Elders in the New Testament–The Terms

Elders in the New Testament

Elders in the New Testament

(The Terms)

Richard Hollerman


Although it should be a fairly simple matter to study the New Testament and make certain conclusions about the leaders of Christian assemblies, many people are confused in our day.

Many assume that as long as we are correct on such matters as Theology, Christology, Pneumatology, Soteriology, and Hamartiology, it really doesn’t matter whether we are correct on Ecclesiology. They think that local assemblies may be organized and function according to the decisions of fallible men.

What do we think about some of the popular assumptions today? What about young men being chosen to be a “pastor”? What about those who separate terms and arrive at two or three different positions: elder (presbyter), shepherd (pastor), and overseer (bishop)? What about those who think it is fine for a shepherd or elder to be single, or be childless, or not have one or more qualifications?

Just what does God’s Word say about the leaders of the body of Christ in the first century—and in our own day? Let’s examine the evidence to find out.

Elders in the New Testament

Most people are aware of the fact that the Scriptures often refer to certain functionaries in the early body of Christ. These leaders or managers had a variety of names. The terms used reflected the maturity, function, or work of these important men. Our short study here will be very limited for more deserves to be written about these men.

Young “Elders”?

One day someone knocked at my door. When I opened it, there stood two young Mormon missionaries. As you may know, the Mormon Church requires their young male members to devote two years to missionary service. This generally occurs about age 20 and then they return home to pursue their studies at the college or university. We’ve all seen these young ambassadors of this American-made cult, neatly dressed with a white shirt and tie and often riding their bicycle.

Mormon “elders”

I invited these missionaries inside—not to receive their teaching (2 John 7-11) but to ask them questions, with the hope of leading them to a clearer understanding of God’s truth. I introduced myself and they introduced themselves. One might have said, “I’m Elder Jones,” and the other, “I’m Elder Smith” (I can’t remember their actual names). I asked what their given names were and they repeated, “I’m Elder Jones,” or “I’m Elder Smith.” I smiled and didn’t make a great point over this obvious contradiction of terms. How could a “young” missionary be an “elder”?

But consider this carefully. The Mormons are not alone in this contradiction. Protestants do this all of the time. Have you noticed this?  You may reply, “But Protestants don’t call their pastor an ‘elder’!” This is true, but the contradiction still is evident.

Terms Used for the Same Position

Let me explain.  In Scripture, several terms are used to refer to the same position or functionary: elder, shepherd, overseer. The term “elder” comes from the Greek presbyteros. The Presbyterian Church is named after this position or work. As for “shepherd,” this comes from the Greek poimen, meaning “shepherd.” It originates from the Latin. Actually, no one today should be called “pastor” any more than they are called “poimen.” They should be called a “shepherd”! Instead, people call themselves, “Pastor Jones,” (after the KJV rendering for poimen. As for “overseer,” this comes from the Greek, episkopos. We see it today in the “Episcopal” Church. The KJV uses the term “bishop” a term that gives the wrong impression when interpreting the New Testament “overseer.”

Here is the important point: The Bible interchanges these words. The term “elder” speaks of a man’s age and maturity, both physically and spiritually. “Shepherd” speaks of the man’s work of tending and feeding the flock of God. And “overseer” refers to his function and work of governing within the local body of Christ.

Elders in the New Testament

In Acts 20, the Ephesian elders (v. 17) are called “overseers” and they are to “shepherd” the flock (v. 28). All three terms in question are used. In Crete, Titus was told to appoint “elders” in each city, and these men were called “overseers” (1:5, 7). Peter exhorts the “elders” (1 Peter 5:1) and they were told to “shepherd” the flock of God, exercising the “oversight” (v. 2). All three terms are used here. Thus, elders=overseers=shepherds.

We began with the observation that young Mormon “elders” insisted that I call them “Elder so-and-so” which is quite ridiculous. They were “youngers” and not “olders” or “elders.” Now, what is the practice in Protestantism? Generally, a man will go to a seminary at age 21 or 22 and graduate at about age 24 or 25, then he goes to work for a church and claims to be a “pastor” (a shepherd). Some of these men begin to preach at age 18 or 20, and call themselves “Pastor so-and-so.”

In Biblical parlance, the one who calls himself a “pastor” (shepherd) should be an “elder”—but can a 24-year-old be an elder? The terms are contradictory. Paul told Timothy that he was still in a “youthful” state (1 Timothy 4:12). Probably this young preacher was about 31 years of age. If Paul picked him up at Lystra at age 16 (Acts 16:1-3), and 1 Timothy was written about 15 years later, this would make him a “young” man at age 31. Paul says that a “younger” man is not the same as an “older” man (1 Timothy 5:1). Thus, Timothy would not have been considered an “elder” at age 31. He was not an “elder,” thus he was not a shepherd or overseer at that age. Therefore, it is impossible for a “young” Protestant preacher to be a shepherd (KJV, “pastor”) or an overseer (KJV, “bishop”).

Religious Traditions bring Confusion

We know that in the world of religion, human traditions have confused people. “The tradition of men” has led vast numbers astray. Although Protestant young preachers or teachers claim to stand for sound doctrine, they have been blinded about many things. In this case, they have been deceived about New Testament functionaries. Not only are they confused about the terms themselves, but the works that are open to young people. Early assemblies of Christians were governed by “elders” who shepherded the flock or oversaw the assembly (Acts 14:23). While this position was restricted to older, more mature men (with the qualifications mentioned in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1), other works were available to younger men, such as the position of teacher (Acts 13:1) and evangelist (2 Timothy 4:5; Ephesians 4:11).

