Purpose of this Session
The formalisation that has occurred over the centuries in the church, which has twisted the servant nature and function of the New Testament office into a title and ecclesiastical ‘position’ within manmade hierarchies (along with the regalia and costumes to suit), has often obscured the purity and humility of these Biblical offices.
As we have already seen, a deacon is not a little ruler in the church exerting their authority for personal gain and position. Nor are they low level servants who are disrespected and used for lowly jobs in the church. Similarly, the office of elder or Bishop is not an exalted and robed pontifical position above others, but again, a place of mature and proven service to the Body of Christ in a given locality.
DEFINITION: Elder / Overseer / Bishop
The word is derived from the Greek words ‘presbuterion’ or ‘Presbuteruios’, and ‘Episkopos’ and its derivatives.
Presbuter-ion(-os) essentially means “assembly of older men, older man or senior”. The words are used in the New Testament in reference to the Jewish council of elders, the Sanherin (Luke 22:66; Acts 22:5) as well as the elders and overseers of the Church (1 Tim 4:14). The concept of elders or ‘presbytery’ was not new to the New Testament mind in Acts.
Episkopos (and Episkopeo/Episkopee) means “overseer, superintendant, guardian or bishop’. It comes from two Greek words, the first being a proposition meaning “over”, the second meaning “to look or watch”. It means to exercise oversight, to care for, to look over. An ‘elder’ or ‘overseer’ (sometimes translated Bishop), simply means one who has a charge to oversee and care for those under his/her authority.
In the New Testament it appears that the two words were used in reference to the same office.
“And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders (presbuteros) of the church…Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers (episkopos), to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.”
(Acts 20:17, 28 KJV)
“The elders (presbuteros) which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder…Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight (episkopeo) thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind;” (1Peter 5:1-2 KJV)
This then is an ‘office’ or charge to oversee the church family in a locality by men and women of mature experience and character.
Elders are essentially overseers and shepherds. The Biblical emphasis on their function within the Body, not the title (elder is not a title, it is someone who eld-ers). The term elder refers to the character of the person, the term overseer to their function, and the term shepherd to their gifting.
Eldership is a concept that runs throughout the Bible. The first New Testament mention of the office is in Acts 11:30 where they are mentioned as already functioning within the Body.
The first example of instituted and functioning anointed ‘eldership’ is found in the Old Testament. In Exodus 18, Jethro counsels Moses to place able anointed men over the people of Israel, that there might be a plurality of leadership, relieving one individual of the burden of the people.
“Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens: And let them judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge: so shall it be easier for thyself, and they shall bear the burden with thee.” (Exodus 18:21-22)
The Lord Himself commands the same in Numbers 11:
“And the LORD said unto Moses, Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them unto the tabernacle of the congregation, that they may stand there with thee. And I will come down and talk with thee there: and I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone.” (Num 11:16-17)
Again, we witness the institution of a plurality of proven men who were already operating as respected and honoured individuals in the community, being set apart for service to the chosen people of God as overseers.
Some points to recognise, and which typify the office of elder in both the Old and New Testaments:
a. The elders were instituted as a practical consideration. There was a need for men who genuinely cared for the people to help carry their burdens together with Moses. It was not an office, position or title that was filled for the sake of filling a position. Elders and deacons are necessitated by the growing burden of ministry within a called out community. They are functioning, active leaders in that community. Unlike deacons, in the New Testament the elders were not chosen by the majority. They were chosen and called to oversight by God Himself (Acts 20:28), and recognised and appointed by the apostolic leaders in the Church (Acts 14:23).
b. The eldership was plural
A singular leader without peers is not seen in the New Testament model of church. As churches were established and grew, a group of elders was appointed. (Acts 11:30;15;2,4,6,etc; 20:17). Although church government is not ‘democratic’, nor it is an autocratic community dominated by one individual. In the multitude of counsellors there is safety for both the leaders and the community they lead and oversee. The concept of a super-anointed ‘infallible’ individual over the church in a locality (or even more bizarrely globally) is completely alien to the New Testament.
It is apparent that the New Testament churches in Acts had a plurality of elders;
• There were elders (plural) in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30)
• There were elders (plural) in the churches of S.Galatia (Acts 14:23)
• There were elders (plural) in Ephesus (Acts 20:17)
• There were elders (plural) in Philippi (Philip 1:1)
• There were elders (plural) in the Judean churches (James 5:14)
• There were elders (plural) in Crete (Titus 1:5)
These elders did not necessarily have the same responsibilities and standing in the redeemed community, and some had greater honour than others (1 Tim 5:17), but there is certainly no indication of a single leader carrying all of the responsibility and authority. Having said this, a balanced and practical consideration must be taken in regard to effective leadership and administration within the Body, and there is evidence in the New Testament that among the overseers one chosen individual did carry final responsibility and authority for decisions that were made as a group (and these decisions were often made not just by a small group of elders, but in consensus with the whole church body (Acts 15:22,25).
