Who Are the Elders?

By Stan Cox

This series of articles contains much of the material I presented at the annual Dallas/Ft. Worth Truth and Freedom Forum on October 5, 1991. In the September issue of The Examiner magazine, Charles Holt advertised that event, and in doing so gave a description of our discussion which took place that Saturday. Following is his description, Holt stating that it would be a “Discussion of the elders, who they are, what is their role, and do they have authority over the church and the people. One man will affirm and one will respond.”(1) I accepted their invitation to state my believe concerning the office and authority of elders, and Bobby Hoover was chosen to present the alternate view. It was not my purpose in the speech to question or judge their motives or heart. However, as I mentioned in my speech, I thought it necessary to examine their position as revealed in the writings of The Examiner magazine.

These articles will examine the three main points of the above quote. The questions I will answer by going to the word of God are as follows: (1) Who are the elders? (2) What is the role of the elders? and (3) Do the elders have authority over the church and the people?

Who Are Elders?

First, what does Holt believe? He writes in the March 1986 issue of The Examiner, “Yes, definitely, I believe in elders and always have! Rumors to the contrary are false. I am an elder! I am a ‘Senior Citizen.’ The word elder’ simply means ‘older’ or senior.’ We have taken our ‘pattern’ from Rome and the denominations and have given the word ‘elder’ an ecclesiastical meaning; indicating that an elder is a church officer or official. In this usage it is a title or name. In the NT it had no such meaning . . . You do not, can not, make someone an ‘elder’ by ordination or appointment.”(2) But does the New Testament truly teach that “elder,” as we use the term in our discussion, simply means an older person? Are we truly to believe, as Holt states, that “you do not, can not, make someone an ,elder’ by ordination or appointment”? Or are we to take Paul’s word for it, as he exhorted Titus in Titus 1:5, “that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you.” They talk around it, they try to twist it, they use all of their sophistry to try to wiggle out from under it, but in the end it remains that Paul told Titus to do what they say can’t be done.

Some quick definitions are appropriate. The first term to define is the word “elder.” The Greek term is presbuteros and simply means older, senior, or old. One passage in which this term is used is 1 Peter 5:1-4. It is the height of simplistic thinking to look at the literal definition of the word, and use it to deny what the context of the passage clearly teaches. This is exactly what The Examiner writers do. I do not believe the word presbuteros means anything other than older. What I do affirm, is that context and plain Bible statements in such passages as 1 Peter 5, show that the inspired writers used the term in certain places to indicate a special office to which a man might be appointed. You can’t ignore the context!

Now, the second term bishop or overseer. The Greek word is episkopos and is best defined by that idea of oversight. This term is found in 1 Timothy 3:1.

The third term is, pastor or shepherd. The Greek word is poimen and literally means a shepherd. It is used in this sense in Ephesians 4:11. In Acts 20:28, Paul exhorted the elders of the church in Ephesus to, “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood.” The phrase “to shepherd” has its origin in the Greek term poimaino, which means to do the work of a shepherd.

Not everyone qualifies to serve the Lord in this capacity. You must be qualified before you serve. Note the statement of Paul in 1 Timothy 3, verse 2, “A bishop then must be and then he goes on to give a list of qualifications. But notice, a bishop then “must be. . . ” Holt states that all senior citizens are “elders.” He even intimates that older women are elders. Well, they may be older, but in the sense that Paul is using the term in 1 Timothy, they sure can’t serve as a bishop. Why? Because Paul says they must be, must be, . . . the husband of one wife. For a complete listing, read through verse 7. No man can serve with God’s approval if he does not fit the profile established by God. And, if a man’s life and character conform to this profile, he is qualified to fill the “office” of a bishop.

Being qualified does not automatically place one in the position and work of an elder. Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5 teach that men are chosen for that work. Notice the plain statements of the inspired writers. Acts 14:23, “So when they (Paul and Barnabas) had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” You might notice again the statement of Holt, quoted earlier. “You do not, can not, make someone an ‘elder’ by ordination or appointment.” It amazes me that someone of his knowledge and age would make a statement which so very obviously contradicts what Paul and Barnabas plainly did. Not only did Paul appoint elders in every church, but he also exhorted Titus to do the same. Notice again his instruction in Titus 1:5, “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you.”

Lest there be an attempted sidestep here, let’s quickly define what the term “appoint” means. In Acts 14, the Greek word is cheirotoneo, and is defined by Strong, “to be a hand-reacher or voter (by raising the hand), i.e., (generally) to select or appoint: choose, ordain.” The same word is used in Acts 10:41, and refers to the witnesses that God chose or appointed to see the resurrected Christ. God selected or ordained certain individuals to see the resurrected Jesus, and Paul and Barnabas selected or ordained certain individuals to be elders. That does not mean that Paul and Barnabas went up to men and women and said, “We select you to be older people.” To say such is ridiculous. Paul and Barnabas went up to qualified men and ordained them or selected them to a particular office or work. This cannot be denied. The same is true of the term translated appoint in Titus 1:5.

Many other scriptural arguments could be cited, but these serve to prove that elders are qualified men, appointed to serve in a divinely ordained office. This, of course, is something denied by Holt and his followers. Our next article will answer the question, “What is the role of elders?”


1. The Examiner, Vol. V1, No. 5 (September, 1991), p. 9.

2. The Examiner, Vol. 1, No. 2 (March, 1986). “Questions and Misconceptions,” p. 11.

Guardian of Truth XXXVI :7, pp. 202-203
April 2, 1992