Understanding the Biblical Concept of Elders

This past Sunday I taught a lesson on biblical eldership at the Abbotsford Fellowship Group from Valley Heights Community Church.  I’ve compiled a small document that unpacks the biblical terminology, along with a few common questions & answers related to the topic.  Due to the time limits I’ll be teaching under, this study unpacks the terminology, concepts, and answers to many questions except the large question related to whether or not the office of “elder” is open to women.  That is a study in itself, so I have not included that in the package.

Either way, I’ve tried to make it both comprehensive and accessible (and as always, I tend to lean far too much towards the comprehensive side).  I hope it’s both informative and a blessing to you.

Biblical Eldership

The Biblical terminology:

  • (Hebrew) – The noun zaqen occurs 178 times in the Old Testament and is usually translated something along the lines of “elder”.
    • The term often can refer to the idea of “aged” as opposed to “young”. (Gen. 18:11; 25:8, 35:29; Ex. 10:9).
    • The term also can refer to an office. An “elder” was a mature individual, skilled at living that was involved in some aspect of spiritual or communal leadership. (Gen. 50:7, Ex. 3:16-18, 24:1-11; Num. 11:16; Deut. 1:9-18).
      • The elders were men of exemplary moral character (Ex. 18:20-21).
      • The elders were spiritually empowered for their work (Num. 11:17).
      • The elders often mediated communication from Moses/God to the people (Ex. 19:7, Deut. 31:9; Jer. 29:1).
      • The elders participated in leading aspects of worship (Ex. 12:21-27), sometimes as representatives of the people (Ez. 8:7-12).
      • The elders were involved in decision making and civic rule (Judges 8:13-16; Ruth 4:1-12).
    • (Aramaic) – In the book of Ezra, the Aramaic word siyboccurs 5 times and consistently refers to the office of “elder” (Ezra 5:5, 9, 6:7, 8, 14).
      • The Aramaic word is a derivative of the Hebrew word siyb, which means “gray-headed” and only appears in 1 Sam. 12:2 and Job 15:10.
    • Greek) – The noun presbuteros appears 67 times in the New Testament and is very similar to zaqen.  Acts 2:17 directly translates zaqen (from Joel 2:38) as presbuteros.
      • It can refer to the idea of “aged” (Luke 15:25; Acts 2:17; 1 Tim. 5:1).
      • It can refer to the Jewish social office of “elder” (Matt. 15:2, 21:23, 26:57-59; Mark 8:31; Luke 20:1; Acts 4:5-8, 23:14).
      • It can also refer to the authoritative church office of “elder” (Acts 14:23, 20:17)
        1. This was an office of leadership (1 Tim. 5:17).
        2. This office was a leadership office parallel with the office of “Apostle” (Acts 15:2-6, 22-23).
        3. This office was appointed (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5).
        4. This office was one that also participated in certain aspects of worship as representatives of the people (James 5:14; Rev. 4:4, 10, 5:5-14, 7:11-13).
      • There is an infrequently occurring related noun (presbuterion).
        1. This term only appears 3 times in the New Testament and consistently refers to a governing council of elders (Luke 22:66; Acts 22:5; 1 Tim. 4:14).
    • There are 3 other Greek words related to the New Testament concept of eldership:
      • The verb proistemi occurs 8 times in the New Testament and is mainly related to the actions of the presbuteros.
        1. This word carries the idea of “ruling” or “managing” (Rom. 12:8; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 3:4-5, 12, 5:17).
      • The noun poimen occurs 18 times in the New Testament and means “shepherd”
        1. It can refer to “one who tends sheep” (Mark 6:34; Luke 2:8, 15, 18, 20).
        2. It also can refer metaphorically to a spiritual leader; one who tends people.
          • Christ is spoken of as the “shepherd” of believers (John 10:1-18; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 5:4).
          • Christ has also given “shepherds” to the church (Eph. 4:11).
        3. The verbal form of poimen (poimaino) appears 11 times in the New Testament.
          • It can refer to tending sheep/livestock (Luke 17:7; 1 Cor. 9:7).
          • It can refer metaphorically to civil governing (Matt. 2:6; Rev. 2:27, 12:5, 19:15).
          • It can refer metaphorically to caring for people (John 21:16; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2; Jude 12; Rev. 7:17).
      • The noun episkopos occurs 7 times in the New Testament and means “overseer”.
        1. If can refer to the office that Christ has as overseer (episkopos) of believers (1 Pet. 2:25).
        2. It can refer to the office that qualified men have (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:7) in the local churches (Acts 20:27; 2 Tim. 4:22; Titus 3:15).
        3. There is a related noun (episkope) that carries the idea of “investigation” or “inspection”.
          • The noun appears twice to represent an office of “inspector” (Acts 1:20, 1 Tim. 3:1).
          • The noun appears twice, speaking of the act of a visitation or inspection (Luke 19:44; 1 Pet. 2:12).
          • In contemporary language, the idea might be somewhat akin to a building inspector; someone with authority who gives a critical evaluation.
        4. There is another related verb (episkopeo) that carries the idea of “carefully observing” (Heb. 12:15; 1 Pet. 5:2).
    • How are these terms related?
      • Presbuteros, poimen and episkopos are all loosely synonymous:
        1. Christ is referred to as both the shepherd (poimen) and overseer/bishop (episkopos) of the souls of believers (1 Pet. 2:25).
        2. The list of qualifications in 1 Tim. 3:1-7 is for an overseer/bishop (episkopos) and the list of qualifications in Titus 1:6-9 is for an elder (presbuteros), yet they’re highly similar lists.
          • In fact, Titus talks about the appointment of elders (presbuteros), in 1:5 and then gives the list of qualifications for an overseer/bishop (episkopos) in 1:7.
        3. 1 Peter 5:1-2 reads “So I exhort the elders (presbuteros) among you, as a fellow elder (presbuteros) and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed:  shepherd (poimen) the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight (episkopos)…”
        4. In Acts 20:7, Paul gathers all the elders (presbuteros) and in Acts 20:28 he says to them ” pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (episkopos), to care for (poimen) the church of God…”
      • There are slight differences of nuance:
        1. The idea is that presbuteros carries the idea of the office, but the other two terms refer to the actions of that office; poimen roughly refers to the care aspect of eldership and episkopos refers to the governing aspect of eldership.
          • i.e. An elder both cares for and governs the local church.