The Jerusalem church for example had a number of elders, but by mutual consent James was clearly recognised as an authority among them (Acts 12:17;15:13,19). This was not a lone-ranger big chief, but a man who, in submission to the plural eldership and to the church Body as a servant of God, acted as a mouthpiece for the whole, and spoke as a final authority on matters of discussion and decision.
c. The eldership provided the necessary framework and security for the community to function as a whole.
“If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee so, then thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people shall also go to their place in peace. So Moses hearkened to the voice of his father in law, and did all that he had said.” (Exodus 18:23-24 KJV)
An effectively functioning leadership (under the Head who is Christ) will always lead to an effectively functioning Body. Judges 5:2 speaks of the people willingly offering themselves for service under an effective and confident leadership.
“When the leaders lead, when the people willingly offer themselves, Bless the Lord!”
d. The elders were not just capable men in the natural (mere managers), they were spiritually equipped as well. There is a necessity for overseers in the Body of Christ to be anointed with the same spirit as the Head. This is a spiritual office, not just a natural ecclesiastical ‘job’, and the qualifications are not measured by mere natural ability, education and training, or financial standing in the community:
“And the LORD said unto Moses, Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them unto the tabernacle of the congregation, that they may stand there with thee. And I will come down and talk with thee there: and I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone. And Moses went out, and told the people the words of the LORD, and gathered the seventy men of the elders of the people, and set them round about the tabernacle. And the LORD came down in a cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders: and it came to pass, that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease.”;(Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25 KJV)
The Qualifications of an Elder (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9)
Read the above passages in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 and note down for yourself some of the qualifying characteristics of an elder overseer.
In the same way that certain character, spiritual and domestic qualifications are necessary before someone is considered as a deacon, so it is with an elder. Whereas authority in the Gentile world system is based on position and rank, in the kingdom it is built on godly character. Being precedes doing in the Kingdom; and ministry flows from who we are on the inside. Paul speaks of these characteristics already being present in those who are to be considered as elders. In essence, they already functioning as elders. The church merely recognises this and apostolic endorsement is given. Function follows character; an elder serves because he is a servant.
Paul expresses these necessary traits in his letters to Timothy and Titus.
a. The elder must be blameless.
He or she must be guiltless and above reproach.
They must exhibit self-control, not given to excess, and a person of stability and balance.
Sound minded, discerning and wise, one who takes life seriously and is not frivolous (this does not mean they have to be miserable by the way, but simply that they carry their responsibilities well and live life with a sound judgement, recognising those things that are of real value).
d. Must be well behaved
He must conduct himself well in private and in public.
e. Not given to wine
Speaks for itself, and can be applied to any area of excess. He or she must live a life of modesty and self control.
f. Not a striker.
No violent or given to violent outbursts. The arena for an elders warfare is not with flesh and blood, but in the spiritual world.
g. Not greedy for money
Money must not the motivating influence in the life of the elder. They should demonstrate a life of contentment and generosity (this does not mean that they cannot be rich however. They may have money, and lots of it, but money must not have them).
h. Not a brawler
Must not be abusive and argumentative.
i. Not covetous
The passion of the elders heart will be primarily for spiritual riches, and he or she will be free of fear of lack, or craving for material possessions.
j. Not self-willed
The elder will not be consumed with self, inconsiderate of others or stubborn. They will be soft hearted and ready to yield to God, and to others when necessary.
k. A lover of good
A true lover of what is good and lovely, and a hater of sin and all its manifestations.
a. Must be the faithful husband of one wife
Not an adulterer, not a bigamist, a man of undivided affection for God, and for his own wife.
Open to others, and to strangers. A lover of people and willing to help.
c. Ruling his own house well
Standing in the position of authority in his own home, with obedient and reverent children who respect and honour him as the head of their home. Capable leadership in the private life is an essential qualification for the exercise of public authority.
a. Able to teach
This does not mean that they must be a teacher in the five-fold capacity, but of necessity an elder must be able to expound, communicate and apply the Word of God clearly. They must be skilled in the ‘word of righteousness’ (Heb 5:13-14), in order to lead others in the ways of righteousness.
b. Not a novice
Although spiritual age is more important than physical age in some respects, nevertheless an elder must have lived the life of a disciple, and tested the Word, before being considered as a leader of others in the ways of God.
c. Must have a good report in the world
An elder should be well respected, and live in a manner worthy of respect, even from those outside the church Body.
Conducting themselves faithfully in obedience to God’s standards, and the proper laws of men.
Pure from evil conduct, observant of God’s will, set apart clearly and wilfully to God’s purposes.
f. Hold fast to the Word
He or she must be established in the truth of God’s Word, and live according to that which he/she knows to be true.
g. Must be able to exhort and convince in sound teaching
Not mere academic knowledge, but able to apply the Word to everyday circumstances and situations, bringing others to a place where they see how the Word can be applied in their lives.
Working in pace and effectively with all manner of people, and bringing them toward maturity with patience and understanding.