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Bishops, Deacons, and the Church
by Carol Berubee

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General Eldership

We also see in Scripture some other general guidelines on eldership.

1 Timothy 5:17-19 says, “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.’ Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses.”

We get the sense from these verses that Paul is probably referring to bishops moreso than deacons because the bishops would be the ones who “labor in the word and doctrine.” All Christians must study the doctrines of the faith, but we see here that Paul is setting apart a particular ministry that is of particular concern to bishops. The study and teaching of the word and doctrine is the bishop’s labor; it is his life’s work. It is also implied here that the flock should give monetarily to the bishops who labor in doctrine. One note of caution, however: The true bishop would never teach doctrine or guard the sheep just so he can get a paycheck. The bishops of the early Church received donations, not salaries; thus, they had to trust the Lord, for they did not know whether anyone would be moved to give at any particular time.

The other very important thing to keep in mind is that the eldership functioned as a group, not as a ‘head bishop’ over many elders over many Christians. There was no such thing as a ‘senior pastor’ or ‘head bishop.’ There was no hierarchy. Only twice in NT teaching do we see ‘elder’ singular -- In 1 Peter 5:1 and 1 Timothy 5:19, both referenced above. In all other references to elders, the plural is used and this shows that elders, including bishops and deacons, were always seen as a group.

But now let’s go back to Peter’s teaching.

1 Peter 5:1-5 says, “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away. Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’"

In verse 5, we see that it is the “younger people” who are to submit to the elders, particularly the bishops. Who are these younger people?

The Greek word for ‘younger’ is ‘neos’. This word refers to those who are new to the faith. Thus, we see that bishops are especially concerned to shepherd those who are new to the faith, and the new converts are exhorted to give heed to the bishops’ teaching. Deacons help out in the more practical ways of serving the flock, but through their humility, the flock recognizes them as a particular group. The goal is for the bishops to help the new converts to grow up in Christ and His doctrine. As that happens, some of those young, immature Christians become mature deacons and then bishops. When they become bishops, they do the same as the bishops did for them: They work with new Christians to help them grow in the Lord. (It is not my intention to say that all mature men must be bishops in a specially designated sense, but the Lord does continue to call on all of us to come to maturity and ‘teach’ in some way, to pass on the knowledge of the Lord to the immature. While bishops have responsibility for many and must be good teachers in the classic sense, all mature Christians can teach one on one in various ways.)

Nowhere do we see that bishops are to remain bishops over mature Christians. The mature who have been shepherded by the bishops are to then move on to be overseers and shepherds of another flock of new believers. This is how the Church grew in the first couple of centuries. This is not to say that mature believers are to never receive teaching. Rather, the mature are to be the teachers, but understand that the Holy Spirit will continue to teach them in all things (1 John 2:25-27; Hebrews 5:9-14). The mature do receive teaching, but do not depend on another man for spiritual growth. We see throughout the Scriptures pertaining to eldership and teaching that it is the new converts who need the milk and then the solid food. The mature are to be the teachers.

We also see in 1 Peter 5:5 that all Christians are to submit to one another. In other words, the elders and all the saints were one unit, esteeming each other higher than themselves. Of course, we only submit to others insofar as the others are walking in a Godly way. We do not submit to false teachers or those with no fruit of the Spirit. Above all, we are to submit to Christ, and any person who deviates from His truth is to be avoided (Romans 16:17, 2 Timothy 3:1-7, 2 Thessalonians 3:14, 2 John 1:9-11).

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