Earlier this week, I highlighted three things about elders in the New Testament: (1) the term ‘elder’ is interchangeable with pastor and overseer; (2) elders function as a plurality of leaders in the local church; and (3) elders may or may not be compensated, which is to say an elder may be vocational or non-vocational.
Today, I want to pick up where I left off and add to the picture of elder leadership in the New Testament. What follows are seven truths about elders—three concerning the title (presbuteros) and four concerning the function of elders in the New Testament church. Again, this list won’t cover everything, but it is intended to show what Scripture says about this vital office.
Why the term elder?
First, an “elder” is the typical, fatherly leader in Israel.
To Christians from a Jewish background, elder leadership was neither new or innovative. Going back to the days of Moses, the people of Israel were led by elders (see Exod 3:16, 18; Num 11:16; etc.). Though the multi-ethnic nature of the church was new, the leadership retained a familiar, family feel. Paul called the church a household (1 Tim 3:15), and in Titus 2, he stresses the importance of family relations, with older men and women (elders in their own right) spurring on and teaching younger men and women, respectively.
Therefore, like in Israel, elders are spiritual fathers who love, lead, and instruct God’s children. This is not to say that elders take on a position outlawed by Jesus (see Matt 23:9); rather, it is to speak as John does in 2 and 3 John. He calls himself an elder (2 John 1; 3 John 1) and addresses believers in the church (“the elect lady”) as beloved “children” (2 John 1, 4, 13; 3 John 4; cf. 14x in 1 John). In this way, church leadership does not take its cues from the executive world of business, but from the tough and tender dynamics of parenting—which is why elders must be good parents (Titus 1; 1 Timothy 3).
Second, an elder is a pastor.
In 1 Peter 5:1-2, the apostle writes, “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.”
Here, Peter speaks as an elder to other elders and he commanded them to “Pastor!” He doesn’t technically say elders are pastors; he says something more forceful: Elders must pastor! Pastoring (or shepherding) is an action, not just an office. So we can say that the work of an elder is to shepherd the flock of God. Indeed, for Peter this goes back to Jesus’ own instructions to him. In John 21, Jesus restores Peter to ministry when he instructs him three times to “Feed my sheep!” From the forcefulness which Peter writes in this letter, it is apparent he never forget that instruction. And writing as an inspired apostle, he informs us that the calling of an elder is to pastor.
Third, an elder is an overseer (or bishop).
In this same passage (1 Pet 5:2), Peter says elders who pastor are also to “exercise oversight.” Like in Titus, where Paul calls for elders to be appointed (1:5) and then turns around speaks of these same men as overseers (1:7, “bishops” in the KJV), we can see that elders and overseers are one and the same.
Acts 20 makes the same point. In that chapter, Paul calls for the “elders” of Ephesus to meet him in Miletus (v. 17). And when they arrive, he charges them to be faithful “overseers” (v. 28). Therefore, we can say that an elder is an overseer; an overseer is an elder. The terms are mutually overlapping, and like the relationship between elder and pastor, it seems that the language of overseeing is the work that an elder does.
How should we put all this together?
Putting all this together, it becomes evident that Peter and Paul (and by extension Luke in Acts 20) overlap the terms elder and overseer. Writing in his commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, John Stott asks why this is. Here’s his answer.
Why then were the same people given two titles [e.g., overseer and elder]? For two reasons at least. The word presbuteros (‘elder’) was Jewish in origin (every synagogue had its elders) and indicated the seniority of the pastor, whereas episkopos (‘bishop’) was Greek in origin (it was used of municipal officials, supervisors of subject cities; etc.) and indicated the superintending nature of the pastor’s ministry. In sum, ‘the title episkopos denotes function, presbyteros the dignity, the former borrow from Greek institutions, the latter from the Jewish. (John Stott, First Timothy and Titus, 90)
As to nomenclature then, we can see that elder-overseer-pastor are interchangeable in the New Testament. It was only after the first century, especially in the ministry and writing of Ignatius that the terms Bishop and Elder were separated. But throughout the terms are interchangeable and confined to the local church (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5); there was nothing regional about these terms. Which brings us to consider what an elder did.
What Does an Elder Do?
