The Ministry of Elders (Historical)

Historical Background 

To gain some measure of clarity about the ministry of elders, it may be helpful to trace back to their origins. We would be mistaken to suppose that elders were unique to the early church. Long before the church was ever established, the Jews had a rich history of elders in their communities. The Hebrew word for elder is zaqen. This rich term occurs more than one hundred times in the Old Testament. The original meaning of the word is old. In the Old Testament it can refer to that which is old or identifies one as old. In the Psalms, zaqen is compared to gray hair (Psalm 71:18). There were certain characteristics that came with age that were highly regarded by the Jews. Job tells us that “with the ancient is wisdom; and the length of days understanding” (Job 12:12). God’s people were to “honor the face of an old man” (Leviticus 19:32). Furthermore, the term was applied to men who played various leadership roles in Israelite society. Thus, older men became leaders of the people because of wisdom and knowledge gained through years of experience. The role that elders played in the Old Testament as representatives of God’s people can give insight into the intended role of elders in the New Testament.

For instance, some elders of Israel accompanied Moses and Aaron when they approached Pharaoh in Egypt (Exodus 3:18). It’s interesting that what we see most frequently mentioned in the history of Israel’s elders is their leadership from town to town.

“These “town elders” were responsible for apprehending murderers who might flee unlawfully to one of the cities of refuge (Deuteronomy 19:11-12); for admitting to those same specially-designated cities any manslayer who had a lawful right to their protection (Joshua 20:1-6); and for presiding over the bizarre ceremony where an unsolved murder happened to occur outside their own town (Deuteronomy 21:1-9). As these and other examples illustrate, Israel’s elders were respected as wise judges over criminal, civil, and religious affairs.”1

Furthermore, elders are seen in the Old Testament Scriptures sitting at the gates to the city. The elders would act as a kind of informal court from this position as can be seen in (Deuteronomy 21:18-21; 22:13-21; 25:7-10). Also, from the city gate the elders could keep a close eye on who was coming into the community and who was leaving. It is obvious that elders had a powerful influence on local and municipal affairs of the Jewish community.

These men did not hold some vague and unorganized position of leadership. Each elder was recognized as a part of organized body of men. On several occasions Moses provided the elders with the experience necessary to make them teachers of Israel. (Exodus 4:29-30; 19:7; Deuteronomy 27:1). With the departure of leading figures like Moses and Joshua, the burden of leadership and teaching fell more on the elders (Joshua 23:1-11; 24:1-14).

However, the Jewish elders did not always live up to their lofty responsibility because by the time of Christ he had many conflicts with the Jews over the tradition of the elders. (Matthew 15:1,2). The tradition of the elders was the extra biblical oral law. When a point of view was in question, those with knowledge of the tradition gave oral testimony to what they had heard from the teachers of the past. Unfortunately, many elders who were contemporary with Jesus had abused their God given power and influence over the people.

The concept of elders in the Old Testament was a wise principle. The fact that certain ones abused it through the centuries – does not argue against the wisdom of the principle any more than the fact that the presence of false prophets argues against the true and prudent principle of loyal prophets. Therefore, it should come to no surprise that when Jehovah first organized the church of His Son he chose a group of older men to be spiritual leaders over His congregations.

The eldership:
Its names

I think we can learn a great deal about the ministry of elders by looking at the various terms used to describe them.

Elders or Presbyters

The terms elders or presbyters refer to the same work in the Lord’s church. In fact the two terms come from the same root word in the Greek language in which the New Testament was written. Both words come from the Greek word presbuteros. And the root meaning is older men. In about 16 instances in the New Testament presbuteros refers to Christian leaders. Therefore the word is used both in a technical way to describe a leader in the church, and yet retains its ordinary meaning of an old man. Since the term elder or presbyter indicates spiritual age and advanced judgment, a novice or new convert could not qualify for this ministry (I Timothy 3:6). The eldership of God’s church is no realm for spiritual babes; it is a role for spiritually mature men to fulfill. Their maturity must be seen in the following hallmarks of holiness. (1) Desire (I Timothy 3:1) (2) Not a new convert (I Timothy 3:6) (3) A good reputation (I Timothy 3:7) (4) Husband of one wife (I Timothy 3:2; Titus1:6) (5) One who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (I Timothy 3:4; Titus 1:6) (6) Above reproach (I Timothy 3:2; Titus 2:7) (7) Temperate (I Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8) (8) Prudent (I Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8) (9) Respectable (I Timothy 3:2) (10) Hospitable (I Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8) (11) Uncontentious – man of peace (I Timothy 3:3) (12) Not given to wine (I Timothy 3:3) (13) Gentle – not stubborn (I Timothy 3:3; Titus1:7) (14) Not self willed (Titus 1:7) (15) Not quick tempered – patient (Titus 1:7) (16) Free from the love of money (I Timothy 3:3; Titus 1:7; I Peter 5:2) (17) Must love what is good (I Timothy 1:8) (18) Must be just (Titus 1:8) (19) Must be devout (Titus 1:8) (20) Able to teach (I Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9) (21) Must hold fast the faithful word (Titus 1:9). Every elder while never reaching these qualities in their perfected state, yet is ever stretching himself to grow to there fullest realization. These qualifications concern the man’s character, reputation, family life and ability to be a leader. These qualifications are as apropos for the 21st Century as they were for the first century church. Furthermore, little is required of the elder that is not required of every Christian. Lynn Anderson offers a practical way to determine who should serve as elders or why some have been selected to serve as elders:

