Lecture 3: Elders in the Local Church
Spiritual qualifications are more important than business qualifications. Terms of service should balance the need to have the most qualified leaders and the concern of burnout and stagnation. In the New Testament, other terms translated into English that also refer to the office of elder are bishop, overseer and pastor.
Elders in the Local Church
Spiritual qualifications should never be sacrificed to technical expertise. For example, deacons or trustees or financial and property administrators should be men or women with hearts for God even more importantly than they have heads for finance, and best of all, both. (Implied in the preceding principle.)
The selection process should provide for the necessary assessment of possible leaders by a group able to discern the qualifications mentioned in #8; and that the process provide for the final approval by the congregation of all officers. (Implied in principles 6 and 7.)
Terms of active service should not be dictated by the desire to include as many different people as possible in leadership (see #3 above), but by the careful balance between the need, on the one hand, to have the most qualified leaders and, on the other hand, to guard against burn out and stagnation.
6. Other Names For Elders in the New Testament
The English term "bishop" means overseer and is sometimes used to translate the Greek word "episcopos" which means "one who over (epi) sees (scopos)".
There are at least four reasons to consider this term (bishop/overseer) as equivalent to "elder" in the New Testament church.
Reason One: Titus 1:5 compared to 1:7
For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you, namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. For the overseer must be above reproach as God's steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain.
Compare Titus 1:5 with 1:7, where "bishop/overseer" and "elder" are apparently interchangeable terms. Paul begins by saying that Titus should appoint elders (presbuterous) in every town (verse 5). Then he gives some qualifications that they must meet (verse 6), and continues without a break in verse 7 by saying, "For a bishop (episkopon), as God's steward must be blameless." Virtually all commentators agree that the same office is in view in these two terms: "elder" describing the man with reference to his dignity and standing (older); "bishop" describing the man with reference to his function and duty (oversight).
Reason Two: Acts 20:17 compared to 20:28
Acts 20:17, 28
From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church. . . . Be on guard for yourselves and for 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.
In Acts 20:17, Paul calls the "elders" to come down from Ephesus. Then he says to them in verse 28 that God has made them "guardians" (="overseers/bishops"; episkopous) among the flock. So the "elders" are the "bishops/overseers" in Ephesus.
Reason Three: 1 Timothy 3:1ff compared to 5:17
1 Timothy 3:1
If anyone aspires to the office of bishop/overseer, he desires a noble task.
1 Timothy 5:17
The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.
In 1 Timothy 3:1, Paul says, "If anyone aspires to the office of bishop/overseer, he desires a noble task." Then he gives the qualifications for the overseer/bishop in verses 2-7. Unlike the deacons, the overseer must be "able to teach" (verse 2), and in verse 5, he is said to be one whose management of his own household fits him to care for God's church. These two functions are ascribed to elders in the fifth chapter of this same book (1 Timothy 5:17) -teaching and governing. So it is very likely that in Paul's mind the bishops/overseers of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 are the same as the elders of 5:17.
Reason Four: Philippians 1:1 compared to 1 Timothy 3:1ff and Acts 14:23
In Philippians 1:1 Paul writes, "To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons." These, then, seem to be the two offices of the church just as in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 the qualifications are given only for these two. But Paul appointed "elders" in all the churches (Acts 14:23), and so it is very likely that the elders of the church at Philippi were the bishops/overseers referred to in Philippians 1:1.
We conclude that the office of bishop/overseer is the same as the office of elder in the New Testament. It is listed beside the office of deacon (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1-13) in such a way as to show that these two were the main offices by which the ongoing life of the church was to be managed.
The term "pastor" (poimen) occurs in the New Testament only once (Ephesians 4:11 "He gave some . . . as pastors and teachers"). But there is a verb (poimainein "to shepherd, or feed") closely related to the noun "pastor" which helps us discover how the role of pastor was related to the role of elder and bishop.
Ephesians 4:11 treats pastors and teachers as one group and thus suggests that the chief role of the pastor is feeding the flock through teaching, a role clearly assigned to bishops/overseers in 1 Timothy 3:2 ("An elder must be . . . apt to teach") and to elders in Titus 1:9 ("He will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict"). This suggests that "pastor" is another name for "elder" and "overseer."
In Acts 20:28, the "elders" of Ephesus are encouraged in their "pastoral" duties, thus showing that Paul saw the elders as the shepherds or pastors. (Acts 20:28 "Be on guard for yourselves and for 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.")
In 1 Peter 5:1-2, the "elders" are told to "tend the flock of God" that is in their charge. In other words, Peter saw the elders as, essentially, pastors or shepherds. (1 Peter 5:1-2, "I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you.")
The New Testament only refers to the office of pastor one time (Ephesians 4:11). It is a functional description of the role of elder stressing the care and feeding of the church as God's flock, just as "bishop/overseer" is a functional description of the role of elder stressing the governing or oversight of the church. We may conclude therefore that "pastor" and "elder" and "bishop/overseer" refer in the New Testament to the same office. This office stands alongside "deacon" in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:1-13 in such a way as to show that the two abiding officers instituted by the New Testament are elder and deacon.