The historic role of the eldership

Every society, for its own safeguard and prosperity, needs a well-ordered and recognized leadership. Such an arrangement is actually seen in every civilization and even among barbarous peoples. Since God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, his Word in much in favour of a responsible leadership, in politics, and especially among his own redeemed people. The following is a brief overview of God's provisions in this matter.

Before the Coming of the Anointed One

In the Old dispensation, an elder was an elderly man who exercised authority, or a person with judicial office. The elders first emerge in the ancient patriarchal family institution of the Hebrews; in Moses' time their office was firmly established; they are mentioned as a matter of fact.

Moses got the command from God to gather the elders of Israel to give to the people the message of the Lord (Exodus 3:16). These elders were probably the heads of certain family groups. Throughout the wanderings in the desert Moses continued his contact with the elders and even gave them delegated authority to judge in certain minor cases (cf. Exodus 18:13-27).

Elder as a title continued in use throughout the times of the Judges into the kingdom. Though the monarchy was established, elders continued to function. Saul, for instance, asked to be honoured before the elders (1 Samuel 15:30); the elders appeared before David in Hebron (2 Samuel 17:15), and took part in the temple procession of Solomon (1 Kings 8:3).

It was considered natural and appropriate that elders be involved in the election of the king and in advising the king himself. If the king did not accept their advice, he could anticipate trouble, such as Rehoboam experienced (1 Kings 12:1ff.).

The role of the elders

The elders served as local magistrates in bringing murderers to trial (Deuteronomy 19:12; 21:1ff.; Joshua 20:4). They saw to it that disobedient sons were punished (Deuteronomy 21:19), and also inflicting penalty for slander (22:15), and for noncompliance with the Levirate marriage law (25:7ff.). In brief, they were responsible for the enforcement of the Law (27:1).

The office of teaching was not so much theirs as the priests', while the prophets were specially commissioned by God to bring his Word to the people.

In the New Testament

In the New Testament the world presbuteros is used in at least three different senses.

1. It was used to denote seniority (Luke 15:25; Romans 9:12).

2. It was used in reference to the Jewish elders of the synagogue, usually with the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 15:2; 16:21; 21:23).

3. More importantly for our case, it was used to denote certain men appointed to hold office in the Christian church, and to exercise spiritual oversight of the flock entrusted to them. It may be fairly inferred that the churches generally had elders appointed over them (see, for instance, Acts 14:23; 20:17).

That elders and bishops were in apostolic and subapostolic times the same is now almost universally admitted; in all New Testament references their functions are identical. The most probable explanation of the difference of names is that elder refers mainly to the person and bishop to the office; the name elder emphasizes what he is, while bishop (overseer) emphasized what the elder or presbyter does.

Elders in the local church

A particular church, gathered and organized according to the mind of Christ, consists of office-bearers and members, as may be gathered from Philippians 1:1. In fellowship with the Father and the Son (1 Thessalonians 1:1), the church (with its different gifted men) functions properly and effectively. Under the title of bishops, Paul refers to the spiritual leaders who take care of the advance and health of the church, while the deacons "serve tables." (Is it possible that Paul forgot or chose not to mention the Pastor, if such a senior ministry over the bishops (elders) was in existence?)

Deacons (1 Timothy 3:8-12) are set apart to cater for the temporal affairs of the church (Acts 6:1-6), according to the leadership and direction of the presbyters (Acts 11:30).

The New Testament uses three main appellations to refer to a leader in the church: presbyter, bishop and pastor. Other nouns are leaders, directors, governors, steersmen/pilots, teachers, and managers, all describing the richness of their ministry.

1. A presbyter (purely synonymous with elder) was a term already established and well-known among the Jews. The idea of maturity and experience in inherent in the term. It describes the character rather than the function of the man. We find it in Acts 15:2,4,6,22,23; 16:4; 1 Timothy 5:19; 2 John 1; 3 John 1, and so on.

