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On Church Organization in the Pauline letters

In order to understand the information in the Pastoral Letters regarding the organization and administration of churches (cf. Part 6), a survey of the evidence from the Pauline corpus as a whole will be useful. Here it is important to distinguish the letters where there is little or no question of authorship by Paul, and those which many critical commentators regard as pseudonymous. The undisputed Pauline letters are (roughly in chronological order):

  • 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Romans, 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon; to which I add 2 Thessalonians and Colossians

All of these would have been written in the period c. 48-60 A.D. The letters most often thought to be pseudonymous are:

  • Ephesians and the Pastorals (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus)

If these are authentically Pauline, then they probably would have been written c. 60-63 A.D.; if pseudonymous, then they would be later productions, the Pastorals often dated to the end of the 1st century (c. 80-100) or even the beginning of the 2nd. I discussed the situation regarding the Pastoral letters briefly in Part 5, mentioning that, in my view, the evidence for pseudonymity is a bit stronger for 1 Timothy. Personally, I am inclined to the view (on objective grounds) that 2 Timothy is genuinely Paul’s work, and probably so for Titus as well. I leave open the (reasonably strong) possibility that 1 Timothy is a later work, written in imitation of 2 Timothy (and possibly Titus), and will use this as a working hypothesis for the short study below.

The Earliest Letters

Of the 7/9 ‘undisputed’ letters of Paul (cf. above), it is interesting to note that church organization and administration does not play a major role, at least in terms of providing specific detail as to how congregations are (or ought to be) governed. Paul writes a good deal about his own ministry work, along with that of his fellow missionaries, including his (and their) role as apostle (a)po/stolo$)—1 Thess 1:2-10; Gal 1, etc. This derives from the very early Christian idea of one who was sent forth (to preach the Gospel, etc) as a representative of Christ. Early tradition centers this idea with the Twelve (Mark 3:13-19 par; Acts 1:13, 16-26), and those first believers (in Jerusalem) who witnessed the resurrected Jesus and participated in the initial wave of missionary activity (Acts 1-2ff; 1 Cor 15:5-11; on Rom 16:7 cf. Part 4). These missionaries and preachers played a leading role in the founding of the first congregations all throughout Syria-Palestine and the wider Greco-Roman world. When addressing the congregations, in the earliest surviving correspondence (1 [and 2] Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians), Paul gives little indication of a well-defined church structure, tending to emphasize the ideal that all believers have a place (and important roles to play) in the body of Christ—1 Thess 1:3ff; 4:9; 2 Thess 1:3-4, 15; 3:6ff; Gal 3:26-29; 6:15-16; 1 Cor 1:2, 10ff, 26-31; 2:14-16; 3:1-4, 21-23; chaps. 11-14, etc. The only passage which suggests definite leadership roles within the congregation is 1 Thess 5:12f:

“And I ask of you, brothers, to have seen [i.e. to recognize] the (one)s laboring [kopiw=nta$] among you and standing before [proi+stame/nou$] you in (the) Lord and putting (things) in mind [nouqetou=nta$] for you, and to give them the lead [i.e. judge/esteem/consider them] over and above [i.e. abundantly] in love through [i.e. because of] their work.”

The three verbs (participles) indicated here are not titles or official positions, but rather describe roles and regular activity (“work/labor”) within the congregation. The second verb (proi+/sthmi) implies a leading role—one who provides guidance, help (and protection) for the congregation (cf. Rom 12:8; 16:2, also 1 Tim 3:4-5 etc). The third (nouqete/w) indicates teaching and instruction (cf. 2 Thess 3:15; Rom 15:14; 1 Cor 4:14 etc). Such persons are to be accorded positions of honor and respect within the congregation. In Galatians, the rhetorical thrust of the letter prompts Paul to downplay positions of (supposed) authority in the Church—even that of apostle—subordinating all human authority to the truth of the Gospel (Gal 1:6-9, 11-23; 2:1-10ff; 6:11-16).

