Themes in Philippians (Lesson 3)
Elders and Deacons | Philippians 1:1
In this lesson, we’ll examine Philippians 1:1 as a key passage for understanding the two main church offices: overseer/elder and deacon.
“To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.”
From Philippians 1:1
Known as one of the "prison epistles," Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians while under house arrest in Rome. The purpose of the letter was to thank the Philippians for their support, to encourage them to stand firm in their faith while promoting unity and joy in the midst of suffering.
However, we don’t want to skip over an important lesson that relates to how the church was to be governed.
Although the New Testament church was not designed nor intended to be a theocratic, geopolitical state as Israel was in the Old Testament, we would expect thre to be some kind of order and structure for leadership. This is, in fact, what we see in the offices of overseer/elder and deacon.
In the New Testament, the Greek term episkopos is often translated as "overseer" or "bishop."
The concept of "elder" (Greek: presbyteros) is closely related to the role of overseer. Another Greek term, poimen, is the word for shepherd and is often translated pastor. While each has a distinct nuance, overseer, bishop, and pastor/shepherd, are often used interchangeably.
The office of overseer/elder/bishop/pastor has several key functions and responsibilities:
Spiritual leadership and pastoral care. Overseers/elders are responsible for guiding the spiritual growth and well-being of the congregation, providing counsel, and caring for the spiritual needs of the members.
Teaching and safeguarding doctrine. As leaders in the church, overseers/elders have a responsibility to teach sound doctrine and guard against false teachings.
Maintaining order, unity, and discipline within the church. Overseers/elders, charged with ensuring that the congregation maintains order, unity, and peace, must address necessary discipline issues that may arise within the community.
Paul outlines the qualifications for overseers/elders in his pastoral epistles, 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. These qualifications include being above reproach, temperate, self-controlled, hospitable, able to teach, and having a good reputation with outsiders.
The Greek term diakonos is translated as "deacon" and refers to a servant or helper.
The role of deacon likely originated in the early church as described in Acts 6:1-6, where seven men were chosen to assist the apostles in addressing the practical needs of the congregation.
Deacons have several key functions and responsibilities:
Assisting overseers/elders in practical tasks. Deacons support the work of overseers/elders by taking care of logistical and administrative tasks, allowing overseers/elders to focus on spiritual leadership.
Ministering to the physical and material needs of the congregation. Deacons are responsible for addressing the practical needs of the congregation, such as caring for the sick, providing for the poor, and organizing communal meals.
Promoting unity and service within the church. Deacons foster a spirit of service and unity among church members, encouraging them to use their gifts and talents for the benefit of the entire community.
In 1 Timothy 3:8-13, Paul provides a list of qualifications for deacons, including being respectable, honest, not indulging in excessive alcoholic beverages, and not pursuing dishonest gain. Deacons should also hold to the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience and be proven in their service to the church.
By addressing his letter to "all God's holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons," Paul recognizes overseers/elders and deacons as distinct groups within the church leadership with unique roles and responsibilities. By addressing both offices, we see the importance of their complementary roles in maintaining spiritual health and unity in a local church.
It is important to note that overseers/elders are not the ultimate leaders in a local church.
Jesus is the head of the church and the ultimate authority in all matters related to it (Colossians 1:18, Ephesians 1:22-23). As such, he oversees and directs the work of His people, including the roles of overseers/elders and deacons.
In fact, the apostle Peter calls Jesus the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). So, even lead or senior pastors today are only under-shepherds, or assistant pastors, to the true Senior Pastor, Jesus. He is not only the Chief Shepherd but the Good Shepherd, who laid his life down on a cross to save his sheep from their sins.
In terms of being the ultimate deacon, Jesus himself modeled the role of a servant by washing His disciples' feet (John 13:1-17), revealing not only the importance of humility and service in the church but the value of such service for the benefit of others.
How does the office of overseer/elder differ from that of deacon?
What are the key responsibilities of each office?
How do overseers/elders and deacons work together to maintain the spiritual health of a local church?
In what way is Jesus the chief overseer/elder?
How is Jesus the ultimate deacon?
How is each office valuable and necessary?
Dear Heavenly Father,
We thank you for our Senior Pastor, Jesus, the Good Shepherd who laid his life down on a cross to rescue us.
We pray for those who are called to these positions of leadership, that they may be above reproach, humble, and compassionate, and able to guide and care for your people with wisdom and integrity.
May we each use our gifts and talents to serve and bless others as we’ve been blessed.
For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.