Monday, July 14, 2008

On Bishops, Elders, and Deacons

I have been thinking since the PCA's last General Assembly about the number and nature of church offices in the New Covenant, and I'd like to throw something out there for your consideration. Let the record show that I am merely wrestling with these things and have by no means landed on terra firma yet. Still, I will argue as though I'm convinced of this position, if for no other reason than to see if the view can bear your scrutiny.

My (hypothetical) thesis is as follows: There are two ordinary and perpetual offices in the New Testament church, bishops and deacons. The bishop (or overseer, Greek episkopos) is the minister of the Word, and the deacon (Greek diakonos) is a servant-ruler, an office that combines what we today separate, i.e., the "ruling elder" and the "deacon." And the Greek word presbyteros ("elder") can refer to either bishops or deacons.

Calm down, I haven't even made my case yet....

Paul writes his Philippian epistle "to the church in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons" (1:1). The omission of "ruling elders" can be explained (1) By saying that this church unfortunately didn't have any, (2) By saying that they were included under the category of bishops, or (3) By saying that no such distinct office existed in the churches Paul planted, but the "ruling" and "serving" was done by the deacons.

Option #1 is pure speculation. Option #2 is unlikely given Paul's description of the responsibility of the bishop in Titus 1:9 and Acts 20:28, one that sounds a lot like a trained minister and not a layman. Option #3, however, is most consistent with Paul's instruction to Timothy concerning how to order the church. In I Tim. 3:1-7 and 3:8-13 he lists the qualifications for (drumroll please)... bishops and deacons. "Ruling elders" are, once again, omited.

But when we flip ahead to I Tim. 5:17 we come to what many see as the only real Scriptural support for the contemporary notion of "ruling elders." But given that Paul specifically lists "bishops and deacons" as the church officers in Philippi, and given the apostle's qualifications for bishops and deacons specifically a couple chapters earlier, it makes a lot of sense to let Scripture interpret Scripture by saying that in this verse, the "elder who labors in the Word" is the bishop, and the "elder who rules" is the deacon.

Finally, when we observe (1) That the qualifications in Acts 6:3-7 for members of "the diaconate" include things like being "filled with wisdom and the Holy Spirit" and the ability to, essentially, determine who is a church member and who is not, and (2) That the requirements for deacons listed in I Timothy 3:8-13 include "ruling" their own households well, it seems possible (and even probable) that the "deacon" in the churches Paul planted was responsible to do what we today assign to the diaconate and the session.

In a word, the bishop ministers the Word and sacraments, while the deacons both rule and serve.


  1. And by the way, I just got back from vacation, so hopefully you'll forgive my lack of posts of late. I plan to get back into the swing of things, though.

  2. So basically what you are saying is that you are going to go completely contrary to all of Historical Theology (at least in my limited knowledge).

    You do this by eisegeting and taking your culture of presbyterianism and forcing it upon the text by suggesting there were ruling elders in Scripture.

    Your assumptions leads you to say that deacons somehow rule. But there is no proof of that. There are no “Deacons ought to rule with…” It says ‘Elders are to rule…” Do you just want to be different?

    You even state your argument to appeal to emotion saying, “(1) By saying that this church UNFORTUNATELY didn’t have any.” Or “Option 1 is pure speculation”. Well yes, but there is nothing clear in Scripture to say that there were ruling elders. In fact, the burden of proof is on you to show that there were ruling elders, which you don’t do.

    The description of responsibility of bishop is: from Titus 1:9, holding firm to sound doctrine and teach it and rebuke (RULE) those who contradict it; and from Acts 20:28, pay careful attention to your life (just like 1 Ti. 4:16) and to the flock, to care (i.e. to SERVE) the Church in which they are to oversee/guard/protect the flock as a shepherd (i.e. SERVE Christ). Well, it seems a lot like today’s Elder.

    Then you ‘flip ahead’ to 1 Timothy 5:17. We don’t come to what many see as the ONLY Scriptural Support for ‘ruling elders,’ you come to a description of an elder and that is to rule, just like we saw in Titus 1:9. They are to rule over the Church, not as dictators with swords but it is to be ministerial and declarative, rebuking with the Word of God to sanctify the flock. Serving the flock pushing them towards holiness. Just because the elder is talked about here, does not mean that because in two other passages where bishops and deacons are talked about, that here bishops and deacons need to be talked about. Bishops are referred to in Titus, but you see there are no ‘deacons’. So if you were to assume anything it is that these elders who ‘rule’ are of the same office as bishops who also ‘rule.’ There is no where in Scripture describing deacons as ruling.

    As for Acts 6, where do you see what you wrote concerning a deacon having “the ability to, essentially, determine who is a church member and who is not”? Acts 6 says that deacons are to be filled with wisdom and the Holy Spirit. It says in verse 2 that the Apostles can’t give up preaching the word, but deacons are to serve tables. And to do this they need wisdom and the Holy Spirit. But why? Because they will be ministering (Serving) widows and those in need. They need wisdom and the Holy Spirit to do such things.

