Word Study #42 — Elders, Overseers, Shepherds

Let’s begin this one by understanding what “elders” are NOT. Nowhere in the New Testament are “elders” represented as members of a rotating, democratically elected committee, demographically varied in proportion to its congregation, and commissioned to direct the affairs (either “temporal” or “spiritual”) of the group, and to hire or fire its “leadership.”  Neither are they scrubbed and eager young men fulfilling a “mission” requirement!

Elders – presbutes – are, most basically, (are you ready for this?) “old people”!
“Elder” is a term of respect: the respect accruing from age and experience!
The term was applied to ambassadors, because it was elder, experienced statesmen who served in that capacity. A “council of elders” often directed the affairs of a city or state.
The elders in the New Testament church, likewise, had to have been older folks: in letters to both Timothy and Titus (I Tim.3:4-5 and Titus 1:6), Paul lists among their qualifications, “Look how their kids turned out!” to see if they were capable of proper leadership.

In the Gospel narratives, and through Acts 6, “elders” referred to the ruling council of the Jews, or, more generically, to their ancestors (“the traditions of the elders” Mk.7:3). Until this point, and occasionally thereafter, they are represented as antagonistic to Jesus and his message, and viewed as powerful adversaries.
Beginning in Ac.11:30, however, “elders” are mentioned in leadership roles in the church. They are always spoken of in the plural, and share advisory duties with the apostles (Ac.15), but interestingly, not one of them is ever individually named. Notice also that their duties were not at all dictatorial: the decision reached in Ac.15:22 was made by “the apostles and elders and the whole church”, although the resulting letter was authored by “the apostles and elders” (v.23).
In each city where a new fellowship formed, the founding apostles “appointed elders (plural) for them in every church” (Ac.14:23). Although the participle cheirotonesantes was used in the ancient Greek democracies (5th and 6th centuries BC) of elections by raised hands (the literal meaning of the word), by the first century it was used of any appointment or assignment. In neither case was a permanent position or title conferred.
Paul uses the same word to refer to his own work (II Cor.5:20) – traditionally translated “ambassador”, as it is in Eph.6:20, although there is no apparent reason for the change. It is the same word.

The most specific information we have about elders in the New Testament comes from Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. Timothy, a young man who seems to have served a kind of apprenticeship with Paul (Ac.16), and later was sent as Paul’s deputy into a number of difficult situations, is reminded that while his youth should not inhibit the contribution he can make to the brotherhood, (I Tim.4:12), he must be careful to treat local elders – both men and women (5:1-2) – with deference and respect – even, or perhaps especially, when correction is needed.
It is interesting, and should be instructive, that the qualifications detailed in I Tim.3:1-7 for “oversight” – episkopes – (the English term “bishop”, used 4 times, doubtless derived from the 16-17th century clerical structure, not from the lexical meaning of the word) – are identical to the qualifications posted to Titus (1:5-10) for the “elders” – presbuterous – that he was to establish in the congregations of Crete. Oversight is mentioned there also in 1:7. Cross-check the two lists. The order varies, but they match.
This parallel, as well as the use of the same terms in Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders (Ac.20:17-38), “Watch out for yourselves, and for all the flock in which the Holy Spirit set you as overseers (episkopous, to shepherd (poimainein) the church of God,” indicates clearly that “oversight”and “shepherding” are simply two of the tasks entrusted to the elders of a group. They are not titles, or separate assignments to separate individuals.
L/S lists the lexical definitions of episkopes as: an overseer, guardian, tutor, supervisor, or inspector. It appears only five times in the entire New Testament, and its derivative terms a total of six. The verb form, episkopeo, in I Pet.5:2, also addressed to “elders”, similarly includes an admonition to “tend” or shepherd the flock (poimanate).

This brings us to another task of the elders: “shepherding.” Jesus himself of course, is “exhibit A” of a “shepherd”, by his own testimony (Jn.10). In fact, well over half the references are to Jesus (9 out of 16). After his resurrection, Jesus assigned this task to Peter (Jn.21:6). Peter himself, having learned by sometimes hard experience, described what is necessary for faithful shepherding (I Pet.5:2-5).
How this pattern of self-giving care, “shepherding”, on the part of plural elders, morphed into the image of a singular “pastor” as an employee, or a corporate CEO, is a tragic puzzle.
L/S defines poimaino, in virtually all references after Homer, as “to herd or tend flocks, or, in the case of people, to tend and cherish, guide and govern.” Four of the references appear in the Revelation, representing Jesus’ continuing care for his people (2:27, 7:17, 12:15, 19:15). Poimaino‘s appearance with the Old Testament image of a “rod” in the hand of the shepherd, (since we know who the Shepherd is), should convey a sense of security and protection from harm, rather than the threat with which it is so often associated.
Only once in traditional translations is poimen rendered “pastor” (the Latin-derived word), and that is in Eph.4:11, which translators and commentators have mistakenly represented as members of their accustomed organizational hierarchy, and therefore employed the labels of that system. I consider the listing to be chronological rather than hierarchical, with gifted persons being supplied by the Holy Spirit to the group as they are needed. Please notice that here also, all the terms are plural.

They all describe the function of the elders – always plural, and of both genders (see I Tim.5:2 and Titus 2:2-5) – in each congregation. Their characteristics and duties include:
Ac.15 – mediating conflicts
I Tim.3:2-7 – exemplary personal and family life
I Tim.3:7 – faithfully represent the church to outsiders
I Tim.4:14 – conferring responsibility upon younger members
Titus 1:9 – able to teach the Word, and refute opponents
James 5:14 – praying for the sick/weak
I Peter 5:1-5 – no status-tripping! Set an example; not working for profit.
There is much speculation, and little solid information about the passage in I Timothy 5:9-15 regarding the support of elderly (over 60) widows. Some think it may have been a sort of an order; but considering the qualifications listed – good deeds, having raised children, welcomed strangers, relieved suffering, washed the saints’ feet – it may have been simply to support them, after the death of their husbands, so that they could continue this same sort of service.

Comparing these assorted duties to Paul’s description of his own activity (Ac.20:17-38), may lead one to conclude that elders are simply charged with responsibilities on the local level, similar to those required of apostles in their more itinerant work: “for the purpose of equipping God’s people to do work of service, and to build up the Body of Christ, until we all arrive into the unity of faithfulness, and of intimate acquaintance with the Son of God: (that is) into mature adulthood – into a measure of the maturity (whose source is) the completeness of Christ!” (Eph.4:12-13)
A worthy goal for any of the faithful!

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2 Responses to Word Study #42 — Elders, Overseers, Shepherds

  1. Dan Martin says:

    Thanks for the summary, Mom. One of the articles I have yet to write but is incubating in my brain is on the rediscovery and reapprehension of the notion of the priesthood of all believers–a phrase that I believe Luther coined from his biblical study, but which sadly he failed to implement. Along with several other key misunderstandings, the notion of ecclesial hierarchy is one of the vital missteps that led to the screwed-up doctrine and church structures of today.

  2. ruthpmartin says:

    That is definitely a large part of the problem. More on the way, as we look at the other “job descriptions”. There is no NT justification for ANY of the hierarchical positions so rampant today.

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