Who Were the New Testament "Elders"?

[NOTE: In November 1974 we published the following article in our Impact For Today’s World magazine. Church government had been one of the six reform issues we nailed to the door of the Worldwide Church of God in early ’74. Unfortunately the door was iron—we should have brought a bomb. We were all fired. As could be expected, when the Associated Churches/Association for Christian Development began we spent a lot of time and energy trying to better understand the government issue. We had first hand experience with ecclesiastical abuses of power, but now with a clean slate, just how should a church be rightly organized. Was there a clear biblical model we could follow? Well, we’ve learned a lot about this thorny subject in the 23 years since, but I don’t think I’d edit much of the "elders" article which here appears here as it did in 1974. –Kenneth Westby]

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Our Biblical Studies Committee recently concluded an in-depth study on local church organization and structure. In this analysis of the term "elder" as used in the New Testament, the Director of Biblical Studies [George Kemnitz] summarizes an import aspect of that study.

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Does the Bible outline a definite "New Testament" form of local church organization? Is there a single "Biblical" form of church organization and structure that must be adopted to be consistent with scripture? If so, what is that form? If not, what principles should be followed in setting up local church congregations?

These were the major questions that we sought to answer through our studies on this subject for the past few months.

Early in our study and discussion it became obvious that a proper understanding of the New Testament term "elder" was of paramount importance in answering those questions.

The word "elder" is consistently translated in the New Testament from the Greek work presbuteros. The English words "priest," "presbyter," and "elder" all come from presbuteros. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, and the Episcopal Church, "priest," is generally used instead of "presbyter" or "elder." The presbyterian form of government takes its name from this Greek word as well.

At the heart and core of the controversial subject of church organization lies this enigmatic Greek work. Who or what were the presbuteros (elders) of the New Testament period? Was there a distinct office of elder with definite qualifications and responsibilities? How clear is the use of this word? How dogmatic can we be in fixing a definite church structure on the understanding and use of this key word?

Presbuteros is used nearly 70 times in the New Testament. Of that number, almost half are clearly referring to leaders within the Jewish community. In the Jewish society of Christ’s time presbuteros was used to refer to the respected leaders of the community, the synagogues and the Jewish Sanhedrin. Such common phrases as "traditions of the elders," "elders of the people," "priests, scribes, and elders," "elders of Israel," are such examples.

The book of Revelation uses presbuteros a dozen times to refer to the 24 "elders" surrounding God’s throne.

But the word is also used in a very broad and general sense. In the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15), presbuteros is used in reference to the elder son (verse 25). Another clear reference to physical age is in John 8:9, where it is translated "the eldest." In 1 Timothy 5:1 presbuteros refers to men physically older in age, and in verse 2 it refers to older women in the church. In Hebrews 11:2 it refers to men of the Old Testament.

Elders in the Church
When it comes to the Christian church, elders are mentioned in association with the apostles at Jerusalem (Acts 11:29-30 and chapter 15). There is no specific account given of the origin of the eldership in the apostolic church. Some scholars feel that the Christian community carried over the term "elder" from their common Jewish usage.

Who were the "elders" of the early church? Were they those men regarded highly because of their physical age and experience" or, those respected as leaders within the church because of their spiritual maturity? Were they men who, even before their conversion, were regarded as elders or leaders in their community? Did the elders of the early church hold a specific "office" in the church? Did some merely serve temporarily to fill a particular need such as in Acts 6? It would be speculation to say. The record is silent. It is impossible to draw dogmatic conclusions and nail down a simple solution to this ancient controversy.

Though scripture plainly lists qualifications for the office of bishop (episcopos) and for the office of deacon (diakonos) nowhere is there any mention of qualifications for "elders" as some official of the congregation.

The term elders might be roughly equivalent to our word "leaders" or "leading men" -- those who are spiritually older and more mature. Timothy, for example, who was subordinate to the Apostle Paul, had authority to ordain leaders of local churches (1 Tim 3) although he was physically younger than many in the congregations he was overseeing (compare 1 Tim 4:12 and 5:1-2).

Obviously, no ordination will make a man a leader who is not already one. Some men may be spiritual leaders without being officially recognized as such through ordination. Some men within a congregation may be officially designated by ordination to fulfill a particular responsibility because of a specific need. Once that need is fulfilled, their official role may end, yet they may continue to be leaders and spiritual elders in a general sense.

Office or Function?
We must let the context determine the meaning of presbuteros in any particular verse. But in several critical verses, this is impossible.

Take Acts 14:23 for instance. On the return leg of Paul’s first evangelistic tour, it says that Paul and Barnabas "ordained them elders in every church." Does this mean that Paul ordained some of the church members to an official church office entitled "Elder," or that Paul ordained or set apart those who were already recognized by the members as elders and leaders in the general sense? And if so, to what did Paul ordain them? To the "office of elder," or as "bishops," "deacons," "ministers," "teachers," etc.?

And did Paul ordain these leaders to all serve in the same function within the body, or to different functions of leadership? To a specific rank? Were they all "equal in rank and authority"? The most competent Biblical scholars unitedly admit that it’s impossible to say. The context is just not that clear. There is no way anyone can be dogmatic regarding presbuteros in this verse.

