Elder, A Word Study

The main word the Bible uses to describe the position the perhaps most of us today call “pastor” is “elder.” The Greek word is presbyteros (from which we get the word Presbyter), which translates the Hebrew word zaqen. We will not spend any time looking at zaqen other than to note that it had a two-fold meaning, one referring to advanced age, and the other referring to the political leadership of Israel.

Presbyteros is used, especially in the Gospels, in this same two-fold manner. In some places, it simply refers to an older person (1 Tim. 5:1-2), whereas in others, it refers to a position of leadership. Jesus is often pictured as being in conflict with the Jewish elders (Matt. 16:21).

When applied to church leadership, presbyteros definitely keeps some of these same concepts but also seems to be used in somewhat differently as well. Eldership in the church was clearly a position of leadership, but there is significant debate as to whether or not the NT sees the position as a formal office. It could very well be that it was simply an honorary title.

Several passages strongly favor the view that elders held an actual office. Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5 speak of ordaining elders. Further, in several times in Acts 15, the elders are mentioned along side of the apostles (“the apostles and elders,” i.e., Acts 15:2), which was clearly on office.

Against this view, however, is the difficult fact that both Peter and John refer to themselves as elders (1 Pet. 5:1; 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1). If eldership is to be seen as an office proper, then given the NT’s doctrine of the autonomy of each church, it makes little sense to speak of a person as being an elder of multiple churches. Offices, by their nature, carry authority, yet if there is autonomy between each church, it is difficult to see how an elder’s authority in one church could be imposed on another, which seems to be just the appeal Peter and John are making! This would have made much more sense if they had appealed to their apostleship.

The best view, then, seems to be a middle road. We cannot deny the fact that men were ordained to an office called the Presbytery (the eldership). Yet it is likely that title was also honorary for those who held the office, much in the same way former senators and presidents are still referred to in America as “Senator” or “President.”

What, then, was the role of the elders of a church? Their two main functions are to “shepherd God’s flock” (1 Pet. 5:2) and “direct the affairs of the church,” which probably included, among other things, church finances (1 Tim. 5:17). Everything that can be said about the episkopos (“overseer”) can be said about them, for the two words are used interchangeably. Their work was worthy of pay (1 Tim 5:17-18). Given their special position, 1 Tim. 5:19-20 is particularly interesting. No accusation against an elder is to be received unless it can be proven by multiple witnesses. In other words, in a “my word against yours” argument, the elder’s word stands firm. This likely had to do with the fact that elders had some level of disciplinary power. But to balance this, Paul says that if an elder is caught in sin, he is to be publically rebuked before the entire church, a practice that is otherwise reserved for only unrepentant church members.

All of this presupposes a plurality of elders within a church, which seems to be exactly what the NT teaches. Again, in Titus 1:5, Paul tells Titus to ordain elders (plural) in each city (singular). Further, Timothy was ordained by a body of multiple elders (1 Tim. 4:14). In short, the idea of one man called “the pastor” running the church is completely foreign to Scripture.

Because of the high standing of this position, the moral and spiritual qualifications of the eldership are of the highest order. They are to be spiritually mature and have a good reputation not only in the church but among non-believers as well. It is also expected that these people have families that are ordered, which completely contradicts the requirement of some denominations of celibacy in the church leadership (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9).

By way of summary, the NT picture of church leadership is a body of men who are called elders. These men must be of the highest moral and spiritual caliper, and it is their job to see to it that the church grows (spiritually!) and is well ordered. Each church has its own body of elders, which eliminates any concept of denominational hierarchy. Elders, however, of one church are certainly to be respected in other churches. We will reserve questions such as the nature of elders’ appointments and whether or not women can hold this position for another study.

On a final note, it is important to discuss the presbyteros next to the episkopos, which the NT seems to use interchangeably, to get a more fully rounded picture of this office, which we will do tomorrow. If you haven’t subscribed, then, be sure to do so! And as always, please leave a comment in the comment box so we can be sure that we are being as clear as possible.

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2 thoughts on “Elder, A Word Study

  1. Actually, the word PRESBYTEROS appears to address more the QUALITIES a man must acquire in order to be appointed to the OFFICE of EPISKOPOS, so that the two words are not exactly interchangeable. Presbyteros addressing the matter of becoming an “older man” so to speak, but Episkopos referring to the office he now qualifies to hold. Things got muddled in the second century when the emergence of a clergy class inserting the word BISHOP as an alternate rendering of Episkopos. No such arrangement existed among Jesus 1st century followers.

    Also a careful look at 1 Tim. 5:17-19 indicates that the “wages” that were due to elders was not money, but “double honor”. Jesus clearly said : you received free,,,give free”. Early Christians worked secularly to support themselves while acting as overseers. While the Congregations were encouraged to support missionaries such as Paul, even he worked, as we know, as a tentmaker.

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