The subject of ecclesiology in the New Testament is a broad, interconnected and complex one. Therefore, as we consider this one aspect, there will inevitably be other areas left unresolved. Further studies dealing with deacons, ordination, apostles, E.G. White's understanding, etc. are needed, and will be proposed (Lord willing). The hermeneutical intent of these articles is to follow where the biblical evidence leads, and make conclusions based upon reasonable and consistent lexical, contextual and comparative evidence. In the investigation of these articles, two interesting points regarding leadership structure in the church have emerged: 1) There is a distinction between the offices of presbuteros, episkopos and poimen, and 2) while some offices are spiritual gifts (conferred by the Spirit and recognized by the Church), others are positions established through external, objective and verifiable criteria through prayerful evaluation by the church. This is not the final word on this subject, more research should be done. Part two has been added to help clarify some of the initial conclusions. I also wish to apologize for the technical nature of this article, but feel that some of these issues must be tackled. A word needs to be made in regards to lexical studies and hermeneutics in general. Ferdinand de Saussure has stated that in language “tout se tient” (all things hold together). What he means is that language must be viewed as an interconnected system in which the context provides the clues as to the meaning of the individual words used. Theologian Henry Scott Baldwin makes the following salient points:
- Lexical studies are nothing more than the summaries of contemporaneous uses of the word under consideration. Lexis is a description of what people who use the word normally mean to indicate.
- We have a pre-understanding of the word based on its use in other contexts. This is the dictionary meaning (denotation) we have in our lexicons. We then attempt to apply the meaning to the present context, and then check to see if the resulting sentence makes sense using this meaning.
- This methodology seeks to separate verb and noun. There are numerous examples in Greek where the verbal form does not correspond to all the meanings of the noun. We cannot uncritically assume that a noun we are studying is exactly equivalent to the verb forms in every one of its uses.
As shown in the first article, there are impressive lexical (dictionary) differences between the office of presbuteros and episkopos. An inaccurate understanding of what a word means at the time it was written, will negate all the good contextual, syntactical exegesis we may attempt. There is no doubt that context plays a critical role in an accurate understanding of the text. However, the meaning of the written words are the very foundation of an accurate biblical study. The context will determine which meaning should be used, but the objective starting point is to understand how a word was understood when the author wrote it. The lexical definition, therefore, should not be underestimated, when considering the meaning of a passage.
When dealing with the issue of hermeneutics--the self-authenticating, Protestant principle that Scripture interprets Scripture--should be maintained. We cannot assume that a specific passage or biblical writer will make sharp differences and distinctions between closely related subjects within a chapter, epistle or even all their writings. Examples of this include most of the fundamental beliefs (i.e. justification/sanctification, the differences within the trinity, etc.). It would be far more difficult to understand what Paul means when he penned “absent from the body and present with the Lord” if we didn’t have non-Pauline passages to help us know when we will be present with the Lord. Therefore, when approaching the subject of ecclesiology, we shouldn’t assume one writer will present the corpus of material, nor should we expect to necessarily find the answers to differences within a single passage or context.
1. Are elders (presbuteros) and bishops (episkopos) different and distinct offices?
A. Lexical and comparative evidence shows a distinction as seen in part one, the lexical meanings for presbuteros include primarily administrative, executive and judicial functions:
These definitions matched the biblical evidence when applied to this office. We also noticed that the primary definitions for episkopos focus on guarding, investigative and supervising roles. These definitions harmonize with the comparative biblical evidence as well. We should not underestimate the importance of lexical (dictionary) meanings.
While it is tempting to “run to the text” first and attempt exegesis, we will come up short unless an accurate understanding of the primary and extended meanings are discovered. Only after we know what a word meant when it was originally used, can we apply it to a biblical passage and context and hope to understand it.
B. The offices of episkopos and presbuteros seem to be indicated:
While this should not be the only argument in favor of an office for the episkopos and prebuteros, it is a supportive one. The Greek word episkope has several different meanings (Please see footnotes for a lexical breakdown). There are essentially three definitions for the Greek word episkope:
- Visitation, inspection, examination (usually by God, in mercy or judgment, He looks into, searches)
- Office of episkopos- specifically, ecclesiastical overseer.
- Office (generally), leaders of Christian communities, position, assignment (The N.T. uses episkope in the sense of ‘office’ as well as ‘visitation’)
There are four references for episkope:
- Lu. 19:44 “. . . knewest not the time of your visitation.”
- Acts 1:20 “ . . . his bishoprick let another take.” (KJV)
- 1 Ti. 3:1 “if a man desire the office of a bishop . . .”
- 1 Pet. 2:12 “. . . glorify God in the day of visitation.”
