Why Your Church Should Have Elders (Part 2)

The New Testament teaches and demonstrates local church leadership should be entrusted to a plurality of qualified men who, though gifted differently, are equal in authority and responsibility.  The local church is most healthy when she is led by elders who defend and teach sound doctrine, and encourage gospel progress through careful pastoral oversight.  As introduced in Part 1, until a local church installs a plural eldership it is lacking.  It might not be any less a church but she will not be firmly established for generations of gospel consistency.

Both the NT vocabulary and pattern provide that a plurality of elders was the expectation and ambition of local New Testament churches.

Biblical Vocabulary
The NT defines local church leadership using several synonymous terms and titles. Most English Bibles translate the Greek word presbuteros  as “elder” (Acts 11.30; 14.23; 15.2, 4, 6, 2-23, 16.4; 20.17; 21.18; 1 Tim 5.17, 19; Titus 1.5; Jas 5.14; 1 Pt 5.1, 5; 2 Jn 1; 3 Jn 1).  Hence, “presbyterian” churches are so named for their particular polity (local church elders or “session,” presbytery, synod and general assembly).

Most English Bibles translate the Greek word episkopos as “overseer” (NASB) or “bishop” (KJV) (Acts 20.28; Phil 1.1; 1 Tim 3.2; Titus 1.7; 1 Pt 2.28).  Peter referred to Jesus as “the Shepherd and episcopon (Overseer) of your souls (1 Pt 2.25).  Literally, Jesus was the Bishop!  Hence, “episcopal” (or Anglican) churches are so named for their particular polity (local church rector/bishop, diocese, archbishop, etc.).  

Paul used both presbuteros and episcopos interchangeably in Titus 1.5, 7.  They were therefore synonyms for one and the same office: elder/overseer/bishop of a local church.  The  apostles invested local church leadership in a plurality of men called elders (presbuteros) or overseers/bishops (episkopos).

Most English Bibles translate the Greek word poimen as “pastor” and that in only once place: Eph 4.11.  It is elsewhere and most appropriately translated “shepherd” (Mt 9.36; 25.32; 26.31; Mk 6.34; 14.27; Jn 10.2, 11-12, 14, 16; Heb 13.20; 1 Pt 2.25). The verb form (to shepherd) is more often applied to local church leadership (Jn 21.16; Acts 20.28; 1 Cor 9.7; 1 Pt 5.2).  For example, in Acts 20.28 Paul commanded the overseers/bishops (episkopous) to shepherd (poimanein) the (one) Ephesian church.  We might say then “elders/overseers/bishops/pastors” is who these men are and shepherding the local church is what they do.  Like Jesus the Shepherd.  Not managers, innovators, executives, visionaries, Leaders-with-a-capital-L, or bosses.  Shepherds.

But we’re Baptists!  And Baptists ain’t got no elders or bishops.  Think again. Southern Baptists might especially be surprised when they read the first edition of the Baptist Faith and Message (1925), which borrowed its language from the New Hampshire Confession of Faith (1833).  In Article XII we confessed “Scriptural officers are bishops, or elders, and deacons.”  There are four notable things about this simple confession.  (1) The words “bishop” and “elder” are synonymous.  (2) They are plural.  (3) They are the only two scriptural offices in the local church.  This means that while the church clerk, church treasurer, Sunday School superintendent, WMU director, church council chairman or children’s ministry coordinator may be helpful roles they are not biblically required church offices.  And (4) the office of bishop/elder is distinct from that of deacon.  For better or worse, the subsequent editions of the Baptist Faith and Message (1963 and 2000) updated the word “bishops” to “pastors.”  Evenso, they retained the same distinctive traits as of the office even if it has been lost in modern practice.

In the end, all these terms are and can be used synonymously for the one office of elder/bishop/overseer/pastor-shepherd.  And as we will now see throughout all local churches, this one office was filled by a collection of qualified men.

Biblical Pattern
In addition to the vocabulary used the NT demonstrates that a plurality of elders was the common expectation and ambition in local churches.  It was not a matter of cultural tradition, preference, pragmatism or expediency for any given church to decide.  
It was rather the apostolic practice to establish elders in each church all over the known world:  Judea (Acts 11.30; Jas 5.14-15), Jerusalem (Acts 15.6, 22), Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, Antioch (southwestern Turkey) (Acts 14.19-23), Ephesus (western Turkey) (Acts 20.17; 1 Tim 3.1-7; 5.17-25), Philippi (northwestern Greece) (Phil 1.1), Crete (island south of Greece) (Titus 1.5), Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, Bithynia (Asia Minor, northern Turkey) (1 Pt 1.1; 5.1), Thessalonica (north-central Greece) (1 Thess 5.12) and Rome (Italy) (Heb 13.17).  Having a plurality of elders wasn’t for this or that culture but for all local churches everywhere.

Further, the NT gives so much attention to local church polity that we do not have the liberty to be indifferent towards it.  The apostles gave instructions to local churches about their elders (1 Thess 5.12-13; 1 Tim 3.1-7; 5.17-22; Titus 1.5-9; Heb 13.17; Jas 5.14; 1 Pt 5.5).  They gave instructions directly to elders of local churches about their ministry (Acts 20.28, 31, 35; 1 Thess 5.13; Jas 5.14; 1 Pt 5.1-5).  For local churches to thrive in disciple-making they must be ordered rightly.  Elders must be men who understand their service.  Congregations must understand their submission.  All must embrace Christ’s humility.

Additionally, when the NT speaks of elders/overseers/bishops/pastors, it does so in terms of a plurality within a local (singular) church (Acts 11.30; 14.23; 15.2, 4, 22-23; 16.4; 20.17, 28; Eph 4.12; 1 Tim 5.17; Titus 1.5; Jas 5.14; 1 Pt 5.1). There is no evidence in the NT of our modern pastoral hierarchy of Senior Pastor, Associate Pastor, etc.  “There is no biblical warrant for the so-called one-man band, in which a single pastor, like a single musician, plays all the instruments” (John Stott, The Living Church: 77).

Lastly, elders appointed in the churches were always men from within the particular congregations (Acts 14.23; Titus 1.5).  That is, there was no “pastor search committee” who solicited résumés  from unknown men in a distant seminary.  Each local church, with apostolic help in some cases, raised up her own pastors (cf. 2 Tim 2.2) who were men of firm gospel convictions, demonstrated spiritual maturity, and embodied Christian humility and grace.  These men were neither necessarily professionally-trained men nor paid for their ministry (see Acts 4.13).  They were nevertheless men recognized by the congregation as spiritually fit men to faithfully exercise pastoral oversight for every member of the church.  

We can see from the New Testament’s vocabulary and pattern that local church leadership should be entrusted to a plurality of qualified men who, though gifted differently, are equal in authority and responsibility.

Revisit Part 1 or read Part 3.

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