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The Officers of the Church

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Philippians 1:1

The Officers of the Church

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons…[1]


earch ever so diligently throughout the whole of the annals of the New Testament and you will discover that there is to be found not even a single “executive minister” set over the churches.  Read ever so carefully, and you will be astonished to find that there is no “area minister,” no “senior pastor,” nor even an “associate pastor.”  Within the churches, there are deacons and there are elders.

This is not to deny that the aforesaid individuals may play a valid—even a significant—role in the life of the churches.  It merely points out that such officers are a human invention.  This leaves us wondering just who the officers of the churches may be, to say nothing of officers for the churches, that is to say, the denominations.

 “Officers” is perhaps a loaded term, freighted with unintended implications.  To speak of “officers” implies, in the estimate of many, authority or power.  When speaking of the officers of the church, we don’t necessarily imply any such thing.  To be sure, the officers of the church possess a measure of authority, but it is a divinely delegated authority which must be exercised cautiously and within specific parameters, and such authority is bounded by responsibility imposed by the One delegating that authority.

Instead of hearing “authority” whenever the officers of the church are discussed, I would rather that the people of God would hear “responsibility,” “order” and “function.”  Of course, human government expects certain officers in an organisation to ensure order.  Since human government is established by God, we should not be surprised that church governance reflects a similar degree of order.

The message for this day is designed to provide an explanation of the officers of the church, and to reflect on the governance of the congregation in light of the leadership which God provides.  In order to accomplish this admittedly large task, I invite careful attention of one verse of Scripture found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Under the direction of the Spirit of God, the Apostle instructs us as he greets that church.

The Letter is Addressed to the Church.  I hesitate to state the obvious.  However, note the addressees of the letter.  It is addressed to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi.  I am compelled to make the observation that there exists a heresy among far too many of the people of God.  It is a heresy which exists primarily because His holy people are untaught.  That heresy states: “pastors come and pastors go, but the church remains.”  I suppose that those reciting this affirmation mean that they have “hired” a number of pastors during their days within a particular church, and the pastors did what they were told to do and then left after a decent interval.  If the pastors did not leave voluntarily, as good pastors are supposed to do, then the church “fired” them and then asked the denomination to help them “hire” another pastor.

In no small measure, this condition exists because we have forsaken a truth to which we Baptists give lip service.  We speak of the autonomy of the local congregation, and then we “delegate” a significant portion of that autonomy to our various unions, fellowships or conventions.  We say that an association is a co-operative venture, but most unions have no reservation about intervening in local congregational affairs.

I immigrated to Canada under the auspices of another Baptist group, recognised for its insistence upon the autonomy of the local congregation.  I laboured to restart a moribund congregation in the Lower Mainland of this province.  After almost three years, I went on holiday.  While I was on holiday, the Associational Director of Missions seized the opportunity to demand a meeting with the congregation.  This action was a serious breach of Baptist polity since he was not even a member of that congregation.

Under Baptist polity, a congregation may exercise discretion in permitting a non-member to attend a congregational meeting, but that guest would have limited rights to speak or no right to vote.  Certainly, that denominational leader had no authority either to demand or to call a meeting, much less preside at that same meeting.  Underscore this truth in your mind, denominational leaders attend congregational meetings at the discretion of the church, and they may speak only at the discretion of the church.

When I confronted this associational leader, who has since become an author of some notoriety, he excused his action by saying, “Some of us at headquarters were concerned that the church might sell this property and move.  We decided that we need a church in this area.  So we took action to ensure what needed to be done.”  Thus, by his action he actually denied Baptist polity and believes that denominational leaders, situated at a distance from the local situation, are better able to make decisions then is the local congregation.  In this, he was not so very different from any number of denominational leaders.  While affirming Baptist principles, he was prepared to violate those same principles if the potential outcome benefited his particular view.  While that is fine post-modern philosophy, it is poor theology, and an utter denial of Baptist principles.

In addressing the local congregation at Philippi, Paul gives tacit approval to the principle that our Lord established a church and not a denomination.  In particular, notice that in his greeting, Paul addresses two groups of readers.  He addresses the church at large—all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, and he addresses special individuals within the congregation—with the overseers and deacons.

