[The following is the substance of a second email I sent to a correspondent who asked me what New Testament justification the Orthodox have for their understanding of the priesthood.]
The reason I answered the question on the Lord’s Supper first is that, historically speaking, the functions of the offices/ministries of bishop, priest and deacon have flowed directly from an understanding of the Eucharist and not the Eucharist from that of the functions of these ministries. Once one understands that from the very time the New Testament was being written, from the first days of the Church, the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper were understood to be the Body and Blood of Jesus, it necessarily changes the way one looks at the New Testament evidence, such that it is, for these three ministries.
Another matter we must confront head-on with no dissembling is the simple fact that the New Testament does not really tell us all that much about these offices/ministries. We are not told, for example, whether the leadership of a local congregation must be one of a plurality of elders assisted by the deacons (which has been the typical Restoration Movement understanding), or whether one of those elders can serve in a full-time function as the primary pastor of the congregation, or even whether we can name an individual who is not an elder or deacon to lead the congregation on a full-time basis, whether we call that man—and it has always been a man among the independent Christian churches and among the a capella churches of Christ—a minister (a Latin synonym for the Hellenic deacon) or evangelist (which the New Testament says very little about), or even a pastor or teacher or pastor/teacher. To the degree that we dogmatize about these matters we are that much further from actually understanding what is “the New Testament pattern” for the Church.
That fact, that the New Testament is not all that clear about the functions of these various offices/ministries, is inescapably joined to another fact: If we are to properly understand what the New Testament does say about these things, we are going to have to look at the earliest history of the Church and the earliest Church writings to see what they say about these things and then offer reasonable inferences about what the New Testament says about these things in light of the later earliest historical realities.
That being said, I will limit my comments, as you asked, to the New Testament because there are, I think, suggestive elements in the New Testament that will lay the foundation for a case of understanding the New Testament polity of the Church as being the traditional historical threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons.
The normal texts that one looks at for the leadership roles in the Church are 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9. We also look to Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:1-4, James 5:13-16 and Acts 6:1-7. From these texts we learn more about who an elder or deacon is than we do what an elder or deacon does. We know that an elder shepherds the church (Acts 20.28; 1 Peter 5.1-4), visits and prays for the sick (James 5.13-16), preaches and instructs (1 Timothy 5.17; Titus 1.9), shows hospitality (1 Timothy 3.2; Titus 1.8), gives proper care and leadership to his own household (1 Timothy 3.4-5; Titus 1.6), guards the church from those who would destroy it by sin, divisiveness, or a false gospel (Acts 20.28; Titus 1.9; cf. Matthew 18.15-20). What we know of the responsibilities of a deacon is even less: Cares for and leads his household well (1 Timothy 3.12), and perhaps provides food for needy widows (see Acts 6.1-7), assuming it is possible to equate the Acts 6 deacons with the 1 Timothy 3 deacons. I need not here answer the question as to whether the “women” of 1 Timothy 3 refers to deacon’s wives or to deaconesses, and besides, even if it is the latter, the New Testament nowhere gives any specific function associated with such an office/ministry.
So there you have it. Nothing is said about elders and deacons in terms of the Lord’s Supper or in any other more specific things with regard to their ministry. We do not know, on the basis of the New Testament alone, whether or not they had functions associated pretty closely with what we now understand to have been the case by the end of the first century; which is to say that the bishop presided over the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper assisted by priests and the deacons (cf. the Epistles of Ignatios of Antioch c. A. D. 107). There is nothing in the New Testament that would forbid such functions, but very little that is suggestive of those functions as well.
I do think it important, before I get to the little that is suggestive of the roles of elder and deacon in the New Testament, to comment briefly on terminology. We both know how important it is in the Restoration Movement to use “Bible names for Bible things.” That is why we call it the “Lord’s Supper” because this is what Paul calls it in the Corinthians passages. It is why our churches prefer the terminology “churches of Christ” or “Christian churches,” as these reflect, we think, the better New Testament terminology. And, it is why we call presbyteroi “elders,” because that is what the New Testament term means.
