What does the New Testament say about elders?

elders“Elder” (presbuteros) is not a very Baptist word. Or at least, it hasn’t been readily in our vocabulary since the nineteenth century, when the likes of J. L. Reynolds, pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, wrote, “The permanent officers of a Church are of two kinds: elders (who are also called pastors, teachers, ministers, overseers, or bishops) and deacons” (see his “Church Polity, or the Kingdom of Christ in its Internal and External Development,” in Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Lifeed. Mark Dever).

Nevertheless, “elder” is a term used 76 times in the NT. Nine times it is used to speak of those advanced in age; four times of Israel’s forefathers; twelve times to refer to the heavenly elders in John’s Apocalypse; and the Gospels and Acts apply the word to the religious leaders of Israel twenty-nine times. The remaining uses of the word “elder” (20x) refer to leadership in the local church. (See Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible, p. 54).

While we can’t consider every facet of eldership, let me offer three observations about elders and their function, as found in the New Testament.

The word elder is used interchangeably
with pastor, overseer, etc.

Three passages in the New Testament show that the apostolic understanding of this office is synonymous with the other terms: pastor, shepherd, overseer, and bishop.

First, Paul said he left Titus on Crete in order to appoint elders in every town (1:5). Like in Acts 14:23, he understood that young churches needed godly leaders who could teach sound doctrine and refute error (Titus 1:9). In Titus 1:5 he calls them elders, but two verses later he refers to them as “overseers” (v. 7). In such close proximity, Paul isn’t speaking of two different offices or two kinds of leaders; he is using both names to refer to the same kind of person.

Second, when Paul lands in Miletus, he calls the elders from Ephesus to come and join him (Acts 20:17). He reminds them of his ministry, especially of his teaching “in public and from house to house” (v. 20). In pouring out his heart to them and encouraging them to watch out for false teachers, he charges them to care for the flock of God, “in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (v. 28). Like in his letter to Titus, Paul’s use of “elder” and “overseer” is interchangeable.

Third, “elder” also overlaps with the term “pastor.” In 1 Peter 5, Peter, who was charged by Jesus to feed his sheep (John 21:15–17), calls himself an elder and charges his fellow elders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Pet 5:2). In context, he explains that the elder’s role is to shepherd or pastor the flock. Just as he, as a pastor-elder, sought to feed the flock, so elders must shepherd (or pastor) God’s flock by feeding the sheep with the Word of God. Interestingly, in the same passage, Peter also speaks of these shepherd-elders as “exercising oversight.”

All in all, from the way the New Testament overlaps its terms, it is clear that elders, pastors, and overseers are three different terms for the same office. It wouldn’t be until after the New Testament was closed that the elders and bishops (overseers) began to separated as different offices, with different realms of ministerial oversight. And this elevation of regional bishops over local church elders, we might add, came as a way of correcting false teaching in the church, not because the New Testament modeled bishops as superior to elders.

Elders are always spoken of in the plural

First Peter 5 also indicates a pattern of plural eldership among the New Testament churches—a pattern that runs through the whole New Testament. Consider the clear pattern of plurality (cf. Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership104–06).

  • Elders are entrusted with the gift from Antioch (Acts 11:30)
  • Paul established elders in the churches of Galatia (Acts 14:23)
  • Elders led the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23)
  • Paul established elders in Ephesus (Acts 20:17)
  • Paul addresses the overseers and deacons (Phil 1:1)
  • He establishes elders in the churches of Crete (Titus 1:5)
  • Paul, Peter, and Hebrews tell congregations to respect, esteem, financially support, and submit to the elders/leaders/ministers (1 Thess 5:12–13; 1 Tim 5:17–18; 1 Pet 5:5; Heb 13:17)
  • Elders are called to pray for the sick (James 5:14–15)

In each of these cases, the leadership is spoken of in the plural. While elders are called individually (1 Tim 3; Titus 1), they serve as a plurality. Reasons for this may include the legal authority needed to testify about the gospel. In the Old Testament, a legal testimony required two or three witnesses; in Jesus’ ministry he sent out his disciples in pairs; now in the church it makes great sense that the testimony of the gospel would not just be shared by one witness but by a plurality. Likewise, a plurality of elders is best situated to exercise oversight, make decisions (cf. Prov 15:22), and pray for the needs of the congregation. For these reasons, and many others, the New Testament uniformly presents the need for plural elders.

Elders are sometimes compensated,
sometimes not

Now, someone might ask: How can a small church afford to have a plurality of pastors/elders/overseers? But that question inserts a modern concept into the first century church—namely, the professionalism of ministry. In Paul’s thinking a plurality of elders would be comprised of vocational ministers and non-vocational ministers.

In 1 Timothy, he says “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (5:17), for the “laborer deserves his wages” (v. 18). In this instance, Paul affirms churches who support their elder(s). Nevertheless, in 1 Corinthians 9, the other place where he quotes from Deuteronomy 25:4, Paul says that he has intentionally refused the right to receive wages so that he could proclaim the gospel for free.

In other words, pastoral ministry is not coterminous with vocational ministry. Indeed, there have always been bi-vocational pastor/elders in the church. And in our generation, the demand for bi-vocational ministers is only going to increase. At the same time, whether a church can afford a full-time minister (or two or ten) or not, it should be remembered that in the New Testament, a plurality of eldership does not require a plurality of “paid staff.” In fact, there are many reasons why a mixture of vocational and non-vocational elders is ideal for the local church.

And certainly, this seems to be the New Testament model. The qualification for eldership is not leaving work to go to seminary; neither is it someone who desires to make a living preaching. First Timothy 3:1 simply says that if a man desires to be an overseer and is godly and gifted to teach God’s Word, they should be recognized by the church, trained, and affirmed. (For an excellent book on this process, see Brian Croft’s Test, Train, Affirm, and Send into Ministry).

In the end, a church that can afford to support one or more full-time ministers increases the ministry of the Word in their midst. These men will be able to devote themselves to the study of God’s Word, which has large dividends for the biblical maturation of the body. Just the same their ability to pray for, pray with, and minister personally to members during the week is heightened because their provisions are covered by the church. Just the same, the healthy church also needs non-vocational elders. And certainly, in the New Testament we find a precedent for non-vocational elders.

Next time, we’ll consider what an elder is supposed to do. Until then, what else would you say the Scripture says about leadership?

Soli Deo Gloria, ds


3 thoughts on “What does the New Testament say about elders?

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