Office or function? The search for church leaders in the nascent Pauline communities

In our study of 3 Cor 2.1, where Stephanas and the presbyters who are with him address Paul, the question of how the author portrays Stephanas, whether as a presbyter or a bishop, comes up.  This has us searching into the primary and secondary literature to find clues about how we should understand this text.

In Philippians 1.1, Paul addresses the bishops and deacons at Philippi.  So lo and behold, the office of bishop already existed in the time of Paul–so is it so hard to believe that Stephanas was actually a bishop?  Well, not so fast, says my professor Gordon D. Fee, in his magnificent commentary on Philippians (NICNT, ad loc):

The origin of the word episkopos as a title for one form of leadership in the NT church is shrouded in mystery, and therefore an object of scholarly debate; but there can be little question that in Pauline usage, as with all his designations of church leaders, it first of all denotes a “function,” rather than an “office.”

Fee stands in a long line of Protestant scholars who are essentially anti-clerical in their orientation and who are uncomfortable with the New Testament’s apparent sanction of church offices like bishops and priests, whose abuses have been so frequent throughout the history.  Emphasis on function instead of office means that such people designated bishops or deacons were supposed to care for rather than lord it over the Christians in their charge.  But then one wonders what an “office” is in the first place, and if, by such standard definitions of the term, the bishops and deacons in Paul’s day fit the definition.

Therefore in brainstorming, we decided that there were some essential and some optional characteristics of an office.  The essential elements of an office would be:  (1) Election: a method of selection of officeholders; (2) Duration of term:  a fixed term or  lifetime appointment; (3) Function:  the duties of the officeholder; (4) Authority:  the ability to carry out the functions; (5) Title:  without an official title, it is arguable that no office exists.  Some other features may be optional:  (6) the possibility of remuneration; (7) an impeachment procedure; (8) a written policy which may include qualifications for the officeholder, duties, scope of authority, a setting of the salary and election and impeachment procedure (in the absence of a written text, customs or even ad hoc rules would exist); (9) a ceremony of induction.

As early as the Pastoral Epistles, it is clear that the offices of bishop/elder and deacons (and also possibly an office of widows) existed, and they feature most if not all of the elements listed above.  Fee considers the Pastoral Epistles to be authentically Pauline and writes in his NIBC commentary (ad loc. 1 Timothy 3:8–9; italics his):

However, as with “prophet” and “teacher,” the word seems to fluctuate between an emphasis on a function and a description of a position; by the time of Philippians it [“deacon”] describes an “office” (Phil. 1:1), whereas in the relatively contemporary Ephesians and Colossians diakonos still describes a function. Here, as in Philippians 1:1, it refers to a position of some kind.

Thus, Fee acknowledges begrudgingly in his earlier commentary that Phil 1.1 refers to an office,  so that we would conclude that even for him there is continuity between the terms bishop/elder and deacon in Philippians and the Pastorals.  I would argue that the burden of proof is upon those who wish to deny that Paul had designated the offices of bishop/elder and deacon as the standard procedure of his mission, for it baffles me how the churches could have survived without clearly designated officeholders who exercised apostolic authority in the absence of Paul.  Indeed, this is what Acts 14.23 says:

And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed.

German Prostestant biblical scholarship, however, argues that both the Pastorals and Acts come from a later age and therefore cannot attest to the primitive conditions in the nascent Pauline churches (Conzelmann, Acts [Hermeneia]; Haenchen, Acts; E. Schweizer, Church Order 26e, 7i) .  Of course, among the major arguments for rejecting the Pauline authorship of the Pastorals is their too advanced ecclesiology: i.e., we are faced with major case of begging the question.

I wonder in what sense Paul could have been a successful church planter if he had not, from the earliest days of his churches, done what Luke claims, appoint elders to lead the various churches.  It seems to me that the job of church planter like Paul would be (1) to travel to a new place and proclaim the gospel; (2) to train those who are receptive; (3) to select the natural leaders, among those that he taught, to take over in his absence; (4) to repeat.  It makes no sense that the Pauline mission could have been successful if Paul didn’t see as one of his main jobs the development of leaders.

