Examining the Eldership

By H.E. Phillips

The nature and work of the “eldership” in the local body of Christians has been the center of a continuing controversy for a long time. The fact that there is controversy does not mean that the word of God is not clear and complete on the subject. The New Testament provides ample evidence to establish the truth on this subject.

The Scriptures teach that the church in every community is to have elders. The word “church” is used in the New Testament to refer to all baptized penitent believers the world over (Matt. 16:18; Acts 2:47; Eph. 1:22,23; 1 Cor. 12:12,13). We call it “universal” because it embraces all Christians without any idea of locality, organization or function. It is one body (Eph. 4:4).

But “church” is also used to designate relationship and action impossible in the universal sense. It describes a “church” in a locality, with some organization for function, such as the church at Philippi (Phil. 1:1; 4:15).

God revealed his mind to man by words (1 Cor. 2:9-13). It is complete (2 Tim. 3:16,17), perfect (Psa. 19:7), powerful (Rom. 1:16), sufficient (2 Pet. 1: 3), unchangeable (Gal. 1:6-9), indestructible (Matt. 24:35; 1 Pet. 1:23,25); and it is once for all given to the saints (Jude 3). We must understand the meaning of the words used in the word of God to know his will. The common Greek language in Palestine in the days of Christ and the apostles provided a transport from the mind of God to “every creature” in “all nations” to give his complete and final revelation that will perfect a man unto all good works (2 Tim. 3:16,17; Jude 3).

Christ Has All Authority Over the Church

The church is not a democracy. It is a monarchy; Christ is king over the kingdom and head over all things to the church (Eph. 1:22,23; Col. 1:18). He has been given all authority in heaven and in earth (Matt. 28:18). He received this authority from the Father (Heb. 1:1,2; Jn. 12:48-50; 1 Cor. 15:27,28). Christ will have this authority until the resurrection at the last day (1 Cor. 15:24-26). The government of Christ over the church is perfect, and it cannot be overthrown.

Christ rules through his revealed word. Christ sent the Holy Spirit upon the apostles to empower them to speak his word, by which he exercises his authority (Jn. 14:25,26; 16:12,13). On the day of Pentecost when the power came upon them, they spoke as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 1:1-4; 2:1-4). Paul said that the things he wrote are the commandments of the Lord (1 Cor. 14:37).

Who Are the Elders?

The words we use to designate a person or thing tell something of the characteristics, relationships and work of that person or thing. Three Greek terms are used to designate the oversight of a local church. These terms define different areas of the work and relationship of these men in the local church.

1. Presbuterion. The Greek word presbuterion means “an assembly of the elders” which means “the eldership” or “elderhood” as in the translation of Acts 22:5 by George Berry in The Greek New Testament. The English word eldership does not occur in the New Testament, but the Greek term presbuterion is found three times and could be so translated (Lk. 22:66; Acts 22:5; 1 Tim. 4:14). The first is translated by “elders” and the last two by “presbytery.” Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon says of presbuterion, “Body of elders, presbytery, senate, council; of the Jewish elders, Lk. xxii. 66; Acts xxii. 5; of the elders of any body (church) of Christians, 1 Tim. iv. 14.”

It literally means “an old man.” In whatever relationship it is used, it always connotes one older, a senior. It is used of overseers of the church (Acts 14:23; 20:27,28; Tit, 1:7). The word elder itself does not inhere the idea of oversight, but when used in a context that plainly shows the oversight of elders in a church, the word denotes that group of men who have the oversight in that church. It is translated by “elders” and “presbytery.”

2. Episcopos. Thayer’s Greek.-English Lexicon says of this word: “an overseer, a man charged with the duty of seeing that things to be done by others are done rightly, any curator guardian, or superintendent . . . spec. the superintendent, head or overseer of any Christian church; . . . Acts xx. 28; Phil. i. 1; 1 Tim. iii. 2; Tit. i. 7).” It is a variation of episcopeo: “to look upon, inspect, oversee, took after, care for; spoken of the care of the church which rested upon the presbyters, 1 Pet. v. 2.”

Episcopos is translated by the English overseer and carries the same meaning as the Greek just defined. It means to supervise, take care of, rule, direct, guide, and oversee. When this word (episcopos) is used with reference to those in the church as in Acts 20:28, it is impossible to deny that the New Testament teaches that there are local churches and that elders are overseers in these churches. The English bishop is another word that translates episcopos in I Timothy 3:1,2; Titus 1:7.

