Whenever a congregation is studying what the Bible teaches about elders, they need to strive to come to a good understanding as to just what an elder is. First, to develop a proper image of what an elder is, we can look to the meanings of the words used in scripture that refer to the position of an elder in the Lord’s church.
Perhaps, the term most commonly used in scripture to refer to these men is “elder” (Acts 20:17; 1 Pet. 5:1). The Greek word could also be translated “presbyter” (1 Tim. 4:14 KJV, ASV). This word denotes age. The sense is that a man serving the church in this capacity should be an older man, a man of some advanced age. However, it would appear that actual chronological age is secondary in importance. Spiritual maturity and wisdom seem to be more in the forefront of consideration. The idea is more of one who is “grown up” spiritually (Eph. 4:14-15).
The second most common term used to refer to elders is “bishop” (1 Tim. 3:1; Tit. 1:7). The Greek word is also rendered “overseer” in scripture (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2). This word speaks to the authority, and the responsibility that naturally goes with such authority, of elders within a congregation. They have the responsibility to lead the congregation in which they serve in doctrinal correctness (2 Jn. 9-11). Consequently, they have the authority to see that the congregation stays doctrinally pure (Tit. 1:9-11). Without question, the terms “elder” and “bishop” refer to the same position within the Lord’s church. Such is clear by the use of the words interchangeably in the contexts of Acts 20:17-28, Tit. 1:5-9 and 1 Pet. 5:1-4.
The third term from scripture that refers to elders is “pastor” (Eph. 4:11). The Greek word is more commonly translated “shepherd” in scripture. The denominational world has caused considerable confusion by applying the term “pastor” almost exclusively to preachers, disassociating it from elders. That such an application is incorrect is clearly seen by the interchangeable usage of “shepherd” in contexts of scripture speaking of elders and bishops (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2). The Greek word rendered pastor, or shepherd, simply describes the close, caring and personal relationship elders are to have with the members of their congregation, as a shepherd would have with his flock (Acts 20:28).
When we combine the meanings of these various terms we get a clearer view of just what an elder should be. He should be a man whose spiritual wisdom is obvious to the congregation. He should be a man who is well known, well loved, well respected and well trusted by the congregation, for he has the responsibility to see to the security of their salvation (Heb. 13:17) and the authority to make sure that only God’s truth is taught and practiced within the church. Certainly, we can see God’s wisdom in so designing the position of elder. And, we can be thankful that God has so designed the church as to have such men to serve and guide each congregation…
Gary L. Hutchens