Elders in the New Testament Church

It is in the light of the Jewish background that eldership in the New Testament church needs to be considered, although it must be said that some scholars still debate just how closely Christian eldership reflects the Jewish model.

“These elders … represent the congregation like a synagogue council.  The formation of a body of elders probably took place when the apostles left Jerusalem and James assumed the leadership.  Its functions are patterned partly after the synagogue council and partly after the Sanhedrin”.[1]

The Greek word translated ‘elder’ in the English versions is presbuteros.  It means literally ‘an older person or a senior’, in which sense it is used, for example, in John 8:9 and Acts 2:17.  However, when used in the context of church leadership it is clearly referring to a specific office in the same way that it is used to refer to an office among the leaders of the Jewish people.

We will examine NT Church Eldership under a Number of Headings:

What About Age?

Given what has been said before, should elders always be older people?  Age indicates the likelihood, but not the certainty of wisdom and respect.  Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to take warning.[2]

There seems no reason to refuse to recognize early maturity, although a new convert clearly would not qualify. He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.[3]

Plurality of Leadership

Like their Jewish forebears, it seems clear from the New Testament that elders were appointed in plurality. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord in whom they had put their trust[4] and functioned thus.

This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.  The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present.[5]

Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.[6]

Is anyone of you sick?  He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.[7]

The Issue of Community

A central element here is the issue of community: the eldership reflecting both the Godhead in whose name they govern and the people whom they have charge towards. There is no real evidence that there was a strict internal co-equality among a local eldership.  Certainly, among the apostles and elders assembled in the General Council at Jerusalem, James seemed to have a presiding role.

When they finished, James spoke up:  “Brothers listen to me.” [8]

It seems logical that the inevitable differences in gifts and abilities would be recognized among an eldership and indeed this view would be strengthened by the interpretation given below to 1 Timothy 5:17.

The relationship towards Overseers/ Bishops

The word translated ‘overseer’ in modern English versions or ‘bishop’ in older versions is in the original Greek the word episkopos.  It literally means ‘overseer’ or ‘superintendent’.  It is a compound of epi, which means ‘over’ and skopos, which means to ‘look’, or ‘watch’.  The word was well known in classical Greek and was used to describe magistrates, among others. It seems clear that the terms ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’ describe one and the same person in the New Testament.  In Acts 20:17, Paul sends for the ‘elders’ of the church in Ephesus and calls them ‘overseers’.

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.  Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.[9]

In Titus 1:5, Paul instructs Titus to ordain elders and immediately afterwards, obviously referring to the same people, calls them both ‘elders’ (in verse 6) and ‘overseers’ (in verse 7).

The verb episkopein (to oversee) is used to describe the elders’ function in 1 Peter 5:2.

While 1 Timothy 3 mentions only ‘overseers’ and ‘deacons’, the mention of ‘elders’ in 1 Timothy 5:17 strongly suggests that eldership is another name for the same group of people.

There is clearly a plurality of overseers in the Philippian church.

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.[10]

From which we conclude that they governed corporately, which is of course what we would expect if the ‘overseers’ were another way of describing the ‘elders’.It would seem therefore that in looking at the same person, references to ‘elder’ highlight the personal qualities, whilst references to ‘overseer’ highlight the function that is performed. From all, we have said it is apparent that the rise of a monarchical episcopate from the second century seems to be without any scriptural warrant.

What about the Apostolic Fathers ?

Among the Apostolic Fathers, Ignatius is the only one who insists on monarchical episcopacy, and even he never states that this is of divine institution – an argument that would have been decisive if it had been available for him to use. Jerome, commenting on Titus 1:5, remarks that the supremacy of a single bishop arose ‘by custom rather than by the Lord’s actual appointment’, as a means of preventing schisms in the church.

It seems most probable that monarchical episcopacy appeared in the local congregations when some gifted individual acquired a permanent chairmanship of the board of presbyter-bishops, or when the church expanded, and the presbyters were scattered to outlying congregations, leaving only one of their number in the mother church.” [11]

The relationship towards Governmental Ministries

Take care and be on guard for yourselves and the whole flock over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you bishops and guardians…[12]

From this passage, it is clear that the elders/overseers whom Paul is addressing are exhorted to shepherd (poimainô) the church of God.

Peter makes the same exhortation to the elders.

Tend, nurture, guard, guide and fold the flock of God that is your responsibility…[13]

We have already established that there is no distinction between elders and overseers.  From these two verses, it seems clear that the elders outworked their oversight through shepherding care.  The evident correctness of this observation has lead some to conclude that the elder/overseer is synonymous with the pastor of Ephesians 4:11.

