The New Testament speaks of the rulers in the church by the designations of elders, overseers, and shepherds. While these different terms are used, they all refer to the same office: that of the elder.
Presbyterianism takes its name from the Greek word presbuteros, which means elder. Presbyterians uphold government of the church by elders.
The people of God have been ruled by elders since early times recorded in the Old Testament. When sent by God to deliver the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, Moses was told to "gather the elders of Israel together, and say to them, 'The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared unto me ....'" (Exodus 3:16)
At the time of Moses, elders were both rulers and covenantal representatives of the people (Deut. 21:19; Exodus 24:1; Num. 11:16; Lev. 4:15). Elders were present in the time of the judges (1 Sam. 16:4), the period of the kings (1 Sam. 16:4; 2 Kings 19:2), and the time of captivity (Ezek. 8:1; 14:1; 20:12). Elders provided leadership in the rebuilding of the temple after the return from captivity (Ezra 5:5, 9; 6:78, 14). Information on Jewish history during the intertestamental period also bears witness to the rule of elders in the synagogues.
At the time of Christ's advent, references are found to the "elders," "rulers," and "rulers of the synagogue"(Matt. 15:2; Mark 7:3; John 3:1; 7:26, 48; Mark 5:22; Luke 8:41; cf. Acts 18:8,17). Although the Jewish leadership was quite corrupt at this time, it is important to note that the Jews had not become so apostate as to allow the biblical office of elder to fall into disuse.
These scriptural references are important because they establish a continuity of government within the church in both the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament and the gospels provide crucial background information about the church government erected by the apostles. The apostles did not create something radically new; they built upon the foundation of previous biblical revelation. When the apostles described church officers, their hearers recognized much of the governmental framework which was found in the Old Testament. Therefore, a presbyterian rule (rule by elders) is not simply New Testament church government; it is biblical church government.
The New Testament contains abundant information on government by elders. The apostles deliver significant directives on church polity. Since God has established the rule of elders in the church, it is the duty of members to submit to these officers: "Obey them that have rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account" (Heb. 13:17).
A primary emphasis of the New Testament is on the qualifications of elders. It is insufficient to have men merely appointed to assume the title of elders. They must be qualified to govern, as demonstrated in the scriptural criteria for officers. Even this point is nothing new, for the Old Testament required such rulers to be "wise men, and understanding, and known among your tribes," "able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness" (Deut. 1:13; Exodus 18:21).
The apostle Paul delineates qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. It should be remembered that these requirements are the essential standards for men considered for this office. Far too often, however, this list is approached as though it contains only desirable qualities or suggestions which may be loosely applied to potential elders. The implicit assumption is that men really cannot be expected to possess such demanding characteristics. Yet the text is clear: a man "must be" qualified (1 Tim. 3:2). The same word is used when Jesus tells Nicodemus he "must be born again" (John 3:7).The matter is not optional.
The qualifications for elders focus on three important aspects of a man's life: his moral behavior, his knowledge of Christian doctrine, and his family life. An elder is continually in public view. The respect an officer receives often depends more on his example of good character than from anything else about him. It is quite easy to see why, above all, his moral character must be "blameless" (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6). He will be required to wield godly influence for the church, and bring no reproach to the name of Christ.
An elder must also possess a mastery of Christian doctrine. He must be "apt to teach," as well as "to exhort and convince" those who contradict the truth of God (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9). It is not enough for a man to be free from obvious error in his understanding of the faith. To serve as an elder, he must have (and be able to express) keen theological perceptions; he needs to be able to sniff out heresies and destroy them at their roots.
Any man considered for the office of elder must have a stable family. "For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?" (1 Tim. 3:5). A man who fails to exercise godly dominion in his family is unfit for public trust as a ruling official in the church.
All of these basic qualifications for elders point to a corollary principle with respect to the officers of the church: the principle of time. The potential elder cannot be a novice (1 Tim. 3:6). It takes time for a man to become mature in the faith. It takes time for a man to develop those qualities necessary to be an officer. It also takes time for those qualities to become manifest outwardly to the church. The congregation will have to scrutinize potential officer-bearers to evaluate their personal lives and families. Only then will the church be able to recognize those men whom God has graced to be officers in the church. Congregations would do well to ponder these things. "Lay hands suddenly on no man" (1 Tim. 5:22).