I must note that we are saints in Christ Jesus.  Our standing as Christians is because we are in Christ.  We who confess Christ as Lord, who have openly identified with Him since believing, are called His saints.  We have been set apart for God’s own purpose that we might worship Him and serve Him.  This church is identified as the saints.  Saints are set apart by Christ at conversion, and they are in the process of becoming like Christ.  The term thus reminds the church of its special status in God’s redemptive plan.[2]

As an aside of greatest significance, there is no unbaptised Christian to be discovered in the whole of the New Testament.  Those who believed immediately sought to identify with Christ the Lord.  I point out this truth to confront you who say you have trusted Christ and who yet hesitate to obey His call to baptism.  If you have believed, you are responsible to obey the call of the Master to be baptised.

Now, note that included among the saints are the overseers and deacons.  These gifted individuals are not tangential to the church, but they are rather integral.  As Paul writes, he uses the Greek preposition σὺν which would normally be translated with as in our text, but the meaning would be together with or including.  Peter O’Brien writes, “the preposition is to be taken inclusively, ‘to all the saints, including the overseers and deacons,’ not exclusively, that is, ‘ to all the saints together with all the overseers and deacons,’ for the latter implies that they are not to be numbered among ‘all the saints in Christ Jesus.”[3]  The Philippians are reminded at the outset of this letter that “God is not the author of confusion, but of order, in the churches of His saints.”[4]

I must clarify for you an issue of some importance.  I am a Baptist by conviction.  To say that I am a Baptist is not, however, to identify with a denomination.  Yes, there are a number of Baptist denominations, but the term Baptist was not chosen by the people called Baptists.  The name “Baptist” was conferred by religious societies opposed to those holding to that doctrinal position which is defined as Baptist.  Therefore, the term “Baptist” defines a doctrinal position.  Included among those biblical doctrines which defines one as a Baptist is an understanding that Christ established a church and not a denomination.  Therefore, a true Baptist will not weaken the autonomy of the local congregation, but instead will promote and defend the autonomy—self-governance and moral independence—of the local congregation.

Overseers and Deacons are the Sole Named Officers.  The reference to overseers and deacons is unique, for apart from the Pastoral Epistles neither ἐπισκόποις nor the related πρεσβυτέρους (“elder”) appears in the Pauline corpus; and even in the Pastoral Letters “overseers and deacons” are not coupled in this way.[5]  In his first letter to the Corinthian church and in his encyclical which we know as Ephesians, Paul names apostles, prophets, pastor-teachers, and evangelists, but there is no mention of overseers or deacons.  Were these official groups within the Philippian church only?  Or were they groups found among all the churches?  Furthermore, why should they be singled out in this manner?

Ἐπίσκοπος in classical Greek meant an overseer, and was used to describe a deity as one who kept watch over a country or a people.  The title was also given to men who held a responsible position within the state.  The term was later extended to religious communities.[6]  God charges each member of the congregation with responsibility to keep the church in the way.  Hebrews 12:15, addressed to the entire congregation, clearly states, See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.  Despite this charge to the entire congregation, the early church received by Christ’s appointment certain men charged with responsibility for spiritual oversight of the church.  These gifted men were spoken of by various terms, including, pastors, elders and overseers.

In 1 Peter 2:25, Christ our Lord is spoken of as the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls.  The description is deliberate, since the terms are connected, both in the Old Testament [cf. Numbers 27:16, 17 (Septuagint)[7]] and in the New Testament [cf. Acts 20:28][8].  “Oversight means loving care and concern, a responsibility willingly shouldered.”[9]  Just as the term was applied to Christ and His love for the churches, so the term came to be applied to those who gave themselves to fulfil His work within the churches.  These titles—shepherd or pastor, overseer, elder—were first applied to Christ and then to those whom Christ appointed to His work providing spiritual oversight of His people.