The Qualifications of an Elder:

  • A list of 23 qualifications for church elders can be compiled from 1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:6-13; 1 Pet. 5:1-5.
    • 1 Tim 3:1-7 – (1) Above reproach, (2) husband of one wife, (3) temperate, (4) prudent, (5) respectable, (6) hospitable, (7) able to teach, (8) not addicted to wine, (9) not pugnacious, (10) gentle, (11) peaceable, (12) free from the love of money, (13) ruling his household well, (14) having children under control, (15) not a new convert, (16) of good reputation outside the church.
    • Additions from Titus 1:6-9 – (17) Not self-willed, (18) not quick tempered, (19) loving what is good, (20) just, (21) devout.
    • Additions from 1 Peter 5:1-5 – (22) not overseeing under compulsion, (23) not domineering those who are overseen.

The Activities of an Elder:

  • Care for the church (1 Tim 3:5; 1 Pet. 5:2).
  • Be examples to the church (Heb. 13:7; 1 Pet. 5:3).
  • Govern/oversee the church (Acts 15:22; Rom. 12:8; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 3:4-5, 5:17).
  • Preach and teach, though not all do (1 Tim. 5:17).
  • Call Christians to sound doctrine away from false doctrine (Titus 1:9).
  • Call Christians to fidelity to Christ and away from false teachers (Acts 20:29-30).
  • Praying for the sick (James 5:14).
  • Appoint other elders to gospel ministry (1 Tim. 4:14).
  • Appoint deacons/lay people to roles of service (Acts 6:3-4).
  • Adjudicate grievances/disagreements within the church (Acts 15:1-21; 1 Cor. 6:1-8).

How are elders appointed:

  • 1 Tim 4:14 says that elders are appointed by the laying on of hands.
    • This is an action that shows solidarity and identification with the person; the elders lay their hands upon a prospective elder in order to recognize his calling to the ministry.
    • This solidarity also translates into shared guilt when a foolish appointment is made (1 Tim. 5:22).

When are elders appointed:

  • They are evaluated over a period of time (1 Tim. 3:6; 5:22).
  • There is a unanimous decision made by the elders performing the appointment (Acts 14:23).
    • The word “appointed” in Acts 14:23 means “to stretch out the hand”, i.e. “to vote”.  This refers to a vote among the elders, not the entire church.

How are elders removed?

  • Elders must be removed, in public (to emphasize the seriousness of the office), for unrepentant sin that is proven by a minimum of two witnesses (1 Tim. 5:19-20).
  • Elders are to be given fair judgment with no partiality (1 Tim. 5:21).

Are there multiple elders in a church?

    • Yes.  The term presbuteros is plural every time it occurs in the New Testament with the exception of its occurrences in 2 & 3 John and 1 Pet. 5:1.
    • This plural terminology doesn’t suggest 1 elder per church with only a plurality of churches.
      • In Acts 14:23, elders (plural) were appointed in every church (singular).
      • Early in the life of the church, there was a council of elders (plural) in Jerusalem in Acts 15.
      • James tells the one who is sick to call for the elders (plural) of the church (singular) to pray over him (James 5:14).  It is most reasonable that the sick person calls the multiple elders from their local church to pray for them instead of elders from difference churches in different cities.

Are all elders identical?

  • No.
    • It’s clear that though Paul recognized that he was a servant of Christ equal to other elders, (1 Cor. 3:5-9), Paul also recognized that there were some elders who excelled above others (2 Tim. 4:11).  It’s worth noting that on Pentecost, with the 11 other disciples present, it was Peter alone who did the preaching (Acts 2:14-40).
    • Paul recognizes that not all will preach and teach (1 Tim. 5:17) and Peter (Acts 15:7) and James (Acts 15:13) apparently had recognized positions of leadership even among the elders in Jerusalem.

Are all elders volunteers?

  • They do have the right to be paid for their service (1 Cor. 9:1-9; 1 Tim. 5:17-18).
  • Those who preach and teach should be paid generously for their labors (1 Tim. 5:17).

Until Next Time,

Lyndon “Does thinking lexicography is fun make me a Bible geek?” Unger


5 thoughts on “Understanding the Biblical Concept of Elders

  1. Pingback: Are You Called to Ministry? « Watch Your Life and Doctrine Closely…

  2. Do you have a study available on the topic of women in eldership positions? The only book I’ve read on it is “Biblical Eldership” by Alexander Strauch. He comes down firmly on the side of male elders only.

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