The scriptural mandates on the qualifications of the eldership require emphasis because they are frequently ignored in the church. An analogy to civil government may clarify the issue. In the civil government, men are not allowed to serve in an office unless they meet the prerequisites for that office. The qualifications for civil offices may be listed in the constitution of the nation (or state). For example, one qualification given for the President of the United States is that the man must be at least 35 years old. The architects of the constitution included this requirement to deter the hasty induction of political novices to an important office. No exceptions are made. No man may serve in the office unless he first fulfills this requirement.
In civil government, it is easy to detect the importance of qualifications for officers. Yet, for some reason, people balk at the idea of binding requirements in church government. It is as though the church's business is inferior to the role of the civil government. And it is as if the civil government has a more authoritative constitution than the one given by Christ (in the Bible) to the church.
An important feature of presbyterian government is the rule by a plurality of elders. The apostles ordained "elders in every church" to carry out the normal government of the churches (Acts 14:23;Cf. Titus 1:5).
This principle is largely ignored in many congregations today. Frequently churches are run at the whim of the pastor, who becomes, in effect, a religious dictator. In other places, a church may decide crucial issues by a congregational vote, in which each person has an equal share in the rule. At root, these systems do not possess a biblical framework.
The Bible places the government of a congregation into the hands of a group of elders who rule in a joint capacity. Since the elders rule collectively, no single individual makes the binding decisions of a church.
From a practical standpoint, the benefits of this plurality of rule are quite apparent. Instead of concentrating power into the hands of a single individual, authority is vested in a number of men; this diffusion of power provides a greater safeguard against abuses of authority. A division of power has often been regarded as practical wisdom in civil government. It provides "checks and balances" in the system to prevent the rise of a dictator.
Churches frequently abandon such conventional wisdom and allow great authority to be concentrated in the hands of a single dynamic individual. The error lies in a failure to realize that even godly men still need bridles to guard against their sinful inclinations. Some churches learn this lesson only after suffering at the hands of one of these dynamic despots.
As an added practical consideration, the plurality of elders makes sense when one considers the enormity of the tasks related to ecclesiastical rule. The spiritual oversight of an entire congregation is too much for only one man: his physical stamina, mental capacity, and time are limited. A multitude of problems arise which are too intricate for a single individual to handle. Additionally, there will be a diversity of duties to be cared for in any congregation. Some men will be more gifted with public speech, others in private exhortation, and some in handling the daily chores of administrative duties. The multi-faceted needs in the church call for a diverse group of men. Each man utilizes his particular gifts, and the combined efforts minister to the corporate needs of the congregation.
The elders are themselves on a parity with one another. Historically, within presbyterianism, distinctions have often been drawn between ruling elders and teaching elders (pastors). Even so, there is no scriptural basis for exalting one man as a dictator over other elders in the government of the church. Neither is there any basis for treating the pastor as a mere hired hand who must unquestioningly serve at the arbitrary bidding of other elders. Although the elders of a church may divide the labor, according to their various gifts, each elder is still entitled to deliberate and vote in the church courts in which he serves. This point will be more fully developed in the ensuing discussion on church courts.
Before moving from this discussion of church officers, a few words need to be said about the scriptural office of the deacon. Although there are indications of similar officers in the Jewish synagogue system, the initial New Testament appointment of deacons is found in Acts 6:1-6. This passage points to the nature and duties of the office.
A problem had arisen over the needs of widows in the Christian church. It was not thought proper for the apostles to be distracted from their primary duties in order to wait tables on a daily basis. Therefore, a special class of officers was ordained for the task of ministering to the necessities of the impoverished widows.
As with the eldership, not just anyone is fit for the office of deacon. The deacons must be "men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom" (Acts 6:3). Later, Paul elaborates on the meaning of the prerequisites by providing a more detailed list of qualifications for the diaconate in 1 Tim. 3:8-13. The primary focus is on honesty and family life.
