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Holman Bible Dictionary

Offices in the New Testament

Positions of leadership in the New Testament church including deacons , elders , pastors , apostles , bishops , and evangelists . In the New Testament, the concept of “office” speaks to functions and tasks, rather than status and position. Consequently, offices are dynamic rather than static and related to charismatic gifts of the Spirit rather than to the privileges of authority. Both the general terms used for “ministry” and the specific names and requirements of offices lead to this conclusion.

Many Greek words were available to describe Christian ministry. Some of these words, such as arche , from which comes the prefix in “archbishop,” focus on rule and headship. Others, such as leitourgia , the root of the word liturgy , were widely used in Greek culture to refer to public service, secular as well as sacred. With very few exceptions, however, the New Testament writers chose the term diakonia , a Greek term which denoted serving at tables and which was not used for religious service in either the Greek Old Testament or in contemporary Greek writings.

Throughout the New Testament, humble, even menial service is expected of those who lead in the name of Christ. Jesus used the analogy of a person reclining at a table and another serving, identified Himself as “one who serves,” and asserted that among His followers those who lead must likewise be servants (Luke 22:26-27; see also Matthew 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45 ). The clear implication is that, whatever the other qualifications for leadership may be, diakonia is the prerequisite.

The New Testament also clearly teaches that the call to follow Christ is a call to the responsibility of service, and the abilities for that service are gifts from God. All ministries are not the same. The most prominent image of the church's order is Paul's depiction of the church as a body (1 Corinthians 12:1 ). Just as the body depends on each member fulfilling its function, so the health of the church as a whole, and the ministry of individuals, depends on each member exercising the gifts that God has given. Every Christian has an office, a ministerial function to perform. The only head of the church is Christ. The order of the church is not based on a hierarchy of position and authority but on the faithfulness of the members in exercising their gifts of ministry.

Some offices are given names or descriptive titles in the New Testament, but it gives very little discussion of the job descriptions of the various offices and no indication of a ranking of them. The nature of some of the offices, of course, makes them more prominent in the life of the church.

Perhaps the most prominent New Testament office is that of apostle . See Disciples, Apostles. Although some of the apostles apparently remained in Jerusalem, the primary task of apostles was to spread the message of Christ. To accomplish that task many apostles, such as Peter and Paul, traveled widely, ministering to many churches rather than to one church.

Other officers whose tasks apparently were not limited to one church were prophets and evangelists . The prophets, similar to those in the Old Testament, were probably those who had demonstrated a gift for inspired preaching. Although some of those termed prophets spoke in tongues, Paul valued more highly those whose message was understood by the church (1 Corinthians 14:4-5 ). Since prophetic utterance involved a direct gift from God, prophecy carried a greater risk of abuse than most other offices. Consequently, Paul advised that prophets should be tested carefully (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21; 1 Corinthians 14:29-33 ). Very few prophets are mentioned specifically; among them are the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:8-9 ). Though many prophets seem to have not had a settled ministry (Acts 21:10-11 ), others, as evidenced by Paul's discussion in 1 Corinthians 14:1 , apparently exercised their gift within a local church. The term evangelist is used only three times in the New Testament, with reference to Timothy ( 2 Timothy 4:5 ), to Philip (Acts 21:8 ), and to a kind of spiritual gift (Ephesians 4:11 ). Although spreading the gospel was central to several offices, we do not have enough to know whether “evangelist” was regularly a distinct office.

Two offices which apparently appeared in almost every church, at least by the end of the New Testament period, were elder and deacon . Although the evidence is not clear and is variously interpreted, the office of bishop was probably originally equivalent to that of elder. The tasks involved in these offices are not as easy to outline as those of apostles and prophets. The qualifications for bishops (elders) indicate that the office included a wide range of pastoral and administrative functions. Elders should be mature Christians of good repute, with gifts for teaching and pastoral ministry (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9 ). Since the word translated “bishop” means “overseer,” it is natural to assume that a principal function of the office was to oversee the spiritual and physical life of the church. In every passage in which elders and/or bishops are mentioned, they appear to be ministers settled in local churches.

The word for deacon is derived from diakonia , the basic term for Christian ministry in the New Testament. The qualifications for deacons (1 Timothy 3:8-13 ) imply that they performed a wide variety of important services in their churches, including visiting the sick and administering relief funds. The name of the office also leads to the conclusion that deacons assisted in serving the Lord's Supper. The account of the appointment of the seven, who are not called deacons, may indicate the origin of the office (Acts 6:1 ), although some of the functions of the seven fit other offices equally well. The New Testament apparently refers to female deacons (Romans 16:1; 1 Timothy 3:11 , Williams). Ample evidence shows that female deacons were common in the second century. Similar in function to the female deacons, perhaps identical in some cases, were the widows. Apparently referring to a distinct office, 1 Timothy 5:5-10 gives instruction for enrolling in Christian service widows who had demonstrated their maturity and faithfulness.

Apostles , commissioned by Christ Himself, and prophets, whose gifts were directly and immediately from God, did not receive any additional commissioning ceremony from the church. Although there is very little direct evidence about the procedures and ceremonies involved, those who exhibited gifts for other ministerial tasks were chosen and commissioned by the churches. In some passages, the description of one's being set apart for a particular office includes reference to prayer and laying on of hands (see Acts 6:6; Acts 13:1-3 ). In these passages, the emphasis is on the presence of spiritual gifts from God and on the church's blessing the ministry of the one chosen. There is no evidence that the ceremonies conferred special rights or status.

In addition to the offices mentioned earlier, the New Testament mentions other tasks and the gifts for performing them. Teachers and the gift of teaching are mentioned often. Sometimes reference to a distinct office may be intended ( 1 Corinthians 12:28 ), but in many cases teaching was apparently a function of the elders (1 Timothy 3:2 ), as well as the apostles and perhaps the prophets. Pastors are mentioned only once ( Ephesians 4:11 ) in a list of those with spiritual gifts. Apparently the elders (bishops) and deacons were charged with pastoral functions. Performing miracles, healing, helping, and speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 12:28 ) are among the other tasks mentioned for which God has supplied spiritual gifts. Though these tasks may not have involved regular distinct offices, they were important ministerial functions in the early church.

The New Testament clearly teaches that all followers of Christ share in the responsibility of service. In Christ, no one has a special status which separates an officer from the regular members. All have gifts of service, and all must serve. The whole church is a royal priesthood; the only head of the church is Christ. Every member has an “office,” whether or not that office is considered “official.”

Fred A. Grissom


Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Offices in the New Testament'. Holman Bible Dictionary. http://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/view.cgi?n=4685. 1991.

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