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

September 14, 2011

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).