Over-emphasized (?): Church Roles in 1Tim and Titus
Or, The Aging and Negative Development of Christian Thought
The letters known as First Timothy and Titus are typically the first points of investigation for anyone wanting to explore biblically based roles for elders/pastors/shepherds and deacons/servants. Other, possibly related bits may pop in from Acts 6, Hebrews 13, and other spots, but 1Timothy 3 and Titus 1 appear to house the most extended treatments of these roles.
It is not my intent here to examine the veracity of this or that document (as though I could).¹ I merely want to suggest a possibly altered view, sort of wondering out loud. Could it be that the probable later writing of Timothy and Titus compromises how we should see them? Do they suggest specific or rigid ideas about the church elder/pastor and deacon roles? Put another way: could it be that Paul’s and/or his trusted companions’ thoughts on these topics became crystallized, over-codified, or even obscured over a period of decades?
Earlier this week, I heard a fine Christian speaker put forward the idea that Paul must’ve been so proud of a church’s health because it had progressed to the point of having elders and deacons. From an institutional standpoint, I get that. But my negative view of hierarchies and most letterhead-designated roles has me doubting that cause/effect relationship. A movement may be responsive to developing needs in a cultural context, and the existence of recognized elders and deacons at Ephesus or Philippi might well have signified something positive. Still, the presence of designated leaders who have certain traits (or “qualifications,” preferred by some) does not necessarily imply progress, let alone proving a singular reason for Paul’s joy.
I myself feel gladness in learning of a church that has multiple leaders instead of a single pastor-in-charge, but an oligarchy is only a slightly better model for a church than a (human) dictatorship, no matter how benevolent. Mutuality and general Christian influence, a la Paul ⇒ Philemon, are more to be relied on than positional authority and power. Practically speaking, leaders will arise within groups, to one degree or another. Leadership has various faces, including some agreeable ones. The real problem is when one person, by virtue of a title and/or a position, has (or is seen as having) comprehensive or absolute authority.
In probing these things, I might ultimately reveal a bias toward original intent in terms of what church was to be, and how it was to go about its business. Whether we can accurately determine original intent or not, I should think Jesus’ and Paul’s and Peter’s (and James’s and Barnabas’s and Philip’s, etc.) ideas are inherently more valuable than the ideas of church leaders in the 3rd or 10th generation. I’d further assert that it may be observed, no matter one’s organizational, theological, or ecclesiological bias, that things changed notably by the second century CE—and even more so in the succeeding centuries. By the time of Constantine and Theodosius in the fourth century, important moorings had been sacrificed, and as the Dark Ages began, much light was lost for centuries.
Assuming for the moment the reality that things and situations do change over time, and further assuming that entropy plays a role here, would it not be rational to think that Paul’s ideas on “church governance” (for lack of a better term) could have gotten just a little over-codified or over-emphasized by a well-meaning person who collected some sayings and put together a document from memory, a decade or even a century after Paul’s death?
I take as a given that popery is a skewed manifestation of “church leadership” and that its appearance resulted in a centuries-long blight. [I also take as a given that there are some very sincere believers, some of whom I have been privileged to know, that remain attached, mostly for reasons of family history, to the Roman organization, but that is beside the point here.] I further assume that all highly “clerical,” hierarchical leadership patterns are more or less antithetical to principles of New Testament scripture. There are degrees of variance from the original, whatever the original was, but no de facto or de jure structure that employs positional power can be a good thing in the Lord’s eyes.
We are dealing here with substantive concepts around the nature of scripture, God’s sovereignty, and how God’s Spirit works in the ekklesia (called-out people who profess faith, i.e., the church). I believe in the reality of an open God who allows for human free choice. So, for instance, when I question how “original” and how important the 1Tim 3 description of a bishop/overseer is, I am necessarily dealing with the nature and provenance of scripture, but I am also assuming a sovereign God who chooses to allow changes and developments among His people. I’d actually prefer to put the nature of scripture and canon and God Himself on the sideboard, intending instead to place this question on the table in plain view: Could the elapsing of time have compromised some of the principled undergirding of various Christian writings, given that some documents were authored as early as 15 years after Jesus’ death, while others were not finalized for several decades? More specifically here, does Paul (and does Jesus?) expect that every growing, mature church will have such designated leaders as bishops and deacons, as described in two letters that were written into specific historical and cultural situations, sometime between 60 CE and 160 CE?
In general terms, I find that we may observe a negative impact on the status quo during the passage of time after the first and second generations of Christian believers.
B. Casey, 5/21/17, rev. 6/7/17
¹ The letters purportedly from Paul to Timothy and Titus are letters of disputed provenance. They might not have come as directly from the mind or dictation or pen of Paul as did Galatians and Philemon and 1Thessalonians and Romans, for example.