Terms Used for Elders

The evidence considered so far indicates there were no monarchial bishops before the time of Ignatius.  Even at the time of Ignatius it is fairly certain that not all of the churches had this organizational arrangement.  Additional evidence from the New Testament also indicates that a plurality of elders is the New Testament model rather than a monarchial bishop.  One of the greatest evidences for this is the interchangeability of the Greek words translated elder and overseer (bishop).  The main point of this discussion is to show that these terms do not describe different offices as they do in the writings of  Ignatius.

If bishop and elder refer to the same position, then the development of the monarchial bishop, which entails a distinction between the terms, must be a later development.  As we have noted already, there are actually three terms used in the New Testament for the church leaders under discussion.  The three Greek nouns, along with the various English translations in parenthesis, are as follows: presbyteros (elder, presbyter), episkopos (bishop, overseer), and poimen (shepherd, pastor).  The different English translations of the same Greek word make it difficult for the Bible student to recognize who is being discussed when these various English terms are found.  The problem is compounded because some of the English words, like bishop and pastor, have acquired special meanings over the years that they did not have in the New Testament.

The designation most often applied to these leaders is presbyteros, which is normally translated elder when it refers to a church leader.  When Paul encourages Titus to “appoint elders in every town, as I directed you” (Titus 1:5), he is not just referring to older men, but to a specific leadership ministry in the church.  This term may have been borrowed from the leaders who were called elders in the Old Testament.  Perhaps certain church leaders were called elders because they functioned in many of the same ways as did the elders of Israel.

Since these leaders were selected because of their years of experience and maturity, the designation of these men as elders was only natural, but the noun can also refer to older men in general.  Paul said, “Do not rebuke an older man harshly” (1 Timothy 5:1), and this is put in contrast to the younger men mentioned in the same verse.  A similar age contrast is found in 1 Peter 5:5.

The Greek noun episkopos is usually translated overseer and bishop in our English translations.  The word conveys the idea of superintendent and guardian and is used interchangeably with elders.  Paul told Titus to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5) and he calls these elders overseers (v. 7).  Luke says that Paul spoke to the Ephesian elders at Miletus (Acts 20:17) and when he addressed this group, he called them overseers (v. 28).  Two other references to overseers are found at the beginning of the elder-qualification list that Paul gave to Timothy (1 Timothy 3:1-2) and overseers are also mentioned in Paul’s greeting to the church at Philippi (Philippians 1:1).  Once in the New Testament, Jesus is described as an overseer (1 Peter 2:25).  Eleazar, who was in charge of the tabernacle and everything in it, is called an overseer in the Greek Old Testament (Numbers 4:16).  Another noun in the same word group (episkope) refers to the office of an overseer and is translated “place of leadership” (NIV) “office” (NASB, RSV) and “bishoprick” (KJV) in Acts 1:20.  In the first century letter of 1 Clement, Kirsopp Lake translates episkope as “title of bishop” and “episcopate” (1 Clement 44:1, 4) and it is also used interchangeably with elders (v. 5).

Unlike the noun presbyteros (elder, presbyter), the Greek noun episkopos also has two verb forms in its word group (episkeptomai, episkopeo).  The verb describes what the overseer does; that is, he oversees.  By defining the verb, one can get a good idea of the ministry of overseers.  This point also helps us understand why several terms are used to describe the same office.  The different terms are used to describe function and ministry.  What does an overseer do when he oversees?  The verb can mean to look at, examine, go and see, take care, and visit.  The verb often has the idea of visiting someone in their distress.  A consideration of some other occurrences of this verb will help us understand the meaning of the noun.  For example, Jesus will tell some on the day judgment that “you looked after me” when you did it to the least of the brothers (Matthew 25:36).  James said that “to look after” or “visit” (KJV) orphans and widows in their distress is pure religion (James 1:27).  To look after or visit someone “never implies merely to visit them in the usual sense, or for selfish ends, but always to be concerned about them, with a sense of responsibility for others.”  The verb is used of Moses when he decided to “visit” his fellow Israelites (Acts 7:23).  Obviously, he did not just give them a casual visit; instead, he went to their aid.  Paul told Barnabas that he wanted to go back and “visit the brothers” in all the towns where they had preached earlier (Acts 15:36).  Paul wanted to go and see about their condition and provide help.