    Deacons are to rule their own household well. Well, all are to do that, does that mean that all husbands are deacons? They are to rule well because they are examples to those who in the Church. It says it also there in verse 13 of 1 Ti. 3, “For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” That is why they are to rule their families well, not because they are ruling elders.

    There is no need for deacons to rule because that is the role of overseers. The whole principle of deacons is to help the overseers so that overseers can focus on the preaching of the Word (note again, this is form of ruling/discipline).

  3. Andrew,

    Calm down. If you want me to interact with you, tone down the rhetoric a couple notches.

    1. Appeals to church history are tricky and often prove more than one wants. Calvin had women deacons, you know.

    2. I have no idea what your second paragraph means.

    3. I am not "assuming" that deacons rule. Read my post, I'm trying to make a biblical argument. Plus, Paul's qualifications for deacons is that they must rule thir houses well. He doesn't say anything about "elders ruling" in I Tim. 3. Instead, he gives the qualifications for bishops and deacons.

    4. Paragraph 4 makes no sense to me. Why is the burden on me to prove what I'm trying to refute?

    5. A "bishop" to me sounds a lot like, not an elder, but a minister. Calvin, Knox, and the Westminster Divines all refused to see the ruling elder where Paul spoke of the epispokos.

    More in a bit....

  4. Jason,
    I wasn't un-calm. Just stating what I'm seeing.

    The second paragraph means that you suggest there are ruling elders in Scripture and this is eisegesis.

    I appealed to Church History as a whole. Where in history does anyone show similar arguments as you have made?

    For deacons to rule their house well is no different than an overseer having to rule/manage his house well. It is because they hold an office in the Church and are examples to the members of the Church. It proves nothing of any sort that a deacon rules in his office of the Church, rather it shows his character. That is, that his character is one of following Scripture (Eph. 5, 1 Pt. 3).

    1 Timothy 3 isn't about what Overseers do, it is about qualifications to be overseers. But you do see in Titus 1:9 that overseers do rule (they rebuke members of the Church). Nowhere else in Scripture shows that deacons rule (not even Acts 6).

    You are the one who made a connection between 1 Tim. 3 and 5, which there is no clear connection between the two except that they are in the same book. These elders of ch. 5 are to rule, as well as preach/teach. All common responsibilities of overseers (not deacons).

    You state that there are ruling elders (as deacons). Thus, it is for you to prove that and you haven't here, you've just speculated based on some passages that don't show anything really.

    I don't see ruling elder where episkopos is either, but I do see elder (as shown above).

  5. Andrew,

    Read my post. I am challenging the existence of "ruling elders" as we currently define them, not positing it.

    As far as church history goes, the view I am articulating is quite similar, if not identical to, the view traditionall espoused by Baptists.

    Why, in your view, does Paul address Philippians to the church, with "the bishops and deacons"? And why in I Timothy does he only give qualifications for those two offices: bishops and deacons?

    If you see "elders" as equivalent to "bishops," then you are no more in conformity with traditional Reformed polity than you claim I am.

  6. If you are espousing a baptist view than why are you ordained a presbyterian?

    Let me ask you a question about Acts 20 which you talk about in your post. Why are elders (presbuteros) equated with overseers/bishops (episkopos)?

    Here is the text (i.e. the context of what you stated). In bold are the words elder and overseer so you can clearly see it.

    "Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. And when they came to him, he said to them: "You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him,being s orrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship. "

  7. Andrew,

    It would really help if you read my post.

    As I stated, "presbyteros" is a general term used to denote either of the two offices, the "episkopos" (i.e., the elder who labors in the Word) or the "diakonos" (the elder who rules).

    So in Acts 20, the presbyteroi that Paul addresses are the episkopoi specifically, the ministers of the Word (as the context makes plain).

    As far as why I am ordained a Presbyterian, I assume you're kidding. As I say in my post (you should read it, by the way), the view I am suggesting is one that I have been thinking about since June (as in one month ago), and which I am adopting for the sake of argument.

  8. Yes, I understand the post you made.

    "As I stated, "presbyteros" is a general term used to denote either of the two offices, the "episkopos" (i.e., the elder who labors in the Word) or the "diakonos" (the elder who rules)."

    You have not proven that deacons are elders who rule. There is no where in 1 Timothy 5:17 where you can conclude that. For where in Scripture is a deacon ever described by the word elder or described by elder type characteristics?

    What you have shown does not prove any of that. In fact if you were looking for someone to be characterized by being one who rules it is the overseer in Titus 1:9. So please show where deacons can be equated with elders (or even a certain type of elders).

    If there is anything in 1 Ti. 5:17 that connects overseers or deacons to elders, it must be overseers. For if we TRULY let Scripture interpret Scripture, you see in Acts 20 that overseers and elders are already connected. But no where in Scripture are elders and deacons equated like overseers and elders are.

    So if we are to truly let Scripture interpret Scripture, all elders are overseers (that is one office of the church and the other is deacon which is different than elder/overseer).

    And you can't reply back and say in 1 Timothy 5:17 they are connected for there is nothing there that describes a deacon or even responsibilities of a deacon. Deacons don't rule, you can't use Acts 6, there they are to serve table.