Both Luke 19:44 and 1 Peter 2:12 harmonize nicely with definition one when episkope is placed into their contexts. Acts 1:20 is contextually referring to apostles, so the meaning of an “office in general” would best align with this passage. Gerhard Kittel supports this understanding: “the apostolic office is described as episkope. . . The term is used for the apostolic office in Acts 1:16 only because the selection of a replacement was seen to be a fulfillment of the prophecy in Ps. 108:8.” The context of 1 Tim. 3:1 refers to the episkopos (1 Tim. 3:2). Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the “office of episkopos” (and not an “office in general”) is what Paul is referring to in 1 Tim. 3:1. Kittel agrees with this conclusion: “The term episkope in 1 Tim. 3:1 does not derive from Acts 1:20 or its O.T. original. It is newly coined on the basis of the title episkopos, which had meantime established itself in the early Church. This is the more easily possible, of course, because episkope is already used for ‘office’ in the language of the LXX.”
An argument in favor of an office for the presbuteros can be made from the word presbuterion. Lexically, there is support for a distinct office or body (Please see footnotes for references) which represents these officers. With presbuterion, there are essentially two meanings:
- Office, body, college, assembly, council of elders, “body of eldership.”
- Council or Senate of Jews (Sanhedrin), Christian Church, or any body.
There are two references of presbuterion in the N.T.:
- 1 Timothy 4:14- “. . . hands of the presbytery (presbuterion).”
- Acts 22:5- “. . . and all the estate of the elders (presbuterion).”
In Acts 22:5, the context is referring to the Jewish Sanhedrin, so definition two would apply. In 1 Timothy 4:14, the context is the Christian Church, not the Jewish body, so it is likely that it refers to the body of elders (definition one).
C. The names of the words themselves indicate they are offices, not functions:
For this study, we have been looking at presbuteros and episkopos as nouns. If these words indicated a “function” rather than an office, they would be represented by a verb or an adjective. For example, episkopeo is the verb “to look diligently.” While there are adjectival and verbal forms of these words, we have only been focusing on those represented by a noun.
D. Presbuteros and episkopos are referenced in different situations and with other offices:
Acts 14:23 “ordained elders in every church”
Phil. 1:1 “with the bishops and the deacons”
Acts 15:2,4,6 “the apostles and elders”
1 Tim. 3:2 “a bishop must be blameless”
Acts 20:17 “called the elders of the church”
Acts 25:15 “chief priests and elders”
Titus 1:5 “ordain elders in every city”
2. Is “pastor” a spiritual gift that is it given to all leadership?
In an effort to justify a calling or leading to pastoral ministry (the modern name for “Pastor“ does not seem to be in harmony with the biblical roles of episkopos and prebuteros), some are using the “Gifts of the Spirit” argument to support their belief. It is true the poimen (pastor) is a spiritual gift; it is listed in Eph. 4:11. But as we saw in Part One, the definitions for this word are specific, and do not include the meanings denotated for the presbuteros and episkopos. Furthermore, the biblical references for pastor (poimen) parallel the lexical meanings. In my opinion, this is significant, since it undermines the major propositions in favor of a subjective calling of God into the office of presbuteros or episkopos.
Finally, some see this gift as a function or activity that all or most leadership positions receive. The following include several reasons why this is untenable:
- Ephesians 4:11 -- “He gave some pastors....” It doesn’t say “He gave many” or “He gave all.” 1 Cor. 12:8-10 -- "The Holy Spirit gives . . . To one, to another . . . ., to another . . ., etc." signifying a selective distribution not a comprehensive one. Romans 12:4,5 -- Paul states that “all members have NOT THE SAME OFFICE . . . Having gifts differing....” Therefore, the gifts of the Spirit (including poimen) are selectively given by the Spirit to certain individuals. There is no textual evidence that poimen, or any other gifts, are given to a majority of the church;
- The noun poimen refers to a position. The verb poimaino refers to an action. The position of nurturing and caring is a spiritual gift, but this was not given to the presbuteros and episkopos. While the presbuteros were admonished to “feed (verb poimaino) the church of God” (Acts 20:28) and to “feed (verb poimaino) the flock of God” (1 Pet. 5:2), they were never asked to be the poimen (noun) in the Church of God. The action of feeding, caring and nurturing are simply duties Christ enjoined upon the leadership of His church (“feed My sheep" (Jn 21:16), not gifts.
- Can elder (presbuteros) perform the duties of bishop (episkopos) and vice-versa? There is persuasive evidence that an elder (presbuteros) can and should perform the duties of a bishop (episkopos). As noted in Part One, the presbuteros has the extended function of overseeing, and therefore can also be considered as an episkopos. This is seen in the following passages: Acts 20:17, 28 Paul “called for the elders [presbuteros] of the church. . . take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [episkopos] . . .”; Titus 1:5,7 “... and ordain elders [presbuteros] in every city ... a bishop [episkopos] must be blameless.”
Biblical evidence shows that the presbuteros fulfilled both its own roles and that of the episkopos:
- Acts 15:2,6 “the apostles and elders [presbuteros] to consider this question . . . Consider this matter.” (See also Acts. 16:4; Acts 4:5,8,23)
- Matt. 27:12 “He was accused of the chief priests and elders [presbuteros] . . .” (See Mk 15:1; Lk 9:22)
- Acts 20:31 “. . . therefore watch . . .”
