, and finally the clergy; the highest-ranking clergy last.


Curate is an Anglican term for assistant pastor. The word cure is related to the word care. A curate is a person who takes care of a cure, that is, the congregation, viewed as a spiritual charge. Assistant pastors are usually assigned the duty of routinely visiting the members of the congregation who are sick, shut-in, or in distress; hence the term. The word curator (as in a museum) is related. See also rector and vicar.


The word deacon comes from the Greek word διаκονος (diakonos), which means servant. The New Testament records the appointment of the first deacons in Acts 6 and lists their qualifications for office in 1 Timothy 3. The New Testament describes the function of the first deacons, but it does not lay down a general charter for the function of deacons in the church. Up through the fourth century, deacons had administrative functions, and because even the largest churches limited themselves to seven deacons, they often had more power and prestige than the presbyters, who nominally outranked them. This situation was corrected by the Council of Constantinople in AD 381 and by allowing larger churches to have as many deacons as they needed. Today, depending on the church, a deacon can be any of the following: a member of the clergy; a lay minister; or a lay administrator.


The word dean has many uses throughout Christendom. Most often the term is used for the bishop’s assistant who actually runs the cathedral.


In the Roman Empire, the diocese was a unit of local government, like a county in England or Virginia, a borough in Alaska, a parish in Louisiana, or a Landkreis in Germany. One of the ancient ecumenical councils of the Church resolved to follow the political boundaries of the Roman Empire in setting up church jurisdictions; therefore the term diocese has come to mean the territory of a bishop’s jurisdiction. Modern churches also generally follow political boundaries when they set up ecclesiastical regions, even if they don’t call them dioceses. In Orthodoxy, a diocese is called an eparchy.


Elder is the English word which translates the Greek word presbuteros (or presbyter), which came down to us in English as priest.


See diocese.


In Roman Catholicism, in Orthodoxy, and to some degree in Anglicanism, people often address priests as father. In general usage, if John Smith is a priest, he is called Father John, but if he is an Anglican priest, he might be called Father Smith. Protestants do not call their clergy father, based on Matthew 23:9, but they do not use the same reasoning to ban the term teacher (Matthew 23:10), so the prohibition is mainly a reaction against Roman Catholic practice. Groups who do use this term argue that the context (Matthew 23:1-12) only forbids Christian leaders to use titles such as father and teacher hypocritically or for self-promotion. They use 1 Corinthians 4:15 as an example of how the term father can rightly be applied to a Christian leader. However, if you are writing a letter to Father John Smith, the address on the envelope should say The Reverend John Smith.

Lay Reader

A lay reader is a lay person who is authorized to read the scripture lessons and lead the congregation in certain parts of the worship service. In many circumstances, a lay reader can be authorized to conduct worship or administer sacraments under strict instructions from the clergy. The lay reader is essentially the Christian continuation of the lay reader in the synagogue.


Minister is the Latin word for doer of little deeds, as opposed to a magistrate, who is a doer of great deeds. In some churches, the word minister denotes a person who is charged with the spiritual care of a church. In most churches, minister is a generic term that includes all who assist in worship, whether clergy or lay. All of the following are ministers: bishops, priests, deacons, acolyte, lay readers, crucifers, and even the congregation.


A term for the minister who is the moderator of a worship service. This term is most often used when the service does not include communion. Depending on circumstances, the officiant may be an ordained minister, a lay minister, or a lay person.


In some churches, the geographical territory of a local church. In general, the constituency of a local church; that is, all the people who are members or who informally consider it to be their church. In many churches, congregation is used for this term.


Pastor is the Latin word for shepherd. This word refers to the ordained minister who is charged with the primary spiritual care of a local church.


The term pope or papa originated as a term of endearment for bishops and sometimes even priests. It is a form of the word father.

The Eastern Church
Beginning in the third century and extending through the present day, only the Patriarch of Alexandria of the Coptic Orthodox Church has the official title pope. In the East, pope does not mean "universal head of the Christian church" as it does in the West. The current, 117th pope of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church is Pope Shenouda III.

The Western Church
The Bishop of Carthage also had the courtesy title pope for about a hundred years, beginning in the late second century. That usage has not survived.

In 1073, Pope Gregory restricted the use of the term pope in the western Church to the Bishop of Rome, which included himself, his successors, and his predecessors. In Roman Catholic usage, the title pope means "universal head of the Christian church." Gregory also instituted a number of reforms called the Dictatus Papae that strengthened the papacy. Therefore in western Christian usage, the term pope refers exclusively to the bishop of Rome. The pope is the only member of the Roman Catholic clergy who always wears white vestments and clericals.

History books written in the west generally use the term pope to refer to the Bishop of Rome. If you are reading Orthodox documents, or documents written before 1073, the term pope might refer to the Patriarch of Alexandria or it might be a courtesy title.


