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"Elder": The Preeminent Term for Church Leaders

Who are the leaders in the local church?  That's a simple enough question, but it sometimes proves difficult to answer.  Really, there is only one leader of the local church--Jesus Christ, Son of God.  Paul teaches us this in Colossians 1:15-20:

Colossians 1:15-20—He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.  17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

From these verses we learn two crucial truths about Jesus. 1) Jesus is preeminent over all creation (vv.15-18).  2) Jesus is preeminent over the Church (vv.18-20)

While this answer is obvious, we often give lip-service to this truth with little real life application.  So its important for the local Church to look to Jesus as its authority in all things.  And one of those things has to do with who He has appointed to lead His local churches.

While there are several structures used by various denominations and churches that are adequate enough, we are in search for something more than adequate. We are in search for the leadership structure that gives Jesus the most preeminence.  And our search must begin with Scripture and not simply our own traditions.

The first step is to define the terms used for Church leaders in the New Testament.  I believe the best text to start with on this issue is Acts 20:17-29.

Acts 20:17, 28-29—Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. . . . 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.  29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;

1.  Three terms: There are two terms for Church leaders used in these verses (elders/overseers), and the third term (pastor) is indirectly alluded to with the use of the word flock.  We will also look at a fourth term (deacons) that the New Testament mentions as well.

a.  Elder (presbuteros):   This term is used 16 times in the New Testament in reference to local Church leaders (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; 1 Tim. 5:17, 19; Tit. 1:5; Jas. 5:14; 1 Pt. 5:1, 5).  The word elder is best defined as an official within a group and is sometimes translated presbytery.

b.  Overseer (episkopos/episkopein):   The term is used in reference to local Church leaders 4 times (Php. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1, 2; Tit. 1:7).  The word overseer is best defined as one who is engaged in oversight or supervision of a group of people and can also be translated as bishop.

 c.  Pastor (poimein):  The term is used in reference to local Church leaders only 1 time (Eph. 4:11) The verb form of the word is used 2 times (Acts 20:28; 1 Pt.5:2) in reference to local church leaders.  The term is literally translated shepherd (or the verb form, shepherding), which highlights the pastor’s role as a leader and protector of Jesus’ sheep

  d.  Deacon (diakonos):  The term is used in reference to local Church leaders 3 times (Php. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12).  It is best defined in two ways: 1) an agent or courier who serves as an intermediary in a transaction; 2) an assistant who gets something done at the request or command of a superior. Based on the meaning of the word itself and the evidence in the New Testament, the office of deacon is a servant body, NOT A DECISION-MAKING BODY.

This is where many churches (including many Baptists) have erred the most.  No where in Scripture do we see deacons as the primary decision makers in the Church.  Rather, the deacons exist for the purpose of meeting the physical needs of the congregation so that pastors can be freed up for prayer, study, and teaching of God’s Word.

2.  One office: While there is debate among Christians, the biblical evidence is most in favor of these three words being used in an over-lapping sense.

a.  Scripture confirms this:  The Scripture that we read today, Acts 20:17, 28-29, is most convincing, but two others clearly support this understanding as well.

Titus 1:5, 7a—This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you . . . 7a  For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach . . .

In Titus, Paul tells Titus to appoint elders, and then he goes on to describe the qualifications of an overseer (1 Tim.3:1-7).  If the words elder and overseer are not being used in an overlapping sense here, then Paul is indeed confusing.

1 Peter 5:1-2—So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder   and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed; 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly.

This time it's Peter using the terms in an overlapping sense.  He commands the elders to shepherd (i.e. pastor) the Church by exercising oversight (i.e. overseeing/bishoping).

b.  Scripture never lists separate qualifications for the three terms:  This is proven by looking at Titus 1:5, 7a again and cross-referencing it with 1 Timothy 3:1-7.  Therefore, we can conclude that the three words refer to one office in which qualified men have the same function (primarily that of teaching and leading the flock).

3.  The preeminent term of "elder":  As we have seen, the word elder is used 4 times the frequency of overseer, and the word elder is used 16 times the frequency of pastor.  Therefore, the preeminent term for a church leader in the New Testament is elder.

4.  Plurality of elders:  While it doesn't really matter which of the three terms we call the ministers in the local Church, the fact that the term elder is the most prominent does affect our understanding of how a Church is led.  Over the years, I have been convinced from Scripture that a plurality of elders is what God intends for the local Church.  I still whole-heartedly affirm congregationalism, but I have come to believe that a Church should have more than one elder/overseer/pastor.  And that will be the next topic on The Threshing Floor . . .

Soli Deo Gloria,
Jeremy Vanatta
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Guest — Brad Brandon
Good article Jeremy. This is one of those topics (I guess like all things biblical) that simply needs to be repeated and re-repeat... Read More
Monday, 04 February 2013 02:48
Guest — Jeremy Vanatta
Thanks Brad for your comment. Sorry for such a delayed "approval" of it. I completely agree I pray you and Amy are well! Blessings... Read More
Saturday, 09 February 2013 00:34
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Brothers, We Are Not Professionals

A few months ago I read Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry, which was written by John Piper and published by Broadman & Holman.  As to be expected, Piper has produced yet another God-glorifying text on a most important issue in the American church.  In the opening chapter, he highlights what the pastor ought to be and then questions how closely evangelicals are adhering to this biblical standard:

"I think God has exhibited us preachers as last of all in the world.  We are fools for Christ's sake, but professionals are wise.  We are weak, but professionals are strong.  Professionals are held in honor; we are in disrepute.  We do not try to secure a professional lifestyle, but we are ready to hunger and thirst and be ill-clad and homeless.  When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things (1 Cor. 4:9-13).  Or have we?"  (p.2).

The book contains thirty chapters, mostly short, in which Piper exhorts American pastors strengthen areas of pastoral minsitry that he believes have languished in recent years.  Because of the lengthiness of any attempt to addres every chapter, I am going to choose my favorite quotes from various portions of the book and simply quote them.  In doing this, I hope to unobscure Piper's own words and allow him to speak on his own behalf.

  1. Chapter 1: Brothers, God Loves His Glory--"Why is it important to be stunned by the God-centeredness of God?  Because many people are willing to be God-centered as long as they feel that God is man-centered.  It is a subtle danger.  We may think that we are centering our lives on God, when we are really making Him a means to self-esteem.  Over against this danger I urge you to ponder the implications, brothers, that God loves His glory more than He loves us and that this is the foundation of His love for us. . . .  God's ultimate commitment is to Himself and not to us." (pp.6-7)

  2. Chapter 4: Brothers, Live and Preach Justification by Faith--"If you work for your justification, what you are doing is trying to put God in your debt.  And if you succeed in getting God to owe you something, then you can boast before men and God.  If you worked for justifcation and you succeeded, you would not get grace, but a wage.  God would owe it to you.  And when you got it, you would be able to say, 'I deserve this.'  And that, Paul says, is not what Abraham did." (p.25)

  3. Chapter 6: Brothers, Tell Them Not to Serve God--"What is God looking for in the world?  Assistants?  No.  The gospel is not a help-wanted ad.  It is a help-available ad.  God is not looking for people to work for Him but people who let Him work mightily in and through them." (p.40)

  4. Chapter 7: Brothers, Consider Christian Hedonism--"God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him." (p.45)

  5. Chapter 8: Brothers, Let Us Pray--"Oh, how we need to wake up to how much 'nothing' we spend our time doing.  Apart from prayer, all our scurrying about, all our talking, all our study amounts to 'nothing.'   For most of us the voice of self-reliance is ten times louder than the bell that tolls for the hours of prayer." (p.55)

  6. Chapter 12: Brothers, Bitzer Was a Banker--"Where pastors can no longer articulate and defend doctrine by a reasonable and careful appeal to the original meaning of Biblical texts, they will tend to become close-minded traditionalists who clutch their inherited ideas, or open-ended pluralists who don't put much stock in doctrinal formulations.  In both cases the succeeding generations will be theologically impoverished and susceptible to error." (p.84)

  7. Chapter 16: Brothers, We Must Feel the Truth of Hell--"When the heart no longer feels the truth of hell, the gospel passes from good news to simply news." (p.116)

  8. Chapter 19: Brothers, Our Affliction Is for Their Comfort--"When Paul says to the Corinthians that his afflictions are for their comfort and salvation, he implies that there is a design and purpose in his sufferings.  But whose design?  Whose purpose?  He does not design and plan his own afflictions.  And Satan surely does not design them to comfort and save the church.  Therefore, Paul must mean that God designs and purposes his pastoral afflictions for the good of the church." (pp.139-140)

  9. Chapter 21:  Brothers, Don't Fight Flesh Tanks with Peashooter Regulations--"Legalism is a more dangerous disease than alcoholism because it doesn't look like one.  Alcoholism makes men fail; legalism helps them succeed in the world.  Alcoholism makes men depend on the bottle; legalism makes them self-sufficient, depending on no one.  Alcoholism destroys moral resolve; legalism gives it strength.  Alcoholics don't feel welcome in the church; legalists love to hear their morality extolled in the church." (p.155)

  10. Chapter 23: Brothers, Tell Them Copper Will Do--"The person who thinks the money he makes is meant to mainly to increase his comforts on earth is a fool, Jesus says.  Wise people know that all their money belongs to God and should be used to show that God, and not money, is their treasure, their comfort, their oy, and their security." (p.168)

  11. Chapter 28: Brothers, Focus on the Essence of Worship, Not the Form--"It will transform your pastoral leadership in worship if you teach your people that the basic attitude of worship on Sunday morning is not to come with your hands full to give to God but with your hands empty to receive from God.  And what you receive in worship is God, not entertainment." (pp.238-239)

  12. Chapter 29: Brothers, Love Your Wives--"Loving our wives is essential for our ministry.  It is ministry." (p.246)


For His Glory,
Jeremy Vanatta
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