I love history.
I love theology.
I love the Church
I love God’s Word.
Over the last several years I’ve been on a journey. I have begun to really dig into God’s Word and study. I’ve studied everything I could find in the pages of Scripture that I could make time for. The riches of God’s Word are so deep that I know I’ll spend the rest of my life studying the Word and never mine the depths of it fully; which is one of the reasons I love it so much.
Recently, as I have transitioned into being a full time pastor and events leading up to that, I have spent a great deal of time studying not only the Bible but also the history of the Church and what we call the Church Fathers. The church I am not pastoring is currently a non-denominational reformed church. One of the things I feel that we need to do as we grow is to explore denominational affiliation. We also need to address leadership in the church as it pertains to elders, deacons and so on. As such I have begun to dig deeply into some biblical texts that we traditionally turn to for governance of the Church. As I’ve studied what God’s Word has to say I have also turned to the Church Fathers and the historic practice of the Christian Church. See, I think that we fail ourselves and our churches when we don’t consider what Christians have been doing since the inception of the Church.
How the Church has historically done things matters. Now I think we can all agree (at least I hope we can) that Church history doesn’t trump what the Bible says. Fair enough?
So as I have considered what our church in Nashville will do, I have turned both to God’s Word and to historic Christian practice for guidance. First I want to interact with a specific text and talk about it as we read it and also to see how, historically, that text has been put into practice in the Church.
Our text is 1 Timothy 3-6. In this text, Paul lays out for Timothy how the Church is to be governed. Clearly, having planted most of these churches, Paul has a great concern with how they are governed; as should we.
So in this text, Paul lays out qualifications for leaders in the Church. Paul uses three distinct Greek words. Those words are episkope (which can be translated as overseer, bishop, pastor or even guardian), diakonos (translated as servant or deacon) and presbyteros (which can be translated as elder, old man or official). So Paul uses three distinct and different Greek words. Now many have said to me that those words denote two offices in the Church.
Here’s my problem. If those words Paul uses denote only two offices, why use three different and distinct words? Some will say that episkope and presbyteros are the same office and that those two distinct words merely denote different functions of the elder/pastor. Now I’m no Greek scholar and I understand nuance but if Paul was trying to say these are different functions of the same office, why not just say that? Why use two different words?
Commentators disagree over this. Some say Paul is denoting two offices with different functions while others say there are three clear offices Paul is setting apart. So in light of the scholastic disagreement, I looked at what the earliest practitioners of this thought and did. So I went to the Church Fathers.
Now, before you get all snarky about all their shortcomings, can we all just admit that Christian leaders throughout the history of the Church have had their faults and failures? I mean, even the great and revered Martin Luther had some sketchy views on Jews. Christ is our only perfect example; on that we should all be able to agree.
However, I think it is especially important for us to consider what the Church Fathers believed and practiced in light of, first and foremost, the biblical text and the fact that several of these guys were direct disciples of the Apostles. So then it would stand to reason that, if they were directly discipled and trained by the Apostles, they would be in touch with the teaching of the Apostles as it related to these things. Apostolic authority and succession should matter I think.
In fact, as early as the end of the 1st century, Ignatius (a disciple of John) was writing about bishops. Now, to be fair, the earliest concept of bishop was probably not as complex as we see now. There were probably far less elders to oversee and far less churches. Nevertheless, the practice and office of bishop was in use very early on in the Church. By the time of Clement (end of 2nd century) the office and duties of the bishop were clearly delineated from that of presbyter (priest or elder).
It would seem to me that some of the earliest forms of Church governance involved three offices; bishop, elder and deacon.
For my congregational friends, I know you’re going to push back immediately and that’s okay. Even my Presbyterian brothers and sisters will push back and again, that’s okay. But this is a serious question:
Did the first 1500 years of the Church get it wrong on issues of polity and governance? Now look, I agree that, by the time of the Reformation, things were really out of hand in the Roman church. They had gotten way off course. But it should be noted that Luther never had any intention of creating a schism in the Catholic Church. He wanted reform not denominational alliances.
We can all agree that the theology of the Roman church had veered far away from what the Bible teaches. But does that mean we throw the baby out with the bathwater? Do we jettison the whole thing because we disagree with some theological points? Luther didn’t think so.
I wonder if perhaps we, as Protestants, need a bit more humility. Maybe we need to admit that Church history matters and we shouldn’t took quickly reject some practices of the historic Christian Church because of a knee jerk reaction to “looking like Catholics.”
The Bible is the source of all truth and the foundation of Christian practice. On this I hill I will stand and die. But we cannot ignore Church history.
On Reformation Day, let’s be grateful for our rich Christian heritage and continue to reform our practices according to what God has given us by his Word.
Semper Reformada and Soli Deo Gloria!