1902 Encyclopedia > Christianity > Christian Office Bearers

(Part 21)

Christian Office Bearers

All throughout the New Testament we are reminded that the office-bearers exist for the community and not the community for the office-bearers, and this truth is enforced with emphasis when the diversity of office in the Christian church is made to depend upon diversity of gifts (Eph. iv. 4-16), and upon the appreciation of those gifts by the Christian community testified to in the process of election.

We get these two primary ideas therefore about the early Christian community, that possession of office meant the possession of gifts suitable for the edification of the community, and the; recognition of this fact by the people. In the New Testament the ordinary office-bearers in the Christian community have a variety of designations. They are called proistamenoi, presbyteroi, episcopoi, poimenes, and hegoumenoi [Gk.]; but all these names are used evidently to express the same kind of officers, for they are continually used interchangeably the one for the other. In the earlier times of Christianity the service was probably very simple, and the meetings were held in the houses of the first converts or of the officers of the little Christian community. In an old liturgy we find a rubric enjoining the deacons to order all mothers to take up their infants at a peculiarly solemn part of the worship, which shows us a picture of an early Christian assembly with the babies crawling peacefully over the floor during the greater part of the service.

Many controversies have arisen about the relation of these office-bearers to the community on the one hand, and to the apostles on the other. As the New Testament writings do not give us more than passing allusions to the mode in which the government of the Christian community was carried on, and describe it in action rather than give a detailed account of the principles on which it was founded and the way to apply them in practice, we may be expected to find there descriptions of the Christian organization at various stages of early development. Some have believed, not without great probability, that we have in the account of the choice and consecration of the seven men (Acts vi. 1-6) the beginning of the Christian organization on a distinct and separate basis of its own, and that these seven men were the first regularly chosen office-bearers in the early Christian community. These seven men were chosen to take charge of the charities of the small Christian community, and it is not difficult to see now from this how they came to rule the community. We find no trace of a distinct and separate election of elders or pastors; and it is worthy of note that the special service to which these men were appointed, viz., to take charge of the poor, is the work which we find the elders engaged in on the first occasion on which they are mentioned (Acts xi. 29-30). Habitual almsgiving was regarded as a religious service of no ordinary significance, and was specially enjoined on all true believers, and the men appointed to take charge of this must have held a very high position in the church. It is evident, besides, that the superintend of the charities involved a certain amount of disciplinary control, and so the other duties of the office-bearers in the Christian church naturally clustered around this one. The recipients of charity were to be suitable persons (1 Thess. v. 12-15; 1 Tim. v. 9-16); and we can easily see how gradually the benevolent oversight passed over into the rule of discipline, until men originally elected to regulate the benevolence of the community became the rulers of the church.

But whatever the earliest office-bearers were, and however they were chosen, it seems evident that their special function was to rule or to exercise discipline rather than to teach. In the apostolic church there seem to have been two kinds of teaching recognized, the apostolic announcement of the evangel and the preaching of the word. The latter was evidently at first open to all and sundry who had or who thought that they had the gift, and the only restriction placed upon indiscriminate exhortation was the command forbidding women to speak in public. The gift of preaching or exhortation was looked upon as a gift of the Spirit independent of office; and the earliest office-bearers were men who ruled rather than men who taught. Open preaching continued for a long time in the post-apostolic church, and is distinctly recognized in the so-called Apostolic Constitutions; but there are evidences in the New Testament that the practice had its inconveniences and was discouraged by the apostles. James warns heedless preachers that they take great responsibility upon them, and shall receive the greater condemnation (Jas. iii. 1), and Paul in several passages takes notice of the irregularities and unedifying confusion attending the practice. Hence we find the function of instruction at an early period engrafted on that of rule, just as the function of rule had grown out of that of oversight of the distribution of charity; and one of the special qualifications of elders of the church was aptness to teach. In the Epistles to Timothy we even find traces of a plan for giving a special education and training to young men who were set apart to prepare themselves for the office of elders who were to teach. In the post-apostolic Church we find another office quite distinct from the eldership, the office of deacon. The deacons in the post-apostolic church were officers who waited upon the bishop, and many have thought that the election of the seven men was really the election not of elders but of deacons; but there seems no reason to suppose this. The real warrant for the existence of the diaconate consists in the fact that the office and duties of the deacon correspond very nearly to those of the "ministers" of the synagogue, and also in the many scattered references in the New Testament to the existence of "young men" (one of the technical terms for the synagogue deacons), who waited upon the apostles. To sum up then, the office-bearers in the early Christian community were men selected by the voice of the congregation, and confirmed by the apostles, to administer the charities of the community; and to this primitive function there was added soon after the duty of oversight, leadership, or rule, and somewhat later the duty of providing for the proper teaching of the people.

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