October 19, 2011

Elders: What They Do

The first thing that needs to be done to define the role of the elder is to define what an elder is since there are different roles with church government and it appears they overlap quite a lot. Having said this it appears that elder can be used interchangeably with other terms such as bishops/ overseers [ἐπίσκοπος / episkopos] or less commonly pastor [ποιμήν /poimen] as these titles/positions also act as elder/eldership in some capacity. It seems the most literal translation for elder though is presbyter [πρεσβύτερος /presbuteros] (Dusing 550, 554; Grudem 913). As such it would not be uncommon for a pastor in a church to also be considered an elder. It will suffice to say the responsibilities vary as some positions in church leadership require some to lead more while others will need to teach more. Regardless, there seems to be a primary core of responsibilities for elders and they are mentioned below. It is worth noting though that the titles of bishop, deacon and elder appear to also fall into more of an “administrative” or διάκονος role meaning they seemed to lead or deal with more of the day-to-day tasks of the church rather than they teach (Dusing 553).

An elder needs to be recognized as having the right and the responsibility to perform certain functions for the benefit of the whole church. There is also Scriptural evidence for a plurality of elders meaning that there is always more that one. There are no solo artists in the eldership. In particular there are references to multiple elders in Acts 14:23 where we see Paul and Barnabas, “appointed elders” πρεσβυτέρους (accusative plural). Peter also exhorts, “elders among you” (also accusative plural) in 1 Peter 5:1 (Grudem 912).

It is assumed from the context where multiple elders are mentioned that they are to be leading the church. Every church in Acts that had elders (which was most of them) were governed by said elders and they kept watch over their respective churches. Peter tells elders that they are to shepherd [ποιμαίνω /poimaino] the flock meaning God’s people in the Church. Elders also have pastoral and teaching responsibilities but this appears to be the lesser of their responsibilities. They are occasionally referred to as pastor/teachers in the Pastoral Epistles.

When we put the above roles together we begin to piece together a picture of a person that has characteristic traits and patterns of Godly living. The elders need to live, behave and speak as examples to the flock in their daily lives. Depending on a person’s interpretation of the Pastoral Epistles, some will insist these positions need to be filled by men. I am not so sure about this position. Notwithstanding, elders must not do things that would reflect poorly on either God or the Church. They are to be imitators of Jesus Christ. In this way they become role models for those in the Body of the Church (Grudem 916). Elders in the widest understanding (or norms of language) are therefore servants of the Body of Christ.

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