The Greek word πρεσβυτερος (presbyteros) is used in the New Testament for people who perform the functions of clergy in the Church. It means elder. The English word that developed over time from presbyter is priest. (Note the progression from presbyter to prester to priest.) The qualifications for presbyters are given in 1 Timothy 5, but their duties are not listed in scripture. The office, function, and name came into the Church from the ancient synagogue.

Presbyters, that is, regular ordained clergy, wear black clericals.


The word presbytery has several meanings in current use. In Presbyterian churches, it refers to a council of presbyters (elders) and a geographical area that corresponds to a diocese. In the Catholic Church, it can refer to a priest’s residence. Presbytery is also a synonym for priesthood.


Priest is the English word that originated from the Greek word πρεσβυτερος (presbyteros), which means elder. (Note the progression from presbyter to prester to priest.) Originally, this was the normal word for Christian clergy. Over time it took over the meaning of ’ιερευς (hiereus or hierarch) and was extended by way of analogy to Jewish and then pagan clergy. Some groups avoid priest as if it were pagan, when it is in fact entirely Christian and scriptural in origin. The Greek word for a temple functionary is hierarch.

In many New Testament translations, the word priest is used to translate both presbyter and hierarch, which can confuse the reader. It gives the false impression that the Church has no clergy or that all Christians are clergy. The Greek New Testament teaches a hierarchy of all believers, not a presbytery of all believers—meaning that all Christians have direct access to God, but not all have administrative, supervisory, or sacramental duties in the Church. (See 1 Peter 2:1-10 in the original Greek.)

Roman Catholic priests must be unmarried at the time of their ordination and they must remain that way. In the Eastern Church, a priest must remain in the state in which he was ordained. If he was single when he was ordained a priest, he must remain unmarried. If he was married when he was ordained a priest, he may remained married, but he is not permitted to remarry if he is widowed. Anglican and Lutheran priests can marry after ordination. (Lutheran clergy in Scandinavia and the Baltic countries are called priests.) If an Anglican or eastern priest becomes a Roman Catholic priest, his marital status is not a barrier. This means that there are a few married priests in the Roman Catholic Church.

Priests, that is, regular ordained clergy, wear black clericals.


Priesthood is a synonym for clergy in Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox churches. The phrase priesthood of all believers comes from 1 Peter 1:4-10. In this passage, the word priesthood translates a Greek word that does not refer to presbyters, but to people who have direct access to God. Thus this passage says that all Christians have direct access to God; it does not say that all Christians are clergy.


Rector is the Anglican word for the elected pastor of a financially self-supporting congregation. The term derives from the fact that if there are multiple clergy on staff in a church, the pastor has primary responsibility for directing the worship. Historically in the Church of England, the terms “rector” and “vicar” had different meanings, but today the distinction lies in the history of the parish. See also vicar.


The term reverend is an adjective that simply indicates that a person is a member of the clergy. In the United States, it is abbreviated Rev; outside the United States, it is abbreviated Revd. If John Smith is a member of the clergy, you can refer to him in writing as The Rev. John Smith, or The Rev. Smith. If he has a doctorate degree, you can refer to him as The Rev. Dr. John Smith, or The Rev. Dr. Smith. When you are talking to him, you can address him as Reverend Smith, but it is usually considered impolite to call him just Reverend. If John Smith is clergy in another church, and you are unsure what to call him or you are uncomfortable with his customary title, call him Reverend Smith and no one will be offended. If, for example, you are a Protestant and you are speaking to a Roman Catholic priest who refers to himself as Father John, he will not be offended if you call him Reverend John, because it is actually correct. Nevertheless, most members of the clergy are humble and are not offended if you get their titles wrong.

When in doubt, refer to clergy as “Rev. So-and-so.” That way no one will think you are being disrespectful.


The word see comes from a Latin word meaning seat. It refers to the city in which the bishop’s home church (cathedral) is located.


A thurifer is a person who carries and swings the thurible in a worship service. In case that doesn’t clear it up for you, a thurible (or censer) is the device in which incense is burnt.


You can read more information about vestments.


In the Anglican Communion, the vestry corresponds to the board of directors of a secular organization. The vestry elects the rector of the church and conducts its secular business. George Washington, the first president of the United States, was a member of the vestry of the Falls Church in the city of the same name in Fairfax County, Virginia.


In the Anglican Communion in the United States, if a church is not financially self-supporting and is unable to pay a full-time pastor, the bishop is nominally the pastor. The bishop appoints a priest to do the actual work. Since this priest is only functioning as a stand-in for the bishop, he or she is called a vicar from the Latin word for stand-in. When the church becomes self-supporting, its vestry calls and elects a rector to take the place of the vicar. Historically in the Church of England, the terms “rector” and “vicar” had different meanings, but today the distinction lies in the history of the parish.

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