Vol. 4, No. 7
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Many people today do not understand what it means to be an elder in the Lord's church. Many have heard how certain denominations use the terms bishop or elder, and suppose that this is the biblical usage of the terms. It may be the case also, that some do not understand the full scope of the work of an elder or bishop.
The purpose of this article is to clarify the Bible's instruction on how to choose an elder, and once in office, what the elder's responsibilities are. We must first make some important distinctions in the names given for elders in the New Testament.
Presbuteros is translated elder sixty-four times in the New Testament, old man once in Acts 2:17 and eldest once in John 8:9. This word basically refers to an older man. It is mainly used when age is under consideration for eligibility for the office.
The word episkopos is translated bishop four times (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 2:25) and overseer once (Acts 20:28) in the New Testament. This word denotes "a man charged with the duty of seeing that things to be done by others are done rightly, and curator, guardian, or superintendent" (Edward C. Wharton, The Church of Christ, 75). It is mainly used when work is to be considered for the office.
Poimein is translated shepherd fifteen times in the Gospel records, twice as Shepherd (Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25) and once as pastor (Ephesians 4:11). This word when applied to the office of an elder basically comments on the serving nature of the elder to his flock of sheep, the church.
It must be noted that the word pastor is only applied to the eldership, not to the preacher. These two are made distinct by Ephesians 4:11, "And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers." It is possible, and authorized, for a preacher to be an elder and an elder to preach, though (1 Peter 5:1; 1 Timothy 5:17).
These words -- elders, overseers, and shepherd -- are used interchangeably with respect to the office. In Acts 20:17-18, the terms elders, overseers, and shepherd are used synonymously. These men are spoken of differently because of different perspectives of their office (service, age and work).
How does a man qualify to become an elder? To qualify for the office, one must meet the requirements set forth by the Scriptures.
He must first desire the work (1 Timothy 3:1). He must be without reproach in the community, the husband of one wife, moderate in his passions and anger, soberminded, an orderly man (of good behavior), hospitable, and capable of teaching (3:2). The text goes on to say he must not be given to any wine, not a brawler, not a greedy man of material pleasures, but instead he should be gentle and not covetous (3:3).
He must rule his own house well, with his children under subjection to him with all gravity (honesty). His children must also be faithful and not unruly (Titus 1:6). He must not be a novice (in the faith) because pride puffs up younger men. Finally, he must have a good report in his community outside the church.
When a man becomes an elder, how is he to perform his duties? He should perform his duties with other elders. When the office of an elder is referred to in the New Testament, it is mentioned in the plural sense (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22; 20:17; Titus 1:5). It would not be a wise action to put one man over the Lord's church, but above all, we do not have scriptural example or implication that the office of an elder is to be held by one man alone.
Elders are to rule the church. Romans 12:8 gives the elders ruling authority from God. "Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness." Also, the Hebrews writer states in Hebrews 13:7, "Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation."
Elders are to feed the church as is found in Acts 20:28, "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood." This implies that the church is like a flock of sheep, and as such, will need spiritual food from the shepherds.
Elders are to be knowledgeable in the Word of God (Titus 1:9). "Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers."
Elders are to tend the flock.
"For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears" (Acts 20:29-31).
"Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind" (1 Peter 5:2).
Elders are also instructed to administer to the sick as is found in James 5:14, "Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord."
It is a wonderful act, to take on oneself the responsibility of the church's security. This is the work of an elder, bishop, shepherd, pastor and overseer. Once a man has been found qualified to serve in the capacity of an elder, he has a very difficult but glorious road ahead in service to man and to God.
The requirements listed for eldership are worthy of our own personal consideration. If we as brethren groom ourselves in this manner, we will not only become better Christians, but also we will be training ourselves perhaps to fill this seat one day. If it is the case that the reader is a lady, there are still standards that can be adapted to better the female Christian life.
If you examine yourself and find an area where you are lacking, why not heed the pattern given by the Word of God and improve your Christian walk of life? Why not today?