By Whose Authority/Elders in the Bible

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By Mark Dever About Eldership
Chapter 3 of the book By Whose Authority

Historical Prologue

Baptists, perhaps more than any other historic Protestant group, turn to the New Testament in order to justify our polity. Roman Catholics claim to do the same, yet they do so without the same belief in the sufficiency of Scripture. They could rest in the authority of the magisterium of the church, content that dominical words are nice when they can be had, but entirely unnecessary, since Christ’s Spirit continues to work through his vicar on earth, the successor to Peter in the chair of Rome.

Protestants, on the other hand, protested by placing the Bible front and center once more for determining the church’s doctrine, including the doctrine of the church itself. Martin Luther, the Anabaptists, Ulrich Zwingli, William Tyndale, John Calvin, and Thomas Cranmer all turned and criticized what they had inherited from the Roman Catholics, saying that the Roman developments that had gone beyond Scripture were in fact distortions of it, and therefore needed to be re-formed according to Scripture. Some Reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, attempted to reform the church in cooperation with the state, or magistrate. Naturally, these “magisterial reformers” were limited to what the state would allow. The Baptists, however, having rejected infant baptism and thus any hope of the church and state being co-extensive, were free to treat Scripture as fully and finally sufficient, even on the potentially controversial topic of church structure. And so Baptists turn to the Bible, believing it is sufficient even to teach us how to organize our churches.

Once when I was teaching on the topic of elders in a Baptist church, an older lady shot back to me, “But it isn’t Baptist!” While I did not say this to her, I certainly do think that being “Baptist” means, in part, being faithful to Scripture. So the question a Baptist must begin with is not “Is it Baptist?” but “Is it biblical?” To answer that question, we will examine the role of elders in the New Testament.

Basic Usage

Words with the πρεσβ´υτ root, from which “elder” is taken, occur seventy-five times in the New Testament. Nine occurrences refer to people of chronologically more-advanced age.[1] Four times words with this root refer to ancestors of the Hebrew nation.[2] John uses such words twelve times in Revelation to refer to the heavenly elders, or rulers.[3] Twenty-nine times (all in the Gospels and Acts) the word is used to refer to the Jewish nonpriestly leaders either in the Sanhedrin or in local synagogues. The remaining twenty uses refer to elders in churches: in the Jerusalem church;[4] in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch;[5] in Ephesus;[6] in the towns of Crete;[7] and other general references.[8] John also refers to himself twice as “the elder,”[9] though whether he is referring to an office he holds or to some other type of designation that was attached to him personally, we cannot say. It is in this last set of twenty occurrences we are most interested.

It is striking that in the New Testament the words “elder,” “shepherd” or “pastor,” and “bishop” or “overseer” are used interchangeably in the context of the local church office. This is seen most clearly in Acts 20, when Paul meets with the “elders” of the church in Ephesus (v. 17). Several verses later, Paul tells these same elders to keep watch over themselves and over the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made them “overseers” (another translation for “bishop”). In the very next sentence, he exhorts these elders, these overseers, to “be shepherds [from the same root as ‘pastors’] of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (v. 28). In the space of twelve verses, the same men are referred to as elders, overseers, and shepherds.

In Ephesians 4:11, Paul says that Christ “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.” The word Paul uses for “pastor” is ποιμ´εναϕ, which, again, is related to the word for “shepherd.” Then in 1 Peter 5:1-2, Peter addresses the “elders among you,” and tells them to pastor, or “shepherd,” God’s flock, the command form of the same word Paul uses for “pastor.” So they are to pastor or “be shepherds of” God’s flock, and they are to do so by “serving as overseers,” again, the same word for bishop. The overlap of these terms is impossible to miss.