Whether we are speaking of young Mormon “elders” or young Baptist or Pentecostal “pastors,” we need to go back to the Scriptures. As someone has said, “Let’s call Bible things by Bible names, and do Bible things in Bible ways.” This is a good rule to follow.

Additional Witnesses

What we are saying here is something that many Biblical writers have already seen. Notice the following representative sample:

  • “It seems that presbyteros and episkopos (‘overseer’) refer to the same office (cf. Acts 20. . .; 1 Tim. 3:1-2; Tit. 1:5-7); the fact that these two words can be used interchangeably demonstrates the relatively young age of church structure in the NT” (Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, p. 208).
  • Presbuteros. . . . of age. . . advanced in life, an elder, a senior. . . . That they did not differ at all from the (episcopoi) bishops or overseers . . . is evident from the fact that the two words are used indiscriminately, Acts 20: 17, 28; Tit. 1:5, 7, and that the duty of presbyters is described by the terms episkopein, 1 Pet. 5:1ff, and episcope (Joseph Henry Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 536).
  • . . . By the time the pastoral epistles were written, the terms “bishop” and “elder” were used interchangeably (cf. 1 Tim. 3; Titus 1). But even earlier in Paul’s ministry (cf. Acts 20:17-38) when he met with the elders of the Ephesian church, he seems to relate the three terms together—elder, bishop or overseer and pastor. The idea of the elders serving as shepherds of the flock and overseeing the administration of the Church helped to distinguish the title of the office from its practical functions. In other words, the term elder originally designated those who were both naturally as well as spiritually older or more mature. . . . In the later postapostolic writings of the Church, there is clear evidence that the office of pastor or bishop and elder were the same (cf. Didache 10:6).” (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 2, p. 268).
  • “Episkopos. . . lit., ‘an overseer’ . . . whence Eng. ‘bishop,’ which has precisely the same meaning, is found in Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Pet. 2:25. . . . Note: Presbuterios, ‘an elder,’ is another term for the same person as bishop or overseer. See Acts 20:17 with verse 28. The term ‘elder’ indicates the mature spiritual experience and understanding of those so described; the term ‘bishop,’ or ‘overseer,’ indicates the character of the work undertaken” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words).
  • “Presbuteros. . ., an adjective, the comparative degree of presbus, ‘an old man, an elder,’ is used (1a) of age . . . . To these the term ‘bishops,’ episkopoi, or ‘overseeres,’ is applied (see Acts 20, v. 17 with v. 28, and Titus 1:5 and 7), the latter term indicating the nature of their work, presbuteroi their maturity of spiritual experience. . . . The duty of ‘elders’ is described by the verb episkopeo” (Ibid.).
  • Presbuteros is the comparative form of the adjective presbus (old), which is a poetic version of the prose word presbutes (old man). . . .  The name ‘bishop’ (episkopos) is sometimes given by St. Luke to the presbuteroi (elders), as will be seen by comparing episkopoi (Acts 20:28) with presbuteroi (20:17). . . . Right up to the time of Irenaeus, presbuteros indicates a state, episkopos a function. The ‘bishops’ were less dignitaries than functionaries” (Nigel Turner, Christian Words, pp. 124-226).
  • presbutes . . . old man, aged man (Philo, Op. M. 105, after Hippocr.: a man of 50-56 years” (Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker, A Greek-English Lixicon of the New Testament, p. 700).
  • “In verse 17 [Acts 20] these men are called the ‘elders’ (presbyteroi) of the church at Ephesus. Yet here Paul addresses them as ‘overseers’ (episcopoi).This shows unquestionably that the “bishops’ (overseers) and the ‘elders’ (presbyters) were the same persons in the first-generation Christian church” (on Acts 20). “[Titus 1:5-7] This seems to indicate rather clearly that the same church officials were called bishops (episcopoi) and elders (presbyteroi). The name ‘elders’ emphasizes the fact that the leaders of the church are to be older men, as was the case with the elders of Israel. The word episcopos (bishop) literally means ‘overseer.’ So it refers to the function and office of an overseer of the church” (Ralph Earle, Word Meanings in the New Testament).

From the previous quotations we see that the elders were the overseers and the shepherds. The term “elder” refers to a man’s age and maturity, while “overseer” refers to his function in the local assembly, along with “shepherd” which pertains to his work of feeding, caring for, and protecting the flock of God.

A Further Brief Consideration

As we mentioned at the beginning, this present study is a very limited one. A few other considerations that would merit some study would be the following.

  1. The qualifications of elders/overseers are presented in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9.
  2. These elders/overseers/shepherds are always found in the plural. There is no evidence that one man alone served as an elder (cf. Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:6, 22, 23; 20:17, 28; Ephesians 4:11; Philippians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; Titus 1:5; Hebrews 13:17, 24; James 5:14).
  3. These elders/overseers were men (males, not females), were married, and had believing children who were not disobedient (1 Timothy 3:2-4; Titus 1:6).
  4. Apparently Timothy and Titus were evangelists (Ephesians 4:11; 2 Timothy 4:5; Acts 21:9) rather than overseers (there is no indication that they were married or had children).
  5. Elders or overseers or shepherds were to be held in high esteem, respectable, worthy examples, and able to teach the believers (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; Ephesians 4:11; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:1-4).



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