Is it Scriptural for a Local Church to Have an Eldership?

By Irvin Himmel

Reuel Lemmons submitted the following in an editorial in the Firm Foundation, Aug. 2, 1977:

“We have developed an ‘eldership.’ There were elders in the New Testament church but where do we find an ‘eldership’? . . .The average reader will be astonished to learn that you cannot find the term ‘eldership’ In the New Testament. Many elders do not even know that it is a non-biblical term . . .

Norman L. Parks, writing in the Ensign Fair, Dec., 1977, makes a similar assertion. Says Parks,

“There were elders in the assemblies of the Lord established by the Apostles but no ‘eldership’.”

Classifying the word “eldership” as an example of “Americanese,” not pure English, Parks thinks the term misrepresents Biblical truth. Here is how he states his feelings about the word “eldership”:

“It is true that one may find the term ‘eldership’ in such dictionaries as Websters which accept ‘Americanese’, but in such authoritative ‘pure’ dictionaries as the great unabridged Random House Dictionary of the English Language it just does not appear. It does not appear in the Bible. It misrepresents Biblical truth just as the word ‘fellowship’ does when used as a verb. We need to follow Campbell’s claim that we should call Bible things by Bible names . . . .”

To reason that a congregation may have elders but not an eldership is like reasoning that the church may have members but no membership!

Our English word “elder” is used to translate the Greek word presbuteros. Sometimes the Greek word is Anglicized (spelled with English letters and given an English ending) to make it “presbyter.” Some English translations of the New Testament speak of “elders” and others speak of “presbyters,” depending on the preference of words employed by the translators. For a parallel, some English versions use “baptism” (an Anglicized word) and others use “immersion.” As an illustration, in Acts 14:23 in the King James Version it is stated that Paul and Barnabas ordained “elders” in every church. Moffatt’s translation says they chose “presbyters.” Either rendition is correct.

In 1 Tim. 4:14 the King James Version uses the word “presbytery” for presbuterion. Timothy had received a certain gift “with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.” If “elder” is an appropriate English term to translate presbuteros, “eldership” is equally appropriate to translate presbuterion. Such translations as Anderson’s, the American Bible Union, the Geneva Bible, the Bishops’ Bible, and Young’s use the word “eldership.”

Parks says, “It is true that one may find the term ,eldership’ in such dictionaries as Websters which accept `Americanese’, ” but not in “pure” works like the “great unabridged Random House Dictionary.” He does not bother to tell his readers that before the first English settlement was made in America (Remember Jamestown and the year 1607?) there were English translations of the New Testament that used the word “eldership.” The Geneva Bible appeared in 1560 and the Bishops’ Bible in 1568. It is strange that both these versions which were in use before the King James Version appeared in 1611 used “eldership,” a word belonging not to “pure” English but to “Americanese.” Startling! How did this “Americanese” find its way into the vocabulary of English scholars before the first English settlement in America? Strange indeed!

According to Parks if we would but use the “pure” style of “the great unabridged Random House Dictionary” the word “eldership” would be gone. Lemmons finds the word equally out of place, but for some strange reason he blames the Random House people! In a Firm Foundation editorial of Nov. 15, 1977, he objects further to “eldership,” especially the “ship” part of the word, and offers this comment:

“Brethren have swallowed the Random House Dictionary definition hook, line and sinker. They are forgetting the Bible definition.”

Brethren, I need help in figuring this one out! How is it that the Random House Dictionary definition of “eldership” is the bad thing that brethren have swallowed hook, line and sinker, yet the “pure” Random House Dictionary does not use the word “eldership.” Parks uses Random House to sink the “ship in “eldership,” but Lemmons blames Random House for the “ship” idea’s floating around in our minds.

Leaving the Random House fight in the hands of Parks and Lemmons, I direct your attention to another matter. The word presbuterion used in 1 Tim. 4:14 means a “body of elders” (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon), “the elders or bishops in a local church” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary), “the college of elders” (Hendriksen), or “elderhood” (Berry’s Interlinear). The English word “eldership” expresses the idea well.

Parks says we need “to follow Campbell’s claim that we should call Bible things by Bible names.” I am not interested in following Campbell, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, or any other man except as he follows Christ. Calling Bible things by Bible names is included in the principle laid down in 1 Pet. 4:11, “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God,” and I am solidly for that principle. “Eldership” is but a synonym for “presbytery” (just as “immersion” is a synonym for “baptism”) and is in fact a Bible name for the “body of elders.”

Interestingly, when Campbell published a translation of the New Testament which he considered to be an improvement over the old King James Version, he used Macknight’s version of the epistles, and (with our sincere apologies to Random House) it has “eldership” in 1 Tim. 4:14! Obviously, Campbell did not think the word “eldership” was contrary to calling Bible things by Bible names. In the appendix to the Living Oracles translation, Campbell says presbuterion (commonly rendered “presbytery”) is “applied to the eldership of the Christian congregation” in 1 Tim. 4:14. Such scholars as Macknight and Campbell did not know that the term “eldership” is “Americanese,” and, fortunately, they had no occasion to either praise or condemn Random House!

The New Testament teaches that local churches should appoint elders when there are men who are qualified to serve. It is right to refer to these men collectively as the “presbytery” or “eldership.” Abuses in the eldership are no justification for attempting to leave elders stranded on the high seas with a sunken “ship.”

Truth Magazine XXII: 20, pp. 330-331
May 18, 1978