Monday, August 3, 2020

The Healthy Church

"Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers [bishops] and deacons" (Philippians 1:1)

We turn today to another of Paul’s prison epistles, this one to the Philippians. The church at Philippi must have been one of the happiest of the early churches. According to Acts 16:11–40, Paul found the few Jews and God-fearing Gentiles in Philippi meeting outside the city, which means that there was no synagogue there. In fact, the people he met were virtually all women. Thus, from the start the Philippian church was mainly made up of Gentiles, both former God-fearers and brand new converts. Unlike other churches, the Philippian church did not face the problem of reconciling Jew and Gentile, and evidently was not as much troubled by Judaizers. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is full of encouragement and contains no criticisms.

The first verse of Paul’s letter greets the saints and their leaders, who are called overseers (episkopoi, often translated “bishops”) and deacons. This verse is a “proof text” to show that a given church would have more than one bishop in it. The overseers of the local church (bishops) are also called elders, which means that the overseers should be spiritually mature men. It is clear that elders are bishops and bishops are elders in the New Testament.

Back in Exodus 18, however, we read that Israel was organized with elder-bishops over tens, hundreds, and thousands. Thus, the early church often had several elder-overseers in a given church, but also one elder-overseer presiding in the church, and another overseeing a larger area, such as a city and its environs. This city-overseer came to be called the bishop, while the others were called pastors (over congregations) and elders (within the churches). But this language, while historic and used in some denominations, is not the same as the actual language of the New Testament, where elder and bishop are used interchangably. In the same way, many churches ordain men as “elders” or as “teaching elders” who are in their twenties or thirties, hardly the “old men” of the New Testament.

We see from this diversity that the church has taken the general principle of oversight by wise men and has applied it in diverse ways, while keeping the fundamental principle intact.

Almost every local church is “run” by older men, whether they are called “elders” and hold office or not. There is value, however, in officially recognizing this and putting government in the hands of wise, trained men. Look at how your own church and denomination are organized, and consider how today’s lesson fits with it.