"So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed."
Even a casual reading of the New Testament shows that elders were an important part of the function and organization of “every church” established by the apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Elders are not nearly as common today. In fact, there are congregations more than a century old that have never had an eldership. This is a serious problem; a deficiency, and an area in which New Testament Christianity has not been restored as it should be.
“For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you”
Perhaps one reason why many, otherwise faithful congregations do not have elders, or even any discernable plan to develop them, is that years without elders have left the churches uncertain as to what elders are or what they are supposed to do. In this article, we shall examine the Bible definition of elders by analyzing the various terms and titles used in the Bible to describe them and their function.
First, however, it should be noted that elders are official – that is – elders are not simply “old men.” Bible writers use each of the terms, titles, and expressions in an official capacity – a position entered into by ordination (1 Timothy 3.1) and one that should be filled again after it is vacated (Acts 1.20).
The Bible gives different titles to elders, but these different titles are not different offices or gradations of elder – they are simply different expressions that contribute to the full picture of the elder’s work. In 1 Peter 5.1-2 the Apostle says, “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd [the Greek word for pastor (Ephesians 4.11) the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers (the Greek word for bishop) …” Thus, elders are also pastors and bishops. All three terms refer to the same office.
The title elder first appears in the Old Testament to describe the leaders of the people who represented them and spoke on their behalf (Exodus 4.29; 19.7-8). The term elder was also used to speak of the leaders of the synagogue. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, the word presbuteros was used for Elder. This is the same word used by the New Testament writers to speak of the church official. It was also used in the New Testament as a title for the Synagogue leaders. The most basic definition of the word is “an older person,” but among the cultures where Christianity was first spread – especially among the Jews from whom the title was borrowed – the word implied leadership, wisdom, and authority.
The Greek word episcopee gives us the English words bishop and overseer. In old Greek, this was the title of magistrates sent out to tributary cities to organize and govern them” (Robinson’s Lexicon). In the LXX, is speaks of officers appointed by Josiah to oversee the workmen repairing the temple (2 Chronicles 34.12, 17); the overseers of the workmen employed in rebuilding Jerusalem after captivity (Nehemiah 11.14); and the overseers of the singers for temple worship (Nehemiah 12.42). In the abovementioned references, the word is sometimes translated into English as foreman or conductor.
The word pastor (Ephesians 4.11) is usually used in its verb form to describe what elders do – shepherd. This title is metaphorical: the elder is the shepherd, and the congregation is the flock (1 Peter 5.3-4). For the relationship between shepherd and flock read: Psalm 23.1-4; Ezekiel 34.1-23; John 10.11-14. These passages depict the shepherd as a protector and provider, responsible for the survival and wellbeing of the over which he is given charge.
In our next article, we shall examine the responsibilities of elders that correspond to each of the aforementioned titles.