Odds ‘n Ends and the “Pastoral” Epistles

One of the things I’ve always found irritating is when Bible translators hide things from us. I remember the shock I got when I decided to research the Seraphim of Isaiah 6. Amazingly enough, the Hebrew word “seraphim” is used in more than Isaiah 6. It is found twice in Numbers 21, and once in Deut. 8:15, Isaiah 14:29, and Isaiah 30:6. However, outside of Isaiah 6 our Bible translators have actually translated it for us. The word means serpent or snake.

Now why don’t they bother to translate the word in Isaiah 6? I can only assume that they’re embarrassed to tell us that there are snakes in heaven. However, hiding things from us because they’re embarrassed or disagree is not a power I think any of us want to give to Bible translators.

It may seem strange that the snakes in Isaiah 6 have wings and are praising God, but in Isaiah 14:29 and 30:6 those snakes fly as well. At least the KJV thinks so, and the Hebrew word uwph used as an adjective in those two verses indicate those snakes fly as well. I like to call flying serpents dragons, and I think it’s neat that God has them in heaven. You’d think at least our Chinese brethren would like it, too.

One other place Bible translators decided to hide a word from us is in 1 Timothy 3. There we are introduced, for the first and only time in the Scriptures, to “the office of a deacon” (1 Tim. 3:10, KJV). The NASB, which just a chapter earlier considers it important to inform us in a note that “modestly” (2:9) is literally “with modesty,” doesn’t bother to mention that “serve as deacon” in 3:10 is one word, not three, and is translated serve, minister, or wait upon. Nor do they bother to tell us in 3:12 that the word “deacons” is found 29 other times in the New Testament but almost always translated servant. Somehow, though, it is important to tell us that, in the same verse, “good managers” is literally “managing well.” I suppose we might have been confused by the difference between “modestly” and “with modesty” or “good managers” and “managing well.” However, the difference between the invented word “deacon” and “servant” is apparently not of importance to us.

Well, now that I’ve gotten my complaints out about the things Bible translators hide from us and given my reasons for thinking they do it on purpose, let me get to the real point of this post. The two letters to Timothy and the letter to Titus are commonly called the pastoral epistles. Dr. Henry Clarence Thiessen, in his Introduction to the New Testament says, “It was in the 18th century that they were first called ‘Pastoral Epistles,’ and this title has been generally applied to them since that time” (p. 253).

Despite acknowledging this, though, I was delighted to find that Dr. Thiessen is aware that Timothy could not have been a pastor (p. 262; he says “bishop,” but I’ll address this in a moment). There are really only three words applied to “offices” in the church in the New Testament. The churches were led by episkopoi, variously translated as bishop or overseer and the equivalent of our English word “supervisor.” Their job is to shepherd (Gr. poimaino) the churches (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:4). Thus, they are clearly the ones referred to as shepherds or pastors (another unique translation of a common Greek word) in Eph. 4:11, because they are the ones told to shepherd.

In the New Testament, “elder” is used interchangeably with “overseer.” For example, the elders of Ephesus are told in Acts 20:28 that the Holy Spirit has made them overseers. In Titus 1:4, Titus is told to appoint elders in Crete, but two verses later he’s given the qualifications of an overseer. In 1 Pet. 5:2 elders are told to “exercise oversight” (NASB), which is the Greek episkopeo, the verb form of the noun “overseer.”

Thus, New Testament church leadership is limited to elders, who filled the “office” of overseer by shepherding the churches, and servants. Timothy and Titus were not elders; they were men who appointed elders. Dr. Thiessen calls Timothy “Paul’s temporary representative in his apostolic capacity at Ephesus” (p. 262) However, Paul had no problems simply referring to Timothy as an apostle (1 Thess. 1:1 with 2:6). Tertullian, around A.D. 200, refers to the companions of the apostles as “apostolic men” (Prescription Against Heretics 32; Against Marcion IV:2). Dr. Thiessen writes, “Zahn notes that Timothy’s position cannot be described as that of a bishop, for that was an office for life and confined to the local church” (p. 262) Timothy and Titus are best referred to as apostles, which appears to be Paul’s usage, or “apostolic men,” a later usage. Their job was to appoint elders to run the churches they were temporarily caring for so that they could move on to their next area of ministry.

