Tuesday, August 11, 2015

D.A. Carson: Some Reflections on Pastoral Leadership

Some Christian traditions—for example, Roman Catholics, Anglicans—hold that there are three biblically mandated offices in the church: bishop (overseer), pastor/priest/elder, and deacon. In the “high” church tradition, it is the unbroken line of duly consecrated bishops that actually defines the true church. The ground of this view is often found in the famous dictum of Ignatius toward the beginning of the second century: Where the bishop is, there is the church. Most recognize today that a more faithful rendering might be: Where the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be (Smyrn. 8:2)—which sounds a tad less definitional.1 In any case, the argument that the New Testament documents recognize only two church offices, viz. the bishop/elder/pastor, and the deacon, is by far the more common view among “low” churches, and, as everyone in the field knows, was nowhere better defended than by the Anglican J. B. Lightfoot in his commentary on Philippians.

Although the question—two offices or three—continues to be discussed from time to time, it rarely occupies center-stage in contemporary ecclesiastical discussion. The primary NT passages that tie together bishop, elder, and pastor are Titus 1:5–9, which unambiguously connects elder and bishop, and 1 Peter 5:1–4, which links all three descriptors (clear in the Greek text, not in all our translations). Because διάκονος (“deacon”) is commonly used to describe how all Christians must serve, a handful of scholars do not see “deacon” as a second office. But the context of passages such as 1 Timothy 3:8–10 suggests that the word “deacon” is not a terminus technicus, but can in the right context refer to a church-recognized office, even if in other passages it serves as a generic term for Christians.

My interest at the moment is not whether there is one office (as Benjamin J. Merkle maintains)2 or two, but in the office which in the NT is covered by all three terms: bishop/overseer, elder/priest, and pastor. To simplify the discussion a little, I shall choose overseer over bishop because the latter has become, in English, a technical term that refers to an ecclesiastical officer with jurisdiction that reaches over more than one local church (at least in White-American circles; this is less commonly the case in African-American circles). I shall choose elder over priest, because, despite the persistent efforts of some of my “low” Anglican friends to remind me that the word “priest” comes from the Greek πρεσβύτερος via the Latin presbyter, in modern usage, at least in most circles, “priest” translates ἱερεύς, and conjures up images of mediation that belong, under the new covenant, exclusively to Jesus Christ, or, paradoxically, to all believers, but not to restricted office holders. Keep reading

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