Fourth, an elder is one of a group of men who give spiritual direction to the church.
In Titus 1:5, Paul speaks of elders in the plural. Now, in this passage, it is conceivable that one elder could be stationed in each house church. That is how some Catholic commentators take it, putting the overseers in verse 7 over the singular elder in each church. But this would go against the way elders functioned in Jewish synagogues and it doesn’t match up with the rest of the New Testament.
Consider a brief survey of elder plurality. In Acts 11:30, the church of Antioch gave a gift to the church of Jerusalem, to be carried by Paul and Barnabas, laid at the elders feet. In Acts 15, we find in Jerusalem a multitude apostles and plural elders. In Acts 20, multiple elders travel from one city (Ephesus) to meet Paul. And in James 5 Christians are instructed to call upon the elders of their church to come and prayer with them in times of sickness. Though more examples could be given, there is a givenness to the fact that each church had multiple elders.
Beyond givenness, there is great wisdom in having a plurality of elders in the local church. First, for reasons of gospel proclamation, the plurality of pastors gives legal legitimacy to the gospel message. Because in the Old Testament (Deut 19:15), it took two or three witnesses to give legal testimony (something continued in the church, see 1 Tim 5:19), witnesses needed to give legal testimony), it makes sense that God would entrust the gospel to the church, under the preaching ministry of multiple elders. Second, practically-speaking, multiple elders are better able to make good decisions (Prov 15:22), pray for the people (James 5:14), and meet the needs of the congregation with personal presence (2 John 12). For these reasons, it seems evident that an elder is one of a group of godly men in the church.
Fifth, an elder is a teacher and protector of God’s flock.
In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 Paul stresses the teaching role of the elder. For instance, in his first letter, the singular difference between an overseer and a deacon is that the overseer must be gifted to teach (v. 2), while the deacon was not required to teach. In Titus, the teaching qualification is even higher. In Titus 1:9, Paul indicates that an elder must (1) know sound doctrine, (2) know how to teach sound doctrine (cf. Titus 2:1, 15), and (3) be able to refute false teachers (cf. Titus 1:10–15). Like shepherds watching over their animals, the pastor-elder-overseer must feed the flock with the word of God and drive off wolves that threaten the congregation—whether they come from the inside or the outside of the congregation.
Indeed, Paul’s stress on “sound doctrine” in all of his Pastoral Epistles is a reminder that the key role of the elder is to be a pastor-teacher (Eph 4:11). Without sound doctrine, the gospel will in time be lost and the ethical standards of the church will be compromised. Sadly, as it has been proven time and again in church history, when pastors stop preaching God’s Word—faithfully and fully—the result is compromise. By contrast, one way that churches have been revitalized is by appointing elders who hold fast to the word of God.
Sixth, an elder is an appointed leader by the church.
Technically, Paul gives Titus authority to appoint elders in Titus 1:5, but it is unlikely he could or would act alone. In traveling to the dozens of churches on Crete, he would have no idea who met these qualifications and who didn’t. He would of necessity rely on the testimony of the congregation. As with the ‘deacons’ in Acts 6, the congregation is best equipped to know who meets the qualifications laid down in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3. Therefore, it ought to be the local congregation that appoints its leadership.
In this congregational responsibility, we see the balanced wisdom of God. God’s word says to congregations, “Submit to those who lead you” (Heb 13:17). But it also empowers congregations to call their own elders and to hold them accountable if they stray from God’s Truth or fail to keep God’s moral standards. In this balanced approach, individuals in the congregation must learn to submit, but as a collective body they must also take responsibility for the doctrine and ethics of their leadership (see Galatians 1).
Seventh, a group of elders is God’s means of bringing health to a disordered church.
Christ said that he would build his church, but he doesn’t raise up saints from stones. He uses means. And the means by which he strengthens, purifies, and corrects churches are godly elders who preach the gospel, teach the Scriptures, and call out error.
This is what we find instructed by Paul in Titus 1:5 and church history is filled with stories of godly men who have been used by God to bring about reformation and revival! May God be pleased to raise up more of these godly elders and may more elder/pastor/overseers be willing to remain in their churches to see this sort of reformation take place.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds