7. The Church: Elders, supervisors and overseers

Grazing sheepOnce Paul and Barnabas had established their first chain of Christian congregations in the area we now know as southern Turkey, they went back to visit each one and “appointed elders for them in each church” (see Acts 14 v 23). Later, in his letter to Timothy, Paul lays down qualifications to look for in an elder. If Paul and Barnabas saw elders as a necessary part of church life, we surely ought to give it our consideration for today. But what is an elder (Greek presbuteros) and what does an elder do?

The concept of eldership has only a passing connection with chronological age. It is more to about seniority and experience. In the tribal structure of the Old Testament, elders may well have been family or tribal leaders. The 70 members of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, were known as elders, as were the members of the executive committee appointed by the assembly of a Greek city state to run its affairs

In the New Testament there is a cluster of leadership words which overlap in use. By this I mean that there are occasions when someone applies two or more of the words to the same people and, taking all these occasions together,a picture builds up which shows that we must keep all of the words in mind as we try to understand the role of an elder.  The words are:

  • Elder
  • Shepherd (the Latin word for a shepherd is “pastor”)
  • Teacher
  • Overseer (Greek episkopos – the word “bishop” comes from this word and it translates into Latin as “supervisor”)


The passages where they occur together are as follows

Acts 20 v 17 and v 28
Here Paul is speaking to the elders of the church in Ephesus and he calls them “overseers” and tells them to be “shepherds”.

Ephesians 4 v 11
The punctuation and grammar of this verse show that “shepherds and teachers” are one group of people with a role that has two aspects. You can’t teach without caring or care without teaching.

1 Timothy 5 v 17
 Paul says that elders direct the affairs of the church and that at least some of them preach and teach.

1 Peter 5 v 1-4
Paul addresses elders and calls them “shepherds” and “overseers”.

From this we can deduce that the elders of the church have a triple role:

  • a leadership role - giving direction to the church;
  • a teaching role; and
  •  a pastoral, nurturing role

It is noticeable that, throughout the New Testament, elders appear in the plural. There is never a church that is run by one elder; there is always a group of them. It isn’t until the first century that we start to see presiding elders called overseers, or bishops.

Paul clearly assumes that the elders in Timothy’s church will be paid for their work . The word “honour” in 1 Timothy 5 v 17 can mean a fee or salary. Since Paul has just been giving guidance about the widows who should receive support from the church, it is likely that he still has financial support in mind and he is saying that an elder ought to be paid twice the amount that would be given to a widow.  Paul clearly teaches in 1 Corinthians 9 that elders should as a general rule be supported financially.

Implications

  • Every church needs elders.
  • Elders should work in groups, not alone.
  • Elders have a strategic, teaching and pastoral role.
  • Deacons may do what elders do but elders should not do what deacons do.
  • The work that elders do is more important than what they are called.

Photo: Sheep grazing in Campbell Park, Milton Keynes, UK
Photo © copyright Michael Jobling