While the standards for the deacon are high, it will be noticed that they are not identical to those for the elder. The deacon must hold "the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience" (1 Tim. 3:9), but his mastery of doctrine is not necessarily as extensive as the elder, who "by sound doctrine" must be able "to exhort and to convince the gainsayers" (Titus 1:9). This difference points to a basic distinction between elders and deacons.
To the elder is given the task to rule, which includes the shepherding duties of oversight and teaching. Deacons are not rulers. They are a subordinate class of officers who serve under the direction of the elders. Deacons assist the elders, especially by relieving them of distractions in the temporal affairs of the church.
There is much confusion over the diaconate in modern Christianity. In Baptist circles, deacons are often the ruling body of the church, with no elders at all (unless one counts the pastor as an elder). The pastor may be subject to the whim of the Board of Deacons, which can dismiss him at a moment's notice. Or, the pastor may assume a dictatorial role, in which case the deacons have little purpose (except that they make good ushers).
The confusion respecting the office of deacon is not limited to Baptists. Presbyterians often display little conception of the nature of the deacon's office. Consequently, the diaconate may degenerate into a janitorial service for the local congregation. Although the deacons are then serving under the direction of the elders, they are hardly fulfilling the noble design of their office.
Briefly, what should the role of deacons be? They are ministers of mercy to destitute members of the congregation. They visit the afflicted, and disburse funds for relief of the needy (Rom. 12:8).
Princeton Professor Samuel Miller once asserted: "It is a great error to suppose that deacons cannot be appropriately and profitably employed in various other ways besides ministering to the poor in the church. They might, with great propriety be made the managers of all the money tables, or fiscal concerns of each congregation ...."
Of course, the deacons do not act independently of the elders in this regard. But if the elders are relieved of many time-consuming tasks related to the pecuniary affairs of the church, how much more time can they spend in the shepherding duties that more strictly belong to their office?
This principle might also be applied to the higher courts of the church. James Henley Thornwell suggested that deacons might be employed to manage monetary matters in the service of the
presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly of the church. In that capacity, deacons could collect and disburse funds, under the direction of the courts, to care for various missionary activities under the jurisdiction of these higher courts.
We have spoken of two kinds of elders, commonly called ruling elders and teaching elders. Historically, Reformed churches have also acknowledged a third kind of elder, known as the doctor, or teacher (1 Cor. 12:28-29; Eph. 4:11 ). The doctor is a "minister of the word, as well as the pastor," but he might not have the pastoral charge over a particular congregation; rather, he excels more "in exposition of scripture, in teaching sound doctrine, and in convincing gainsayers, than he does in application." As a theologian and apologist, the doctor "is of most excellent use in schools and universities; as of old in the schools of the prophets."
The doctor is another example of division of labor within the eldership. As a teacher in the church, the doctor is answerable to the authority of the church courts, which set the boundaries of his calling. Within the courts of the church he is on a parity with other elders, thereby preserving the church from any hints of hierarchy. The doctor should not be confused with the modern "teachers" who assume an independent ministry outside the courts of the church, or serve as instructors in institutions which are insulated from proper ecclesiastical authority.
The genuine office of the doctor has often fallen into disuse. While the employment of special teachers is desirable in fully organized churches, the presence of doctors is not essential for the ordinary government of the local church. Moreover, the higher courts of the church may function fully without them, when the resources of the congregations are insufficient to sustain ministers of this sort.
We have considered the ordinary officers in the church. A brief statement should be made regarding extraordinary and temporary officers who have been in the church.
During the Old Testament era, the Lord raised up prophets in the church (Deut. 18:15-22). These men sometimes revealed previously hidden mysteries and foretold the future. This function set them apart from the ordinary officers and teachers in the church, the priests. Neverthe less, the regular labor of the prophets was to summon the people to obey the word of God, and therefore they also fulfilled an ordinary task as messengers and preachers.
The prophetic office fell into abeyance for about 400 years, in the period between Malachi and John the baptizer. The prophetic office resumed with the ministry of John, who prepared the way for Jesus, the consummate Prophet. As the scripture says, God "at sundry times and in diverse manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets." Now, "in these last days," he has "spoken unto us by his Son" (Heb. 1:12).
