|The Presbyterian elder: Part II Scriptural Background|
|Written by Earl S. Johnson, Jr|
The position of elder is the oldest New Testament office next to that of apostle.
The apostles were men (and women?) who had a direct commission from the risen Lord (1 Corinthians 15:3-11; Galatians 1:11-12). They were responsible for planting the first congregations and once the local churches were well established they appointed elders through the laying on of hands to administer them (Acts 14:23). By the time of the debate about circumcision recorded in Acts 15, apostles and elders appear to be nearly on an even footing: together they greet Paul and Barnabas in Jerusalem (15:4); they meet to decide what compromises can be reached (15:6,22, 23); they both sign the letter that informs the whole church about the final decision (15:23). Later, when the apostles are working elsewhere or are deceased, the elders take over the congregations by themselves (Acts 20:17).
The word elder in Greek is presbuteros and can also be translated "presbyter." It is a term borrowed from the Old Testament system of government and religious management (see Part 1 in the OUTLOOK'S April 25, 2005 issue). According to the New Testament, it was still in use to describe Jewish leaders (Matthew 15:2; 16:21; Mark 7:3,5; Acts 4:5, 8, 23; 6:12; Hebrews 11:2). Literally it means "older person," "wise person" (cf. Acts 2:17).
The presbyterial system of governance by elders was obviously established early in the church's history and Luke assumes its existence throughout Acts (11:30; also see Titus 1:5). Acts 14:23 indicates that elders were appointed (not elected) in every church "with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe." When Paul gives his farewell address to the presbyters from Ephesus in Acts 20:17-38, we see a glimpse of what was expected of them. "Keep watch over yourselves" they are admonished, "and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God. ..." (verse 28). He warns them to be alert, to be aware that governing a church is hard and dangerous business. "I commend you to God and the message of ... grace, a message that is able to build you up and give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified" (verse 32).
Later New Testament writings emphasize the same admixture of administrative responsibility and pastoral care. By the time the Pastoral Epistles were written, the church had already decided that elders were professionals and should be paid (1 Timothy 5:17-18). Apparently the churches had existed long enough for presbyters to get into trouble and the writer has to set up impartial judicial rules for the handling of charges against them (5:19-22). Not too much has changed: although elders do not get paid anymore, we still need a whole section of the Book of Order to deal with problems and infractions (Rules of Discipline).
According to 1 Peter 5, elders in the early church needed to remain humble in their service, remembering that the church was commanded by Jesus Christ and based on his willingness to give himself totally for others. They are ordered to work in the church willingly, not for crooked gain but with spiritual eagerness. They are also warned not to run roughshod over other members or to boss them around (5:3.) The chief image of an elder is not that of a powerful board member or television personality telling them, "You're fired!", but a shepherd who faithfully guides the flock on the right path (Psalm 23; John 10:1-18). Their work may involve difficulty and suffering, but they need to remember that God will always "restore, support, strengthen, and establish" them at all times (5:10-11).
From one other passage it can be seen that elders were directly involved in the daily pastoral care of the people in the local church. In James 5:13-16 members are urged to call on the presbyters when they have sinned or are ill in order to seek the Lord's forgiveness and healing through them. This function in the early institutional church proves a direct link to the healing ministry of the session today as it provides for the growth of church members through personal and pastoral care (G- 10.0102e) and offers comfort to the people "with special attention to the poor, the sick, the lonely, and those who are oppressed" (G-6.0304). *
EARL S. JOHNSON, JR. is the pastor of First Church, Johnstown, N.Y. and adjunct professor of Religious Studies at Siena College.
*For a more detailed study of the biblical background of church offices see my book, "Selected to Serve, A Guide for Church Officers" (Geneva Press, 2000.)