Paul’s Instructions Regarding Overseers or Elders of The Church

Elders and Deacons

From the Pauline letters, we know that there must have been a number of different offices in the early church, and it is not easy to know how they differ from each other. Regarding the offices of elders/overseers and deacons, Paul gives us more detailed instructions.

The institution of elders goes back to the church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30; 15:2 etc.). Together with the apostles, they formed the ruling body of the church. The system was similar to that of the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin. Elders were also appointed for the new churches that were established (Acts 14:23; 20:17–35). First Peter describes the elders as shepherds of the congregation (1 Pet. 5:2). The model is Christ himself (1 Pet. 2:25; 5:4). Detailed qualifications for elders (Greek: presbuteros) are listed in Titus 1:6–9 and for overseers (Greek: episkopos) in 1 Timothy 3:1–7. These criteria are so similar that we understand that they refer to the same office. Based on these descriptions, the functions of elders must have been to provide direction and leadership for the church, to provide pastoral and shepherding care for believers, and to teach the word of God.

Timothy and Titus themselves are not described as elders; they were rather special delegates appointed by the apostle Paul. There is no indication that the elders and overseers (sometimes episkopos is translated “bishop”) had any function beyond the local church. The idea of a bishop as a superior of elders is a later development in the church (Ignatius of Antioch, around 110 CE).

Deacons are first mentioned in Acts 6:1–6. Their ministry was to take care of the distribution of food in the church. The list of qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8–13 is very similar to that of overseers, but shorter, as the deacons do not seem to have been involved in preaching, teaching, and providing direction for the church.

Ordination

The lists of qualifications show us that equipment with spiritual gifts and being called by God and the church were constitutive of ministry in the New Testament, not ordination. But there are several references to the practice of laying on of hands to commit someone to ministry. Timothy was appointed to his ministry in this way (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6). Such laying on of hands is also described in Acts (6:6; 13:3). Ordination may also be mentioned in 1 Timothy 5:22.

Sigurd Grindheim, Introducing Biblical Theology (London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013), 198–199.

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