Sunday, December 26, 2010

Elders in the Early Church (W)

The W means Wesleyan, which means that in this post I am writing for the church rather than for scholars.
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The instructions about church leadership focus on two roles: the overseer and the deacon. Some have argued that the clarity of these two positions speaks to a period later than Paul, but it would be hard to prove it. We find Paul speaking of these two offices in letters everyone agrees he wrote, like Philippians (cf. 1:1). If 1 Timothy is earlier, the overseer here is probably one of several overseers or elders in a local Christian assembly, not a solo pastor or senior pastor like we have today. On the other hand, if 1 Timothy is later, the word increasingly came to mean something more like our word “bishop,” the head leader of the Christians perhaps in a whole city. [1] The role does not seem this extensive yet in the Pastorals.

In the New Testament, we do not find clear reason to think that the word “overseer” (episkopos) yet meant anything substantially different from the word “elder” (presbyteros). Titus 1:6-7 glides seamlessly from one term to the other with no distinction, clearly considering both words to mean the same thing. In 1 Peter 5:1-2, Peter is called a “fellow elder,” and “elders” (presbyteros) are charged to “pastor” or “shepherd” the flock. Although it very well may not have been in the original copy of 1 Peter, these same elders are charged to “oversee” (episkopeō) this flock. The implication is that at least some early Christians must have seen the function of the elders of a local assembly as overseeing that local assembly.

We thus suspect that each local assembly in the early church had multiple elders and overseers. The word “elder” probably had a literal sense that such individuals were in fact older. [2] The ancient world, as most cultures outside the Western world, associated age with wisdom. Was there a senior leader? It is hard to imagine that there was not. [3] But these individuals probably were not like pastors today whose only job is to pastor the church, and we can imagine that this function could even have rotated from time to time. We can imagine that leadership in part emerged organically as those who were gifted to lead rose to the surface. Acts 14:23 also pictures Paul and Barnabas appointing elders in cities, and it is very easy to see them laying the mantle of leadership on specific individuals as they moved from one location to another.

However, we also should not underestimate the role of itinerant and prophetic leadership in the early church. Apostles like Paul moved around from place to place and while it is clear a place like Corinth felt free to question his authority, he saw himself as a superior authority to any local elder or overseer. The letter of recommendation Paul gave to Phoebe as a deacon in Romans 16:1 probably is only one instance of many such letters as itinerant teachers moved from one place to another. Indeed, we will argue in the next chapter that one aspect of the situation behind the Pastorals is the increasing sense that such travelling teachers were corrupting the church with false teaching.

Prophecy was also a key element of the earliest church. As we saw in chapter 7, Ephesians even considers these early prophets to be part of the foundation of the church, along with the apostles. We argued there that very prominent prophets were in mind, individuals like Agabas in Acts 11 and 20. But local churches had prophets as well, both men and women, as we saw in 1 Corinthians.

Were there women apostles, elders, and overseers? We argued back in chapter 5 that Phoebe was a deacon (Rom. 16:1) and Junia was an apostle (Rom. 16:7). As for overseers and elders, we do not have the name of a single elder or overseer in the New Testament, which includes both men and women. [4] So we will fill in the silence with our general sense of things. On the one hand, given the patriarchal nature of ancient culture, we would expect elders and overseers primarily to be male. Yet it was also the nature of such cultures to make exceptions when a particularly gifted (or they might have thought “deviant”) woman came along.

For example, there is no question that the majority of military leaders in Israel were men. But there was always a place for the exceptional woman like Deborah, who was such an outstanding leader of soldiers that Barak refused to go to battle without her (cf. Judg. 4:8). Judges sees her identity as a prophetess (4:4) flowing neatly into her role as a “general” over men, a clear sign that the distinction some make today between spiritual and administrative leadership is a modern construct completely foreign to the biblical text. The situation in the formative stages of the New Testament church was probably the same. The bulk of elders, overseers, and deacons were likely men. But when a Priscilla came along (Rom. 16:3), you recognized God’s Spirit on her and, if she was old enough, included her as an elder, probably even before including her husband Aquila.

So it is not surprising that 1 Timothy 3 seems to assume that both overseers and deacons will be male, although it nowhere says that women cannot take these roles. When Paul told the “brothers” at Thessalonica to respect those who work among them, was he excluding the “sisters” in the assembly (1 Thess. 5:12)? Surely not. In the same way, the assumption in 1 Timothy 3 that overseers and deacons are male says nothing in itself about whether a woman might also be an overseer or a deacon.

We would argue that 1 Timothy 3 should be interpreted in the following way on this issue. If Paul is its author, we do see in them the general assumption that overseers and deacons will be male, but we will see this assumption much as we see Paul's instructions to "brothers"--the "sisters" were also included even if not named explicitly. Given what we know of Paul’s ministry from his other writings and Acts, we should assume that women also played these roles in his churches. On the other hand, if 1 Timothy was written several decades after Paul’s death, we might infer that the structure of church leadership had become somewhat more regularized and that fewer women took these roles. Even then, however, we have evidence from the first few centuries of the church that women still took these roles from time to time, so even in this case it is not an absolute assumption, only a general one.


[1] The word appears to have moved in this direction by the time Ignatius of Antioch wrote his famous seven letters ca. AD110.

[2] Interestingly, Timothy is young in 1 Timothy (cf. 4:12), too young perhaps to be an elder. 1 Timothy 4:6 actually uses the word “deacon” of him, although most translations are perhaps correct to translate the word in this instance as “servant.” Nevertheless, given that 1 Timothy gives instructions about deacons, it is intriguing to think of Paul addressing Timothy as a deacon.

[3] My discussion here may be frustrating to those who like to idealize the early church, as if there was a single structure, a single pattern of leadership, a single God-ordained way of doing things that provides an easy model for us to follow. But the fact of the matter is, human relationships are complicated and emerge from the specific dynamics not only of culture but of the specific personalities involved. The Bible does not provide us with the easy answers simple minds seek. God expects us to do some thinking here too. The simple answers on these sorts of things are usually the wrong ones.

[4] Although he does not identify his own name, it is perhaps reasonable to assume that "the elder" of 2 and 3 John is "John the elder."

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