Saturday, February 09, 2019

Leadership: Elders and Overseers 6

Previous posts:

1. Leadership Before Christ
2. An Apostle in Town
3. House Church Leadership
3. So a city like Corinth might have had four or five house cells, all of whom could come together in assembly for the Lord's Supper each week in the large house of Gaius (Rom. 16:23). The house cells would be like Bible study groups today that meet in homes. They would each have their own personality.

Some would likely be loyal to Paul. There might be one that was more "conservative" and in line with Jerusalem. There might be some that were made up primarily of Jews and others of Gentiles. There might be some that were higher social class and others of much more lowly means. Some might consist of converts under Paul's ministry.

As church leadership structure developed, perhaps smaller house cells in a city eventually contributed one or two elders to a growing council of elders that served as a repository of wisdom for the "assembly at x." The greeting of 1 Corinthians still addresses a "church" in the singular (1:2), so Paul conceptualized the believers in this city as one assembly and one church. These may have come together each Sunday for a meal in the evening (1 Cor. 11:25). [3]

If they went by Jewish reckoning, perhaps this took place on what we would think of as Saturday night after sundown, since the Jewish day began at sundown. That would then allow smaller groupings to gather early in the morning on Sunday at dawn, the time when Jesus rose from the dead. They would not have Sunday off work, so we would expect them to meet early before then going about their day's activities.

4. We probably should not think that the elders of the early churches necessarily did much ministry. There were "ministers" (diakonoi) who actually did more of the foot work of ministry in the congregation. I am of the opinion that the group we sometimes have called "deacons" were actually the ones more like the "pastors" we know today. More on them to come.

Paul never uses the word elder (presbyteros) in any of his early letters. Only 1 Timothy and Titus refer to elders. Paul never speaks of elders in the church at Corinth or any of his early churches. He does refer to the "overseers" (episkopoi) of the church at Philippi, and these are probably equivalent to elders (Phil. 1:1).

Once there were councils of elders or overseers in Christian communities, they would have served to make important judgments. Given the patriarchal pull of the culture, we can expect that these councils would have eventually become overwhelmingly male, but we have no evidence that individuals like Lydia or Priscilla were not elders in their communities.

5. From 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Peter, we can see that the titles of elder and overseers both seem to refer to the same role. Titus 1:5-7 flows seamlessly from one term to the next in the same conversation. These are not solo pastors. These are a group of individuals providing wisdom and guidance to a community.

Peter refers to himself as an elder in 1 Peter 5:1, showing that the role of apostle and elder were not mutually exclusive. Then in 5:2 he speaks of the elders (presbyteroi) providing oversight (episkopeo). 1 Peter 2:25 also flows seamlessly from Jesus as the great "pastor" or "shepherd" (poimen) of our souls to Jesus as the "overseer" (episkopon).

The church structure in these letters distinguishes them from Paul's earlier letters, where the church seems far more charismatic and prophetic in flavor. Many will know that there is a lively debate among scholars about whether the Pastoral Letters belong to a period after Paul's death when false teaching was abundant and the need for a more developed church structure came into play. Although most evangelicals do not side that way, the debate reflects the uniqueness of 1 Timothy and Titus within the Pauline corpus. At the very least, they seem to reflect the church more at the end of Paul's ministry than at its beginning.

[3] Or did they meet for the meal on Thursday nights to mirror the Last Supper?

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