That being said, however, it is a bit disingenuous that we don’t call our deacons “servants,” but instead transliterate the term. Also, though our Restoration Movement brethren object to the term “bishop” it is a perfectly good New Testament term. It is, in fact, what elders were called in Ephesus, “bishops.” In 1 Timothy 3, the office/ministry we usually call “elder” (presbyteros) is actually “overseer/bishop” (episkopos). So, too, in Acts 20:28, where Paul says of the elders of the assembly/church (as it says of them in v. 17) who have come out to meet him, “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [bishops, episkopoi]” over the flock. And in 1 Peter 5:2, Peter says to the elders that they must “exercise the oversight” (i. e., they must be bishops) over the flock of God. And in fact, Jesus himself is called, in 1 Peter 2:25, our Chief Shepherd and Overseer (or Bishop). So, in point of fact, there are bishops all over the New Testament, though, as has already been said, what we know of their functions is limited–and I will also readily admit that the New Testament does not make enough of a distinction between episkopoi and presbyteroi to be dogmatic about such a distinction. That distinction came as a later historical development.
However, there are at least some important suggestions made by Paul in Romans 15 that I think may, if not absolutely settling the matter, bring more to light than we currently have. In Romans 15:16, Paul notes that by the grace of God it has been given to him to “work as a priest” in the service of the Gospel. This is a hapax legomena, the only time this verb is used in the New Testament. Etymologically it is made up of the words for priest (hieros) and work (ergeo). But this provides us little help. After all, what does it mean to “work, or serve, as a priest in the service of the Gospel”?
Earlier in that verse, Paul calls himself a “servant of Jesus Christ.” This word for servant is leitourgos (from which stem our word liturgy is related). This word leitourgos is only used three other times in the New Testament, once at Philippians 2:25 in which Epaphroditus is called by Paul, his “minister” of his need. It is used in Hebrews 1:7, where angels are said to be God’s “servants” of fire. And it is used in Hebrews 8:2, where Jesus is called our leitourgos or servant of the sanctuary, the heavenly tabernacle not pitched by men. Indeed, when we look at the other related words to leitourgos, such as the verb, leitourgeo (I serve or minister), or leitourgia (service or ministry), leitourgikos (used only once of angels as ministering spirits in Hebrews 1:14), and leitourgos (used only once of the public servants in Romans 13:6), we see that the word group used in a somewhat generic sense of ministry and service. We do have an instance of the noun, leitourgia, used in Luke 1:23, to speak of Zachariah’s priestly service. But there is also one instance of the verb, leitourgeo, in Hebrews 10:11 that is also suggestive. There it speaks of the priests of the old covenant standing day by day “offering sacrifices” (our verb leitourgeo). This of course, is contrasted with the once and for all sacrifice that Jesus offered of himself that is far better.
So, it seems that we do have some strong warrant for tying Paul’s “working as a priest in the service of the Gospel” to the priestly ministry of Jesus himself whose once-for-all sacrifice of himself is the one offered in the true sanctuary in the holy of holies in heaven. I am not here tying the functions of bishops, priests or deacons to this verse in Roman 15 and the related verses in Hebrews. But I am saying that if Paul, whose ministry was of such a nature as I believe the New Testament to suggest, and if Paul was responsible for appointing elders in all the churches he established, and if the Lord’s Supper is to be a continual observance in the Church, then one can, on the New Testament alone, build a strongly suggestive case that the episkopoi, presbyteroi and diakonoi served the Body and Blood of Christ in the elements of the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.
It is, admittedly, only strongly suggestive. However, when one looks to the historical evidence, and especially to the earliest extrabiblical evidence we have (in 1 Clement and in the Epistles of Ignatios of Antoich), the case does become not only clear but unequivocal: bishops, priests and deacons were part of the original New Testament Church founded by the Apostles whose roles of service included their functions in the observance of the Lord’s Supper.