The above examples of related verbs of the noun episkopos give an indication of what it means to be an overseer in the New Testament church.  The idea of a monarchial bishop does not match the definition of the word as we have seen it used in the New Testament.  Note that these passages show the overseer’s work is not about authority and control but ministry and care.  For an overseer to take the oversight, he must (1) be deeply concerned about the flock, (2) visit the members in times of distress and need, and (3) see to it that souls are cared for relative to their spiritual needs.  The overseer must be willing to take the responsibility for the care of the church.

The third designation for elders is the Greek noun poimen, which means shepherd.  This noun is used figuratively with reference to the elders/overseers of the church.  It is also used of literal shepherds as in Luke’s story of the birth of Christ (Luke 2:8f).  Many examples of the metaphorical use of shepherd exist in the Old Testament.  God is pictured as a shepherd on several occasions in the Old Testament.  He supplies our needs and comforts us (Psalms 23:1-4).  Isaiah says that God “tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:11).  Moses urged God to select a leader over the congregation who would go before them and lead them so that God’s people “will not be like sheep without a shepherd” (Numbers 27:17).  Jesus expressed a similar concern when he pictured the multitudes as “sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).  The metaphorical use of shepherd is also applied to the relationship of Jesus and his people: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).  The shepherd imagery is one of intimate knowledge of the flock.  Jesus said, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (v. 3) and “I know them, and they follow me” (v. 27).  The shepherd’s concern for the wayward can be seen in his leaving the ninety-nine and seeking the lost one (Matthew 18:12-14).

Paul tells us that shepherds were put in the church to prepare God’s people for service (Ephesians 4:11).  Instead of translating poimen with shepherd in this text, the major translations use pastor (KJV, NIV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, and ASV), which really introduces a new idea to most Bible readers.  The shepherd leaders are coupled with teachers in this text, indicating that teaching was a part of shepherding.  This would be in harmony with the qualifications given in Timothy and Titus (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9).

If a leader is a shepherd (noun), then he must be able to shepherd (verb).  The verb (poimaino) is often used regarding the ministry of elders/overseers.  For example, Peter tells overseers to minister as shepherds: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers” (1 Peter 5:2).  These shepherds/overseers are also called elders (v. 1), indicating that all three terms are used interchangeably in this text.  Another example of poimaino (to shepherd) is found in Paul’s sermon to the Ephesian elders: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.  Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).  English translations of the verb poimaino in this text are: “to care for” (RSV), “to feed” (KJV, ASV), and “to shepherd” (NIV, NASB). These shepherds/overseers are also called elders in verse 17.

In conclusion, the evidence from the New Testament clearly indicates that the elders of the church were the same as those leaders who were called overseers and shepherds.  When Paul gave Titus the instruction to appoint elders in the churches in Crete (Titus 1:5) he would not have followed it with a discussion of the qualifications of overseers in verse 7 if the two were different offices.  This would not have made sense to Titus if elders and overseers were two different kinds of leaders.  In addition, if the two terms referred to different offices, it would not have made sense to the Corinthians later in the first century when the letter of 1 Clement reminded them that they had dismissed the elders from the office held by overseers (1 Clement 44:4-5).  The reason three different terms are used is because of the different acts of ministry involved in the one office.  The different terms help us to see the total work of elders.

The model of a plurality of elders and deacons in the church is clearly set forth in the New Testament itself.  This organizational model is unique and there is no close parallel in either Jewish or Gentile sources at the time.  Later changes made by Ignatius and others are clearly additions to the first century model.  Jerome, writing over 300 years after Paul wrote his letters to Timothy and Titus, notes that elders and overseers were the same “among the ancients.”

J B Myers

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