Biblical Eldership

The following is an essay I wrote for Fulkerson Park Baptist Church last year. Much of this is quite similar, of course, to the books and studies mentioned above, and I am indebted to many others in what I have learned. But this essay is without direct quotation or reference to other works and is aimed to give a survey of the biblical teaching on elders.

Biblical Eldership
A Brief Survey of the Relevant Passages Supporting a Plurality of Elders as the Normative Leadership Structure in the Churches of the New Testament


The purpose of this paper is to present a full list of the relevant biblical passages which teach us about church leadership structures in the New Testament. My thesis is that the New Testament consistently portrays leadership by a plurality of elders as the normative church leadership structure; that these elders, who are also called overseers, are to be morally and spiritually qualified men who serve in pastoral/shepherding roles (some of them vocationally); and that these roles are distinct from the roles of deacons.

The format of this study is simple. I begin by giving the definitions of key terms and then present a survey of all the relevant passages on elders/overseers/pastors in the New Testament. The passages are presented in chronological order, with brief explanatory notes introducing each one. The passages really speak for themselves, and I have only tried to point out the obvious implications of each passage.

1. Definitions of Terms

There are three primary terms that need to be defined: elder, overseer, and pastor. As will be evident below (see the discussion of Acts 20:17-36 and 1 Peter 5:1-4), these three terms and their cognates (their different forms in Greek) are closely related to one another.

1.1. Elder (Presbuteros)

The word for elder is presbuteros, which occurs some 67 times in the New Testament. It is a word that sometimes refers to age. “Elder” can be descriptive of an elderly person (cf. Acts 2:17, where in the last days God will pour out his Spirit so that young men prophesy and “old men,” presbuteroi, shall dream dreams; cf. 1 Tim. 5:1-2). It is used once to refer to the ancient fathers of the nation of Israel (Heb. 11:2), and it often to the rulers of the synagogues of the Jewish people (cf. Acts 4:5, 8, 23; 6:12; 23:14; 24:1; 25:15 – this is also the meaning 24 of the 26 times presbuteros is used in the Gospels). It is used about a dozen times in the Book of Revelation to refer to the “four and twenty elders” who are seated around the throne of the Lamb.

But in the Book of Acts and the Epistles of Paul, Peter, James, and John, the word presbuteros, at least 17 (and possibly 17) out of the 29 times it is used, refers to the men who were entrusted with the leadership of the church (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; 1 Tim. 5:17, 19; Tit. 1:5; Jas. 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1[2x], 5; and possibly 2 Jn 1:1; 3 Jn. 1:1 – I have not included these final two references in this study because though John refers to himself as “elder” in these passages, they do not teach us anything else about elders.) Finally, there is also the related word presbuterion, used in a Jewish context in Luke 22:66 and Acts 22:5, and used in a Christian context in 1 Tim. 4:14, where it is translated “council of elders” (see 3.5 below).

1.2. Overseer or Bishop (Episkopos)

The second word is “overseer,” episkopos, which is used just 5 times in the New Testament. Episkopos is a compound word which meets to see (skopos) over (epi). In the KJV episkopos is often translated “bishop,” while the ESV consistently translates it “overseer.” Of those 5 uses, 4 of them refer to the leaders of local churches (Acts 20:28; Philip. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:7). The other time it refers to Jesus Himself who is called the “Shepherd and Overseer” of our souls in 1 Peter 2:25. Closely related words are also used in 1 Tim. 3:1 and (the verb form in) 1 Peter 5:2 (see below).

1.3. Pastor or Shepherd (Poimen)

The third word is the word pastor or shepherd, listed as one of several primary equipping gifts given to the church in Ephesians 4:11. This word, used 18 times in the New Testament, is consistently translated “shepherd” in the ESV (see 1 Pet. 2:25 in 1.2 above), with the exception of Ephesians 4:11, where it is translated “pastor.” The related verb poimaino is used in Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2 to describe the special work of elders/overseers, thus indicating that elders/overseers were also pastors/shepherds.

2. Evidence from the Book of Acts

2.1. Elders in the church(es) of Judea and Jerusalem.

Acts 11:30 is the first time in the New Testament that elders are mentioned in the context of the Christian church (as opposed to the synagogues). A love offering for the saints in Judea was collected from the disciples in Antioch and sent by the hands of Barnabas and Saul back to Judea to be entrusted to the elders. This demonstrates that the leadership of the Judean/Jerusalem church(es), who would have been entrusted with the oversight of the offering, were the elders.

Acts 11:27-30 (ESV)
Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. [28] And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). [29] So the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. [30] And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.

2.2. Elders installed in the young churches established in Paul’s first missionary journey.

Acts 14 records some of the events of Paul’s first missionary journey, with verses 20-23 describing the follow-up ministry of Paul and Barnabas in the newly planted churches of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia. Verse 23 strongly indicates that their normal practice in the young churches was to appoint elders for them as leaders.

