In the churches where I grew up, the word most often used to describe the human leaders of God's disciples is elders.
Why we avoided the term presbyters a transliteration like baptize is beyond me. I can only guess that it has been to keep others from confusing us with Presbyterians.
What are elders? Who are they? What do they do? I'm afraid that we have heard and followed so much false teaching about these people over the last few generations that it would be hard for our Lord to recognize one today if He were to visit some Sunday (when these men seem to do their work).
We've had a lot of help to get this wrong, of course. The King James Version of scriptures has played a major role in helping us misunderstand yet another vitally important spiritual concept.
Instead of translating the original term - presbuteros - King James had it rendered "elder" or transliterated as "presbyter." The rendering as presbyter by the King James translators was for exactly the same purpose as rendering baptizo as baptism instead of translating it into immersion. That purpose was to disguise the real meaning of the term and let "the church" define it as it chooses.
Elder is a better term than presbyter only in the sense that elder meant older one in 1611. But, even the term elder has about outlived its usefulness, teetering on the brink of becoming absolutely obsolete.
Strong's Concordance defines the original word as: older, a senior, specifically an Israelite sanhedrist, presbyter. Presbuterion is the order of elders, specifically the Israelite Sanhedrin or Christian presbytery.
Thayer says it is: elder, advanced in life, a senior. Members of the Sanhedrin because in early times the rulers of the people, judges, etc., were selected from the elderly men. Among Christians, those who presided over assemblies.
Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich say: the plural form is the council of elders. As a Christian church council, it is the presbytery. When describing an individual, it is the older of two. They say that the feminine form means older woman. A key point is that they also define it as a designation of an official elder, presbyter, members of local councils in individual cities.
Apparently much of the fire of confusion and honest disagreement in existence today over the term elder has been fueled by the "gasoline" of these scholars' definitions. Notice that there is a two-headed definition given by each of the scholars. Others could be quoted, but they almost all agree that the word is used in two major ways.
The first use of the term was simply to describe an older person. Before going any further in our study, we need to point out here that it most definitely is older person not exclusively men. The older women were included in the term.
However, each of these language authorities' second definition is the one which gives confusion to the Bible student:
Those who presided over assemblies; an official; order of eiders; specifically the Israelite Sanhedrin or the Christian Presbytery; a presbyter; the rulers of the people, judges, etc., were selected from the elderly men; among Christians, those who presided over assemblies; the council of elders; a Christian church council; the designation of an official elder, presbyter, members of local councils in individual cities (or churches).
All the above add to the weight of defining the role of these men in some kind of official terms - terms which imply office or an official position somewhere above the ordinary children of God and with a degree of authority over them. Sort of a "super Christian" is the picture I get from these definitions. Don't you?
There is nothing in the terms "older" or "older persons" to imply that they are any better or have a loftier position among God's children than any others do. The terms just mean "older." That's all.
In Acts 20:17-38, we have some detail of Paul's final meeting with the Ephesian elders (presbuteroi):
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you careful watchers (episkopous), to shepherd (poimen) the assembly of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.
Please observe that the people Paul summoned (v. 17) were presbuteroi older ones. Also notice that he gave them their job description. And in it he never once told them that their job was being older!
Did you ever notice that?
They already were older! Of course, I don't know first hand, but older people have told me that you get older just by living a long time. The Holy Spirit did not make them to be elder, or older. For the word family, there is no ecclesiastical meaning, unique to the Bible.
Paul told these who were already older ones - elders - that the Holy Spirit had made them - or set them - to be careful watchers (episkopoi). That's what they became at the instigation of the Holy Spirit. These older ones became careful watchers. What was their work? Paul said it was to shepherd (poimen) the sheep in Christ's flock. Tending the flock is the work of the careful watchers which the Holy Spirit makes.
At the risk of sounding too elementary, let me ask and answer a few questions.
Who are these people? Older ones!
What did the Holy Spirit turn these older ones into? Careful watchmen!
What was the job given by the Holy Spirit to these older ones who had been turned into careful watchmen? To shepherd the flock of God!
Where is there any hint of authority over the flock of God in what Paul was teaching them? None that I can see. Can you?
Older is not a title people wear, it's a description of one's age in relation to other people.
If these men you know who wear the "title" of elder today do not do the job Paul told these older ones that the Spirit had set them to do, then the "elders" you know obviously are not the kind of men the Spirit set up among the Ephesian disciples!
It seems to me that the Holy Spirit never, at any time or place, ever appointed anyone to be an elder.
To determine some details of the job these older ones were to do as shepherds, just pick out the action words in Paul's instructions.
To be on guard. Who were they to guard? Themselves and all the flock.
To shepherd. To shepherd whom? The assembly. Those assembled. Those built on the rock by Jesus (Mt. 16:18). The flock of God.
To be alert. To be alert to what? To be alert for what? These older ones were to be alert for savage wolves who would come in among them - wolves among the older ones - and rip the flock to shreds. These savage wolves would be speaking twisted things. Things that sounded good. Things that appealed to the spiritual nature of the sheep. Things that sounded as though they were from God, but were in fact from the Father of Lies himself.