The term “overseers” refers to the elders of the church.  Coenen goes on to note that “at first [the term ‘overseer’] was … synonymous with that of ‘shepherd’ and ‘elder’ and the ideas associated with them.”[10]  That this is the case becomes evident from reading the various texts which bear on this title.  Consider the words of Titus 1:5-9.

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.  For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.  He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.  He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

Paul assigned Titus the task of appointing elders in every town.  Then, in verse seven, he speaks of those appointed as overseers.  It should be obvious that the two titles are employed for the same person.  In Acts 20:28, Paul is addressing the Ephesian elders [see Acts 20:16].  Moving toward the conclusion of his review of ministry among them, he issues this charge.  Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

The Ephesian elders were functioning as overseers.  Moreover, the English phrase to care for translates the Greek infinitive ποιμαίνειν, which is usually translated into English as to shepherd[11].  Overseers are elders, and elders are overseers.  Moreover, they are the pastors of the church, or if you prefer, they are shepherds of God’s flock.  I must refer you to one further passage of the Word found in Peter’s First Letter.

I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.  And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.  Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders.  Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” [1 Peter 5:1-5].

Peter is specifically addressing the elders of the churches among the Diaspora[12].  These elders are charged to shepherd [pastor] the flock of God.  They are to exercise oversight of the flock of God.  What is significant is that Peter uses all three concepts—pastoring, overseeing, and serving as elders—in application to the same group of individuals.

The study is not exhaustive, but it does demonstrate that the spiritual leaders of the congregations were the elders of the churches.  Those elders were also known as pastors or overseers.  The term “elder” appears to refer to the respect accorded the position within the Community of Faith.  The term “pastor” would appear to speak of the daily work of guiding the people of God.  The term “overseer” would seem to refer to the responsibility to protect the flock through guarding against error.

Appealing to Scripture, deacons have a less well-defined role, nevertheless, they do have a role which is vital to the spiritual health of the churches.  Other than the text before us, deacons are specifically mentioned in only one passage—1 Timothy 3:8-13.  This does not mean that we are ignorant of the duties of deacons or that we cannot discover what role they played in the early congregations.

The term “deacon” is derived from the Greek term which means “to serve” or “service,” depending upon whether we employ the verbal or noun form of the word.  Servanthood is esteemed by Christ, and consequently, expression of a servant attitude is valued among the churches.  To fully understand the importance of the concept of service, I believe it beneficial to introduce another term—“bond-servant” or “slave.”

“Deacon” comes from the Greek διάκονος.  “Bond-servant” translated the Greek δου̂λος.  Whenever the Bible speaks of an individual as a “bond-servant of Christ,” the stress is upon the complete submission to Christ as Lord.  Indeed, we who are called Christians are responsible to be in full subjection to Christ as Master of life.  However, when the Word speaks of us as servants, it is concerned with our service for the church, service to our brothers and sisters, or service within the fellowship.[13]

The word διάκονος is often translated into English by “minister.”  Indeed, each Christian is to have a ministry and thus each Christian is to be a minister of Christ, serving the flock through exercise of the particular ministry which God assigns.

Neither 1 Timothy 3:8-13 nor our text specifically address the role of deacons.  In order to establish the role of these ministers of the Body, we must study the Word in that original tongue.  Paul refers to himself as a “deacon” on numerous occasions.  He refers to himself as a minister of the Gospel [Ephesians 3:7].  In 1 Corinthians 3:5, he speaks of himself as a servant through whom the Corinthians believed.  In 2 Corinthians 3:6, he designates himself as a minister of the new covenant.  In Colossians 1:25, he is a minister of the church.  In each case, he speaks of himself as a deacon.  From this, we naturally assume that those who are deacons must be prepared to serve Christ and His people.

Throughout his letters to the churches, Paul speaks of his various companions and helpers who stood with him in the work on behalf of the churches as deacons.  Tychicus is called a deacon [Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 4:7], as are Epaphras [Colossians 1:7] and Timothy [1 Thessalonians 3:2].  Each is commended for sharing in the labours conducted on behalf of the churches.