There is still more evidence of this interchangeability. In 1 Peter 2:25, Jesus is called the “shepherd and overseer of your souls.” The root of the word translated “overseer” here occurs eleven times in the New Testament. In Titus 1:7, for instance, Paul provides a list of qualifications for a particular officer he refers to as an “overseer” (the same officer and list he gives Timothy beginning in 1 Timothy 3:1). But in Titus 1:5, Paul refers to these same officers by saying that he left Titus in Crete in order to ensure that “elders” were in every town. Clearly, the New Testament refers to elders, shepherds or pastors, and bishops or overseers in the context of the local church interchangeably. [10]

This conclusion is not controversial. Baptists of the past knew this well. The Baptist 1689 Second London Confession reads, “The officers appointed by Christ . . . are Bishops or Elders and Deacons.”[11] Though the London Confession simply re-affirmed much of the Presbyterian Westminster Confession, and in several places the Congregationalist Savoy Declaration, this particular section was wholly new, authored by the Baptist ministers who assembled in 1677. The Baptist 1833 and 1853 New Hampshire Confession says that the church’s “only proper officers are Bishops or Pastors, and Deacons.”[12] Basil Manly Jr.’s 1859 Abstract of Principles reads, “The regular officers of a church are Bishops or Elders, and Deacons.”[13] The 1925 Baptist Faith and Message contains the same language: “Its Scriptural officers are bishops or elders and deacons.”[14] It was not until 1963 that the biblical and historic word “elder” was finally dropped out of official usage by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Article 6 of both the 1963 and 2000 Baptist Faith and Message now reads, “Its Scriptural officers are pastors and deacons.” Even then, the authors of the 1963 revision committee had no change in their understanding of the biblical vocabulary. Herschel Hobbs, who chaired the committee, wrote in 1964, “Pastor—this is one of three titles referring to the same office. The other two are ‘bishop’ and ‘elder.’”[15]

Single versus Plural

A second question about elders immediately follows. Did local congregations in the New Testament typically contain a single elder (or bishop or pastor) or multiple elders?

Before Jesus established the church, the Jewish towns of Palestine were typically governed by multiple elders. Thus, in Luke 7, a Roman centurion sends several elders of the local Jewish community in Capernaum to Jesus to plead for help on his behalf. This practice of calling the local town leaders “elders” had its roots in the Old Testament. The book of Deuteronomy refers to the town leaders as elders (always conceived of in the plural). These town leaders were responsible for retrieving people from cities of refuge, for solving murders, for dealing with disobedient children, and so forth (Deut. 19:12; 21:1-9,18-21). Centuries later, elders continued to exercise rule within towns after the Jews returned from the Babylonian Exile (Ezra 10:14). It is this kind of elder the centurion seems to have employed in Luke 7.

Local Jewish synagogues, which probably originated during the Babylonian exile in the absence of the temple, were also governed by a plurality of leaders. The synagogues were where the Jews gathered for worship and for common action. Ten adult males were required to have public worship at a synagogue. Various officers facilitated the work of synagogues, including the office of ruler.[16] The references to the Jewish elders all clearly indicate that they were a body of men.

When we turn to the New Testament, it is clear that the heavenly elders in the book of Revelation are plural. In fact, there are twenty-four of them. As for the Christian churches, on the other hand, someone might observe that Paul may have established churches with the help of several people, yet he clearly played a singular role as an apostle. Further, the young churches could not have financially supported a large number of elders. And Paul did not write to “the elders” of the church in Ephesus, but to Timothy alone. And Jesus did not write to the “angels” or “messengers” of the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, but to the “angel” or “messenger” (singular) of each church. Are all these indications that there was only one elder in each church in the New Testament?

With the twenty references to Christian elders in churches, the evidence suggests otherwise. The normal pattern in the New Testament is for a congregation to have more than one elder. One possible exception to this occurs in 2 and 3 John, where John refers to himself as “the elder.” Presumably, he was known by this title. But if he was writing to those outside his own congregation, the title may have suggested his widespread recognition, rather than his office. It is difficult to say on such slight information.

The other four New Testament authors who refer to Christian elders are James, Peter, Paul, and Luke, and each of them appears to assume a number of elders will be present in every congregation. James instructs his readers to “call the elders [plural] of the church [singular] to pray over” a sick person (James 5:14).

Peter writes as an elder to the “elders [plural] among you” (1 Pet. 5:1). If 1 Peter 5:5 should be translated “elders” instead of “older men,” it would again appear Peter assumes a plurality of elders in a single congregation—or at least this assumption could not be ruled out.