It is only natural then to believe that Paul appointed leaders (Acts 14.23; Pastoral Epistles; Phil 1.1), that they held offices and titles and did not merely exercise functions, that those office and titles probably had the same names that they did later (i.e., bishop/presbyter and deacons–1 Clem; Did.), and that these offices then developed into the threefold structure of bishop, presbyters and deacons (Ignatius, Irenaeus).


3 Responses to Office or function? The search for church leaders in the nascent Pauline communities

  1. EV says:

    Are you not constructing a straw man of the Protestant view of church offices here based on the commentary of Professor Fee? Take Calvin (who can be said to talk for much of the Protestant tradition on this topic), who accepted that Paul appointed officers not functions – See Institutes IV,III, 8: ‘In giving the name of bishops, presbyters, and pastors, indiscriminately to those who govern churches, I have done it on the authority of Scripture, which uses the words as synonymous. To all who discharge the ministry of the word it gives the name of bishops. Thus Paul, after enjoining Titus to ordain elders in every city, immediately adds, “A bishop must be blameless,” &c., (Tit. 1: 5, 7.) So in another place he salutes several bishops in one church, (Phil. 1: 1.) And in the Acts, the elders of Ephesus, whom he is said to have called together, he, in the course of his address, designates as bishops, (Acts 20: 17.)’.

    Taken historically, the question for most Protestants has not been ‘did Paul appoint officers or functions’ (the answer to that has generally been ‘yes’) but ‘which officers did Paul appoint as a perpetual model for the church’ – i.e. is it the three fold distinction of bishop [singular]/priests/deacons found in Ignatius (if those parts are not part of the later re-writing of the letters) – which has its defenders in the Protestant tradition going back to Joseph Hall or James Ussher- or the two fold order defended by Calvin and most Reformed theologians of a plurality of overseer/elders/pastors (taken synonymously) and deacons found in Paul, the Didache, 1 Clement and Polycarp to the Phillipians.

    The opening of 3 Cor 2.1 ‘Stephanus and the presbyters who are with him, Daphnus, Eubulus, Theophilus and Xenon, to Paul their brother in the Lord’ looks very much like a standard opening of 1-2nd century churches – e.g. Polycarp to the Phillipians 1: ‘Polycarp and the presbyters that are with him unto the Church of God which sojourneth at Philippi’. -Yet, Polycarp’s letter at 5-6 suggests a two-fold order of a plurality of overseers/elders. The same can be said of the Corinthian church in 1 Clement where the Roman church makes no mention of a singular bishop but a plurality of overseers being deposed by the jealousies of the young. If (as it appears) there was no monarchical bishop in Corinth at the time of 1 Clement time – can Stephanus be considered to be such an office holder in 3 Corinthians?

    It is possible, as might be inferred from Rev 1-3, that each church had an ‘angel’/messenger who was responsible for communicating with other churches – that appears to be the role what Hermas gives to Clement of Rome and it allows at least a believable explanation for the transformation from plurality of overseer/elders to the monoepsicopacy found in Ignatius. The question, as always in this debate, which will probably never be resolved as confessional biases always take over, is what do we make of Ignatius?

    • Petros says:

      Thanks for your lengthy and thoughtful comment. I don’t think I’m guilty of strawman argument. Had I said, as you suggest, that Fee’s view was “the Protestant view”, then perhaps you would be right. But what I wrote is actually much more careful: “a long line of Protestant scholars who are essentially anti-clerical”. Later I mention, “German Protestant biblical scholarship”, which I think is easy to stereotype, and of which Calvin is not a representative. Thus, perhaps you are the one to have created the straw man in your comment. :-)

      As for your other points, let me carefully examine them and I will get back to you. Thanks again.

  2. EV says:

    Thank you for clearing that point up, I humbly apologise if I misunderstood you.

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