THE OFFICE OF AN ELDER


Every organised body must have leaders. The Church of God is not excepted. Under the Old Covenant, the leaders of the Church were the Priests, Levites and Prophets. Under the New Covenant, there were Apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers (Eph 4:11). These New Testament offices are of two sorts: extraordinary and ordinary. The extraordinary officers were men in the church who were endowed with supernatural gifts and extraordinary authority in order to attest to the divine of origin of the New Testament Church and to settle the constitution and administration of the Church into its ordinary and permanent form. Such were the Apostles, prophets and evangelists. Once the Church was established and the canon of Scripture completed, however, these offices ceased their functions. Thus, we do not read of any instruction to appoint apostles, prophets or evangelists to succeed those who pass from the scene. Neither do we read of qualifications necessary for these offices. On the other hand, we do read of the Apostles ordaining elders in every church (Acts 14:23); and we are given specific qualifications necessary for elders and deacons, so that we may appoint them to the offices in the church (e.g., 1 Tim 3:1–13). Elders and deacons are therefore, the perpetual and ordinary officers of the Church.


In this article, we shall look at the office of an elder, and next week, God willing, we shall study about the office of a deacon.


One Office, Four Functions


We begin by noting the fact that there is a difference of opinions among Reformed ministers on how many ordinary offices there are in the church. The Westminster Form of Presbyterial Church Government, which follows Calvin’s view closely, states that “The officers which Christ hath appointed for the edification of His Church, and the perfecting of the saints, are some extraordinary, as apostles, evangelists, and prophets, which are ceased. Others ordinary and perpetual, as pastors, teachers, and other church governors, and deacons.” This appears to suggest that there are four different offices in the Church. The scriptural proofs cited for this division are Romans 12:7–8 and 1 Corinthians 12:28.


However, Romans 12:7–8 is clearly about gifts rather than offices in the church since the Apostle Paul precedes the entire passage with: “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given us….” Similarly 1 Corinthians 12:28 is not entirely about offices. The verse reads: “And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.” What is clearly seen in the Greek can also be seen in the English, viz.: the second part of the verse,—following the words “after that” (Grk. epeita),—speaks about gifts rather than offices. On the other hand, there is evidence to show that “pastors,” “teachers” and “church governors” all refer to just one office, with different functions. In the case of pastors and teachers, it can be seen that they are the same office in Ephesians 4:11. Notice that in this verse, the word “some” (Grk.ho) occurs before every office mentioned except that of “teacher.” This suggests (according to a Greek syntax rule known as Sharp’s Rule) that the “pastors and teachers” are the same office. That is, a pastor must be a teacher and a teacher must be a pastor, though it is possible that some are more gifted to be teachers and others more gifted to be pastors. Similarly, the New Testament appears to speak of two offices of eldership: one known as “bishops” or “overseers” (Grk.episkopos) and the other known as “elders” or “presbyters” (Grk. presbuteros). However, there are strong evidences that these two terms are synonymous. Firstly, in Acts 20:17, we read of Paul calling for the “elders” (Grk. presbuteros) of the Church of Ephesus to meet him at Miletus, but when he met them, he referred to them as the “overseers” (Grk. episkopos) of the Church. Secondly, in Titus 1:5, Paul reminds Titus that one of his duties was to ordain “elders” (Grk.presbuteros), but he then proceed to give the qualifications of a “bishop” (Grk.episkopos), without so much as mentioning the qualifications of an elder. The conclusion is obvious: the two terms are synonymous.


Furthermore, it is strongly evident that a pastor-teacher is but a teaching elder, i.e., an elder specially gifted to preach and teach, and supported by the church for that purpose. Firstly, the New Testament does not list any qualifications for the office of a pastor, which suggests that the office is probably that of the elder. Secondly, Paul refers to elders who were appointed to be “overseers, to feed the church of God” (Acts 20:28); and to elders who not only rule but “labour in the word and doctrine” (1 Tim 5:17). He taught that such elders ought to be remunerated by the church (1 Tim 5:18).