1 Corinthians

The Corinthian correspondence (esp. 1 Corinthians) provides by far the greatest detail as to how congregations (are to) function. While the leading position of Paul and his fellow missionaries (Apollos, et al) as apostles and “servants” (cf. below on dia/kono$) remains prominent (cf. all through chaps. 1-4, 9; 16:10ff), the congregation is described in rather egalitarian and “democratic” terms; note the following:

  • The theme of unity which is set in contrast to divisions/groupings based on the authority, etc. of prominent individuals (1:10-17; 3:1-9, etc), including Apollos, Cephas (“Peter”) and Paul himself. The argument running through chapters 1-4 also functions as a warning toward those who might seek to control/influence believers on the basis of their gifts and talents.
  • In chapters 5-6 the emphasis is on the ability (and expectation) of believers to govern their own affairs, in a prudent and common-sense fashion. No mention is made of appeal to the authority of official positions in the churches, other than that of Paul (the apostle). Indeed, 5:3-5 suggests a straightforward division of authority: (a) the apostle, and (b) the assembled congregation (as a whole).
  • The lengthy and complex line of argument in chapters 8-10 has, at its core, that the “strong” in the churches should subordinate their own (personal) authority and interests to the good of the congregation (especially of the “weaker” members).
  • The discussion of corporate/community life and worship in chapters 1114 presents a model of many roles and functions, operating more or less equally—and in unity—within the congregation (the ‘body’ of Christ). Note the many different “gifts” of ministry mentioned in 12:4-11 (and the roughly contemporary list in Rom 12:4-8). Similarly, it is expected that many different people could (and should) participate actively in the worship-meeting (chap. 14, esp. verses 26-33). There is no suggestion that any of these roles were reserved for specific “offices”. Moreover, it is clear that men and women both could take active speaking/preaching roles in the meeting, as long as certain customs were properly observed (11:2-16). The two ‘highest’ gifts or roles were that of: (1) apostle, i.e. the missionaries who were involved in the founding of the churches and their oversight; and (2) prophet, i.e. one who communicates the (revealed) word and will of God to the congregation. Cf. 1 Cor 12:28-31; 14:1ff, 24, 29-33, 37-39; Rom 12:6; Eph 4:11.

dia/kono$

The Greek word dia/kono$ (diákonos, “servant”) can range in meaning from a waiter of tables (cf. Acts 6:1-6) to a person who holds public office (including a religious office). It is used 21 times in the Pauline corpus, including 12 (or 16) times in the undisputed letters. In most instances, Paul clearly understands it, not as the title of an official position (i.e. deacon), but in the general sense of “minister”—that is, of Christ and the Gospel. He likely views it as partly synonymous with dou=lo$ (“slave”)—i.e. slave/servant of Christ, which Paul applies to himself (and others) frequently in his letters (Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10, et al). The word certainly has this general (Christian) meaning in Rom 16:1 (cf. the discussion in Part 4); 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; 6:4; 11:15, 23; Col 1:7, 23, 25; 4:7; and cf. Eph 3:7; 6:21; 1 Tim 4:6. It is also used in a general sense of Christ (Gal 2:17; Rom 15:8), and human (civil) authorities (Rom 13:4). Only in 1 Tim 3:8-12 does dia/kono$ likely refer to a distinct office (or official position) in the Church; on Phil 1:1, cf. below.

Philippians 1:1

Paul’s greeting in Phil 1:1 includes the somewhat unusual phrase (in italics):

“…to all the holy ones [i.e. “saints”] in (the) Anointed Yeshua {Christ Jesus}…(together) with (the) overseers and servants/ministers“.

