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Servants, Old People, and Managers: Diakonoi, Presbuteroi, and Episkopoi Part I

February 6, 2012
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             Recently I transitioned between churches.  Interestingly, both the church I left and the one I now attend claim to be governed in the way that the New Testament church was governed.  Despite this, they share very few governing features in common.  There’s a simple reason for this: the New Testament lays out no clear church polity.  There’s no organizantional chart presented in 1 Corinthians.  The closest we get is a set of guidelines for the appointment of diakonoi and episkopoi in 1 Timothy 3.  However, the New Testament doesn’t even answer the first important question for a church seeking to establish a Biblical mode of governance – is there one?  No one ever claims to have received an organizational model from God, so it’s unclear whether the model that gets used is inspired or just a good way for the apostles to organize their growing community.

In this article I don’t wish to address all possible questions of church polity.  Instead, I wish to ask a restricted question: what can we tell about three roles named in the New Testament, diakonoi (διακονοι, deacons), presbuteroi (πρεσβυτεροι, priests or elders), and episkopoi (επισκοποι, bishops or overseers)?  This seems like a clear starting question (in part because I’ve heard people claim to be using the New Testament church model because they have these roles while interpreting these roles completely differently!).  What does the governance of the New Testament Church look like?  The fact that I’ve provided two translations for presbuteroi and episkopoi hints at some of the controversy: by the fourth century these three roles have become deacons, priests, and bishops.  (It is an odd chance of English that presbuteros is priest just like the word for a Jewish or pagan priest, a hieros.  In Greek the Christian role clearly has a different name than the non-Christian one.)  However, what these roles looked like during New Testament times is hotly contested.  Moreover, the only title which still appears in almost every church, that of deacon, can be anything from clergy to glorified yes-men for the pastor.  For this reason I will be avoiding the loaded English terms and will write about diakonoi, presbuteroi, and episkopoi.

The issue with terms brings up another issue: many Protestant churches, but not all, have only two layers of authority, the deacons and the pastors.  This finds some Biblical grounding in the claim that episkopoi and presbuteroi are actually one and the same.  I will also attempt to deal with this issue.

Before we discuss that, though, let’s address the Biblical data.  The term “diakonos” appears in the New Testament twenty-nine times but is routinely translated as a title of an office in only five places (Philippians 1:1, and four instances in 1 Timothy 3:8-13).  In other places it clearly means “servant” (e.g., Matthew 22:13, Romans 13:4).  In yet another set of instances it is unclear what meaning is meant – in 1 Corinthians 3:5 does Paul mean to indicate that he and Apollos hold an office called “diakonos” or that they are servants?  Perhaps the most hotly contested instance of the word diakonos is in Romans 16 where Phoebe is referred to as a diakonos.  For the purposes of this article I will be conservative about which instances I regard as being titular and which instances simply mean “servant”.

“Presbuteros” is also a common New Testament term, but there is no general agreement about translating it as an official title, although the 1 Timothy uses come closest.  It literally means “elder” and some translations choose to translate it in this manner in all uses.  “Episkopos” is much rarer than the other two terms.  In four instances (Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-2, and Titus 1:7) it seems to be generally translated as a title.  In one more (1 Peter 2:25) it may be a title, but it is used of Jesus.  Given this dearth of Biblical references it is no surprise that the issue is so confused.

However, I wish to suggest that we are not actually limited to this handful of references.  While these references retain the greatest authority, we have references on either side of the New Testament era that may help constrain the possibilities.  First, all of these terms meant something before they became church titles.  Nowadays if you found some group of people who had no contact with Christianity and attempted to appoint deacons among them they would simply be confused – what’s a deacon?  However, the first time someone was given the title Diakonos it made some sort of sense to them.  Presumably, the title fits the role at least somewhat.  Second, we have a number of fairly early references to these titles and their roles in early Church literature.  While some groups, like the Mormons, seem to posit some catastrophic collapse of the Church after the death of the apostles it is far more likely that what we see in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries represent organic growth from the foundation laid down by the apostles.  So, when we look at the New Testament we should expect that whatever diakonoi, presbuteroi, and episkopoi are they should lie on a line going from a job described by the title to the job described in later centuries.

So, what did these terms mean before they became official titles?  There are two major sources for this information: the New Testament itself and the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament made before the time of Jesus.

