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The Bible speaks of elders, overseers, deacons and deaconesses (depending on the translation used).  The roles of pastors, bishops etc today, have significant differences to the roles of which Paul and Peter speak.

The way the Bible instructs these roles to be carried out:

Deacons & Deaconesses

The word probably had the meaning, to be an attendant, or to wait upon.  These were positions of service and the deacon had to be honourable and blameless.  Here is the list Paul gives Timothy of the qualifications for deacons:

Dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain, holding the faith with a clear conscience.

I understand Paul to be referring to deaconesses in 1 Timothy 3:11.  Some have a different understanding of this verse, understanding women to be wives – which it often is, depending on the context.    Some think women/wives is referring to the deacons wives, but then why would the wives of elders and overseers not be mentioned.  It seems to me, 1 Tim 3:11 is much more likely to be referring to women who are deaconesses.  Some translations insert ‘their’ in this verse – meaning deacons wives.  ‘Their’ is not in the text:  “Women–in like manner grave, not false accusers, vigilant, faithful in all things.”  YLT

I understand Paul to be instructing Timothy of the requirements for both deacons and deaconesses , in this passage.

See 1 Timothy 3:8-13 & Romans 16:1-2

Elders

These were senior brothers who:

  • had to be above reproach
  • the husband of one wife, having children who are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination
  • they could not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain
  • they had to be hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined
  • they had to hold firm to word as taught and be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it
  • they had to shepherd the flock of God, exercising oversight willingly, not domineering but being examples to the believers
  • they had to do it eagerly and not for money.

See 1 Tim 5:17-19 & 1 Pet 5:1-5

Elders were to be stewards and shepherds.  Deacons/Deaconesses were to be servants.

Overseers (called bishops in some versions)

Elders and Overseers seem to be very similar roles – perhaps even the same role with different names.  Consider Titus 1:5-9:

(5)  This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you–  (6)  if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.  (7)  For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain,  (8)  but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.  (9)  He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

Notice in verses 5 & 6, that elders are also called overseers.

Paul, in his 1st letter to Timothy says regarding the qualification for an overseer:

1 Tim 3:1-7  The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.  (2)  Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,  (3)  not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.  (4)  He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive,  (5)  for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?  (6)  He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.  (7)  Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

So we can list these qualifications like this:

  • above reproach
  • the husband of one wife – must manage his own household well with all dignity keeping his children submissive
  • sober minded, not a drunkard, not violent, not a lover of money
  • self controlled, respectable, not quarrelsome
  • able to teach

If you line these qualifications up with the qualifications for the elders, they are very similar.

It seems to me that there were 2 basic positions in the 1st century church — deacons/esses (the servants) & elders/overseers (the shepherds/leaders).  The focus on paid positions like we see today, was absent.  Support was mentioned where needed, but we see from Paul’s example, this was not encouraged.

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