Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Functional or Official?: "Bishops and Deacons" in Philippians 1.1

In my last post I had this brief comment regarding the unusual appearance of ἐπισκόποις καὶ διακόνοις ("bishops and deacons")in Phil 1.1:

The only occurrence of ἐπίσκοπος in the undisputed Paulines (cf. 1 Tim 3.2; Tit 1.7). Probably the term refers to a function rather than an official position.

Originally, when I had made this comment, I was thinking along the lines of a highly developed position that is evinced in the Apostolic Fathers (e.g. 1 Cl. 42:4f; I.Ph.l. 10:2; I.Ph. 10:2; Herm. Vis. 3 5:1; Did. 15:1).

In a moment, I will nuance my original statement above. But first, let's look at the noun ἐπίσκοπος. Originally, I translated the last part of 1.1 "...with the bishops and deacons." Maybe the translation of ἐπίσκοπος as "bishop" is a bit misleading here (see NRSV). Perhaps a better rendering for ἐπίσκοπος would be "overseer" is a bit more accurate (see NIV, NAS). Towner, in referring to 1 Timothy 3.2, states the problem well:

It seems preferable to avoid the translation 'bishop' since this term carries so much later ecclesiastical baggage with it (Towner; 244).

In the LXX, the term ἐπίσκοπος seems to place the emphasis on the role or function of the overseer (e.g. Num. 4:16; 31:14; Jda. 9:28; Jdg. 9:28; 2 Ki. 11:15,18; 12:12; 2 Chr. 34:12,17; Neh. 11:9,14,22; 1 Ma. 1:51; Isa. 60:17; see Fee; 68). Moreover, the NT emphasis also seems to share this accent on the function rather than a titular nuance (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:7; 1 Pet. 2:25).

This point, however, is not to deny that ἐπίσκοπος was a distinguishable position within the community. One needs to look no further than the distinguishing preposition σύν ("with"). In other words, they ("overseers and servants") are singled out from the rest of the community as they are distinguished from "those who are in Philippi." This demarcation Check Spellingwould be pointless if the position were not a recognized one in the Philippian community. Therefore my opinion on this verse should have read "Probably the term emphasizes the function rather than the title of recognized members of the community." Or as Fee states: While one need not doubt the titular implications of this usage, the accent is on function (Fee; 68).

The question remains, however, why does Paul single these two groups out? Is it to prepare the way for the rebukes and criticisms that occur in the body of the letter? (Silva; 41; O'Brien 49-50). Fee points the way to Phil 4.2-3, "where Euodia and Syntyche, who are most likely to be reckoned among these leaders, apparently are not in full accord with each other" (Fee; 69).

Whether one agrees with Fee's assessment or not, it seems safe to suggest that Paul has included the leaders in his salutation to remind the community of their place in Christ.


Fee, Gordon D. Paul's Letter to the Philippians. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

O'Brien, Peter T. The Epistle to the Philippians. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991.

Silva, Moises. Philippians. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. 2d ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Towner, Philip H. Towner. The Letters to Timothy and Titus. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.


Bill Heroman said...

Hi, Matthew. I think this is an important topic and I'm glad to see someone blogging about it. Is it fair to say your closing statement is somewhat in agreement with the Fee quote? What I mean is, you both seem to agree that an aspect of function AND position are both included to some degree. Suddenly, to me, it starts to feel like an awfully fine line...

Not to make an argument from silence, but what do you think about the fact that these 'episkopois' are only addressed, and never given particular instructions in the letter? Does that suggest anything about their duties (or lack thereof)? And does Fee consider that in his writings?

Full disclosure: I happen to take a contrary view to much of traditional practice. Where many ministers today justify their directorships with the scriptures about elders & overseers, my opinion is that an NT overseer, quite literally, mainly watched. Not to get off topic, but perhaps so you know where I'm coming from.

Thanks for the post.

Matthew D. Montonini said...


Thanks so much for your comments and for visiting my blog.

To answer your first query, yes, it is fair to say that I am somewhat in agreement with Fee. I do think both senses are there, and I do agree that it comes very close to splitting hairs in drawing a line between function and title. I guess my thoughts conveyed in this post are more preliminary than anyhting else.

I'm also glad to see you point out that these 'episkopois' are only addressed here in the letter. This is something that I had in my original post before I edited it down. I think Paul's point here is more rhetorical than it is anything else. He wants all the Philippians (saints, overseers and servants) to understand that they are being addressed in what follows. I am not sure what this says about what kind of role they play, but the NT evidence suggests in the case of episkopois, that their role was in caring for people, "in most senses of that term, including administration,hospitality,and pastoral care" (Fee; 69).

Unfortunately, the evidence that we do have from the NT is scant at best. What we have in today's churches is more influenced by later developments (i.e. the Church Fathers)than what we find in the NT, if we are honest with ourselves.

Thanks for your comments and questions.


Bill Heroman said...

Well, that's a bummer. I can't find one single point to argue with in what you said. ;)

"if we are honest with ourselves"

Yeah, you a'ite.

Of course, it might be worth noting that "administration" and "pastoral care" are tags one could drive fleets of trucks through, if one wanted to. (I'm just saying.)

See you around, brother. Thanks for the conversation so far...

Mike S. said...

Hey Matthew,

I just had an off-topic question: how do you type out Greek letters in your blog?

I didn't know there were different font options...


C. Stirling Bartholomew said...


I think you can safely rule out official episkopos etc, but you already know that. Not sure I follow your logic re" SUN. I may take a look at it later.

good blog.

Matthew D. Montonini said...


I have always had problem posting in Greek until recently. I used to use Zhubert, but that sadly, went offline. I have just discovered recently that my BibleWorks 8 is able to cut and paste from the program. I believe the BibleWorks is unicode so it now shows up on my posts.

Other bloggers may go at it differently, but I believe this is the easiest way I have found.