2. The episkopos, meaning overseer, is mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:1-2. Sad to say, the English term "Bishop" by which episkopos is generally translated, connotes a high ecclesiastical person with a diocese, something totally foreign to Scripture. The overseer, as the term specifies, is in charge to take care of and protect the church by leading and guiding it towards holiness, righteousness and godly wisdom. The idea of godly authority and administration is also present.

3. The pastor (derived from the Latin "pastore," meaning shepherd) is mentioned in Ephesians 4:11. The poimen (shepherd) suggests tenderness towards and interest in the flock (cf. John 10:11); his ministry is to reflect that of his own Lord, the Great and Good Shepherd of the sheep (1 Peter 2:25; Hebrews 13:20).

It was quite normative for the New Testament churches to have more than one leader; at any rate, this is the pattern presented regularly: Philippians 1:1; Acts 14:23; 1 Thessalonians 5:12ff; Hebrews 13:17,24; James 5:14.

The idea of having one bishop over many churches was introduced when Christianity left its biblical moorings in many aspects. The biblical concept is: several bishops over one church.

Interchangeable terms

That there is no essential difference between presbyter, bishop and pastor may be proved as follows:

1. The terms are used interchangeably without discrimination. For instance in Acts 20 Luke narrates how Paul called for the elders (presbuterous, v.17) of the Ephesian church. In addressing them, then, he told them that the Holy Spirit had ordained them as bishops (overseers) and that they were meant to teach the flock and pastor it. They together and corporately were responsible for the flock ("take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, poimnio, v.28). Evidently as elders they had a flock; but it goes without saying that pastors (shepherds) have flocks. They were placed within the flock as bishops (episkopous, v.28).

Acts 20 cannot easily be refuted by those who hold a three-fold ministry in the church, especially when the Greek interplay of nouns (referring to the same group of men) and verbs (referring to the same work done by the same men) is considered.

The same can be concluded from 1 Peter 5:1-2, where the apostle exhorts the elders and yet tells them to shepherd or pastor the flock under their care!! Only with sophistical arguments can such passages be brushed aside or their explicit teachings refuted.

2. A bishop is an elder and an elder is a bishop (Titus 1:5,7). Again, it may be debated whether an elder is properly and strictly a bishop, but this can only be done by strained exegesis. The natural conclusion of the passage points to the above statement.

3. Elders, pastors and bishops are all likewise commissioned to teach (elders: 1 Timothy 5:17, where some of them, it is observed, may actually do so better than others. Bishops: 1 Timothy 3:2. Pastors: Ephesians 4:11ff.).

4. The apostles were content to describe their ministry as elders (1 Peter 5:1; 2 John 1; 3 John 1). Now if the elder is one rung lower than the pastor, does not this imply that the apostles placed themselves lower than the pastors. This would be most unreasonable.

No novel teaching

The above considerations were accepted and actually taught by wise interpreters of the Word, not least among them John Calvin, that prince of expositors. I find it strange, then, that in the Module Notes, Darby is credited with "inventing" the absolute parity among elders. The truly Reformed position is set out in the Institutes of the Christian Religion: "But in indiscriminately calling those who rule the church "bishops," "presbyters," "pastors," and "ministers," I did so according to Scriptural usage, which interchanges these terms. For to all who carry out the ministry of the Word it accords the title of "bishops." So in Paul, when he has bidden Titus to appoint presbyters for each town (Titus 1:5), there follows immediately, "for a bishop...must be blameless" (Titus 1:7; cf. 1Timothy 3:1), etc. Elsewhere he greets a number of bishops in one church (Philippians 1:1). And in The Acts it is related that he convened the Ephesian presbyters (Acts 20:17), whom he calls "bishops" in his speech (Acts 20:28)" (Book IV, ch.III, 8).

Whatever else Calvin taught elsewhere, such an explicit statement must not be watered down to teach something essentially different.

I admit that among the eldership, one man may be so gifted that most of the pulpit preaching and teaching is committed to him. That would be a natural and wise decision among the presbytery. But to elevate him as intrinsically higher than his fellow-workers and designate him with a title (pastor) and deny the same title to the others, I find it arbitrary and what's more something that cannot be irrefutably proved from Scripture.