To help the weak. To help the weak? What a concept! That's exactly what Jesus did. He lifted up the weak. He was the champion of the poor, the weak, the sick and the sinner. Jesus was the example for these older ones. To help the weak. I know some "elders" who believe that one of their major jobs is to withdraw fellowship from the "weak" and to keep a tight control over the building's thermostat. Quite a contrast, don't you agree?
To remember Jesus' words: It is more blessed to give than to receive. Paul was reminding them that their job was to give, to give and to give some more. Theirs was not a position - not a profession - not a "church office". Theirs was a work. It was a work of giving, caring, tending, watching.
This job was for veterans - seasoned both in life and spiritual experience. These older ones could recognize a wolf even when it looked like another shepherd. These older ones knew how to love, to care for and to feed God's sheep. It was not a job for the power-hungry. For those who like to manage others. For those who crave the pre-eminence. For those who wish to be served rather than to be servants of others.
These older ones had a work to do for the disciples among them. As Paul had demonstrated to them, they were:
- to serve the Lord humbly, with tears and trials ...
- to keep back nothing from the sheep that would benefit them ...
- to teach both in public and privately, from house to house ...
- solemnly to teach repentance and faith toward God and Christ ...
- to consider their own lives of no value compared to solemnly teaching the good news of the grace of God ...
- to be innocent of the blood of all men ...
- to admonish night and day, tearfully ...
- to have no strong desire for anyone else's possessions or wealth ...
- to work to support both themselves and others doing the Lord's work ...
- to be an example of how the disciples should work hard so they could supply the needs of the "ailing ones" ...
- to remind the disciples that the Lord taught, "It is more blessed to give than to receive" ...
Does this list sound like what any elders do that you know? This is not a life of managing, giving orders, adjusting the thermostat, issuing precepts, governing, ruling ... as some of the language experts have said and as many of my brothers practice today.
Instead, if we set aside the traditions we have learned and look just at scripture, we can see this person as a vigilant, self-sacrificing, humble, giving, working servant of the flock. This is a very difficult job to fill. The job of our shepherd certainly is not an honorary position!
Consider I Tim. 5:1,2.
Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers and the younger women as sisters in all purity. (NASB)
The same word presbutero which is elsewhere translated elder, is the word used here and translated older man. The feminine form appears in the second verse. So who is Paul really talking about with these words? Is this a "different" kind of a Christian? A special child of God? A "super disciple"? An official of the church? Many say "yes" and would affirm that verse one is talking about an "elder of the church", a "church officer".
If that's true, then what of the feminine form in verse two? Are the older women church officers? Are the young men? The young women? Of course, the argument I have heard is: "There were no younger nor female church officers!"
If there were older male church officials, but no others of any age or sex, then Paul displayed total ignorance of his own language and its logical construction! The four groups listed in the first two verses are all of one class - older men, younger men, older women and younger women. If the older men were church officers, then so were all the rest.
Someone else has said that, in this instance, using presbuteros Paul was talking exclusively about men who had simply grown older, the senior citizens among them. Presbuteros means just a male senior citizen and presbuteras means just a female senior citizen.
If we take that horn of the dilemma, then presbuteros means just an older man and presbuteras means just an older woman. I agree.
End of discussion, right?
Let's look at the same original word in Titus 1:5. What does it mean here?
For this reason I left you in Crete, in order that you should set in order what remains and should appoint older ones (elders) in each city as I charged you to do.
Was Titus to appoint people to be older? Was this appointment what made them older? Some say that he was to appoint older ones to be church officials. Do I even need to mention that these scriptures do not even hint at that?
If so, then why is the same word not referring to church officials in 1 Timothy 5?
We could go on, but I believe you see the point of all this. The truth is that the person who believes that presbuteros is the Greek word describing an older man who is a church officer is not consistent in that application. Did the word mean one thing to Timothy and a different thing to Titus?
If presbuteros is a church officer in Titus 1, then presbuteros is a church officer in 1 Timothy 5. And if it's a church officer in 1 Timothy 5, then so are older women, younger men and younger women. In that case, EVERYBODY is a church officer.
I hope this sounds ridiculous to you, because it is.
I didn't make it ridiculous. Those who teach that older ones (elders) are some kind of God-ordained church officials are the ones who made it ridiculous.
The shepherding job was for relatively older ones. It was not a position above other disciples, but rather as a servant of other disciples. It was not a job of managing, but of caring for others. It was a job for veterans who could share with the younger the benefits of their own experience and the experiences of others they had observed. This was a job of keeping away others who would rip the flock to shreds or take advantage of their innocence in any way.
The job was to work for the disciples among them. Not vice versa. Theirs was to tend, to care, to protect, to teach, to love the disciples in their care.
It seems clear that there are no officials of any age or sex in God's flock.
God bless you!