The Elder/Pastor/Bishop

Transcript December 01


Weekly Bible Study Tuesday 1st December, 2020 Topic: The Elder/Pastor/Bishop Text: Acts 20: 17-19,28. INTRODUCTION As we continue our study on Church government, the next church office to be considered is that of “elder” called “presbuteros” in Greek. Although some have argued that different forms of church government are evident in the New Testament, a survey of the relevant texts shows the opposite to be true: there is quite a consistent pattern of plural elders as the main governing group in New Testament churches. For instance, in Acts 14:23 we read, “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed.” This was during Paul’s first missionary journey, when he was returning through the cities of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. It indicates that Paul’s normal procedure from the time of his first missionary journey was to establish a group of elders in each church shortly after the church began. We know that Paul also established elders in the church at Ephesus, for we read, “From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church” (Acts 20:17). Moreover, Paul’s apostolic assistants apparently were instructed to carry out a similar process, for Paul wrote to Titus, “This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). Shortly after a church has been established, once again we see elders being established in office, in “every town” in which there was a church. And Paul reminded Timothy of the time “when the elders laid their hands upon you” (1 Tim. 4:14). James also writes, “Is any among you sick? 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” (James 5:14). This is a significant statement because the epistle of James is a general letter written to many churches, all the believers scattered abroad, whom James characterizes as “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (James 1:1). It indicates that James expected that there would be elders in every New Testament church to which his general epistle went that is, in all the churches in existence at that time. A similar conclusion can be drawn from 1 Peter. Peter writes, “So I exhort the elders among you. . . . Tend the flock of God that is your charge . . .” (1 Peter 5:1-2). Peter assumes that all the churches, whether founded by Paul or by others, whether predominantly Gentile or predominantly Jewish or evenly divided in their make-up, would have elders leading them. Moreover, there were elders in the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:30; 15:2), and, though the word elders is not used, there is a plurality of leaders in the congregation to which the epistle to the Hebrews is directed, for the author says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account.” (Heb. 13:17). Two significant conclusions may be drawn from this survey of the New Testament evidence. 1. No passage suggests that any church, no matter how small, had only one elder. The consistent New Testament pattern is a plurality of elders “in every church”. (Acts 14:23) and “in every town” (Titus 1:5). 2. We do not see a diversity of forms of government in the New Testament church, but a unified and consistent pattern in which every church had elders governing it and keeping watch over it (Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:17; 1 Peter 5:2–3). In the New Testament, there are three words that could be used interchangeable with each referring to same office in the Church. These are Poimen (Pastor), episkopos (Bishop) and presbuteros (Elder). Elders are also called “pastors” or “bishops” or “overseers” in the New Testament. The least commonly used word is pastor (poimēn). It may be surprising to us to find that this word, which has become so common in English, only occurs once in the New Testament when speaking about a church officer. In Ephesians 4:11, Paul writes, “And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” The verse is probably better translated “pastor-teachers”(one group) rather than “pastors and teachers” (suggesting two groups) because of the Greek construction (though not every New Testament scholar agrees with that translation). The connection with teaching suggests that these pastors were some (or perhaps all) of the elders who carried on the work of teaching, for one qualification for an elder is that he be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). Although the noun pastor (poimēn) is not used of church officers elsewhere in the New Testament, the related verb which means “to act as a shepherd” or “to act as a pastor” (Gk. poimainō) is applied to elders in Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders. He tells them “to shepherd the church of God” (Acts 20:28, literally translating the verb poimainō), and in the same sentence he referred to God’s people as “all the flock,” using another related noun (Gk. poimnion) which means “a flock of sheep.” So Paul directly charges these Ephesian elders to act as shepherds or “pastors.” The same verb is used in 1 Peter 5:2 where Peter tells the elders to “shepherd (poimainō) the flock of God that is your charge.” Then two verses later Jesus is called the chief pastor or “chief shepherd” (Gk. archipoimēn, 1 Peter 5:4), implying quite clearly that Peter also viewed the elders as