Acts 14:20-23 (ESV)
But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. [21] When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, [22] strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. [23] And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

2.3. Elders in Jerusalem settling the first doctrinal dispute between Jewish and Gentile believers.
Acts 15 is a narrative of the first major dispute between the Gentile and Jewish sectors of the Christian church over the issue of circumcision. What is significant for our study is that this dispute was handled by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. Acts 15 mentions elders five times (and chapter 16 once), each time in conjunction with the apostles, showing that even at this early date, there was present in the Jerusalem church an eldership which, alongside the apostles, helped govern the church.

Acts 15:2 (ESV)
And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.

Acts 15:4 (ESV)
When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them.

Acts 15:6 (ESV)
The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.

Acts 15:21-23 (ESV)
For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues." [22] Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, [23] with the following letter: "The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.

Acts 16:4 (ESV)
As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem.

2.4. Paul’s address to the elders of the Ephesian church.

Acts 20:17-36 records Paul’s farewell address to the elders of the church of Ephesus, who journeyed from Ephesus to Miletus to meet with him. This is the only direct address given by Paul to elders recorded in the New Testament. It is significant in that it shows: (1) that elders were leading the Gentile, not just the Jewish, church; (2) that these elders were plural in number; (3) that elders were also called overseers (v. 28), indicating their governing role; and (4) that the ministry of elders was pastoral in nature (because they are entrusted with the task of shepherding the flock of God (v. 28-29). The word “care” in verse 28 is the verb form of the Greek word for shepherd or pastor (cf. Eph. 4:11)

Acts 20:17-36 (ESV)
Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. [18] And when they came to him, he said to them: "You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, [19] serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; [20] how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, [21] testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. [22] And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, [23] except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. [24] But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. [25] And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. [26] Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, [27] for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. [28] Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. [29] I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; [30] and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. [31] Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. [32] And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. [33] I coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel. [34] You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. [35] In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" [36] And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all.

2.5. Elders, along with James, as leaders of the Jerusalem church.

Acts 21 records Paul’s return to Jerusalem, with verse 18 indicating that elders along with James were the leaders of the Jerusalem church.

Acts 21:18 (ESV)
On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.

3. Evidence from the Letters of Paul

3.1. Pastors as one of the four primary gifts the Lord has given to equip the saints for the work of ministry.

We have already seen that the church of Ephesus was governed by elders (Acts 20:17-36). Ephesians 4:11 ties in with Acts 20:28, by describing one of the equipping gifts given to the church as “pastor.” The word pastor (poimen) is the Greek word for shepherd (cf. Matt. 9:36; 1 Peter 2:25) and is the noun form of poimaino, the verb translated as “care,” “feed,” or “shepherd” in Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2. This shows that elders/overseers are equivalent to pastors or shepherds.

Ephes. 4:11-12 (ESV)
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, [12] to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,

3.2. Overseers and deacons as the two primary offices in the local church of Philippi.

Paul’s letter to the church of Philippi opens with a unique greeting to the saints and two classes of officers within the church: overseers and deacons. Acts 20:17, 28 and Titus 1:5, 7 both show that “overseer” (or “bishop”, KJV) is another name for “elder.” The value of this text for this study is two-fold: (1) It shows that just as there was a plurality of deacons in the church of Philippi, so there was a plurality of overseers; and (2) It distinguishes overseers from deacons, showing that these are two distinct and separate roles.

Philip. 1:1 (ESV)
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:

3.3. Plurality of leaders over the church of Thessalonica, who filled governing/admonishing roles.

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians does not use the terms “elder,” “overseer,” or “pastor,” yet it does appeal to the saints to show honor to a group of men who were “over” the church and who “admonished” the church. They were to be highly esteemed “because of their work.” The absence of the words “elder,” “overseer,” and “pastor” remind us that formal titles are less important to true leadership than the leaders’ actual function of watching over and admonishing the saints.

1 Thes. 5:12-13 (ESV)
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, [13] and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.

3.4. Moral and spiritual qualifications prescribed for an overseer.

Paul’s “pastoral epistles” (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) give more instruction regarding the practical matters of church life than any of his other writings. It is not a surprise, then, that much is said about church leadership. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 gives Paul’s character description of a morally and spiritually qualified overseer. Because similar instructions follow for the character of deacons, it is clear that Paul distinguishes these two roles from one another. The demand that the overseer be “able to teach” (v. 2) reminds us that the role of an overseer, unlike that of deacon, involves the pastoral responsibility of teaching Scripture. This list is similar to the one found in Titus 1:5-9.

1 Tim. 3:1-7 (ESV)
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. [2] Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, [3] not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. [4] He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, [5] for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? [6] He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. [7] Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

3.5. A council of elders as an ordaining and/or commissioning body.

In 1 Timothy 4, Paul is exhorting Timothy to be faithful in the ministry God has entrusted to him. Verse 14 commands Timothy not to neglect the gift (probably the gift of teaching) that had been given to him by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on him. This passage indicates that Timothy was somehow ordained or appointed or commissioned to ministry by the council of elders (Gk. presbuterion, related to the word for elder, presbuteros) who laid their hands on him either to convey or confirm Timothy’s spiritual gifts. Whatever the exact nature of this “ordination” may have been, this passage indicates that a council of elders is to be involved in the selection and ordination process of other men to ministry, probably including (but not necessarily limited to) eldership.

