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Return to the New Testament: Diakonoi, Presbuteroi, and Episkopoi Part IV

March 5, 2012
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The last article in this series looked at what we can tell about diakonoi, presbuteroi, and episkopoi from the very early (before 200 AD) Christian writings. The value of these early writings is that the church of the second century is derived from the church of the New Testament with little time for major change. The roles described in the second century (and occasionally the late first century) should be similar to those found in the New Testament where the roles of episkopoi, presbuteroi, and diakonoi are not clearly described. What additional clarity might we gain from seeing these texts together?

The writings of the early Fathers suggested that a single episkopos presided over a group of presbuteroi and lower-ranking diakonoi, that the episkopos was consulted in regards to marriages, and that he or his designated stand-in was necessary for the Eucharist and probably baptisms as well. Both presbuteroi and episkopoi seem to have been involved with teaching the congregation and both roles were probably active in church discipline. Diakonoi probably taught as well, but this seems to be less important to their role. (For both episkopoi and presbuteroi there is data to indicate that they taught publicly. Diakonoi may have taught one-on-one or at least done so more frequently.) Finally, it is likely that these positions were all gained by appointment, although there are some early hints that election may have been involved.

This last issue may be resolved by the election and appointment of Stephen in Acts 6. The apostles ultimately confirm Stephen’s position but he is elected by his peers. This may explain the spotty and contradictory records of appointment and election. It may be that the early church filled some of these positions by electing a candidate or candidates from amongst themselves and that someone higher up in the hierarchy confirmed or denied the elected candidates.

The discussion of diakonoi in the New Testament normally centers around 1 Timothy 3 (mostly because the other mention that most people agree is a title, Philippians 1:1, says nothing about the diakonoi). Parts of the qualifications for diakonoi are hardly surprising – no one wants an embezzler or a drunk running anything. The requirement that a diakonos have a firm grasp of doctrine may also not be entirely surprisingly, but given the evidence of the Church Fathers it is likely that this is tied to teaching. At the very least, it is hard to imagine an entirely non-teaching position of authority within the church. It is also not surprising to see married diakonoi.

The discussion of episkopoi within the same chapter says many similar things. It seems likely that episkopoi held more authority than diakonoi within the New Testament since there is more emphasis on their ability to run things and on the respect they garner. The concern about ability to teach also makes sense given that the Church Fathers report that episkopos is a teaching role. However, it is more surprising to see that episkopoi are married. At some point episkopoi were required to be unmarried and the second-century writings are silent on the issue of married episkopoi. The discussion of episkopoi in Titus 1 only affirms the picture we see in the book of 1 Timothy.

As I mentioned in the first article, there is little consensus on translating presbuteroi as a title. This is partly because some traditions are quite happy to see it translated as “elder” both as a title and as a descriptive noun. However, we may now begin to untangle some of the New Testament uses of presbuteroi. Acts 11:30 and 14:23 probably both reference a church position. In the first instance we see that these people are in charge of the money for aid to Judea and in the other they are appointed. Both of these make sense given the roles we see for presbuteroi in the second century. Throughout Acts 15 and 16 there are presbuteroi appearing together with the apostles. It is more difficult to discern whether presbuteroi here means simply “decision makers” or whether it refers specifically to the title. However, I lean towards a more general usage.

My suspicion is that Acts 20:17 and 21:17 both involve named positions. However, there is little data to support any conclusion here. 1 Timothy 4 mentions a council of elders that laid hands on Timothy. It seems very likely that this is connected to the laying on of hands mentioned later and that this is a mention of a council of presbuteroi in the same vein as those Ignatius discusses. The commissioning of a missionary is not mentioned by any of the second-century Church Fathers but it wouldn’t be a strange thing for them to do. 1 Timothy 5 seems to use presbuteros as “old man” but the section in verses 17-20 refers to the presbuteroi who rule. This is very likely to be the official role of presbuteros. The mention of preaching and teaching is familiar, as is the issue with people trying to depose presbuteroi. However, Paul’s rules for how this should be done are noteworthy: it would require multiple witnesses and any discipline required should be public as a warning to others. Titus 1:5 references appointing and so it must involve official roles. James 5:14 probably also refers to an official group of presbuteroi. This would make sense out of some of the second-century discussions about presbuteroi visiting the sick and laying their hands on people. Revelation mentions presbuteroi several times, but I do not feel confident in attempting to interpret any of those references given their lack of useful context.

Of course, one issue within the New Testament is that the New Testament covers the span of time in which these roles first appear. Some of the difficulty in getting a unified picture of what the roles are in the New Testament church and how they work (for instance, should we add in teachers and prophets?) is that this changes over the span of time covered by the New Testament. It is likely, moreover, that not all New Testament authors initially use the same terms for each role. While later authors cite Stephen as the first deacon, the word diakonos doesn’t appear anywhere in Acts. This may be simply an aspect of Luke’s style – Luke is also the only gospel not to use the word diakonos anywhere. Stabilization in terminology might post-date stabilization in structure and it’s likely that at some points during the New Testament era different structures could be found in different areas, with newer structures spreading slowly across the Christian world. Some of the confusion with presbuteroi and episkopoi may relate to one of these issues.

For these reasons, stating what “the New Testament church” did in terms of governance may be effectively impossible. It certainly seems to have established the triumvirate of official roles that continued to guide the church until after the Protestant Reformation (and even then some Protestant groups retain all three roles) but it also had governance through apostles and the appointed delegates of apostles (such as Timothy) and possibly teachers, ministers, and prophets. Of the titles that have concerned us, it seems that all three had some sort of leadership role and that all three taught, with the greater weight of teaching falling to the presbuteroi and episkopoi. Beyond this, though, things seem very murky. The attempt to recover the exact polity of the New Testament church may be impossible.

However, perhaps more importantly, the very difficulty of doing such a thing speaks to its value. If the issue of polity were extremely important, if Jesus had drawn an org chart for the disciples, surely it would be mentioned. Surely Paul would treat the issue in an Epistle, or Acts would spend the time to explain how the structures came into being. The fact that it does not appear loudly and clearly may indicate that we were not intended to try to directly copy the governance structures of the New Testament church.

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