Monday, October 18, 2010

Overseers in Philippians 1:1-2

"Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." (ESV)

Above is the familiar greeting at the beginning of Paul's letter to the Philippians. This is a typical Pauline way of opening his epistles. If you look at other greetings you will see that many are very similar. This one is unique, however, in that Paul mentions the "overseers and deacons." Because Paul uses "overseers," which is used interchangeably with "elders" regarding role in the church, I'd like to mention a few things we can glean from the opening of this letter:

1. Christ is the head. Paul reminds the Philippians of this by referring to himself and Timothy as servants of Christ Jesus. If Christ is the head, by implication no one else is.

2. Paul writes to the church. The contents of the epistle are directed to the church family. Paul even uses the word "all" to emphasize that he desires that everyone in the church hear what he has written. The apostle does not choose any special, select group of people to receive the letter.

3. Paul reminds them at the beginning that they all are saints. Paul is assuming that everyone in the church is, in fact, in Christ. Because they are in Christ, they are all considered to be saints. This is not because of what they have done, but because of what Jesus has accomplished. Notice that Paul does not elevate anyone to special status within the church. All are saints.

4. Paul writes to the entire church in Philippi. He assumes that all the Christians in Philippi compose the church at Philippi. Paul does not see any artificial divisions within the church such as we have today. Another way of putting it is that the whole church in that area was the church in that area; Paul saw no division in Christ.

5. Paul recognizes overseers and deacons. Paul mentions, almost in passing, the reality of both overseers and deacons in the church. In the manner he does this, Paul seems to be telling us at least two things. On the one hand, overseers and deacons are necessary and important for the life of the church (and they should be multiple). Otherwise, he would not have mentioned them. On the other hand, the brief manner in which the apostle mentions them after he addresses the church as a whole tells us that the overseers and deacons are significantly less important than the church body. We can safely infer that Paul sees them as existing to serve the body as opposed to being served by the body.

6. Paul wishes the church body grace and peace. The apostle's desire is only for the best for this church. The remainder of this letter is an exhortation to joy in Christ and unity of the body. Notice that Paul quickly moves away from mentioning the overseers and deacons. If we were not reading carefully, we could miss their being mentioned altogether. Again, this shows us that Paul did not view overseers as holding any sort of special, elevated, separated-out status or position within the church.

This greeting gives support to the idea that overseers and deacons exist within the church to serve the church. Servant-leadership in the name of Christ is the key (Paul uses Jesus' name three times in this short greeting).


Aussie John said...


I'm always concerned about the use of the term "servant-leadership". It seems to me that the fact that "overseers and deacons exist within the church to serve the church", is eminently sufficient.

It is my contention that, in the genuine Christian context, "leadership" simply happens, when "overseers and deacons", alongside of every other member,simply,lovingly and faithfully "serve the church".

In the world in which we live, the term "leader" or "leadership" is an extremely loaded word with associative significance and is often used to mislead or influence.

Eric said...


I have to admit that I like the term servant-leader. However, I understand your concern. Far too often we in the USA look to men like presidents and generals for models of leadership instead of Christ. When I use the term "servant-leader," I'm referring to leading by example in servanthood to the church and the world.