Specifically, the role of deacons is discovered through careful study of Acts 6:6.  Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.  And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.  Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.  But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”  And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch.  These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

Though the title, “deacon,” is not used in this pericope, the verbal form of the word [διακονει̂ν] and the noun “ministry” [διακονίᾳ] is used.  What is apparent is that those chosen by the church were to bear responsibility for a particular service.  The Apostles would devote themselves to the ministry of the Word and those chosen by the church to serve tables would devote themselves to ministry to the widows within the congregation.  There was a division of labour between those appointed by God to the ministry of the Word and those appointed by the church to the ministry of the church.

Deacons in the primary references of Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8-11 are linked with the elders.  From this, one might reasonably infer that they are assistants or helpers of the elders.  “They do what the elders request them to do to assist them in the ministry of the church…  The work of deacons is a spiritual work as they assist the elders in their ministry in the assembly.”[14]  Certainly, the qualifications of deacons are spiritual qualifications, differing little from those required of elders.  However, the references we have which appear to refer to the duties of deacons speak of practical and benevolent service to the churches.  Nevertheless, the deacons appear to work under the leadership of the elders to accomplish whatever the church deems important.

Further study of the Greek New Testament reveals that the noun διακονίᾳ is used when referring to the giving of financial aid [2 Corinthians 8:4; 11:8; Romans 15:25].  Likewise, the word is used in speaking of benevolence toward members of the assembly [Acts 6:1] and of personal assistance with regard to temporal needs or in evangelistic and missionary efforts [e.g. Acts 19:22; 2 Timothy 4:11; Revelation 2:19].[15]

Stam continues by noting that the salutation of Philippians 1:1 “seems to refer to the diaconate as a specific and relatively defined function within the congregation … perhaps … in administration of the contribution for which Paul thanks the Philippians.”  He also notes that “the requisites for the choice of deacons fit those required for the administration of congregational funds and for house-to-house visitation, two functions typically ascribed to the deacon in patristic literature.”[16]  He supports his conclusions by referring to the writings received as “Apostolic Traditions” purported to have been penned by Hippolytus of Rome.  Regardless of the validity of this work, it does provide insight into ancient practise current by the second century a.d.

Considering the information we have received, we have learned that deacons are to serve under the direction of the elders, fulfilling whatever tasks the church designates.  The general areas of responsibility assigned to deacons would include conduct of benevolent ministries of the church, administration of the finances of the congregation and care for the physical plant of the church.  Deacons are spiritual leaders in that they are mature Christians and in that they exhibit willingness to witness to the grace of God, seeking to win the lost as opportunity presents itself [e.g. Stephen [Acts 7:51, 52] and Philip [Acts 8:5-8, 26-40]].

Overseers and deacons appear to be normative for the churches.  Early in the history of the churches, these offices were present, as witnessed from our brief reading both of the New Testament and of church history which serves to inform us of the offices of elders (overseers) and deacons.

There is one final issue which will be developed during future studies of this topic—the appointment process.  It is perhaps sufficient at this point to note that elders (overseers) are appointed by God and received by the congregation.  The modern practise of “calling” a pastor has scant basis in Scripture.  Elders come from within the congregation, being raised up by God for His work.  Furthermore, throughout the Word, the norm appears to be a plurality of elders in each of the churches.  The practise of having a "senior pastor” and “associate” or “assistant” pastors finds no support in the Word.  I haven’t time to detail how we arrived at our current state, but I am certain that the accepted practise among contemporary Baptists is lacking Scriptural support.

Just as elders (pastors) are appointed by God and received by the churches, so deacons are sought out by the membership of the churches who are effectively charged to recognise the work which God has been performing among them.  The criteria for approval of those who would be deacons is detailed in 1 Timothy 3:8-13, whilst the attributes sought in elders are detailed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9 and 1 Peter 5:1-5.

I trust you are comfortable with the thought that the standard among the churches of the New Testament was that overseers and deacons served as officers of the congregations.  That there was a plurality both of elders and deacons in each church appears to have been the normal practise.  We will study this point in greater detail in a future message.  This does leave unanswered the question, why should Paul single out the overseers and deacons in this sole letter?