3. Poiman. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament defines poimaino: “To feed, to tend aflock, keep sheep . . . to rule, govern . . . to furnish pasturage orfood,to nourish. b. metaph. thepresiding officer, manager, director, of any assembly: so of Christ the Head of the church, Jn. x. 16; 1 Pet. 2:25; Heb. xiii. 20, of the overseers of the Christian assemblies.”

Poiman is translated by the English word shepherd. It means “tending, feeding, guarding.” By common usage it has come to mean “one who feeds, tends, and guards” the spiritual interests of people in a given locality. It refers to the elders of the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2). Poiman is also translated by the English pastor, which means “to feed” and is found in Ephesians 4: 11.

These three Greek words signify age, maturity in all phases of life, oversight, feeding, teaching God’s word, supermtending the work and development of each member of a local body of Christians. All these words refer to the same men in their relationship to a local group of Christians designated “the church” (Phil. 1:1; 1 Pet. 5:1-3).

Every Church to Have Elders

When Paul and Barnabas returned from their preaching tour, they “ordained them elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). Paul left Titus in Crete, “that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee” (Tit. 1:5). I do not know of a passage anywhere in the New Testament that directs any other oversight, and I do not know of any authority of Christ to abolish the eldership.

Titus was directed to “set in order” something. Thayer says this expression means “to set in order besides or further.” Titus was to set in order “the things that are wanting. ” Something needed to be supplied for order. In telling Titus to set in order the things that are wanting, he told him to “ordain” elders in every city. “Ordain” means “to appoint one to administer an office.” That is in the word of God and it can no more be taken out than baptism can be eliminated from the conditions for the remission of sins. Every church that does not have elders appointed has something lacking.

The Holy Spirit was not telling Paul, Titus or Timothy to “ordain” older people to be older people. He was commanding that men be ordained to a work of oversight in the local church. They were called “elders” because they were to be older men with the other qualifications listed in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3. The term “elder” is used by the Holy Spirit with reference to this work or “office.” Paul sent from Miletus to Ephesus, and “called the elders of the church” (Acts 20:17). In verse 28 he told these “elders” that “the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.”

Elders Must Be Qualified By God’s Standard

The New Testament teaches that some older men must have certain qualifications before they can be appointed to be bishops, elders or shepherds in a congregation of Christians. The lists of those qualifications are given in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. While these requirements are a must, they do not require a perfect, sinless man. The bishop must have all the requirements listed to a mature degree. He must not be a novice. These qualifications must have been acquired before he is appointed to the work.

The Holy Spirit makes elders; the church where they are to serve selects them because of their qualifications to be appointed to the work. There is a definite time when they begin the oversight. One cannot be a Christian until and unless he obeys every condition for the remission of sins. Likewise, one cannot be a bishop (elder) until and unless he qualifies in every respect given in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3.

These qualifications make the man what God wants him to be in the oversight of every local church. They make him a good moral man. He must be blameless, of good behavior, hospitable, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre, no brawler, a lover of good men and just. They make him a man of self-control. He must be temperate, self-governed, not given to wine, not soon angry, not self-willed, sober, serious and just. They make him a good family man. He must be a mature husband, of one wife, faithful children (Christians), rule his house well, They make him a mature spiritual man. He must desire the good work, be apt to teach, not covetous, not a novice, of good report and holy. It takes time and effort to develop these characteristics.

The qualifications equip the men to be able to:

1. Be a good example (1 Pet. 5:3; Acts 20:28).

2. Properly use the word of God (Tit. 1:9; Acts 20:32).

3. Take the oversight (1 Pet. 5:2).

4. Take heed to the flock (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2).

5. Rule well (1 Tim. 3:5; 5:17; Heb. 13:17).

6. Feed the flock (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2).

7. Watch for grievous wolves (Acts 20:28-30).

8. Stop the mouths of vain talkers and deceivers (Tit. 1:9-11).

9. Admonish (1 Thess. 5:12).

10. Support the weak (Acts 20:35).

11. Pray for and help the sick (Jas. 5:14).

12. Watch for the souls of those in his charge (Heb. 13:17).

It is wrong for a man to try to eliminate or modify baptism for the remission of sins in making one a Christian. It is just as wrong to eliminate or modify any of the qualifications of a man in making him a bishop in the church.

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 19, pp. 581-582
October 4, 1990