Wednesday, June 25, 2008

On Bishops, Elders, and Deacons

The series of questions I asked in my last post was meant to soften you all up for the proposal that I, as devil's advocate, will now attempt to make concerning officers in the church. 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.