Among the suggestions which have been advanced are the following.  Some have suggested that the overseers and deacons were imprisoned, and Paul singled them out to encourage them.  Since there is no other evidence of this elsewhere in the New Testament, this suggestion lacks validity.  Others have speculated that the overseers and deacons were the evangelists of the congregation.  However, since evangelism is incumbent upon each Christian, this does not appear to be a convincing argument.  Others have thought that Paul received a letter from the Philippians which stressed a difference between the ordinary believers and the office bearers, and is thus delivering a subtle rebuke by this means.  If this is the case, the rebuke is so subtle as to be missed even by the first readers of the letter.  An ancient explanation, going all the way back to Chrysostom, has suggested that these leaders were responsible for sending Epaphroditus with the financial gift to Paul.  Though this explanation has a measure of plausibility, there is no mention of these office bearers in Philippians 4:10-20 where Paul expresses gratitude to the entire church.

The best explanation which I can advance, and the explanation which satisfies me, is that Paul is at the outset expressing his regard for the church leaders in light of the criticism which will soon follow.  There were needs in the church which had to be considered.  It would be the overseers and deacons who would bear responsibility for the tasks which the Apostle would assign.  Paul is, in effect, preparing them to tackle the difficult tasks which are about to be exposed.

This church is growing, and with that growth comes change.  Anticipating change, we have embarked on a mission of seeking out God’s elders as we prepare for the future.  Join me in praying that God will raise up godly men, called and equipped to provide wise leadership for the people of God.  Pray with me that God will equip these gifted servants to fulfil His purposes for this congregation.  Pray with me that as He works in our midst we will see the evidence of His perfect work through growth in unity and through advance of His Kingdom.  This is, after all, what we seek as a congregation.

It is that Kingdom work which motivates us.  Our God is awesome.  He is Creator of the heavens and the earth.  He gives us our being and our very lives.  It is on this basis that we call each individual to trust in Him as God.  He has presented His Son as a sacrifice in the place of your sin.  If, somehow, you have failed to embrace this Jesus as Master of your life, our invitation to you is to believe this Good News today.

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.  For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”  For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.  For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” [Romans 10:9-13].

May God bless you as you openly confess Him as Master of life.  Our prayer is that you will boldly stand for the Faith which you have embraced, proving obedient to His call to identify with Him in believer’s baptism and proving faithful in uniting with His holy people to further the work which He has assigned to all calling themselves by His Name.  Amen.


[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Ó 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Richard R. Melick, Jr., The New American Commentary, Vol. 32, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Broadman Press, Nashville, TN 1991) 49

[3] Peter T. O’Brien, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, The Epistle to the Philippians (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI 1991) 48

[4] Charles John Vaughn, Epistle to the Philippians (Klock & Klock Publishers, Inc., Minneapolis, MN, 1872, reprinted 1985) 9

[5] O’Brien, op. cit., 46-47

[6] Lothar Coenen, Bishop, Presbyter, Elder (art.) in Colin Brown (ed.), The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. One (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI 1967, 1969, 1971) 189

[7] The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament and Apocrypha (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI 1851, 1978)

[8] Barbara and Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, and Bruce M. Metzger, Novum Testamentum Graece (27th Edition), (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart, Germany, 1898, 1993)

[9] Lothar Coenen, op. cit., 191

[10] Lothar Coenen, op. cit. 191-192

[11] e.g. New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation.  Used by permission.

[12] cf. 1 Peter 1:1

[13] K. Hess, Serve, Deacon, Worship (art.) in Colin Brown (ed.), The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. Three (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI 1971, 1978) 548

[14] John H. Fish, III, The Life of the Local Church: The Structure, Ministry and Functions of the Church, The Emmaus Journal, vol. 6, no. 1, Summer, 1997, 3-43, electronic ed. Garland, TX: Galaxie Software, 1999.

[15] cf. John Stam, Deacon, Deaconess (art.), in Merrill C. Tenney, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. Two (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI 1975, 1976) 49

[16] Stam, ibid.

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