The conclusion is inevitable, I believe. The terms “pastors,” “teachers” and “elders” all refer to the same office, though serving in different capacities. The implications are:


Implications


Firstly, that each local assembly should have a plurality of elders with different functions. Thus, Paul and Barnabas “ordained them elders in every church” (Acts 14:23).


Secondly, it shows that each elder in the local assembly has the same authority. The pastor is but one of the elders. He may be theologically trained while the rest are not, and his views on doctrines and theological issues should be given due respect, but he does not have final say in the matters of the church. Or, to put it in another way, he has the same number of votes as the rest of the members of the session.


Thirdly, it shows us that the basic criteria for all elders in a local assembly should be the same. They must, for example, be “apt to teach” (1 Tim 3:2; 2 Tim 2:24), whether or not they are serving as teaching elders.


Fourthly, elders have four principle responsibilities corresponding to the four titles used in Scripture. Depending on the gifts and training of the elder, he may serve with particular emphasis in certain capacity, but every elder in a church must be responsible for all four presbyterial duties. These are:


Duties of the Elders


Oversight and Pastorate of the Church. Paul’s instruction to the elders of Ephesus is applicable to all elders today: “take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). Similarly, the Apostle Peter’s exhortation is applicable: “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 Pet 5:2). It is instructive for us to note that the Greek word translated “flock” in Acts 20:28 is poimnion. The verbal form of this word is poimainô, which is the word translated “feed the flock” in 1 Peter 5:2. Furthermore, a person who does poimainô is the poimên, which is translated as “pastor” in Ephesians 4:11. In other words, an elder is also a pastor or an under-shepherd overseeing the flock. Though it is customary to call the minister of the Gospel as the pastor of the congregation, because it is his primary and full-time vocation, we must not forget that every elder is also a pastor in the church. Every elder must care for the flock, and watch over their spiritual well-being. No elder ought to be in the session, who does not know the flock. The charge of Solomon applies to every elder: “Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks, and look well to thy herds” (Prov 27:23).


Rulership. The author of Hebrews refers to elders as those who have rule or leadership over the church (Heb 13:7). The elder must rule over the affairs of the church just as a father rules over his family (1 Tim 3:4). He is not to be lord over God’s heritage, but he is to lead by example (1 Pet 5:3; 1 Tim 4:12), and as he is set over the congregation (1 Thes 5:12), he is responsible for their well-being and will have to give an account to the Lord concerning them (Heb 13:17). To do so the elder must not only be an overseer and shepherd, but he must be involved in setting the directions, and making the decisions of the church on behalf of the congregation. Conversely, the members of the church must obey and submit themselves in the Lord to the authority of elders set over the flock (Heb 13:17).


Teaching. Paul list “apt to teach” as a qualification for the elder. This is because an elder must “feed the flock” (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:2). How does he feed the flock but by teaching and exhortation (2 Tim 2:2; Tit 1:9)? The word translated “exhort” (Tit 1:9) is the Greek parakaleô, which may also be translated “encouraged,” “urge,” or even “comfort.” Thus, the elder’s teaching is not restricted to formal teaching duties, but includes informal counselling, and words of encouragement. The elder should also be able to “convince the gainsayers” by sound doctrine (Tit 1:7–9). The word translated “gainsayers” (Grk. antilegô), may be literally translated “those who speak against,” i.e., those who oppose the “faithful word as he hath been taught.” Ideally, it would appear then, that the elder should be so familiar with the doctrines and practices in the church that he can give a reasonable response to queries and objections to the doctrines held. This, of course, does not mean that every elder must be equally knowledgeable and gifted to this task. Otherwise, it would make little sense for Paul to speak of a class of elders who “labour in the word and doctrine” (1 Tim 5:17). As mentioned earlier, we customarily call this class of elders, ministers, pastors or teachers.


Conclusion


May the Lord grant us, therefore, that He may raise up elders meeting the criteria set forth in the Word of God (1 Tim 3:1–7; and Tit 1:7–9); and ready to serve Him by pastoring, overseeing, ruling, and teaching the flock purchased with the blood of the Great Shepherd of the sheep, the Lord Jesus Christ.


J.J. Lim