Definition of Elder of the Church

In the New Testament, there are three words used to name those who have the oversight of the church.  The words vary in meaning according to the function being talked about.  Those three words, with derivation, are:

  • Presbuteros  (Greek)  elder  (Anglo-Saxon)  designates maturity
  • Episcopos  (Greek)  bishop  (Latin)  overseer  (Anglo-Saxon)  denotes  oversight
  • Poimen  (Greek)  pastor  (Latin)  shepherd  (Anglo-Saxon)  denotes  tending, feeding

Occasionally, these words are used interchangeably (Acts 20:17; Acts 20:28; Titus 1:5-7).  Because of their interchangeability, there are some things which should be noted.  In  spite of the fact that all do not believe or follow the Bible, it is always important to see what the Bible says on Bible matters.  It is never correct to supercede the Bible, and change what God has set up (Revelation 22:18-19).  So, let us look at the definitions and what they tell us about these men.

  • First of all, they are men.  Look at the requirements of an elder in I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9.  The leaders of the church must be the husband of one wife.  Since God has condemned lesbianism (Romans 1:26), it is obvious that the “husband of one wife” must be a man, and therefore, the elder must be a man.  Female elders are an addition to the Bible order of things which God has not authorized.
  • Next, they are to have reached a certain maturity.  Young men scarcely out of their teens are not qualified to be elders.  First of all, they do not have the maturity needed to guide the flock.  Secondly, they cannot have raised children by that age; therefore, they cannot have children who are in subjection because that phrase presupposes that the children are old enough to think for themselves.
  • Also, if feeding the flock is one of their duties (and it is), then they must be of an age, and have been a member of the Lord’s church long enough, to be able to discern what is taught by the Bible, and what is an addition by man, so that they may see that the flock is  fed the pure Word of Truth, and not something invented by the mind of man.
  • A careful reading of the  qualifications of an elder reveals that they must also be well thought of, as no flock will follow a cantankerous shepherd, or one who cannot lead well.  (Note that the shepherd leads the flock; in general, he does not drive it.)

Another point to consider is that the elders of a congregation are responsible for that congregation, and that congregation only.  Paul speaks of elders of single churches in several places:  Acts 14:23Acts 20:17I Timothy 5:17James 5:14;  and I Peter 5:1.  In each of these cases, the elders are the elders of that congregation only.  There is no reference in the New Testament of any elder having authority over any congregation other that the one of which he is a member.  According to the Bible, each congregation was, and is to be, autonomous.  That is, each mature congregation is to have its own elders, and they are responsible for that congregation only.  Therefore, a bishop is one of a plurality of men overseeing one congregation, and he has no authority outside the congregaion he calls home.

Another word we often misuse is the word pastor.  The pastor of the New Testament was one of the elders or overseers of that congregation.  Yes, he was to be able to teach, and apt to do so, but he was not the preacher.  The preacher of a congregation is not the pastor of that congregation unless he has met all the qualifications of an elder, and been so appointed.  And even then, he would not be the pastor, but one of a plurality of men charged with the oversight.

Does it really matter?  If we have female elders, what is the harm?  If we call teenaged or just-out-of-teenaged men  elders, what is the harm?   If one man excels in Bible knowledge, what is the harm in letting him be the elder over several churches?  What is the harm in calling our preacher our pastor?  Well, when I reread Revelation 22:18-19, I seem to find that it matters quite a bit.  These things may seem petty and harmless to me, but I am not the important one here.  The important thing is that God has left us directions that He expects us to accept and follow.  If  He says that changing His will and His ways will lead us to Hell rather than to Heaven, it seems to me that changing His ways means a lot.  I would rather be old fashioned, and depend on the Word of God.  After all, He wrote it (II Timothy 3:16-17).

Think about this.  I know some of you who will read this will not necessarily agree.  Let me know your thoughts, and the reasoning behind them.

7 Responses to “Definition of Elder of the Church”

  1. Is it also a possibility that, when the original directives were given it was a common practice, in some circles, for men to have multiple wives at the same time? Should the meaning "of one wife" carry over to this context?

  2. J.A., thanks for taking the time to comment. I'm sure doc will answer when available, but I wanted to respond too. This idea has been tossed around for a while — that it was common to have multiple wives, so what Paul really meant was "one wife at a time". I don't think that's really the case though. We don't see examples in the New Testament of men having more than one wife, but what I believe to be more of a possibility (and I mean the word "believe" here to be a statement of my opinion) is that if the instruction was for "one wife at a time", that allowed for the possibility of a widower re-marrying, and still meeting the qualifications to be an elder. Even if the man has not remarried, I do not believe Scripture prohibits a widower from being an elder.

  3. J.A., I, too, want to thank you for your comment. However, Bob is correct, I do want to take the opportunity to reply, also. First of all, consider the New Testament teachings on divorce and remarriage. If a person who wants to be an elder has undergone divorce and remarried for any reason other than the infidelity of the first wife, then, according to Jesus, he is living in adultery, having more than one wife at a time. Therefore, that man would NOT be eligible to be an elder because he would have more than one wife according to the Scriptures.

    Sometimes, we try to read into a Bible verse things that are not there. Likewise, we try to leave out what we do not want to see. The verses concerning elders were written to be a guide for all the churches of all the ages. Just as God has not changed His mind in that only men should be elders, so, too, He has not changed His mind that an elder can have only one wife. Even if the man were divorced Scripturally, that would say something about his sense of judgment, and so some congregations would not accept him as an elder.

    As with other things, it becomes a tangled issue. The best thing is not to take chances, but to have as elders of a congregation only men who have had one wife, period, unless his first wife died.


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  7. Joel, thank you for taking the time to comment. Let us look at the Scriptures to answer your question. Titus 1:6 specifically states that the elder MUST be the husband of one wife. Therefore, an elder must be a man who is married to only one woman. Given that, an elder would have to be a man. But there is more. In I Corinthians 11:3, we read that “the head of the woman is man,” and then in I Timothy 2:12, we find, “But I permit not a woman to teach nor to have dominion over a man…” Now, in I Timothy 1:9, we find that an elder must be able to “exhort in sound doctrine,” and in I Timothy 3:2, he must be “apt to teach,” as he “takes care of the church of God.” (I Timothy 3:5) Putting that together, an elder MUST be a man because an elder must be one who can teach, but a woman is not to engage in public teaching; an elder MUST be able to lead (or shepherd) the flock (the church), but a woman cannot have authority over a man in the church. (There is not teaching against a woman “boss” in the world outside the church.) Therefore, the concllusion would logically be that only a man could serve as an elder. I hope this helps.