Bishops and Deacons

Michael Browne, Bath, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]

Part 2 of 3 of the series Bishops and Deacons

Elders, Presbyters, Overseers, Bishops. We now turn to the Scriptures themselves to see what the New Testament teaches regarding government in the church. It should be noted here that we distinguish between the church universal and the church local.

The church universal is composed of individual saints, not of many parts or segments as some would declare, thereby seeking to justify the unscriptural denominational party sys­tems which divide Christians the one from the other, mar the practical expression of unity in the church, and rob it of much of the power which it should exhibit towards an un­believing world. This universal church is composed of all believers in Christ from Pentecost to the second advent, Acts 2; Eph. 3. 5. It is entered by the new birth, John 3. 5, and every believer, through the sovereign act of the Glorified Christ, is baptised "in one Spirit" into the body of Christ, 1 Cor. 12. 13 r.v. The universal aspect of the church is especially seen in the Ephesian Epistle where it is viewed in chapter 1 as a body, the Head being Christ; in chapter 2 as a building taking its dimension from Christ the Chief Corner Stone; and in chapter 5 as a bride, Christ being the Bridegroom. The Lord Jesus is the One Head and the Governor of this church, Eph. 1. 22-23; 4- 15> Col. i. 18. However, as the majority of this church is already with Christ in heaven and so invisible to the generation of men upon earth, in order to function in the world, to be approached, to administer its members and to bear witness to its invisible Head, some tangible form of expression is required, and this is effected by means of the local church.

The church local is the local expression of what the church universal is, and is composed of believers in Christ within a given locality who meet together, in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to give expression to their faith in worship, fellowship, observance of the Lord's ordinances, and in witness to the world around of the salvation to be found in Christ, Matt. 18. 15-20; Acts 2. 41-42. The service of such a local church is placed into the hands of men who fulfil their ministry beneath the presidency of the Risen Christ. These local leaders of the flock are seen under the four titles at the head of this section—elders, presbyters, overseers, bishops, and these four titles all have reference to the same persons.

These four English words are a translation of but two Greek words, (i) Presbuteros (an adjective, the comparative degree of presbus, an old man, an elder) is rendered "elder" and occurs in its noun form in 1 Timothy 4. 14 "the presbytery". It refers to those men in the Christian churches who, being raised up and qualified by the Holy Spirit, are appointed to have the spiritual care of the churches. The divine arrange­ment seen throughout the New Testament was that there should be a plurality of such men in each church, Acts 14. 23; 20. 17. (ii) Episkopos, lit. an overseer (epi: over; skopeo: to look or watch), is rendered "overseer" and "bishop", Acts 20. 28; Phil. 1. 1; 1 Tim. 3. 2; Titus 1. 7; 1 Pet. 2. 25. The verbal form of the same word episkopeo occurs in 1 Peter 5. 2 and is translated "taking the oversight". It is thus evident that the correct translation of the word is "overseer" giving as it does a much clearer picture of the ministry that a bishop is called upon to perform. That these two words presbuteros and episkopos refer to the same person can be clearly proved from a comparison of the following scriptures.

In Acts 20.17 (presbuteros) and 20. 28 (episkopos) the apostle Paul, having called the "elders" of the Ephesian church to him, tells them that the Holy Spirit has made them "overseers" in the flock which is the church of God. Again in Titus 1. 5 Paul commissions Titus to appoint "elders" (presbuteros) who are then designated "bishops" {episkopos) in verse 7. Then also in 1 Peter 5.1 the "elders" (presbuteros) are said to take the "over­sight" (episkopeo) in verse 2. We conclude from these Scriptures that the terms are synonymous, and refer to brethren in the local churches who by reason of their spiritual and moral qualifications were marked out as leaders or guides of the church of God, 1 Tim. 3. 1-7; Titus 1. 6-9. The distinction in the terms used is simply to mark the difference between the man and his work. The term "elder" refers to the person; he must be a spiritually mature believer, "not a novice", 1 Tim. 3.6. The term "overseer" refers to the character of his work, he oversees or cares for the welfare of the church. " 'Elder' is the title, 'oversight' is the function to be exercised by the holder of the title within the ecclesia", The Christian Ecclesia, Dr. Hort. As previously noted, in all churches there was a plurality of elders or overseers upon whom depended govern­ment in the local gathering, Acts 14. 23; 20. 17. Thus it can be seen that the present day concept of the episcopacy has nothing in common at all with what is seen in the New Testament. Our conclusion is therefore that if the bishops of our time are plainly out of harmony with the New Testa­ment revelation, then they have no scriptural right to function as such at all, and cannot in any way dictate to the Lord's people or support their claim to possess the sole right of Biblical interpretation.

Argument against the Claim of Apostolic Succession.

