John T. Willis

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Elders and Deacons--Part I

As we continue our study of the history of the Church of Christ denomination, the "role" of elders and deacons has paid a MAJOR role. In this and following blogs, I am giving ONLY my own experiences and my own view as I understand the Bible. I will try to make this as clear as I can, and would appreciate responses. Remember, I was baptized at Highland in Abilene, Texas in 1947. I taught 15 years at Lipscomb in Nashville, Tennessee from 1956 to 1971. I became a member at Highland again in 1973, and became an elder at Highland in 1976. Thus, I have been an elder for 38 years. I will strive to make each point clear, first about elders, then about deacons.

I. The Bible gives us ONLY a very few texts, and almost all of them are not very helpful about the work or function of elders or deacons.
    a. The texts for elders are: Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4; 20:17-38; 21:18; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; 5:17-19; Titus 1:5-9; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1-5; 2 John 1; 3 John 1. Almost all of these texts do nothing but allude to elders. In addition, Philippians 1:1 uses the term "overseer" for "elders," again only as an allusion. The ONLY substantive texts are Acts 20:17-38; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9;
1 Peter 5:1-5. All these texts describe the QUALITIES [NOT QUALIFICATIONS] of an elder, and state almost nothing about their function or role in the church. [It is significant that there are several references to Jewish elders in the New Testament as well as the "elders" in the heavenly realm in the Book of Revelation. Those texts are not relevant for this discussion].
   b. The texts for deacons are: Romans 16:1; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8-13. Some would like to add Acts 6:1-7, but this is extremely questionable. Again, these texts do not discuss the role or function of deacons in the church.
   c. This brings us to a VERY IMPORTANT point. Church of Christ people have written numerous books and articles about elders and deacons. But the ideas in these books and articles come primarily out of the minds of the writers, not out of the Bible. Most controversies and practices and beliefs in the church [this is true of the Church of Christ denomination and other churches] are not rooted in the Bible, but in the ideas of prominent, influential people in different churches. This is a fact that no one can successfully deny.

II. Most local Churches of Christ think of "elders" as little popes. No one would express this thought, but this is the reality. Ordinarily [not always], Churches of Christ ASSUME that we have a hierarchy. The ordinary RANKS are:
     a. God the Father through Jesus Christ our Lord.
     b. Elders.
     c. Deacons.
     d. Teachers and/or [often PAID] Staff Members.
     e. The ordinary members of the church.
There is a DEEP problem about this view. There is NO FOUNDATION AT ALL for the ASSUMPTION that we have a hierarchy. On the contrary, EACH MEMBER of the Body of Christ is on the SAME STATUS. Each member is alike: a member of the body--Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; etc. Each member has an very important FUNCTION in the body, the church. The eye is NOT more important than the hand; the ear is NOT more important than the foot. It is contrary to God's will to think that some in the church have a more important role than others in the church. Philippians 2:1-4 emphasizes this point, stating:
       "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,
         Let EACH ONE OF YOU look not to your own interests,
         but to the interests of others."

III. The Bible uses SIX terms to describe ELDERS.
      a. Presbyter. The Greek word "presbuteros" means "older person." In the ancient Near East, including the Hebrew Bible, people of older age were usually respected by younger members of the community, and thus they were called "presbyters" or "elders" or "older people."
      b. Elder. This is the English equivalent of the Greek word for "presbyter."
      c. Bishop. The Greek word "episkopos" means "overseer." In the ancient Near East, including the Hebrew Bible, people who "over saw" or "co-ordinated" or "arranged" or "organized" or "put together" a project of some sort, whether it be a cooperative effort or systematically organizing a city or collecting data for trying to carry out a plan, etc. Over time the word "episkopos" was shortened in English to the word "bishop."
     d. Overseer. This is the English equivalent of the Greek word for "episkopos."
     e. Pastor. The Greek word for "shepherd" [poimen] was translated into Latin as "pastores." From this Latin word came the English word "pastor." Thus, a pastor is a shepherd. For some reason, in English we do not use a word built off of "poimen."
     f. Shepherd. This is the English equivalent of the Greek word for "poimen."
These SIX terms are synonyms. They supply ONLY a TINY bit of information about the function or role of elders. It is incorrect and very divisive to be dogmatic about the role or function of an elder. Our only hope about this is a little common sense.

[To be continued]

Share YOUR insights and thoughts and reversals and fears and experiences with others. Let me hear from YOU.

John Willis


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