Paul recognized two groups of readers when he wrote his letter to the Philippians. He wrote to the church at large, “to all the saints in Christ Jesus,” and he wrote to some special persons within the congregation, “the bishops and deacons.” Last week we took a few moments to learn something about the members of the church in Philippi; tonight we are going to pause and consider the leadership of the church.
This is the only letter in the NT that includes a reference to the leadership of the church in the introduction. All the churches had leaders but this is the only one where Paul makes special mention of them in the salutation of the letter. The leaders of the church were also “saints in Christ Jesus,” but they had also been recognized for their spiritual gifts and set aside for particular service in the church.
To begin with, it is important that we consider the word “with” (sun). The greeting is, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” Boice says this is “the most important word in this phrase.” That is because it suggests they are on an equal par with the others. Alexander Strauch says, “It is clear that the overseers and deacons are accorded no elevated status above the congregation” (Biblical Eldership, rev. edition, p. 177).Yes, they are the leaders in the church, but they are not better than the regular or ordinary members.
Office bearers in the church should not lord it over the saints but humbly minister among them (cf. 1 Peter 5:2-3). Motyer says, “Leadership is not lordship.” There is no primacy over the other saints. There was leadership in the early church but not hierarchy (Fee). The preposition is not under, nor after, but with the bishops and deacons. The officers of the church worked with the believers. They were “a distinguishable part of the whole, but as part of the whole, not above or outside it” (Fee).
Let’s focus our attention this evening on two questions: Who were these overseers and deacons, and why did Paul mention them in his greeting to the church?
I. Why Did Paul Mention the Bishops and Deacons in the Intro. to Philippians?
Let’s take the second question first: Why did Paul mention the bishops and deacons in the introduction to the Philippian letter? This is the more difficult question. Why did Paul mention the leadership of the church in his greeting? He didn’t do this in any other letter; why do it in the Philippian letter?
The answer is that we don’t know why, for he doesn’t say. But he surely had a reason, so what might it have been?
1.Certainly, his mention of them was in some way “an endorsement of their authority” (Kent). Perhaps the church had not followed their guidance and by mentioning them, Paul gave a boost to their leadership in the church. Perhaps they needed this support from the apostle to furnish them with the authority that they needed to deal with trouble-makers in the church. 2.It is possible “that the particular reference to these leaders was in the nature of a hint to them that they… see to it that the instructions contained in the letter are carried out” (a suggestion by WH). Paul’s mention of them may be the preparation they needed for the criticisms that follow. “As leaders in the congregation they have a special responsibility for oversight and service, and this will involve them in tackling the issues the letter raises” (O’Brien). 3.Most likely they are mentioned because they were the ones who led the church in sending a most needed monetary gift to Paul, brought by Epaphroditus (4:14-16). If they were the ones who took the imitative in receiving and then sending the gift to Paul, he would have most likely expressed his appreciation to them in this way. This fits the fact that the letter to the Philippians was essentially a thank-you note.
Any one of these explanations might be the reason or all of them together might have constituted the reason. Paul was endorsing their authority and they were responsible to see that his instructions were carried out and he wanted to express his special appreciation to the leaders because they were the ones that had been responsible for gathering money and sending it to him (Greenlee).
There also may have been an entirely different reason that is unknown to us. Exactly why he singled them out is nowhere stated but the above suggestions seem probable.
II. Who Were the Bishops and Deacons of the Church at Philippi?
We now turn to the second question, one which is more easily answered. Who were the bishops and deacons of the church at Philippi? When I say, who were they, I don’t mean what are their names, but what did they do? What is the function of bishops and deacons?
Bishops and deacons were people appointed by the church to perform certain tasks. The bishops were charged to lead, govern, and supervise the church, and the deacons were charged to render special works of service in/to the church. “Both had a share in the spiritual care of the church” (Muller).
Some scholars do not believe that Paul is referring to offices in the church in his mentioning of bishops and deacons. They believe that he is describing an activity, not an office. But Peter O’Brien is certainly right when he says that Paul “has in view particular members of the congregation who are specifically described and known by these two titles; otherwise the additions seem to be meaningless.” In other words, the only explanation that makes any sense for their being mentioned is that they were official officers in the church.