- 1 Pet. 5:2 “. . . taking oversight . . . Of a ready mind”
The function(s) of the episkopos are outlined in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:6-9. In these passages, the episkopos’ duties do not include those of the presbuteros. Rather, they are in harmony with the lexical understanding of this office.
- Instructing -- 1 Tim. 3:2 “...able to teach" (didaktikos)
- Guarding -- 1 Tim. 3:5 “...take care (epimeleomai: to take care, Careful attention- of the church of God.”)
- Inspecting/Supervising/Review -- Titus 1:9 “Exhort (parakaleo). . Gainsayers"; Titus 1:9,13 “Convince (elegcho) . . . Gainsayers . . . Rebuke (elegcho) them sharply . . ”
An overview of the New Testament evidence does not show the episkopos functioning as an executive, administrative or judicial authority as do the presbuteros. Therefore, from the weight of evidence, the office of presbuteros can function as an episkopos, the episkopos obviously functions as itself, but the episkopos does not fulfill the role of the presbuteros.
4. Who is called to pray over the sick?
Interestingly, James 5:14 calls for the elders (presbuterous) to “pray for the sick of the church.” We have traditionally referred to this verse as referring to the local elders. At this point there is no attempt to take a dogmatic position on specifically who the presbuteros are, but it is certainly within the lexical understanding of presbuteros, to be involved in the caring and nurturing functions of the church, including prayer for the sick. Furthermore, unless we are compelled otherwise by Scripture, the episkopos and poimen are not included in this injunction.
5. Is the office of apostles (apostolos) linked with that of the bishop (episkopos)?
At first glance, Acts 1:20 seems to say that the office of the apostles is the same as the office of the episkopos, "his bishoprick (episkope- KJV) let another take." We have already seen that the office of the episkopos was referred to by episkope, but should the “office of the apostles” be understood in the same way? As already seen, the word episkope has three meanings: 1) Watching over, visitation, inspecting; 2) The office for an episkopos; 3) An office or “charge“ in generally.
From the context we know that Peter was speaking of an “office” and not an “action”- so meaning #1 is not possible. Also, we know from the context, the object of Peter’s presentation were not “Episkopos”- but rather “Apostolos.” Therefore, it is not referring to the office of the Episkopos, but to an “office” in general. This is why several translations have rendered it:
- “Let another man take his office” (NASB)
- “his office let another take” (ASV, RSV)
- “Let another take his office” (ESV)
Therefore, the office of apostles is not connected with the office of the episkopos. Rather, we must use the extended meaning for the word episkope and its meaning should be office or position.
6. Is the position of pastor distinct from its function?
The pastor (noun poimen) as discussed in part one, had the basic role of: guardian, nurturer, guide and teacher. As we discussed in question two above, there are times when the elders (presbuteros) were instructed to feed (verb poimano) the church of God. However, since feeding, nurturing and caring were actions, and not spiritual gifts, we must make a distinction between a function and a spiritual gift. Here are a few examples of presbuteros acting out the poimano:
- 1 Peter 5:1-4 "The elders [presbuteros] who are among you I exhort . . . To feed [verb form- Poimano] the flock of God which is among you..."
- Acts 20:17,28 "[Paul] sent to Ephesus and called for the elders [presbuteros] of the church. . . take heed . . . to shepherd [verb poimano] the church of God..."
This point is important, since some want to interchange the verbal forms of a word with the noun forms. In doing so, they neglect the contextual and the lexical meanings for the word. No where in Scripture do we see the presbuteros given the spiritual gift of being a pastor (poimen) whether explicit or implicit. While they lexically fulfill the functions of the poimen (nurturing, caring), they were not referred to by the poimen (noun).
In conclusion, after re-evaluating the N.T. testimony regarding the presbuteros, episkopos and poimen, the weight of evidence leans strongly in favor of three distinct and separate offices. As stated in the disclaimer, a thorough treatment of this subject should include the confirming influence of E.G. White’s statements. However, at this point, only a biblical study is possible due to time constraints. The role of pastor (poimen) is a spiritual gift, while elder and bishop are not (presbuteros, episkopos). What difference does all this make, especially in light of the current discussion regarding ordination? When church members assert their right to become a pastor by reason of an inner calling from God, we must ask them to which position are they called? If they feel called to the nurturing, caring and teaching position of the pastor (poimen), they have a legitimate argument to fulfill this role. If, however, they feel that it is the administrative, executive, judicial role of the presbuteros or the inspecting, watching role of the episkopos to which they are called, then the church must evaluate that subjective calling with the objective criterion that are listed in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:6-8. Scripture must be the final arbiter of all callings, leadings, or gifts or we are left with wild subjectivism with no check or restraint. Finally, although a discussion for another day, bear in mind that the list for episkopos and presbuteros mentioned in Timothy and Titus, not only includes gender specificity, but also marital status and child-rearing responsibilities. We need to be consistent in our exegesis of these passages, by focusing so hard on one area, we may fail to account for other important criteria.
Footnotes will be added soon.