Excursus 4: Elders in the Pastorals and Today
Most biblical scholars agree that “dogmatic claims for the presence in the New Testament of one clearly defined form of church government are not warranted.”137 A variety of organizational patterns appears in the New Testament. Some New Testament writings emphasize the activity of elders without indicating the presence of another official church leader (Jas 5:14; 1 Pet 5:1). In the Jerusalem church the role of the apostles was primary, and many of the leadership decisions were undertaken with their suggestions and insights (Acts 6:1–6). In other congregations a twofold pattern of leadership is mentioned: “overseers and deacons” (Phil 1:1). In the Pastoral Epistles three offices are mentioned: overseer, elder, and deacon. However, it appears that the terms “overseer” and “elder” refer to a similar if not an identical office. In Titus 1:5 Paul referred to officials to be chosen in the church as “elders” (presbyteroi), but in 1:7 he designated the same leader as an “overseer” (episkopos). A reference to the same offices using the same two words also appears in Acts 20:17, 28. The word “elder” can refer to an older man (e.g., 1 Tim 5:1), but the term is used most frequently in the Pastorals in reference to a church leader (1 Tim 5:17, 19). Hinson says that the use of the term “overseer” calls attention to the function of this church leader. He had administrative and leadership responsibilities within the congregation.138 It then appears that the Pastorals use a twofold system of offices with the term “overseers” and “elders” designating a single office and the term “deacons” making reference to a second office.139
Three important questions about the position of the elders must be asked. First, what were the duties of the elders? Second, why do some passages in the Pastorals use the plural for “elders” while others use the singular for “overseer.” Third, what is the contemporary application of the function of elders in the Pastorals?
The duties of the elders are never discussed in the Pastorals in great detail, but 1 Tim 5:17 makes references to at least two of them. There Paul discussed elders who directed the affairs of the church and also those who were involved in preaching and teaching. The twin responsibilities of leadership and teaching devolved upon the elders. Although duties of the elders are not discussed specifically in the reference to the “overseer” in 1 Tim 3:1–7, Hinson deduces some duties from the references made to requirements or qualifications.140 The requirements that the leaders be “able to teach” suggests that they preached and instructed new converts. The insistence that they be “hospitable” suggests that they directed some of the charitable ministries of the church. The demand that they not be “lovers of money” suggests that they had some responsibility for the financial affairs of the church. The requirement that they have a good reputation with outsiders suggests that they led out in the missionary work of the church. Such duties as these are reasonable expectations for the elder or overseer to assume.
In the Pastorals elders as church leaders are frequently mentioned in the plural (e.g., 1 Tim 5:17; Titus 1:5). Both appearances in the Pastorals of the word for “overseer” are in the singular (e.g., 1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:7). The singular for “overseer” is understandable because each reference to this term is a description of the office or position itself. On the other hand, the above references to the elders refer to the occupants who hold the offices, a reference that would more naturally appear in the plural. Hinson makes the logical suggestion that while a board of elders may have taken responsibility for all the congregations in a city, “individual elders possibly assumed a special responsibility for a particular congregation, although evidence for this is not overpowering.”141 Multiple elders then served collectively in planning and supervising churches in a given area. The individual elder may have presided over a house-church that functioned like a family unit.
Is it necessary from the standpoint of Scripture for churches to designate their leaders today as elders? Some Christian leaders demand the term, citing its biblical use. Sometimes they will centralize the authority of the church in a group of ruling elders, who make administrative decisions, and in a teaching elder, who functions as the pastor but who possesses no greater authority than any other member of the elder board. This development is occurring among some denominations that in the past have used a congregational system of government. Several features may explain the interest in using the term “elder” and the office of a ruling elder. First, it is attractive to use New Testament terminology for the office, and the term “elder” is certainly a New Testament term. Second, some undertake a move toward elder leadership in reaction against the lack of spirituality in their present church leaders. They suggest that using a smaller, compact board of elders can guarantee more spiritual and committed leadership locally. Third, it may be more efficient and less time consuming to work through a board of elders than through a congregation. Those churches which have moved toward this system are often described as abandoning a congregational practice and moving toward a presbyterian system of government.
It is not biblically mandatory for churches to use the term “elder” in reference to their leaders, nor is it necessary to leave a congregational system of government. Each church should have the freedom to assign duties to its leaders in accordance with local needs, and they should have the freedom to use whatever term they desire including “elders,” “pastors,” or “deacons” to describe the office. The use of the term “elder” does not guarantee a more spiritual form of leadership. Indeed, some churches that have experimented with elder rule have found it autocratic, divisive, and prone to some unforeseen failures.
Baptist churches today generally follow a twofold system of leadership in their churches with a pastor and a board of deacons. Some of the functions once carried out by the elders (such as dealing with financial affairs) are now handled by deacons. Other functions of the elders (such as teaching and preaching) are now seen primarily as the work of the pastor. It is mandatory that Baptist churches not make the deacons a mere board of directors and that the church not give all responsibility for spiritual development of the church to the pastor. Changes in the functions of leaders of churches can be made without changing the system of twofold leadership. Merely substituting the name of “elder” for a smaller, more cohesive board of church leaders may not result in a shared, dynamic, and more spiritually based role by leaders. Introducing biblical requirements for all leaders (e.g., 1 Tim 3:1–13) would provide a step toward a more vigorous body of spiritual leaders.
137 Stagg, New Testament Theology, 265.
138 E. G. Hinson, “An Elder’s Life in the Apostolic Age,” BI 6 (1980): 75–77.
139 For a further discussion of the relationship between the terms “elder” and “overseer,” see Meier, “Presbyteros in the Pastoral Epistles,” 328, who agrees that they are similar but hesitates to use the word “identical.” Note also the interpretation in J. Jeremias, Die Briefe an Timotheus und Titus; Der Brief an die Hebräer (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1981), 41, who insists that the term “elder” in the Pastorals is always a reference to “older men.” Against his interpretation is the statement by G. Bornkamm (TDNT 6:651–83) that outside of 1 Tim 5:1 the term is obviously a title “for the bearers of an office of leadership in the churches.”
140 E. G. Hinson, “Ordination: Is a New Concept Needed?” Search 2 (1972): 77.
141 Ibid., 76.
 Lea, Thomas D., and Hayne P. Griffin. 1, 2 Timothy, Titus. Vol. 34. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992. Print. The New American Commentary.