What did the term elder mean in Bible times?

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Terminology

Elders are in Greek presbuteroi, “older [men],” and so “elders,” are “presbyters.” In the early church the elder was also known as an episkopos, meaning “overseer,” which means a “bishop” (1 Tim. 3:2–7 with Titus 1:5–9; Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1). Clement of Rome (c. A.D. 96) seems to have equated the two words “presbyters” and “overseer” (Epistle to the Corinthians 44). Also, Chrysostom (d. A.D. 407) stated, “In olden times the elders were called overseers [or bishops] and ministers [or deacons] of Christ, and the overseers, elders” (First Homily on Epistle to the Corinthians 1, in Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 62, col. 183).

History

The work and ministry of an “elder had its roots in both in Gentile and Jewish life. Papyri from Egypt reveal that “elders” held significant work in the life of villagers. For they administered the role of renting land and payment of taxes (see J. H. Moulton and G. Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, p. 535). And in Asia Minor elders were those that were members of a company. And in Egypt, they were the priests in a temple (A. Deissmann, Bible Studies, pp. 156, 233).

As for the Hebrew life an “elder” (presbuteros) was referred to as the front-runner of a local synagogue, as indicated by the Theodotus Inscription (Acts 6:9). This term was also used for members (Heb. zeqenim) of the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:5). In that sense, the word elder was used by the Christian church to designate officers who held the chief duties in their local churches.

Responsibilities of the elders

The duties of elders include: preaching, teaching or holding pastoral roles. Elders must teach and preach sound doctrine and rebuke those who are teaching error (1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:9-13). They act as shepherds of the flock. Their lives are examples to the members (1 Thess. 5:12-13). They attend to both the spiritual and physical needs of the congregation (James 5). And they serve as rulers over the members who govern in them in wisdom and godliness (1 Timothy 5:17; 1 Thess. 5:12; Hebrews 13:17). Thus, elders are “lords over God’s heritage” (1 Peter 5:3) because they are responsible for the spiritual welfare of their church (Hebrew 13:17). And the members are to abide by the elders’ judgement (Hebrew 13:17).

But the elders are to minister with humility as Christ ministered (1 Peter 5:4). And they are to train and appoint other elders (Acts 14:23; 1 Timothy 4:14; Titus 1:5). In addition, they are to visit the sick, pray for their healing, and anoint them with oil (James 5:14).

Elders in the Bible

The word elders first appeared in Acts 11:30. They were not the apostles for they are mentioned separately from apostles in Acts 15:2, 4, 6. And they held an important place in church organization.

The elders in the church at Jerusalem may also have played a role somewhat equivalent to that of the zeqenim in the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts 11:30; 15:2-6, 22-23; 16:4; 21:18). The apostle Paul selected elders to carry responsibly of leading the churches (Acts 14:23). And he also instructed Titus to appoint elders (Titus 1:5). And he warned them to “be on guard for themselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (acts 20:28).

Qualifications of the elder

Paul gave the qualification of an elder in 1Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9:

  • Blameless as a steward of God, above reproach
  • Faithful husband to his wife
  • Temperate, sober, vigilant, prudent
  • Of good behavior, orderly, respectable
  • Given to hospitality
  • Able to teach
  • Not given to wine
  • Not violent, not pugnacious
  • Patient, moderate, forbearing, gentle
  • Uncontentious, not soon angry or quick-tempered
  • Not covetous, not a lover of money
  • Rules his own house well, his children are faithful, not accused of rebellion to God
  • Not a novice or new convert
  • Has a good reputation with outsiders
  • Not self-willed
  • A lover of what is good
  • Just, fair, Holy, devout, Self-controlled
  • Hold firmly to the faithful message as it has been taught

In His service,

BibleAsk Team

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