Take another example. Acts 20:17 refers to elders (presbuteros) of the church in the area of Ehpesus. In verse 28 Paul says they were "overseers" (episkopos) of the flock. But is Paul using the word episkopos in a general sense, or as an "office of bishop"? Many feel he meant it to refer to general functions rather than to specific titles.

Many questions are unanswered in scripture. Any attempt to make dogmatic twentieth-century applications of the first century terms and their respective functions must answer these questions. (If you are interested in further study on this subject, the reputable and scholarly work of the International Critical Commentary has a fine summary of this word dilemma in Vincent’s excursus on Philippians 1:1, pages 36-51.)

Other Key Words
In addition to the word Presbuteros, episkopos ("bishop" -- 1 Tim 3) and diakonos ("deacon") are the other key works central to understanding the local leadership within the church congregations.

Episkopos is only used five times (the related episkope four times). It is usually translated "bishop" and has the meaning of overseer and superintendent.

Diakonos and its related words are used over 100 times in the New Testament. They are commonly used words referring to ministering and serving, often in a very general sense as when Jesus taught us to serve one another.

Diakonos refers to one who executed the command of another. This term is applied to the servant of a king; to civil servants; to God’s ministers, including the apostles; to Christ himself; and even to ministers of Satan in 2 Corinthians 11:15.

In spite of its frequent use, diakonos seems to be used of an official within a local church (a deacon") only in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 (and possible in Philippians 1:1 -- though function may be referred to here, rather than title). In Acts 6, the term or title diakonos is not mentioned. Usually diakonos is used in general sense throughout the New Testament.

Overlapping Definitions
Notice the overlap of definitions and use of these key words in scripture: Jesus Christ is referred to as a Bishop -- overseer -- episkopos (1 Pet 2:25), obviously in a general sense, and as a minister - deacon - diakonos (Ro 15:8), again in a general sense.

The apostles Peter and John referred to themselves as "elders" -- presbuteros (1 Pet 5:1, 2 Jn 1, 3 Jn 1). They were also told by Christ to be deacons, ministers, servants in the general sense -- Greek diakonos (Mt 20:26). The vacancy left by Judas Iscariot is referred to as a bishoprick (Greek, episkope), Acts 1:20. So here apostles are also equated with bishops or overseers, obviously general usage again.

But note the overlap and interchangeability of these key terms, and how they are frequently used in a broad and general sense within the church and ministry. Paul, an apostle (Eph 1:1), also referred to himself a diakonos in Ephesians 3:7. Timothy, an evangelist (2Tim 4:5) having authority from Paul to ordain and discipline elders (the presbuteros), was himself a diakonos of God (1 Thes 3:2).

Though the apostles considered themselves "elders" within the church, they obviously had a different function, responsibility, and authority from other spiritual leaders within the church. Timothy and Titus were overseers in Asia Minor and Crete, yet clearly had authority over elders ordained in local congregations. There was difference of use and function among the church elders, for some labored in word and doctrine, preaching and teaching, and some did not (1 Tim 5:17). 1 Timothy 3 also refers to the specific job of superintending a church as a "work." Clearly, responsibilities and functions differed within the ministry.

Modern Structure
Rather than crystallizing a dogmatic, so-called "Biblical" structure of church government, the results of our Biblical Studies Committee research have caused us to recognize the fact that the subject of local church government is not something simple that can be wrapped up in a neat little package.

The New Testament is simply not specific in dealing with local church structure and form. Many terms are used in both a general and a specific sense. Definitions overlap. Scholars disagree on meanings or specific functions, or more often than not, agree that one cannot come to far-reaching, dogmatic conclusions concerning these terms on the basis of New Testament usage. Words change meanings; terms, functions, and structure varied from area to area; and the overall form evolved from the beginning of the New Testament church to the end of the first century and beyond.

There is no one, clear form of church organization that can be called "the Biblical" or "the one, only, original" church structure for the local congregation. What we must be careful to do is to properly and wisely apply the organizational principles taught in the New Testament. Several forms of organization may work to varying degrees of effectiveness, or to serve differing needs or goals. But a particular form of church organization should be "consistent with scripture" and should not violate Biblical principles and teachings.

It makes sense that local leadership within the church should follow a logical, orderly system facilitating the work of God’s Spirit effectually in every member, with each serving according to God’s gifts and fulfilling his particular function within the body (Eph 4:7, 11-16).

God is not the author of chaos or confusion within a local church, nor a system that encourages power struggles, political strife, or self-exhaltation (1 Co 14:33, 40). Rather, God wants the peace, the unity, and the harmony that comes from his Holy Spirit and from love -- and the effectiveness, the fruits, and the service that come from a properly functioning, organized body, with each member doing his part for the benefit of the whole (1 Co 12).

Those who want to be spiritual elders and leaders within Christ’s Body, should covet the best gift of all, love (1 Co 12:31 ff), and be the servant and minister of all. For "whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all" (Mark 10:43-44).

Associated Churches/ACD, 1974