Thus elder, bishop, shepherd speak of one and the same person.  It refers to the ministry of watching over, guiding, feeding, ruling, teaching and exerting protective care over the sheep by God’s appointed leaders. [14]

However, this view does not go unchallenged.  In 1 Peter 5:2, 2 John 1:1 and 3 John 1:1 the apostles Peter and John identify themselves as ‘elders’.  In Acts 15 it is clear by comparing verse 22 with verse 32 that the prophets Judas and Silas were also known as elders.  Thus these two Ephesians 4 ministries were elders, but not given to one local church.

Is it not more likely that while all fivefold ministries can be elders (although this is perhaps least likely to be relevant for the evangelist), not all elders will be fivefold ministries and yet others could be Ephesians 4 apostles, prophets, teachers, pastors or even evangelists.

This interpretation seems to be backed up by 1 Timothy 5:17, where it would seem that at least two, and perhaps three, types of elders are being referred to. The saying is true and irrefutable: If any man eagerly seeks the office of bishop, he desires an excellent task.[15]

This scripture makes it clear that a man may aspire to oversee the church.  It is questionable whether he may aspire to an Ephesians 4 ministry.  If the latter were gifts of the risen Christ, the appointment would appear to be the prerogative of God, the function of men being simply to recognize what has been given.

Qualifications of Eldership

Self-controlled

A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate;

Hospitable

A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate;

Able to teach

A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.

Not violent but gentle

Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not self-willed, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;

Not quarrelsome

Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous;

Not a lover of money

Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous;

Not a recent convert

Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.

Has a good reputation with outsiders

Moreover, he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

Not overbearing

For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;

Not quick-tempered

For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;

Loves what is good

But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate;

Upright, holy

But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate;

Disciplined

But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate;

Above reproach/blameless

A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;

If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.

Husband of one wife

A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.

Temperate

A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;

For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;

Respectable

A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;

Not given to drunkenness

Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous;  For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;

Manages his own family well

One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity;

Sees that his children obey him

One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)

If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.

Does not pursue dishonest gain

Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous;

Keeps hold of the deep truths

Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.

The appointment of Elders and ongoing Relationship with Apostles

The appointment of elders is clearly a function of the apostles. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord in whom they had put their trust.[16]

or their delegates:

The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in very town, as I directed you.[17]

Although there is some debate about the meaning of the Greek word cheirotoneô in Acts 14:23, it does seem that the best translation is the word ‘appointed’ which appears in the main text of most modern English versions [The word in Titus 1:5, Kathistçmi, is clearly translated ‘appoint’].  However, particularly with the example of Acts 6 in mind, it seems perfectly possible that the apostles, upon their return to the churches, took soundings from among the people in some way to help them in their appointing process.

It is overwhelmingly evident from the ministry of Paul that we have good insight into the ongoing relationship that apostles had with the churches that they worked towards.  It is perhaps worth making the point that apostles are those sent forth to preach the gospel of the kingdom and to make provision for the ongoing care of those who respond to their ministry.

Therefore apostles could be expected to have a relationship not only to the elders of a church, but in some sense to the church as a whole.  Thus they are not merely ‘superintendents’ supporting all the elders in a particular region.

The exact nature of the relationship would obviously depend upon a number of factors, not least whether or not the apostle was personally involved in the establishment of the church and the nature and extent of input that was subsequently needed, which would inevitably reflect the needs of the people in the light of the competence of their elders (e.g. Corinth).

It is clear that the elders cared for their church communities in any given location under the guidelines of doctrine and church practice set by the apostles.  However, from Acts 15 we can see that the elders had a significant role in the first General Council, and from Acts 15:22 it would even appear that in some way the whole church was involved.

Elders in the City

James Mapes in his book “ Quantum Leap Thinking” writes, red phosphorus and potassium chloride are stable chemicals when kept in isolation, but when they are mixed together and shaken, they explode. There is undeniable energy and a transformation taking place.

QLT is a combination of concepts and skills that when combined together like active chemicals, will lead to a transformation explosion.

The next explosion that comes upon God’s people will change the way we define church forever. It will impact the way we work together to take cities for God. To lead this QLT transition, a new breed of leader is being called forth. I call them Quantum leap apostolic leaders. They are quantum Leap leaders because they are operating within a new period in church history, a period with challenges unknown to the first century.

In the beginning, the Apostles went forth into a pre-Christian culture and planted a unified church. Last century apostles have a dual challenge. They must continue the mandate to plant new churches while labouring in a post-Christian culture to restore a fragmented church.

A new breed of leader is being called forth.

These leaders will function with a new value system.

The task at hand is daunting and demanding.

Quantum leap leaders are working from a different paradigm. They are working from a kingdom perspective rather than a local church orientation. They see the big picture, not just the part pertaining to their local church. They have a heart for the whole, a genuine tolerance for the diversity that makes up the City of God.