The bishopric's claim to apostolic succession is also proved erroneous from the above scriptures. There can only be one apostolate, those chosen disciples who had seen the Lord in resurrection glory, Acts 1. 21-22; 1 Cor. 9. 1, and had received a definite commission from Him, Matt. 28. 16-20; Acts 1. 8; Gal. 1. 11-12. These are described as the "foundation" of the Church, Eph. 2, 20, and it is obvious that foundations do not occur throughout the whole building. The apostles' ministry was unique and not communicable. The only sense in which their ministry can be said to be a continuing one is through their inspired writings. "The only genuine apostolic succession is a succession of doctrine, not of ministerial orders." The episcopacy in its present form was crystallised into an eccleciastical system in the second century, evolving not from the apostolate, but from a corrupted form of the New Testament presbyterate; not from the apostolic body, but from the order of church government properly established by the apostles. The very term used "bishop" is derived from the "episkopos" of the New Testament,, and seeing that the terms "bishop" and "elder" are synonymous pointing to the same person, it is clear that the episcopacy of today has derived its office from the presbyterian order of government common to all churches in the apostolic age. As Bishop Lightfoot confesses, "The episcopate was formed not out of the apostolic order by localisation, but out of the presbyteral by elevation", Commentary on Philippians.

New Testament Church Order Patterned on the Synagogue. The presbyteral order of church government seen in the primitive church was a natural development of the system which had obtained for some centuries in the Jewish synagogues, that of rule by elders. Edersheim states that "the synagogue became the cradle of the Church". The synagogue originated from the time of the Babylonish captivity, probably during the days of Ezra, but certainly during the Maccabean period. Its establishment was not so much for worship as for religious instruction to keep alive in the minds of the people a knowledge of the law. However, upon their return to the land, a definite form of worship had developed consisting of prayer, praise, readings from the law and the prophets, a discourse (the preacher might be any member of the congregation distinguished for his learning or wisdom), and a benediction. The entire conduct of the synagogue service was marked by great simplicity and contrasted sharply with the complex ritualism of the temple and its priesthood. It is after the form of worship seen in these synagogues that the early church practically was patterned and not after the elaborate temple worship, its leaders followed the presbyteral system of the synagogue and not the sacerdotal ministry of the temple. Ritualists today, however, build their systems after the temple pattern, even down to a priestly caste with a ruling high priest, i.e. the bishop, paralleling the Aaronic priesthood of old. The Epistle to the Hebrews reveals the futility of such a position by showing that the Aaronic order of priesthood has been superseded for ever by the altogether superior order of Melchisedec, of which order Christ is the one perpetual Priest, Heb. 7.

What Status has the Clergy? If the bishopric of today has no scriptural basis, what is the status of the clergy that they claim authority to ordain? The very least that can be said for this class is that they rest upon nothing firmer than a human "ordination" to perform a divine task, and in the light of Acts 20. 28, where the Holy Spirit is said to set overseers in the church, this is nothing less than a usurping of the prerogative reserved for God alone. That many outstanding men of God have fufilled and are still fulfilling a fruitful ministry in this system is no argument for its validity. These men are not what they are because of the system but in spite of it - and would be the same were they to step outside its sphere of authority. True servants of God have received nothing from their human ordination that they did not already possess as a divine gift beforehand, the human rite being merely a superfluous act of ritualism.

No Distinction between Clergy and Laity. Furthermore, the class distinction in the church between the "clergy" and "laity" is unknown in the New Testament. Search the New Testament Scriptures from end to end and you will not find a single trace of this distinction which divides the people of God, and is contradictory to the principle of unity which exists in the body of Christ, 1 Cor. 12. 25 and context. It is interesting to note that the word "clergy" comes from the Greek kleeros meaning "portion, or lot, inheritance", and is translated as "heritage" in 1 Peter 5. 3 where the Spirit of God declares that all the flock of God are His kleeros or heritage, not simply a select few! The term "laity" is from the word laos and means simply "the people". The clergy as belonging to a special class, reserving to itself certain prerogatives  denied the so-called laity, is quite presumptuous and utterly un-scriptural. It has been the root of much evil down through the ages, and nothing has done so much to retard the development of gift within the church of God as has the notion of a clerical class. Not only has gift been hindered from developing but the very constitution of the New Testament-type church has been lost sight of in the claims of clerical systems. This is seen in its most blatant form in the claims of Rome, but Protestantism is also vitiated to a very large extent by it. To be concluded.

AUTHOR PROFILE: Michael is in fellowship in Manvers Hall, Bath, where he serves as an elder. He worked as a missionary in Hong Kong for thirteen years and since 1972 has had an itinerant Bible teaching and gospel ministry labouring in many parts of the world.