The Lord Jesus commissioned certain men from among his disciples to the special office of apostle, in order to spread the gospel throughout the world and to complete the foundation of the church. The apostles were aided in their tasks by prophets and special assistants, some of whom wrote books of the New Testament. These apostolic assistants such as Mark, Luke, Timothy and Barnabas seem to be the persons referred to as evangelists in the New Testament epistles (Acts 21:8; 2 Tim. 4:5; Eph. 4:11).
Thus was the church "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone" (Eph. 2:20). Once this foundation was completed, the temporary officers were no longer necessary in the church. Therefore, since the apostles have passed from the scene, the church must be governed by the precepts of the written word alone, under the administration of the ordinary officers of the church the elders and deacons.
To sum up this chapter: it has been shown that God has established a government for the church through her officers. Specifically, there are two ordinary offices: elder and deacon. The elders rule over the church, discharging a number of shepherding duties for the maintenance and edification of the flock. The deacons share in the administration of the church as a subordinate class of officers, subject to the direction of the elders. Primarily, deacons minister to the needy members of the congregation, while relieving the elders of certain otherwise distracting matters.
Footnotes for Chapter 2
1. The terms in the Greek New Testament are presbuteros(elder), episkopos (overseer), and poimeen (shepherd). The words are used interchangeably in the Bible (see Acts 20:17,28; 1 Pet. 5:1-4). Also, the term "governments" ( 1 Cor. 12:28, Authorized Version) has been taken as a reference to the elders of the church; the Greek word is kuberneesis which Tyndale and the Geneva Bible translate as "governors."
2. Consult Samuel Miller, The Ruling Elder, chapter 2.
3. This principle applies to civil officers as well. A man with a disorderly household is unfit to bear political rule.
4. The principle of time is especially neglected with modern ministerial training. Many young seminary graduates are thrust quickly into ecclesiastical offices. Similarly, recently-coverted busi nessmen often are elevated rapidly to leadership roles in the church.
5. In name, congregational churches are not as prominent as they once were. Nevertheless, many church members hold the erroneous notion that the church should operate as a spiritual democracy. There is no surer way to foster rivalries, factions, and chaos than to make the general membership the deliberative body for decisions and arbitration.
6. Of course, the congregation does have a role in the selection of office-bearers. In many churches, a vote is taken before men are recognized as elders in the church. After the elders are placed into office, they are not to be viewed as ecclesiastical representatives serving the desires of their congregational constituents. Rather, they are to rule according to God's law, not the impulses which may pass through the congregation. The proper sense in which the elders are understood as representatives is that they stand before God as the covenantal representatives of the people.
7. When the deacons are ordained in Acts 6, the apostles stand in their role as elders. Cf. 1 Pet. 1:1 and 5:1, where Peter refers to his position as both an apostle and elder.
8. The Ruling Elder, Chapter 10, p. 237.
9. Collected Writings, Vol. 4, pp. 155, 201.
10. "The Form of Presbyterial Church Government" adopted by the Westminster Assembly, published in The Confession of Faith; the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, etc. (Inverness: Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, 1976), pp. 401-02. When ratifying this document, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland issued a qualification. While recognizing the office of the doctor or teacher, the Scots reserved for future discussion the power of the doctor to administer the sacraments (p. 393).
Readers will also find a section on "Teachers and Doctors" in the Form of Prayers and Ministration of the Sacraments Used in the English Congregation at Geneva (1556), in Knox's Works, Vol. 4, p. 177. The reference to doctors in the Genevan Book is remarkable, since the congregation was in exile at the time, and unable to establish schools where such teachers could serve. Nevertheless, in the Genevan Book, the doctor is linked to the order of the schools, "wherein youth may be trained in the knowledge and fear of God, that in their ripe age they may prove worthy members of our Lord Jesus Christ, whether it be in civil policy, or to serve in the spiritual ministry, or else to live in godly reverence and subjection."
11. The central passage regarding the prophetic office is Deuteronomy 18:15-22.
Copyright ©1983, 1994 by Kevin Reed