Book title: Elders in Every City: The origin and role of the ordained ministry
Author: Roger Beckwith
Publisher: Paternoster Press
Church Times Bookshop £6.30
IN THIS little book of just over 100 pages, Roger Beckwith presents, with great clarity, a picture of the origins of Christian ordained ministry on the basis of a conservative approach to biblical scholarship.
He argues that Christians derived the office of elder/presbyter from Judaism, and established it as the standard pattern of ministry, quite literally in every place — hence the title of the book, which is a quotation from Titus 1.5.
He would include in this even the apparently Charismatically led Churches such as that at Corinth, maintaining that formal authority structures would have existed alongside other gifts of the Spirit, and would have been necessary in order for them to be fruitful.
Like many other scholars, both liberal and conservative, he believes that “presbyter” and “bishop” were merely different names for the same office during the first Christian century, and that it was not until the end of that period that the two orders began to be distinguished.
Deacons he regards as probably a purely Christian innovation, but he rightly rejects the notion that the Seven in Acts 6 occupied that position.
Those adopting a different approach to the New Testament, however, might well want to question some of the premisses behind his argument. Would Christian practice necessarily have been uniform everywhere, right from the beginning? Would predominantly Gentile congregations have always adopted Jewish structures of leadership?
Might not the Graeco-Roman household have been at least as influential as the Jewish synagogue in shaping Christian patterns? Could not the use of the term episkopos in the singular, in the Pastoral Epistles, open up the possibility that in some communities there was a difference between the bishop and elders at a much earlier date than has often been supposed?
If any of these queries were admitted, then a somewhat different picture of New Testament ministry would emerge.
Revd Dr Paul Bradshaw is Professor of Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame in the USA.
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