As I have already mentioned the term “diakonos” refers to a servant.  More specifically, it denotes one who serves without being a slave (doulos1).  The trajectory from this term to a title seems relatively clear – first one is a servant of Christ, and then a Servant.

“Presbuteros” is also well-attested from the New Testament.  The term literally means “old man” but is best translated as “elder”.  In Mark the elders are part of a frequent literary triumvirate, the elders, the chief priests and the scribes.  This is probably linked to a much older tradition in which the elders of the tribes of Israel made important decisions.  In the Old Testament elders are important figures and this appears to be the case for the New Testament as well.  Again, it’s easy to see how a term that refers to decision-makers could come to be an official church title.

“Episkopos” is the most difficult term.  With only five uses in the entire New Testament, of which at least four are titles, it is hard to figure out from these data alone what it meant before it was a title.  However, the term is found in the Septuagint in reference to at least seven different people or groups of people.  In Numbers 4:16 Eleazar the priest is an episkopos, and is in charge of the tabernacle.  In Numbers 31:14, Judges 9:28, and 2 Kings 11:15, 18  army officers are described as episkopoi.  In 2 Kings 12:11 and 2 Chronicles 34:12, 17 the construction foremen are episkopoi.  In Nehemiah 11:9, 14, 22 episkopos is used to describe the man in charge of various groups of returning exiles.  Isaiah 60:17 provides a very useful usage where a poetic parallelism places episkopos and archon (ruler) in the same position.  Given this, it seems that episkopos referred to someone who oversaw a group.

None of this is much help.  We might expect that diakonoi would rank lower than presbuteroi and episkopoi given the derivations of their titles but we would know little else.  However, by the year 300 a number of Christian authors had written about these three titles.  Given the large amount of information contained within these authors this material will be treated in a subsequent article.


[1] For some odd reason some translations render this term “bondservant” and some actually render it “servant” much of the time.  It’s unclear what a bondservant is to most English readers but what’s being described is slavery – servitude that ends only at the master’s pleasure in which the master owns the slave as is permitted to do whatever they wish to them.  This is unfortunate as it robs the common Pauline phrase “slave of Christ” (normally used of himself) of some of its force.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 10, 2012 9:47 pm

    Still in search of a Madison church…once I find one I’ll let you know about their structure :)

  2. Eric permalink
    February 12, 2012 11:13 pm

    Haha. I actually grew up under congregational polity, which, I’m reasonably sure, makes no attempt to trace itself back to the roles I discuss.

  3. dmwilliams83 permalink
    March 15, 2012 1:09 pm

    You said: “Recently I transitioned between churches. Interestingly, both the church I left and the one I now attend claim to be governed in the way that the New Testament church was governed. Despite this, they share very few governing features in common. There’s a simple reason for this: the New Testament lays out no clear church polity.”

    Yup. There may be precursors for the monarchical episcopate in the NT, but that is hardly the “NT’s polity”–there almost certainly was no uniform church polity during the NT period. The episcopate was a development of the Patristic period aimed at preserving the Church’s theological identity and integrity. But then again, so was the NT Canon. So, in a way, the epicopate and the NT still go hand-in-hand, though not in a way that many biblicists would countenance.

  4. Eric permalink
    March 15, 2012 7:22 pm

    Well, the episcopate does catch on pretty early in some spots. However, I suspect the real issue is what to do when the apostles die. There’s little room for a monarchical episcopate when the apostles are really running the show (despite the later trend of referring to the apostles as if they held bishoprics, which is only true in that they didn’t hold less power than that). I suspect the episcopate in its current form evolved out of the apostles holding power, then their disciples holding power, and then their disciples, and so on until what was a fairly simple system “those who know teach” became a structure with distinct layers and positions.

    • dmwilliams83 permalink
      March 17, 2012 9:06 am

      Yep again. Apostolic succession, the monarchical episcopate, the creed (regula fidei), and the NT canon all evolved alongside of one another as a mutually reinforcing framework for retaining the church’s theological/evangelical integrity and identity over time.

      Are you going to do any posts on Ignatius?

  5. Eric permalink
    March 17, 2012 12:30 pm

    The following parts all deal pretty extensively with Ignatius, given how much (and how early) he talks about the episcopate.

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