Here Paul seems to distinguish two groups (or positions) that are set apart from the congregation as a whole. The second of these (dia/kono$, “servant”, i.e. ‘minister’) has been discussed above. The first word requires special comment.

e)pi/skopo$ (epískopos)—This word fundamentally means “one who looks (carefully) over something”. It occurs only five times in the New Testament (Acts 20:28; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:7; 1 Pet 2:25), but cf. also the related verb e)piskope/w (Heb 12:15; 1 Pet 5:2). This careful examination (“looking over”) is usually understood as being done by an authority or person appointed (as a representative) for such a task. The related noun e)piskoph/ sometimes has the specific meaning of the actual visit (or time of the visit) made for examination/inspection—in Jewish tradition, for the time God visits the earth for Judgment (Lk 19:44; 1 Pet 2:12). Acts 1:20 (citing Psalm 109:8) uses e)piskoph/ in the sense of a position (that of apostle), and so also in 1 Tim 3:1. The best translation for e)pi/skopo$ is “overseer”; it really should not be rendered in the New Testament as “bishop”, not even in the Pastoral letters.

The word is used only once in the undisputed letters of Paul (Phil 1:1), but also occurs in the context of early Christian (and Pauline) tradition in Acts 20:28. In that narrative setting, Paul is addressing the “elders” (presbu/teroi) of the churches of Ephesus, who have come to visit him, at his request, in Miletus (v. 17-18). Here is the instruction he gives them in verse 28:

“Hold (attention) toward yourselves and to(ward) all the herd [i.e. flock {of sheep}], in which the holy Spirit has set/placed you (as) overseers [e)pisko/pou$] to (shep)herd the congregation [e)kklhsi/a] of God, which he made (to be) round about (himself) [i.e. he acquired] through (his) own blood.”

Assuming that this reflects authentic historical tradition, it would correspond roughly to the time of Phil 1:1 (c. 60 A.D.). All that is really indicated here is that elders (certain of them at least) are to oversee the welfare and protection of the congregations, especially against false teaching. Their roles are described only generally in this regard. They are to continue and preserve/maintain the work done by the founding missionaries (Paul and the other apostles), and so act with some measure of (apostolic) authority, if only by example. One or more elders would fulfill this role for each congregation (usually a house-church) in each city or location. What of the situation implied by Paul in Phil 1:1? The fact that these two roles/positions—e)pi/skopo$ and dia/kono$—are not discussed anywhere else in the letter (nor really in any of the other [undisputed] Pauline letters) strongly suggests that we are still dealing with a very generalized distinction, which I would summarize as follows:

  • e)pi/skopo$ refers to the elder (or elders) who has come to exercise the leading role(s) in overseeing the congregation; these persons may have been appointed by Paul (or other apostles) and confirmed (presumably) through a ritual process involving the laying on of hands.
  • dia/kono$ refers to any/all persons exercising (leading) ministry roles in the congregation, presumably according to the spiritual “gifts” and abilities recognized in 1 Cor 12ff; Rom 12:6-8, etc.

Ephesians 4:11

Eph 4:11-12 contains a list of “gifts” similar to those in 1 Cor 12:4-11 and Rom 12:4-8, only the emphasis is not so much on the Spirit—rather they are said to have been given by Christ. Also, the various gifts in the earlier letters have been ‘replaced’, it would seem, by more clearly defined roles in the Church—five are listed:

(1) Apostles, (2) Prophets, (3) Preachers, i.e., those proclaiming the Gospel, (4) ‘Shepherds’, and (5) Teachers

The first two match the two ‘highest’ gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians, while preaching/proclamation of the Gospel and teaching are natural functions for any Christian minister. In early tradition, it seems clear that “shepherd” (poimh/n) is generally synonymous with e)pi/skopo$ (“overseer”), as attested both in Acts 20:28 (above) and in 1 Pet 2:25. Most likely, poimh/n was the older, and more widely used term, going back to Jesus’ own words and the Gospel tradition (regarding Peter, etc)—cf. Mark 6:34; 14:27 par; John 10:2-16; 21:15-17; 1 Cor 9:17; 1 Pet 5:2. The corresponding (traditional) word in English is “pastor”. It should be noted that many commentators believe that Ephesians is pseudonymous, serving as a kind of compendium of Pauline teaching, much as it is assumed for the Pastoral letters. Whether or not this view is valid, it does seem that this passage reflects some degree of development—i.e. a five-fold ministry instead of the more diverse ministerial roles indicated within 1 Corinthians. On the other hand, assuming Pauline authorship, it is possible that these five roles effectively summarize what Paul has in mind when he uses the term dia/kono$ (“servant”) to refer to the (leading) ministers in the Church.

