So What is an Elder, Anyway?


Church ElderI had occasion recently to reflect back on a time when I was a fairly new Christian and a new member of a local church; a church in which there was much discussion concerning becoming or submitting to becoming an “elder-led” church. At the time I wasn’t really sure what everyone was on about, as I didn’t even know what an elder was, so I asked a few questions and learned a great deal about leadership in the local church. One of the things that struck me was the seriousness of discovering or recognizing the men who the Lord was raising up to take on this role within the Church. This activity or process was particularly interesting to me because it mirrored the one I was familiar with as an active-duty military member – first understand the qualifications and then look for the Marine who meets the standard. This is exactly what we should be doing as we seek out the men who the Lord has or is preparing to serve as leaders (or elders) in the local church.

Therefore, I would like to invite you along on a journey of discovery to delve into Scripture imagesCA2H73WXto see what God has to say about who should be serving in leadership roles in the local church. I expect that this journey will take a few weeks as I adhere to the submission schedule here at Parking Space 23, but never fear I assure you the “juice will be worth the squeeze” if you just hang in there with me. In order to metaphorically  pack our bags for this trip let’s pause and ask the question, “What is an Elder anyway?”

An elder is a person (SPOILER ALERT: there will be future postings on the restriction of this office to men) who serves the church in one of the two offices presented in Scripture. These two offices being Elder and Deacon, therefore those who serve in the office of elder are called elders and those who serve in the office of deacon are called deacons – a little more on deacons in my next post.

WP_20140407_001While we rest upon or use the term Elder for this office in English there are actually three different words used to communicate the same idea in Scripture and are each synonymous with the others. These terms or words are:

ἐπίσκοπος – overseer, one who watches over the welfare of others; (1) of Christ guardian, keeper (1P 2.25); (2) of church leaders bishop, overseer, pastor (used in Titus 1:7)

πρεσβύτερος  – literally – a designation of age old man, aged person ­ – this is where we get the term ELDER (used in its plural form in Titus 1:5)

ποιμήν, ένος, ὁ (1) literally, one who takes care of a group of animals shepherd, sheep herder (LU 2.8); (2) metaphorically, one who assumes leadership over a group of believers; (a) as picturing Christ as the head of the church (HE 13.20); (b) as human leaders over a community of believers pastor, minister (EP 4.11)

But how are these terms used to describe or explain the office of elder? Great question, let’s take a look at each of these words in order to discover that very thing.

ἐπίσκοπος or overseer/guardian – This word is the secular Greek equivalent to the historic Hebrew word or idea for elders. In its secular Greek usage it would refer to one who was chosen by the emperor or king to oversee city-states within the kingdom which were newly founded or recently captured. This overseer would therefore be responsible to the emperor who had appointed him to function in his role – carrying out the task given through the exercise of delegated authority. To the Greek mind of the first century (when the New Testament was written) this term would have communicated the idea of someone who had the authority to set things in order as well as oversee the day to day function of the entity being overseen while at the same time being held responsible for the proper execution of his task by a superior power or authority.

When used in the New Testament this word speaks of one who is responsible for teaching (1 Tim 3:2), feeding, protecting, and nurturing the flock (Acts 20:28). In considering the term in this way we can say that “overseer” is a one word description of the FUNCTION of one serving in the office of Elder.

old man rocking chairπρεσβύτερος As I stated earlier, this word meaning aged one is where we get the actual word elder. This word directly communicates the idea of age in a chronological sense. This is someone who has lived a little. Someone who has gained some life experience that hopefully has resulted in straightening out the learning curve a bit. But in this case it is more than just being older and “street-smart”  because the one called to be an elder should likewise not be young in the Faith or in the words of Paul “not a novice” (1 Tim 3:6). So in other words the one qualified to be an elder is neither a novice in the Faith nor in life. In this way the term Elder references or emphasizes the CHARACTER of the man in this office. And there will be much more said on this topic in the coming weeks.

The final word or term used is ποιμήν which literally means “shepherd” and is at least one time translated “pastor.” Within the New Testament this word is used quite frequently; but within the Epistles of the New Testament it is used only three times, with two of these times referring directly to Christ in Hebrews 13:20 and 1 Peter 2:25. The third time is found in Ephesians 4:11 and is there paired with the word for “teachers.” This is actually the place where we get the idea of “Pastor-Teacher.”

The truth of the matter is that there is more that can be said of the idea of the elder as shepherdshepherd than can be addressed in a short blog post, so instead let me try to distill it down to its most salient points. In its use to describe the one in the office of elder – this term can best be said to describe the ATTITUDE of that person. Or in other words, the one serving as an elder should operate in this role in a way that demonstrates his love for the people of the Church specifically, as the ones whom Christ has purchased with His own Blood.

Therefore, what we see is that these three synonymous terms emphasizes a different aspect of the office of elder and the man who serves in this way – we learn of his function, his character, and his attitude. So I ask, have you noticed any men who are serving in this way at your local Church? Because if you have there are some other areas of his life you may be interested in checking out to see if he is just a faithful saint doing the work of ministry or is he qualified for the office of elder.