“I know ________,_________,________ well. I already have some sort of relationship with them.”

“I see _________,_________,________ as experienced and competent enough to give wise counsel.”

“________,________,________ are available. I can always find them.”

“_________,________,_________ are approachable. I find it comfortable to be open with them.”

“________,__________,_________ are hospitable, express love to me in several ways, and often create opportunities for conversation.”

“I have watched ________,__________,_________ make sound spiritual decisions in their own lives.”

“__________,__________,_________ know the Word of God.”

“___________,__________,_________ are respected by the people I most admire.”

“Christians often long for guidance from a wise and gentle big brother or big sister. God wired us up this way. When we hurt, we long for help and comfort from some one who has been where we are. When life overwhelms us, we look for someone who is strong and experienced. In the midst of the confusion, we seek people who can give steerage through treacherous waters. When shaping our lives, we reach out for mentors.”2

Moreover, in the United States, most of our Presidents have been at least in their fifties or beyond when first elected to our nations highest office. Youth has a lot of things going for it, but decades of experience and wise judgment are not yet present among the young in our age. Bible elders were older men with experience and spiritual maturity. It is clear in Scripture that elders were men who considered important matters facing the church. Paul and Barnabus were received by the elders when they came to Jerusalem to consider a doctrinal dispute (Acts 15:2-6). The decision by the apostles and elders resulted in a decree given to the Gentile churches. The elders at Ephesus came to Miletus to hear an important message from Paul (Acts 20:17f). Paul reminded them to oversee and feed the church and to watch out for false teachers (Acts 20:28-31).

Bishops or Overseers

These two terms are translated from the same Greek word episkopos. Jack Lewis gives some helpful information about the English usage of the word. “”Episkopos is used four times for leaders of the churches (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7). The KJV used both “overseer” (Acts 20:28) and “bishop” (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus1:1; I Peter 2:25) as rendering of this term. The ASV consistently used “bishop” in the text of all the passages, but listed overseer in the margin; the RSV used “guardian” in Acts 20:28 and in I Peter 2:25, but used “bishop” in other cases. The NIV has reversed the practice of the ASV and put “overseer” in the text and “bishop” in the margin in all cases. This reversal is necessary in view of the connotation “bishop” has taken in the current religious usage. The Scripture is not speaking of the “bishop” in the denominational sense of a man over a group of churches. “Overseer” corresponds to the etymology of the Greek word and avoids the erroneous connotation that may be attached to “bishop.”3

Joseph Henry Thayer, in his Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament, defines the Greek term under current consideration as: “an overseer, a man charged with the duty of seeing that things to be done by others are done rightly, a curator, guardian or superintendent.”4

Bishops or overseers certainly could not and should not do all the work that needs to be done in a given congregation. But all the work performed within a local church setting is under their oversight. The church is a monarchy, not a democracy. Jesus is Lord. Bishops are to assert Christ’s will – not the mind of the membership. Leaders must be loyal to Christ, His doctrine, His church, His morals and His worship. Jesus did not condemn all authority. He only condemned its abuse (Matthew 20:20-28). Authority must never be carried to extremes. No one in the Kingdom is to become Lord or a boss. Bishops are not called to reign but to serve (I Peter 5:1-5). Spiritual leadership sees itself as a servant – first of Christ then of the church. Furthermore, the New Testament knows nothing of one man rule in a local congregation here on earth. Even Jesus selected 12 apostles – not just one! When each congregation was set in order in the New Testament letters there were elders selected for each congregation (Acts 14:23). Paul addresses the bishops at Philippi – not just one bishop (Philippians 1:1). The New Testament is totally silent about THE elder or THE bishop concept. Such concepts came later with the deviations and departures that developed into wholesale apostasy from the truth.

