What Happened to the Elders?
by Dave Burwell
As I read the books put out by the leadership in the Charismatic Christian world regarding the church, I am more and more drawn to the Holy Scripture to seek verification of their assertions. One of the omissions, both in the writings as well as actual church structures, is the office of Elder. After being told, by a leader in a local charismatic church, that they were not sure that Eldership was a model in the New Testament, I immediately started research in the Scripture.
The Greek word used that is translated 27 times in the New Testament as “elder” is presbuteros (pres-boo’-ter-os). Strong’s definition is elderly; older; a senior as in an Israelite Sanhedrist or Christian “presbyter” :- elder. Literally, the word presbytery that we use as a group of persons authorized to speak the Word of the Lord, can be translated as “elders”.
Easton’s Bible dictionary states that “The ‘elders’ of the New Testament church were the ‘pastors’ (Ephes. 4:11), ‘bishops or overseers’ (Acts 20:28), ‘leaders’ and ‘rulers’ (Hebrews 13:7; 1 Thes. 5:12) of the flock. Everywhere in the New Testament bishop and presbyter are titles given to one and the same officer of the Christian church. He who is called presbyter or elder on account of his age or gravity is also called bishop or overseer with reference to the duty that lay upon him (Titus 1:5-7; Acts 20:17-28; Phil. 1:1).” This source also indicates that the office of elder was the only office that was transferred from the Old Testament to the New. Deacons and apostles had their birth in the New as they were created to meet new and special requirements. The office of elder was the only permanent essential office of the church under both the Old and the New.
The most definitive example of the early churches model of elders is by Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14:23 (Williams) “They helped them to select elders in each church, and after praying and fasting they committed them to the Lord…” One wonders why anyone would believe that an office which is named over 100 times in the Old Testament would be non existent in the New Testament or not for today. The office of elder IS in the New Testament, and just like the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, did not pass away.
I believe that the most important requirement in a church foundational structure is spiritual oversight. I also believe that the early church provided that in the office of Elder. It doesn’t matter what you call the office, but it matters very much that it exists.
This office must be made up of elderly, spiritually mature, godly people. This group should not have functional responsibilities within the church so that “hearing from God’ will not be influenced by program or personal agendas. This group should be used by the leadership of the church to “confirm or deny” the purity of the spiritual atmosphere within the church, the accuracy of decisions from a spiritual perspective, and to provide spiritual discernment in the selection of persons to positions of authority and responsibility.
It seems significant that Paul wrote to Timothy “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour…”. (1 Tim. 5:17) and that there are specific character requirements spelled out for overseers (elders) in 1 Tim. 3:1-7)
Is your church or fellowship consistent with the early church model of the office of elders?