shepherds or “pastors” in the church. Therefore, although the noun pastor is only used once to refer to elders, the related verb is used twice in passages that explicitly identify the task of shepherding with the office of elder. Another term used for elders in the New Testament is a Greek word episkopos, which is variously translated as “overseer” or “bishop,” depending on the individual passage and the English translation. But this word also seems quite clearly to be another term for elders in New Testament usage. For example, when Paul has called to him the elders of the church at Ephesus (Acts 20:17), he says to them, “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (Gk. episkopos)” (Acts 20:28). Paul quite readily refers to these Ephesian elders as “overseers” (or “bishops”). In 1 Timothy 3:1–2, Paul writes, “If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach. . . .” Furthermore, in 1 Timothy 5:17, we see that elders were ruling the church at Ephesus when Timothy was there, because it says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor.” Now the “bishops” in 1 Timothy 3:1–2 also are to rule over the church at Ephesus because one qualification is that “He must manage his own household well . . . for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:4–5). So here it also seems that “bishop” or “overseer” is simply another term for “elder,” since these “bishops” fulfill the same function as elders quite clearly do elsewhere in this epistle and in Acts 20. In Titus 1:5, Paul tells Titus to “appoint elders in every town” and gives some qualifications (v. 6). Then in the very next sentence (v. 7), he gives reasons for those qualifications, and he begins by saying, “For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless.” Here again he uses the word “bishop” to refer to the elders whom Titus was to appoint, giving another indication that the terms elder and bishop were interchangeable. Finally, in Philippians 1:1, Paul writes “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” Here it also seems appropriate to think that “bishops” is another name for “elders,” because there certainly were elders at Philippi, since it was Paul’s practice to establish elders in every church (Acts 14:23). And if there were elders ruling in the church at Philippi, it is unthinkable that Paul would write to the church and single out bishops and deacons—but not elders—if their offices were both different from that of the elders. Therefore, by “bishops and deacons” Paul must have meant the same thing as “elders and deacons.” Although in some parts of the church from the second century A.D. onward, the word bishop has been used to refer to a single individual with authority over several churches, this was a later development of the term and is not found in the New Testament itself. Biblical Functions of Elders One of the major roles of elders in the New Testament is to govern the New Testament churches. In 1 Timothy 5:17 we read, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor.” Earlier in the same epistle Paul says that an overseer (or elder) “must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:4–5). Peter also indicates a ruling function for elders when he exhorts them: Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory. Likewise you that are younger be subject to the elders. (1 Peter 5:2–5) The fact that they are to act as shepherds of the flock of God, and the fact that they are not to domineer (that is, not to rule harshly or oppressively) strongly suggest that elders have ruling or governing functions in the churches to which Peter is writing. They are to rule responsibly, not ruthlessly. Although Hebrews 13:17 does not name elders, certainly there are some church officers with governing authority over the church, for the author says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account.” Since the New Testament gives no indication of any other officers in the church with this kind of authority, it is reasonable to conclude that the congregation is to submit to and obey its elders. This conclusion is also consistent with the description of responsibilities Paul gives to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28. In addition to governing responsibility, elders also seem to have had some teaching responsibilities in the New Testament churches. In Ephesians 4:11, elders are referred to as “pastor-teachers” (or, on an alternative translation, pastors who are viewed as quite closely united to teachers). And in 1 Timothy 3:2, an overseer (elder) must be “an apt teacher.” Then in 1 Timothy 5:17, Paul says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” Here Paul seems to imply that there is a special group of elders who “labor in preaching and teaching.” This means at least that there are some among the elders who give more time to the activities of preaching and teaching, and may even mean that there are some who “labor” in the sense of earning their living from that preaching and teaching. The same conclusions can be drawn from Titus, where Paul says that an elder “must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). Elders/Pastors/Bishops then had responsibility to rule, preach and to teach in New Testament churches.

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