J. W. McGarvey makes an excellent point in his commentary on Acts about how these fairly new congregations mentioned in Acts could have elders so quickly. “If any one is surprised that men were found in these newly founded congregations possessed of the high qualifications for the office laid down by Paul in his epistles to Titus and Timothy, he should remember that although these disciples had been but a comparatively short time in the church, many of them, in character and knowledge of the scriptures, the ripest fruits of the Jewish synagogue; and they needed only the additional knowledge which the gospel brought, in order to be models of wisdom and piety for the churches. They were not novices (I Timothy 3:6) in the sense of being newly turned away from wickedness.”5

The terms elder or presbyter do not mean the same as bishop or overseer but both sets of terms refer to different functions performed by the same office or ministry. God’s leaders are elders in that they are men of spiritual experience and maturity. They are bishops in that they are men of management. Paul said, “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other” (I Thessalonians 5:12,13).

The bishops are to admonish, warn, and instruct the church in what is right. If elders really love the flock they will rebuke and warn them of sin.

Pastors or Shepherds

The New Testament usage of the term pastors was radically different from the denominational usage the word currently takes. Most religious people today employ the term in reference to the preacher. Now it is true that some preachers do serve as both elder and preacher. But even in those cases he is simply a pastor along with his fellow pastors, fellow elders, fellow bishops or fellow overseers. In many translations of the Bible the word pastor occurs only once. Paul says this in Ephesians 4:11.

11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers,

I believe that gospel preachers would be included under the word evangelist. Evangelists (preachers) should not take over the work of elders and neither should they assume their leadership role. Paul wanted Timothy and Titus to do the work of evangelists. That is why they were to appoint elders (Titus 1:5). Therefore, the word pastor then would refer to the elders of the church. The Greek word that Paul uses in Ephesians 4:11 is poimen.

Joseph Henry Thayer, refers to this term and says that it refers to the “overseers of the christian community”.6 Preachers are not the overseers of the Christian assemblies like God intended the elders to be. The word pastor is the Latin word for a shepherd. I understand that the term shepherd is the best way to express the original idea behind the meaning of poimen. J.B. Myers has an easy way to see how the verb form poimaino is used by various translations.

Acts 20:28 feed feed shepherd care for be shepherds
I Peter 5:2 feed tend shepherd tend be shepherd
John 21:16 feed tend shepherd tend take care
Matthew 2:6 rule shepherd shepherd govern shepherd
Revelation 7:17 feed shepherd shepherd shepherd shepherd

* 7

To shepherd the flock is to tend, care for, and feed the flock. The model for a modern day shepherd is Jesus. Speaking of himself as the loving shepherd, Jesus says that he leaves the ninety-nine in the open country and goes in search of the lost one. “And he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.” (John 10:5). The picture of a shepherd leaving the fold to seek the one lost sheep demonstrates in a vivid way one major function of a spiritual shepherd (Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7). It is one thing to accept the return of a sinner, it is something else to go and look for him.

When the apostle Peter instructed church leaders on how to lead, he spoke of Jesus as “the Chief Shepherd.” (I Peter 5:4). The point being he is the blueprint for the way of modern leadership. Good spiritual shepherds today imitate the Chief Shepherd. The shepherding model revolves around the relationship between the shepherd and his flock. John 10:14: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— Sheep follow the shepherd because they know his voice. Through hours and days and weeks and years spent with their shepherd, sheep come to know from experience that they can trust him. Trust is earned, not demanded, and it is built over time. First and foremost, elders are shepherds. And what is a shepherd? A shepherd is some one who has a flock already. The process of appointing elders is simply the process of formally acknowledging those who have been shepherding for a long time.


Jesus made it clear that his leadership style is based upon submission and service and sacrifice, not on human models of authority – (Matthew 20:25-28). 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave– just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Elders must remember they are servants not masters. The church is not theirs – it belongs to Christ. What the church needs is spiritual shepherds and not a board of directors. But they must also remember that they are elders and not deacons. And they need to equip others to the work of service so that they can have more time to shepherd the flock.

1 F. LaGard Smith, Radical Restoration (Nashville: Cotswold Publishing, 2001) , 176.

2 Lynn Anderson, They Smell Like Sheep (West Monroe: Howard Publishing Co. 1997) , 125.

3 Jack P. Lewis, Leadership Questions Confronting the Church (Nashville: Christian Communications, 1985) , 23

4 Joseph Henry Thayer, Greek English Lexicon (Grand Rapids: Zondervon Publishing House, 1976) , 243

5 J.B. Myers, The Church and Its Elders (Fort Worth: Star Bible, 1981) , 19

6 Joseph Henry Thayer, Greek English Lexicon (Grand Rapids: Zondervon Publishing House, 1976) , 527

7 J.B. Myers, The Church and Its Elders (Fort Worth: Star Bible, 1981) , 27

Posted in Topical Papers.