THIS QUESTION IS FREQUENTLY VOICED in evangelical churches. Often it comes up when a church is between pastors. The answer depends on one’s definition of an elder. One definition can easily be biblically supported while the other is more difficult to defend.
What is an elder?
In establishing the definition of a term used in the New Testament, it is very helpful to understand how it was used in the Old Testament. This is especially true of titles, practices, and understandings that people in the early part of the first century would be familiar with. This look at Biblical history helps establish that elder, bishop, and pastor were terms that God used interchangeably to refer to the pastoral office. A summary of each term’s meaning, use, and origin can be helpful.
An elder (presbuteros) in the New Testament is one who rules, leads, represents, judges, or governs. From the Jewish culture and perspective, this was a pastoral office. Old Testament leaders of the synagogues were called elders.
The term bishop (episkopos) is used of one who oversees, superintends, guards, or provides directive care. The term bishop is used of the New Testament pastoral office and came from the Greek culture. A bishop would oversee a captured city-state for the Greek emperor.
A pastor (poimen) is one who shepherds, feeds, guides, and protects. It is a term of caring strength. God has used this term of Himself and appoints men to carry on these functions for the church.
All three terms are used interchangeably of the pastoral office in the New Testament church (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5-7; 1 Peter 5:1-4). Elder, pastor, and bishop are terms addressing different aspects of the same office. All are associated with a called and set apart clergy.
In the New Testament church, an elder is a bishop and a pastor. Consequently, there are guidelines for who can be an elder and whether a church should have multiple elders.
New Testament elders were set apart, prepared, and called men. In today’s terminology, they would be ordained clergy.
If a man is to be called an elder, he should be as prepared and qualified as any other pastor of the church. If a church chooses to have a board of elders, they should also understand it to be a board of bishops or a board of pastors.
Whether a man receives full-time salary from the church or owns a business is not the determining factor in whether or not he is an elder. The keys are call, qualifications, and functions. Church planting pastors are often bi-vocational. Technically, a church can have a team of pastors (elders) who work at a variety of vocations to support their ministries.
The academic preparations and “ordination” requirements to be an elder are the same as those required of pastors. A church’s elder should be fully qualified to move to another church and be its pastor.
In the New Testament church, there was often more than one elder (pastor). This was determined by the size of the church, the needs, and the city-wide circumstances.
Should a church have elders?
If by the term elder, we also mean pastor, the answer is YES! If the church views elder as a term for the member of a board of laymen who run the church and guide the pastor, then the answer is NO! The New Testament elder was a pastor rather than a layman serving on a committee without call or qualifications to be a pastor.
Dr. Howard Bixby (Th.M., Ed.D.) is the seminary dean and vice president for seminary academics at Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, PA. To read a more in-depth article on this subject, visit www.bbc.edu/paraklesis or request a paper copy ($5) from Dr. Bixby at firstname.lastname@example.org. The article is reprinted with permission from Baptist Bible College & Seminary of Pennsylvania. This article was originally printed in the Fall 2005 Paraklesis, a newsletter published by Baptist Bible Seminary.
Note: The views reflected in the article are not necessarily endorsed by the editors of ONE Magazine or the National Association of Free Will Baptists. As always, a wise reader is a discerning reader.