Part 8 in the Series:
Questioning Church Authority
by Don Enevoldsen
In the beginning, church titles described function. Human beings quickly subverted them to denote status, particularly “apostle,” “prophet” and “pastor.” When speaking of leadership positions, however, there were three words that appeared with great frequency, and they weren’t from the five fold ministry list. They were deacon, elder and bishop (translated “overseer” in the NIV). Even these designations were originally more concerned with function than with position. In fact, they were used almost interchangeably. The titles commonly in use today to identify our leaders were generally used in a much different fashion two thousand years ago.
“Pastor,” for example, is the title used in most Protestant churches to identify the person who leads a congregation. In the first century, the word for pastor was poimen, the same word as shepherd. It described the ministry of someone who shepherded people. A bishop might demonstrate a pastoral ministry, but in the context of leadership positions, he was called a bishop, not a pastor. In Acts 20:28, Paul instructed bishops (or overseers) to guard themselves and to shepherd or to pastor the flocks entrusted to them. The leader is called a bishop. Pastor is what he does.
Likewise, prophets were recognized as those who fulfilled the ministry of a prophet, but if he also functioned in leadership, he was known as a bishop or an elder. The same can be said of evangelists and teachers. All of these terms described a ministry, much more than an office. If asked to point out the leaders, a member of the congregation would speak of his bishop, not his pastor or prophet or evangelist.
(The one term from the fivefold ministry list that took a little different path was “apostle.” For a history of this word, see the Word Study: apostolos.)
The basic definitions of the three leadership titles are:
1. Deacon: diakonos—One who renders service to another. This term is perhaps one of the most poorly understood of the words denoting leaders. A deacon has come to mean a person who ranks just below a priest or who helps the pastor with various functions, a man who executes the commands of another. In Protestant churches, this is often relegated to things like building maintenance. A Catholic deacon generally holds a more respected position than his Protestant counterpart and is more actively involved in services. The word itself, however, just means servant. It is the same word that is translated “minister.”
2. Elder: presbuteros—Elder or senior, older and more advanced in years. This term refers to those whose age and experience have brought them wisdom. They are looked to as leaders primarily because they have proven that they have wisdom.
3. Bishop: episkopos—An inspector, overseer, a watcher, a guardian. A bishop is a man charged with the duty of seeing that things to be done by others are done rightly. Inherent in the term is the idea of investigation and inspection. A bishop functions as a manager, helping people to find their place. He coordinates their efforts for maximum effectiveness. The word episkopos is also translated “overseer.”
In the early church, these words were used almost interchangeably. In Acts 20:17, Paul sent for the elders of the church in Ephesus. In verse 28, he called them bishops who also pastor or shepherd. Paul often called himself an apostle, yet in 1 Corinthians 3:5, he says that he and Apollos are only deacons, or servants. There was some distinction between the various titles, especially between deacon and bishop, but the boundary between them is blurred at best.
There was a process for appointing people to these offices, but the exact system is somewhat obscure. Paul told Titus, for example, that the reason he was left in Crete was to “straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5), yet the appointment was based on service performed for the congregation. The best we get from biblical descriptions is a list of qualifications a person should have before being recognized (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).
It is noteworthy that the first leaders appointed in the church were deacons, not bishops. Acts 6:1-7 describes those assigned the task of organizing a specific service of distributing food. The men chosen for the task had already demonstrated the qualities necessary for the job. They were “seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). They were not arbitrary appointments, as so often happened in later years. They were proven leaders whose character and devotion had been demonstrated.
The historical record also indicates that the congregation in that first century had an active involvement in the choices. The Didache, a book of guidelines for church functioning, described a process consistent with the biblical record:
“Appoint bishops for yourselves, as well as deacons, worthy of the Lord…” (Didache 15:1)
All of that to say that leadership in the early church was not as hierarchical as it is recognized today. Leaders became leaders because they led. Even the titles for leaders were descriptive of the function, not the position.
Next, Part 9: Paul and the Twelve Apostles
Go to the beginning of the series, Questioning Church Authority: Part 1: False Prophets
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