Bishops and Deacons

Michael Browne, Bath, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]

Part 3 of 3 of the series Bishops and Deacons

Deacons, Ministers, Servants. To vindicate their claim that a special ministerial class is both scriptural and necessary, clerics point out the use of the word "minister" in the New Testament. Therefore to demonstrate that the New Testament knows nothing of a class distinction between "clergy" and "laity", we consider it important to clarify the scriptural and original meaning of this term.

There are three types of believers seen in the local church; we find them in Philippians 1. 1 - 'Taul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons". Here we have "saints", "bishops", and "deacons". The "saints" are God's redeemed people separated unto Him by the blood of Christ. The "bishops" we have already noted are those breth­ren who have been raised up by the Holy Spirit to guide the local church. The "deacons" are those believers in the church who serve or minister to the saints either in a spiritual or material capacity, as a continuous ministry or as a temporary service.

Original Use of Term Minister. Our thinking is so often influenced by the present day usage of a word which originally may have had a very different meaning; such a word is "minister". Today, when men think of a Christian minister, they think in terms of appointment to some clerical office as a result of theological training and human ordination, but the concept of a New Testament minister was quite different from this. The three words used in the New Testament, deacon, minister, servant, are all translations of the single Greek word diakonos and mean a servant. This word is used of the king's servant, Matt. 22.13; the disciples' servant, Mark 10.43; the Lord's servant, John 12. 26; the servant of the state, Rom. 13. 4; the servant of the church, 16. 1; the dark angels who serve Satan, 2 Cor. 11. 15. It will be seen from this that our word "deacon" is really a transliteration and not a trans­lation of the Greek word, and therefore the "deacons" men­tioned in Philippians 1. 1 are the servants or ministers of the church at Philippi.

Deacons Divided into Two Classes. Deacons may be divided into two classes, those who serve in temporal matters, as the seven disciples in Acts 6 (it should be noted that these seven men chosen to undertake this work of administering the funds for the relief of temporal needs are not actually termed "deacons" here, and cannot therefore be pointed to as prototypes of a strictly temporal ministry, although the nature of the work they did was characteristically deacon work) and those who, having received some special gift as a teacher or preacher, minister to the spiritual needs of the saints in the local church, 1 Tim. 3. 8-13; Eph. 4. 8, 11. It is to this latter class that Paul undoubtedly refers in Philippians 1. I. So far has Christendom strayed from the New Testament concept, that today it is generally held that a deacon and minister are two entirely different kinds of people in church life, one belonging to the class known as the "ordained ministry" and the other belonging to a different strata alto­gether known as the "laymen". How strange that we see no sign of such differentiation in the Bible! The reason, of course, is that there is no difference as we may prove by comparing scripture with scripture.

In Ephesians 3. 7 Paul, referring to the revelation of the mystery which had been given him, that of Jew and Gentile being fellowheirs and of the same body, the church, says that he "was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me". The word here translated "minister" is the Greek word diakonos, the same word used in 1 Timothy 3. 8 where it is translated "deacon", "Likewise must the deacons be grave". In Romans 15. 8 Christ is called "a minister (deacon, diakonos) of the circumcision for the truth of God". In 1 Corinthians 3. 5 Paul and Apollos, referring to their gospel and teaching ministry amongst the Corinthians, say that they are "ministers (deacons, diakonos) by whom ye believed". Again in 2 Corinthians 3. 6 and 6. 4 Paul terms his preaching companions and himself "ministers (deacons, diakonos) of the new testament", "approving ourselves as the ministers (deacons, diakonos) of God". From these and other scriptures it is clear there is no difference whatever between "ministers" and "deacons", the difference only lies in the unscriptural practices of men.

Plurality of Deacons in every Church. The New Testa­ment never views the local church as being served by only one minister or deacon; we read of ministers or deacons in the plural form, Phil. 1. 1; 1 Tim. 3. 8; and their ministry serves to edify, encourage, and comfort the Christians who comprise the local church, 1 Cor. 14. 3; Eph. 4. 12. These ministers are gifts of the Risen Head to His body the church, 4. 8, and will continue until the church is complete, "Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of" Christ", 4. 13. In graciously providing these gifts, Christ manifests His love and care for the church. It is His body, and in the bestowal of the gifts of ministry upon it we see the Lord nourishing and cherishing His body, 5. 29. If the Source of these gifts is the Risen Head Himself, what superlative dignity is attached to their ministry - their commission and authority flow from heaven itself. What then can human titles and offices do to enhance it?

Samuel Ridout, writing on this subject, says, "If any despise it (a Christ-given ministry), in so doing he despises Christ. 'He that despiseth you, despiseth me'. Nor let any man think to add to the dignity of Christian ministry by investing it with high sounding names and official position attaching to human greatness. All this is but putting gaudy tinsel upon fine gold. If Christ is the Source and Author of ministry, it follows as self-evident that there is no piace for, and certainly no need for, human authorisation. Any attempt at such is but an interference, no matter how well meant, with Christ's prerogatives".

Conclusion. We have thought it necessary to write at length on this particular aspect of New Testament truth owing to the seriousness of the allegation that God has committed the interpretation of the Bible to the bishops and clergy. Such a statement implies the necessity for a clerical system and is indeed the very bulwark of it, for if, as is claimed, the oracles of God may only be interpreted by this particular class of men, how vital it would be for us to recognise and own their authority lest we fail in our apprehension of divine truth and be found even to be fighting against God!

This same statement further undermines the very sover­eignty of the Spirit of God, limiting His illumination to a select few, and leaving the great majority of believers in Christ shut up to the pronouncements of mere men many of whom today are revealing their blindness by denying the great truths of Scripture and the Person of Christ, and even recognis­ing and applauding the atheistic ideologies of men. From such incongruities we turn in righteous indignation, and lay hold upon our liberty and right as believers in Christ to hear God's voice and apprehend His will from our individual and collec­tive study of His precious Word as it is made good to us through the inward testimony of the Spirit of God.

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.