Paul greets the bishops (plural) in the church (singular) at Philippi in his letter to the Philippians (Phil. 1:1). And he exhorts the elders of the church at Ephesus to be “bishops” (plural) to the “flock” (singular) that God had given them (Acts 20:28). Paul also mentions elders in writing Timothy and Titus. He reminds Timothy of the body of elders who laid their hands on him (1 Tim. 4:14). He then refers to the elders (plural) who direct the affairs of the church (singular) (5:17). Two verses later, he refers to accusations not against the elder, but against an elder—πρεσ− βυτ´ερου, used without an article. This would be consistent with Paul assuming that Timothy would have multiple elders in his congregation. Paul also exhorts Titus to “appoint elders [plural] in every town” (Titus 1:5).[17] So certainly the churches established by Titus in Crete were at least supposed to have a plurality of elders in each local congregation.

Luke records Paul’s sending for the “elders” (plural) of the “church” (singular) in Ephesus (Acts 20:17). At the end of Paul’s first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas “had elders [plural] elected for them in each church [singular]” (14:23). And references to the elders of the Jerusalem church always occur in the plural. Neither multiple congregations nor house churches are referenced. A reference to meeting together is found in Acts 2:42, which occurs in the Temple courts. Luke never refers to “churches” in Jerusalem; he only refers to the congregation (singular). On the other hand, he always refers to the elders in the plural.[18] In other words, any Baptist who argues a single group of elders should lead more than one house congregation is unwittingly making an argument for Presbyterianism, not for historic Baptist congregationalism. If one sharpens the point by arguing a single individual should lead a number of house churches, then he has stumbled into arguing for an episcopalianism by divine right, which not even the Episcopalians argue.

That is all the direct evidence in the New Testament. As best I can tell, it indicates that the common and expected practice in the New Testament church was to have a plurality of elders in each local congregation.[19]

  1. Luke 1:18; 15:25; John 8:9; Acts 2:17; Phlm. 9; 1 Tim. 5:1,2; Titus 2:2,3.
  2. Matt. 15:2; Mark 7:3,5; Heb. 11:2.
  3. Rev. 4:4, 10; 5:5,6,8,11,14; 7:11,13; 11:16; 14:3; 19:4.
  4. Acts 11:30; 15:2,4,6,22,23; 16:4; 21:18.
  5. Acts 14:21,25.
  6. Acts 20:17.
  7. Tit. 1:5.
  8. 1 Tim. 4:4; 5:17,19; James 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1, 5.
  9. 2 John 1; 3 John 1.
  10. So concluded R. B. C. Howell, pastor of First Baptist Church, Nashville, Tennessee: “The only officers appointed by God to preach, and administer ordinances, and whose commission has come down to our times, are called indifferently, elders, bishops and presbyters; all of which names, when referring to office, convey the same idea.” R. B. C. Howell, “Ministerial Ordination,” in The Baptist Preacher, ed. Henry Keeling (Richmond: H. K. Ellyson, 1847), 137.
  11. Chapter 26, paragraph 8.
  12. Article 13.
  13. Article 14.
  14. Article 12.
  15. Herschel H. Hobbs, What Baptists Believe (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1964), 85.
  16. Examples of the “rulers” of synagogues mentioned in the New Testament are Jairus in Mark 5:22 (plural rulers); Acts 13:15 (plural); Crispus in Acts 18:8 (singular).
  17. The NIVs “every town” (κατ´α π´ολιν) is better translated distributively—“each town.”
  18. Acts 11:30; 15:2,4,6,22-23 (throughout the account of the Jerusalem council); 16:4; 21:18.
  19. The Anglican scholar and pioneer missiologist Roland Allen came to this same conclusion: “... it seems to be an irresistible conclusion that the elders appointed by St. Paul were definitely appointed with power to add to their number and thus to secure to new Churches a proper order and certainty of sacramental grace. Finally, St. Paul was not content with ordaining one elder for each Church. In every place he ordained several. This ensured that all authority should not be concentrated in the hands of one man.” Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours (London: Robert Scott, 1912), 138-139.
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