Haggai’s prophecy about the house of the lord is an indictment against the modern church.

As Israel prepared to cross the Jordan river, the word of the Lord came to them.

Remember the word which Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, saying, The LORD your God hath given you rest, and hath given you this land.  Your wives, your little ones, and your cattle, shall remain in the land which Moses gave you on this side Jordan; but ye shall pass before your brethren armed, all the mighty men of valour, and help them; Until the LORD have given your brethren rest, as he hath given you, and they also have possessed the land which the LORD your God giveth them: then ye shall return unto the land of your possession, and enjoy it, which Moses the LORD’S servant gave you on this side Jordan toward the sunrising. 18

Wouldn’t that be a unique paradigm ?

To me, each tribe represents a local church in the city.

When ministries move beyond superficial conversations and begin to take a genuine interest in the burden of the Lord for each local church. When leaders take a genuine interest in each others callings and sharpen one another.

When Jesus called His first apostles they were busy mending nets. The word for mending in the original Greek is the same for healing, restore and function.

Modern day apostles must repair and put in place the net before the great harvest.

God’s intention is to bring a divine visitation to earth through the local church. I believe that their are men in every city being birthed by the Spirit to create a net to bring in the harvest. In God’s timing, they will flow in a great demonstration of power.

1] Revival begins with an individual

2] That revival progresses to the local church

3] The local church, being a part of the body of Christ will quickly permeate the church in the city

4] As the church in the city submit to the Lordship of Christ you have a collective visitation

5] Out of this collective unity in the churches God is able to forge a chain that can bind the strongman over the city and take his goods.

The church needs leaders who will come in the spirit of Nehemiah and build the wall and the gates of the city.

Who will catch the vision ??

Who will answer the call ???

Unity in the Bible is always for a purpose.

Unity always leads to a great demonstration of God’s power.

When Israel crossed the Jordan river, the first city they were to take was Jericho.

1] They were required to march in divine order and not talk for 7 days.

2] After this they were to shout and proceed to press the battle over the top of the enemies flattened walls.

It was not just unity, it was unity attached to a clear Rhema word.

They needed three things to succeed.

1]They needed God’s plan. A clear prophetic word about how to take the city.

2] They needed to be united in doing God’s revealed plan for taking the city. Their obedience and faith were essential.

3] The men had to be men of war, meaning they had to be fit to fight and overcome the armed forces.

The function of intercession is to birth these dimensions in the realm of spirit. We have to possess the city in our souls before we can inherit it. Ask of me and I will give you the nations as an inheritance.

Evangelicals have often talked about the New Testament describing the church in two ways; the church universal and the church local.  We have normally taken the latter phrase to refer to what we would describe as our local congregations.  However, this does not appear to be the situation referred to in the New Testament.

When Paul, for example, writes,

“To the church of God in Corinth” [18]

or

“To the church of the Thessalonians” [19]

He seems to view the church in those cities as one people.

Clearly, it would not be possible for all the Christians in a large city to come together for every meeting.  Thus we have the church in the home.

Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.  They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.[20]

Greet also the church that meets at their house.[21]

The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings.  Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house.[22]

Bearing in mind that these homes need not have been the small ones that we are used to, is it not possible that the ‘church in the home’ could equate as much to, if not more so, what we now call ‘local congregations’ (at least the smaller ones) as to what we now call ‘home groups’?

We must not mistakenly think that cities in the first century in the Mediterranean were all small.  In Ephesus, for example, the theatre referred to in Acts 19 probably held around 25 000 people.  Nevertheless, it is of course true that today our largest cities are considerably larger than those at the time of the early church: but it is also true that our transport and communication links are vastly superior!

There is undoubtedly much thinking yet to do on this subject, but immediately certain things come into prospect when we consider this issue.

  • the prize of church unity
  • the emergence from isolationism
  • the overthrow of small thinking

[1] Kittel, page 932

[2] Ecc. 4:13

[3] 1 Tim. 3:6

[4] Acts 14:23

[5] Acts 11:30;  21:18

[6] 1 Tim. 4:14

[7] James 5:14

[8] Acts 15:13

[9] Acts 20:28

[10] Phil. 1:1

[11] G.S.M. Walker and R.T. Beckwith, N.B.D.

[12] Acts 20:28

[13] 1 Pet. 5:2

[14] Connor, The Church in the New Testament

[15] 1 Tim. 3:1

[16] Acts 14:23

[17] Titus 1:5

[18] 1 Cor. 1:1;  2 Cor. 1:1

[19] 1Thes. 1:1

[20] Acts 2:46;  5:42;  20:20

[21] Rom. 16:5

[22] 1 Cor. 16:19

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