There is only one other place in the NT where bishops and deacons are listed together, and that is in Paul’s first letter to Timothy, chapter 3.
•He says in v. 1, “If a man desires [‘aspires to’] the position [‘office’] of a bishop, he desires a good work.” He follows this up by giving the qualifications of a bishop (vv. 2-7). •In v. 8 he says, “Likewise deacons must be…” and he goes on to give the requirements of a deacon (vv. 8-13).
Let’s do a brief study of these two offices in the church.
1. Paul first mentions bishops. This is the only time Paul used this word outside of the Pastoral Epistles. He used it in 1 Tim 3:1-2 (episcopes in v. 1 and episcopos in v. 2) and Titus 1:7. Peter also used this word (1 Pet 2:12; 2:25) as did Luke in Acts 20:28.
The first thing we should note is that the term is plural in Phil. 1”1, “bishops,” not “bishop.” The early church didn’t have a bishop presiding over them; they had bishops in leadership. Each church had a plurality of bishops as they had a plurality of deacons.
This has profound implications for our understanding of what a bishop is! There is no basis whatsoever for the view that was later adopted in the history of the Christian church that each church had a single bishop or that a group of churches had a bishop presiding over them. These are forms of church government that have no basis for their structure in the Scriptures. Melick says, “The title ‘bishop’ did not refer to one person who had the charge of a number of churches in a geographical area. That came in the second century.”
The church at Philippi had a plurality of bishops!
The second thing we need to look at is the translation. “Bishops” isn’t a good rendering. This is the word the KJV used, and that was because the KJV was an Anglican translation, and the Anglican Church already had an Episcopal form of church government. This rendering was carried over in the NKJV. However, we should translate it “overseer[s],” as the NASV, ESV, and NIV does (or some other equivalent).
The Greek word is episkopos, a word that transliterates into English, episcopal. The Episcopal Church, also known as the Anglican Church or the Church of England, gets its name from this word. But a bishop in the Episcopal Church is not the same thing that a bishop was in the early church! Calvin comments:
“The name of bishop is common to all the ministers of the Word, inasmuch as he assigns several bishops to one Church. The titles, therefore, of bishop and pastor, are synonymous… Afterwards there crept in the custom of applying the name of bishop exclusively to the person whom the presbyters in each church appointed over their company. It originated, however, in a human custom, and rests on no Scripture authority.”
The word episkopos means, an overseer, or one who keeps watch over someone or a group by rendering oversight. An overseer in the church was also known by other titles. In the NT an overseer, elder, and pastor were the same. This is made clear in Acts 20.
In v. 17, we read of the gathering of “the elders of the church” from Ephesus. They came to Miletus to meet with Paul. In v. 28, Paul charged the elders. He said, “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”
Phillips says, “Since the same people addressed in 20:28 are called elders in 20:17, we conclude that elders and bishops are one and the same” (see also Titus 1:5, 7). They were also charged to shepherd the church of God, which is a pastoral ministry.
So there are three terms that set forth the function of this one leadership office.
1)The term “elder” (presbuteros; the Presbyterian church gets its name from this word) refers to the spiritual wisdom of the men. It probably comes from a Jewish background and stresses the dignity, maturity, honor, and wisdom of the men. Elder is a term that speaks of age, but in the context of leadership it has the idea of maturity.
The first missionary team sent out from the church in Antioch “appointed elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). This is the most frequently used term in the NT for the spiritual leadership of the church.
2)The term “pastor” or “shepherd” refers to the ministry of feeding the saints or teaching them. Paul used this word in Eph. 4:11, where he says that the ascended Christ appointed “pastors and teachers” to serve the church. Peter used a from of this word in 1 Peter 5:2 where he said, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you.” And as we have seen, this term is also found in Acts 20:28… 3)The term “overseer” reflects “a Greek-speaking origin that stresses the work of oversight” (Strauch). Theirs was “the ministry of oversight, supervision, [and] protective care.” (O’Brien). Strauch says, “The term was a well-known designation of office equivalent to our word superintendent” (p. 178). Jesus himself is referred to as “the Bishop/Overseer” of our souls (1 Peter 2:25).
One branch of leadership in the church took care of the spiritual oversight of the congregation. Those who occupied this office were called elders, overseers, and pastors.
2. Secondly Paul mentions deacons. There is less confusion about the ministry of deacons than that of overseers, but not much. In churches where there is misunder-standing about the work of elders and overseers, there is also inaccuracy about the function of deacons.
The word “deacon” is a transliteration rather than a translation (like the word baptism). It comes from the Greek work diakonos, which is used 22 times in Paul’s letters. It simply means “servant.” It is translated servant or minister in the NT in contexts where service is in view that does not refer officially to an office. Where the office is in view, it is usually translated “deacon.”
As we have already seen, the qualifications of a deacon are given in 1 Timothy 3:8-13… So in 1 Tim. 3 and Phil. 1, the word is being used in a technical sense to refer to an office in the church.
The office of deacon probably originated in Acts 6:1-6… The word deacon is not used in that passage to refer to the seven men, who were selected for special service, but the root word from which the term deacon is derived, occurs twice – “distribution” (v. 1; translated ‘service’ in the NASV), and “serve” (v. 2).
The original meaning of the word denoted one who rendered service of a lowly kind, particularly serving at table – see Matt. 22:13; John 2:5, 9 (O’Brien). These seven men were responsible “to see that the practical affairs of the church were taken care of” (S. Ferguson). These men who assisted the apostles were deacons. And it seems that they performed these tasks under the supervision of the apostles.
This word occurs many other times in various passages nontechnically, but here it is used of men (and possibly women, see Rom. 16:1, Phoebe, and 1 Tim. 3:11) who were official servants of the church.
NOTE – In Paul the term has special reference to Christian ministry (2 Cor. 3:6; 2 Cor. 11:5, 23; Col. 1:7; 1 Tim. 4:6; etc.). He even uses it to speak of Christ himself (Rom. 15:8). It is one of the words Paul used to speak of his co-laborers (1 Thes. 3:2; 1 Tim. 4:6; Col. 4:7; Eph. 6:21).
In the ancient world there was no prestige in being a servant but in the Christian world, it is an honor and a privilege to be a servant of Christ and his church. There is nothing menial about service in the name of the Lord. What an awesome calling it is to be a deacon.
The Bible never presents deacons in a role of ruling or of authority over a congregation. The elders/overseers function in that capacity. The diaconate isn’t a teaching office either. A requirement for elders/overseers is that they be apt to teach (1 Tim. 3:2), but there is no such requirement for the deacon.
Deacons have a most vital and important role in the church. All Christians should be servants and serve one another in a general sense, but the church also needs “servant officers in the church in the specialized sense” (Strauch, The New Testament Deacon, p. 74).
It is clear that the early church had organization. The churches then had two offices, namely overseers and servants, and their ministries complemented one another.
With the corruption of the church through the centuries came the corruption of these two offices.
•In some churches the deacons are powerful officers that run the church rather than serve the church. •In other churches the pastor is a dictator and rules without the aid and benefit of other spiritually minded men.
One of the areas of reformation needed in churches today concerns Biblical leadership. Churches need to recover the gospel but they also need to recover a Biblical view of church government.
Every church needs godly overseers who care for the spiritual needs of the flock and godly servants who care for the practical and material needs of the church.
We have attempted to order our church with these two offices. It isn’t easy for people with a Baptist upbringing to recognize this approach to leadership because most of us grew up with a different form of government, congregationalism with domineering pastors. But we have in place elders/overseers who take a pastoral interest in the flock of God and deacons who are the servants of the church. We trust that both offices will always be occupied by men who lead the flock by godly example (1 Peter 5:3).
You do not need to be an elder or a deacon to serve the Lord. But would you serve in either capacity if God equipped you and the church sought you? We need more elders and deacons in our church. Maybe God has raised you up for this ministry.