2 Timothy and Titus

There is actually very little information regarding the structure and organization of the churches in these letters, which, perhaps, could be seen as an (additional) argument in favor of their authenticity (in contrast with 1 Timothy). In 2 Timothy, the focus is almost entirely on Paul’s (personal) instruction to Timothy. According to the (assumed) historical situation, Timothy would be serving as Paul’s (apostolic) representative, exercising authority and care over all the congregations in a particular region (trad. the area around Ephesus, cf. 1 Tim 1:3). He is exhorted to follow Paul’s example, and to preserve correct teaching and tradition (as it has been passed down to him). Very little detail is given with regard to ministerial roles in the churches, apart from a reference (in passing) to the practice of the laying on of hands (1:6). In Titus, the apostolic role is set out more precisely (Tit 1:5ff; 2:1ff), and several of the points of instruction are treated much more extensively in 1 Timothy; note especially:

  • The reference to the establishment of elders (presbu/teroi) in each town/congregation (1:5-6ff); such elders are called “overseer” (e)pi/skopo$), as in Acts 20:28 (cf. above). Cf. 1 Tim 3:1-13.
  • The guidelines on how to give instruction, and on the roles of men and women, etc., in the churches (2:1-10, cf. 1 Tim 2:1-10ff; 5:1-6:2).

In my view, it is incorrect to read a later, developed view of bishop into the reference to “overseers” in Tit 1:7ff. Here in Titus (and 1 Timothy), it is clear that the “elders” are understood as men (i.e. gender-specific), and perhaps also in Acts 20:17, etc. Interestingly, presbu/tero$ (whether singular or plural) is not used in any of the undisputed letters of Paul, only in the Pastorals (1 Tim 5:1-2, 17, 19; Tit 1:7).

1 Timothy

Here, in all of the New Testament writings, we find the clearest (and most extensive) information about specific ministry roles or positions in the Church. They are:

  • “Overseer” (e)pi/skopo$)—3:1-7
  • “Servant/Minister” (dia/kono$)—3:8-12
  • “Widow” (xh/ra)—5:2-16, i.e. female “elders”, ideally widows over the age of sixty, with a specific position and duties in the congregation
  • “Elders” (presbu/teroi)—5:17-20

Commentators continue to debate the precise meaning of e)pi/skopo$ (“overseer”) here. Much depends on one’s view of the authorship (and dating) of the letter. If it is authentically Paul’s work (and written before c. 64 A.D.), then it is likely that he is simply referring to the elder (or elders) appointed to oversee the congregation. On the other hand, a later (c. 80-110) pseudonymous writing may assume something closer to the bishop of subsequent ecclesiastical tradition—i.e., one who exercises authority over all the churches in a particular city or region, entailing a more direct hierarchical chain of government. According to the (presumed) historical setting of the Pastorals, only Timothy and Titus themselves, as Paul’s (apostolic) representatives, function in anything like this wider role. It is, I think, unwise to read the developed meaning of e)pi/skopo$ too readily into 1 Tim 3:1-7. Similarly, it is unclear whether, or to what extent, dia/kono$ (“servant/minister”) here fits the (later) office of deacon. The pairing of dia/kono$ with e)pi/skopo$ may simply be building upon the (earlier) terminology used in Phil 1:1 (cf. above). The “overseers” and “ministers” seem to be understood as gender-specific roles (1 Tim 3:2-5, 12); however, the reference to “women” in 3:11 could conceivably refer to female ministers (cf. Rom 16:1-2 and the separate note on v. 11). The widows (5:2-16) are generally the female counterpart to the (male) elders in 5:17-20.

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