    So I, at least, have not seen where you have proven that deacons and elders can be equated.

  9. My comment about you being ordained was more a pondering on if you should really be blogging about this rather than seeking guidance within your presbytery since in some ways will go against your vows you took.

  10. Andrew,

    When you say something like this: "For where in Scripture is a deacon ever described by the word elder or described by elder type characteristics?" you are begging the question.

    I am begining my argument that Paul, both in Phil 1 and I Tim. 3, lists only two offices for the NT church. That seems very clear, which is why the burden of proof is not on me to eliminate the office of elder, but on you to substantiate it.

    Then I am turning to those passages (like I Tim. 5:17) dealing with presbyteroi and reading them in the light of the previous texts. The conclusion I come to is that "elder" is a generic term used to describe the office of Word and the office of rule.

    What you seem to be doing is drawing a direct line between a Greek word like presbyteros and the English term "elder" along with all the ideas we have about that word today. That is not how exegesis is done.

    I mean, Paul's use of presbyteron in I Tim. 5:1 is often translated "old man." But when you employ the fallacy of "illegitimate totality transfer" to every appearance of the word "elder" (as you seem to be doing), you end assuming what you should be trying to prove, which makes your case conveniently impossible to refute.

    So unless you answer the question I've been asking ("Why only two offices in Phil. 1 and I Tim. 3?"), I don't have a lot more to say.

    So what say you?

  11. I believe I have substantiated it by saying that an elder is described as an overseer, and that overseers and elders are described as ruling (along with other commonalities which are pastoral and ministerial in nature).

    I'm drawing a direct line between presbuteros and elder because presbuteros means elder (or even older man in some cases depending on context). I am not necessarily equating elder used in Scripture to today's elder.

    I'm also saying that overseer (episkopos) and elder (presbuteros) are not the same words. Yet, they have common descriptions and are used to describe the same people and have similar characteristics. This is how exegesis is done.

    Your fallacy you state, I have not been doing. I do not think that ever instance of presbuteros is necessarily old man or elder (in Church), it all depends on context. The context in 1 Ti. 5:17 and Acts 20, are used of the elder in the church.

    Why two offices in Phil. 1 and 1 Ti. 3? Because there are only two offices in the Church. I thought we were clear on this. I am equating ELDER and OVERSEER. Thus, elder/overseer is an office of the church and deacon is an officer of the Church (which serves to help Elders/overseers in the Church).

  12. Jason,

    Two thoughts:

    First, where do you see warrant for calling deacons "elders"? You may have already said this, if so I apologize. I have been super sick the past few days and my mind has not been as sharp as it could be.

    Second, couldn't Philippians 1 (your "key text") be easily understood as two offices "bishop-elder" and "deacon." Why do we have to make the term elder apply to both (see question one)? Under my "theory", justice is done to Philippians 1 and the Pastorals. It seems to me that your view does not handle the Pastorals well (we can get into that issue if you would like).

  13. Well, it's not simply deciding to "call deacons elders." I am questioning the clear connection that many draw between the Greek term presbyteros and the contemporary office of "ruling elder." My suggestion is that in the one place where the NT actually mentions "elders who rule" (I Tim. 5:17) Paul may actually be referring to the office he just got through describing as "holding to the deep things of the faith," "ruling their families well," and having "great confidence in the faith" (i.e., the deacon). I mean, there's nothing in his qualifications for deacons about their managing the church property, but we make them do that, right?

    As far as "bishops" referring to ruling elders in Phil. 1:1, the problem is that a bishop is spoken of by Paul as one who ministers the Word. This is why the Reformers all refused to find the warrant for the ruling elder in any of Paul's statements about bishops (even the Pastorals, and even in I Tim. 3). They found the ruling elder in places like Romans 12 and "those who rule" (which is a stretch if you ask me).

    Of course, you can just go the way of some "two office" people and collapse the minister and the ruling elder into the same office, but that's not an option for me.

  14. Jason,

    Before I comment further I need some clarification.

    It seems to me that your comments/concerns are mostly with the distinction in the PCA between ruling elders and teaching elders, is this observation right?

  15. Well, the view I am presenting is more concerned with the distinction between elders and deacons. It sees the deacon as a "servnt-ruler" who does the job of both.

    As someone who shares the concerns of three-office people, I definitely want to distinguish between the minister and the "elder." This view does that, by saying that there are two offices: bishops (ministers) and deacons (servant rulers).

  16. Jason,

    Why can't we say there are two offices: elders (minister rulers) and deacons (servant).

    And it seems in your comments you are making a big deal our of the ruling elder/teaching elder distinction. Do you hold (personally) to this distinction?

  17. Well like I said, the traditional Reformed view (of Calvin, Knox, the Westminster Divines) is that the minister is a distinct office from the elder (as opposed to the two-office view that says the minister is just an elder who happens to preach).

    So the view I am interacting with preserves what the three-office view preserves (the distinction between pastor and elder), while it combines the offices of elder and deacon.


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