This Week's Focus Passage

‘To all the saints in Christ Jesus that are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.’

Focus Passage: Philippians 1:1

‘To all the saints in Christ Jesus that are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.’

There are substantially more English translations of the Bible that render the word episcopas, in our passage, as overseers than do render it bishops. Before we deal with the matter of plurality, we should seek to clear up any confusion about who these bishop/overseers are. It is readily seen in the Scriptures that the personages referred to by the title of either bishop, overseer, or elder, are actually speaking of the identical office in the church. In some cases these titles are spoken of in regard to the very same individual. There are three particular texts that offer the most help in this; they are Acts 20:28 and 1 Timothy and Titus.

There is a helpful note contained in W. E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. It is appended to the definition of Bishop, the most prominent rendering for Episkopos. It reads as follows:

‘Presbuteros, an elder, is another term for the same person as bishop or overseer. See Acts 20:17 with verse 28 [we will be looking at that passage as well]. The term “elder” indicates the mature spiritual experience and understanding of those so described; the term “bishop,” or “overseer,” indicates the character of the work undertaken. According to the Divine will and appointment, as in the N.T., there were to be bishops in every local church, Acts 14:23; 20:17; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:5; Jas. 5:14. Where the singular is used, the passage is describing what a bishop should be, 1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:7. Christ Himself is spoken of as “the…Bishop of our souls,” 1 Pet. 2:25.’

It may be well worth our while to know something about the author of this particular definition as it could certainly be affected by his ecclesiology; that is to say, church affiliation. Research informs us that William Edwy Vine was born in England in 1873. He became a Christian at an early age (we are not told precisely at what age) and was baptized in a Plymouth Brethren assembly in Fore Street, Exeter. The Plymouth Brethren were evidently a very missionary-minded body of Christians. We are told that our subject, after attaining to adulthood and marriage, dedicated himself to his work with missionaries around the world and was firm in his doctrine and practice. And he himself was an elder in the assembly at Manvers Hall, Bath, a position that he held for forty years until his death in 1949.

The Plymouth Brethren have their own distinct views of the office of elder. It is stated that one of the most defining elements of the Brethren is the rejection of the concept of clergy. There is no ordained or unordained person employed to function as minister or pastor. Yet, while there is no formal ordination process for those who preach, teach, or lead within their meetings. Men who become elders have been recognized by others within the individual assemblies and have been given the blessing of performing leadership tasks by the elders. This certainly appears to be most similar in many ways to that found in the Scriptures. On the surface, it seems that the real concern is to set aside formality in the matter. They do consider the texts to which we would refer for the qualifications for elder/pastor; we see these two terms as synonymous; an elder is to be a pastor; a pastor is to be an elder.

These Brethren have experienced what every Christian body has over time been subjected to, namely division. And there is a ‘branch’ that has called themselves Open Brethren. The Open Brethren believe, like ourselves, in a plurality of elders, citing as we would for support (Acts 14:23; 15:6, 23; 20:17; Phil. 1:1), men meeting the Biblical qualifications found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9. This view is taken also by some, if not most, Reformed Baptists. There are many Christian denominations whether independent or presbyterial that hold to a differing view or perspective while imagining that a plurality of elders is maintained nonetheless. They can honestly claim a plurality because they do have more than one elder. Yet their plurality is not a true plurality for the reason that their elders are not all elders of the same stamp, to put it that way. To put it another way, they do not hold to the parity of elders; an essential equality. In the vast majority of Baptist churches, they 6may hold the opinion that they have a plurality of elder/pastors because they do have the typical ‘senior’ pastor, the ‘assistant’ pastor, the ‘youth’ pastor, the ‘counselling’ pastor, the ‘singles’ pastor, on and on, ad nauseam. Is it not palpably clear that each of these ‘functions’ is to be found in those whom God calls to the ministry? These particular designations are common to both Baptist and Presbyterian churches, with the primary difference to be discovered in the ‘session’ as some call it. The Baptist churches, usually under the guidance of the ‘senior’ pastor, have a board of deacons. This board of deacons, in most cases, is focused upon the physical needs of the body and the building. In other words, they will seek to care for the needs of individuals with physical needs whether illness or economical. At the same time, they care for the many needs of the physical structure, or church building, that shelters the people of God when they come together to worship. This rightfully follows the pattern set by the apostles in Acts 6. Sadly, there are too many instances where the deacons are brought into the mix, or the mix-up sometimes, to make determinations on spiritual matters which the Word of God lays at the feet of the bishop/overseers who will have to give an account for their decisions.

The confusion persists in Presbyterian bodies as their ‘deacon board’ becomes the ‘session’ or board of elders. In the vast majority of true instances, the board of elder is nothing more than a glorified term for a board of deacons equivalent to the Baptistic view. One of the most relevant passages in Scripture which demonstrates the intended vocation of men that God has chosen to bear rule, under Christ, in His church is Acts 20:17-28. In this passage, Paul called for the presbyters of the church in Ephesus [plurality]. He exhorts them to care for the flock [sheep] over which the Holy Spirit has made them bishops [overseers] to feed [poimaino; as a shepherd] the flock [the church] which He purchased with His own blood. Here we have presbyter elder, the bishop overseer, with the shepherd pastor in one person.

David Farmer, elder

Fellowship Bible Church

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