1 Tim. 4:14 (ESV)
Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you.

3.6. The proper honoring and disciplining of elders.

1 Timothy 5 gives further instruction regarding the proper treatment of elders, both those who serve well and those who sin. Verses 17-18 remind the saints to honor the elders who rule well (the word “rule,” Gk., proistemi, indicating their governing role), especially those who “labor in preaching and teaching.” This indicates that some elders are to give themselves wholly to the work of vocational ministry in teaching and preaching the word. Verse 18 then gives biblical defense for this vocational ministry by quoting from both Old Testament and New Testament passages of Scripture.

Verses 19-25 give detailed directions for the discipline of a sinning elder, indicating that individual elders are never beyond accountability, but that even though they serve on the governing council of the church, they are to be held to a high standard of holiness and sound teaching by the people they serve.

1 Tim. 5:17-25 (ESV)
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. [18] For the Scripture says, "You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain," and, "The laborer deserves his wages." [19] Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. [20] As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. [21] In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality. [22] Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. [23] (No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.) [24] The sins of some men are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. [25] So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.

3.7. Moral and spiritual qualifications for an elder/overseer.

Similar to the directives found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 (see 3.4 above), Paul’s instruction to Titus outlines the character qualifications essential to church leaders. Paul also clearly indicates: (1) that Titus was to appoint elders (plural) in every town, according to his previous instructions (v. 5), and (2) that elders are equivalent to overseers (v. 7). That elders/overseers were expected to be sound in doctrine so as to be equipped to teach is evident from verse 9, thus again confirming the pastoral nature of the elder/overseer role.

Titus 1:5-9 (ESV)
This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— [6] if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. [7] For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, [8] but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. [9] He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

4. Evidence from the Letters of Hebrews, Peter, and James

4.1. Plurality of leaders evident in the Letter to the Hebrews.

We do not know the identity of either the author or the recipients of the Letter to the Hebrews, but it still clear from Hebrews 13:7, 17, and 24 that these Jewish believers (whoever they were and wherever they lived) were governed by a plurality of leaders. The writer exhorts his readers to “remember” their leaders “who spoke to you the word of God,” to “consider the outcome of their way of life,” to “imitate their faith,” to “obey” and “submit to them,” and to “greet” them. It is evident that these leaders bore great responsibility for the believers under their care, so much so that they would someday “give an account” for them. Again, these passages remind us that the New Testament churches were led by a plurality of men who served in pastoral roles as those who kept “watch over [the] souls” of their people.

Hebrews 13:7 (ESV)
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.

Hebrews 13:17 (ESV)
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Hebrews 13:24 (ESV)
Greet all your leaders and all the saints. Those who come from Italy send you greetings.

4.2. Calling for the elders of the church to pray over the sick.

The letter of James, which was probably one of the first letters of the New Testament to be written, indicates the presence of a plurality of elders in the church, when James exhorts the sick to call for the elders to come and pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.

James 5:14 (ESV)
Is anyone 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.

4.3. Peter’s exhortation to fellow elders/overseers/shepherds.

Peter’s first epistle, written to a number of churches scattered over a broad geographical region (see 1 Peter 1:1), contains some of the clearest instructions for elders in the New Testament. Peter calls himself an elder in 5:1, indicating that there may have been some continuity between the apostles and elders as leaders of the early church. His exhortation to the elders reveal: (1) that elders served as shepherds (v. 2); (2) that they served as overseers (v. 2 – “exercising oversight” is the verb episkopeo, related to the noun episkopos, or overseer as used in Acts 20:28; Philip. 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2, and Tit. 1:7); and (3) that these elders were to serve willingly and eagerly, not motivated by guilt, money, or the desire for power. They were to lead not by coercion but by example, as under-shepherds to Jesus Christ, the chief Shepherd (v. 4). Verse 5 exhorts those who are younger to submit to the elders.

1 Peter 5:1-4 (ESV)
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: [2] shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; [3] not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. [4] And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. [5] Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."


The conclusion of this study strongly indicates several things:

(1) Elders and overseers are interchangeable names for the same role, a role which was defined by its pastoral/shepherding and governing responsibilities (It is probable that the word “elder” primarily focuses on the character of the leader, while “overseer” describes his function in the church as governing leader, and “pastor” or “shepherd” describes his unique spiritual gifting and the leading / feeding / protecting / nurturing / caring nature of his task);

(2) This role of elder/overseer/pastor/shepherd was distinct and separate from the role of deacon (and that both clearly existed in some form);

(3) The normative structure for church government in the churches of the New Testament era was leadership by a plurality of these elders/overseers/pastors/shepherds – not by a single pastor or a board of deacons;

(4) Within a larger council of elders/overseers/pastors/shepherds, some were especially given to the vocational ministry of laboring in the word and teaching; and

(5) That only men who were spiritually and morally qualified, able to teach, and carefully examined and approved were allowed to fill this role.

1 comment:

mwh said...

You sound like a Puritan with a title like that! :-)