It would be comfortable to say that this twofold leadership structure of elder/overseers and servants is what the Bible teaches, but history indicates things are not so simple. There is indication even in the Scriptures that John’s churches were structured differently, with individual rather than corporate leadership (3 Jn. 9,12; Rev.1:20), and the testimony of later history is even more firm. It is the universal testimony of the early Christians that Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna were appointed overseers of their respective churches by the apostle John and that as overseer, they were the chief elders of their churches.

The evidence that John really did appoint them as individual overseers in their churches is pretty interesting, so I’m going to tell you about it.

Both Ignatius and Polycarp left us letters. Polycarp left just one, to the church at Philippi, but Ignatius left us seven. All of Ignatius’ letters are to other churches that were founded or watched over by the apostle John but one. Ignatius wrote very early. His letters date from A.D. 110. John’s letters and Jesus’ letters (Rev. chs. 2 & 3) deal with gnostic influence in the churches, and Ignatius was still dealing with the gnostics just two to three decades later. Ignatius’ answer was to exhort the churches to stick closely to their overseer. Overseers should approve baptisms, be aware of love feasts, and in general be a source of unity and sound doctrine. This was Ignatius’ answer to heretical gnostic doctrines, and he emphasized it in all his letters.

All but one, that is. He wrote a letter to the church in Rome, where Paul had spent time and where Peter had settled down to serve as elder (1 Pet. 5:1,13 and the universal testimony of early church writers). In his letter to Rome, Ignatius never even mentions an overseer, one of those cases where the silence is deafening. Scholars have suggested that perhaps Rome’s overseer was either gnostic or had gnostic leanings, so Ignatius could not support him. The answer, though, is easier and not difficult to spot. Rome didn’t have an overseer. Rome was Peter’s church, and it was led by elders, not by an overseer.

Fortunately, we don’t have to guess if this was true. The church in Rome wrote a letter to the church at Corinth around A.D. 95. Supposedly, this letter was penned by the Roman overseer, Clement, and so it is named First Clement. However, the letter clearly states it is from the church at Rome, not from an individual, and it clearly described Paul and Peter’s form of leadership, not John’s. Chapter 42 of that letter, for example, says, “The apostles…appointed the firstfruits [of their labors]…to be overseers and servants.” Chapter 44 continues, “Our apostles also knew…there would be strife on account of the title of overseer….Our sin will not be small, if we eject from oversight those who have blamelessly…fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those elders who, having already finished their course, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure [from this world], for they have no fear that anyone will deprive them of the place now appointed them.”

The church at Rome, writing to another Pauline church, Corinth, uses overseers and elders interchangeably and speaks of both in the plural, just as we find Paul and Peter using the terms in the New Testament. Thus, it seems obvious that Ignatius, when writing to Johannine churches, spoke of an individual overseer, but did not mention such a person in his letter to Rome because there was no such person in Rome.

Polycarp, too, though he is addressed as an overseer in one of Ignatius’ letters, makes no reference to an overseer in his letter to Philippi, another Pauline church. Instead, he introduces himself to the Philippians as “Polycarp, and the elders with him,” and speaks of “being subject to the elders and servants.”

Thus, it seems clear enough that John had a different leadership structure in his churches than Paul and Peter. John’s churches had one overseer, “ranked” above the elders, and servants with them, while Paul and Peter’s churches had only elders and servants, the elders also being known as overseers.

The interesting sidelight of this is that Rome was Peter’s church. The Roman Catholics assert that the Roman bishop (or overseer) is the pope, God’s representative on earth, and Peter was the first pope, while Clement was the third, after Linus, who was between them. However, Rome had no overseer to be pope, and both Peter and Clement–assuming he wrote the epistle given his name on behalf of the church in Rome–left us writings so that we would know.

My blogs are usually long, but this one’s ridiculous. I hope that if you made it this far you found some of it interesting or useful. It’s one of my favorite subjects, though I’m not sure why.

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One Response to Odds ‘n Ends and the “Pastoral” Epistles

  1. Jason Fitzpatrick says:

    I was sad it ended so soon! Most hate to look at the fact that even the apostles were working things out. When Jesus was crucified the great apostles were stunned. They did not see it coming. They did not have a game plan or anything. Overseer and servant were common terms like you say that were spontaneously adopted so that the people could have an immediate idea of government among the brotherhood. I struggled with this at first because I wanted to find a universal “system” that could eliminate the working out my salvation with fear and trembling. I wanted a combo like at McDonald’s. I do not want to fear and I do not want to tremble but obviously this is not an option.

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