About Jesus    Steve Sweetman

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Plurality of Elders





In our modern day Evangelical church, a young man may grow up, hear God’s call on his life, go to Bible College , get a degree, and enter the ministry in an entry level position.  This entry level job, and job it is for some, usually means a small church in some remote town he’s never heard of.  As time goes on he gets good at what he does, gets recognized and promoted to a larger church where he might be an assistant pastor or a youth pastor.  As more time elapses he works his way up the ecclesiastical ladder until he finally makes it big in a large metropolitan church.  After years of climbing, he has finally made it to the top of his ministry.  Just out of curiosity, I wonder if Paul thought he had climbed the ladder of success when he found himself deep down  inside a Roman dungeon?     


Once this now older man finds himself in the big city church in which he is employed, he begins to carry out the plans and programs of the board of directors who hired him. This board has the authority to hire and fire anyone who works for them.  If this pastor hasn’t learned to submit to a board, he certainly will learn now.  This is one modern day scenario.


The other scenario is that the board gives the pastor a good measure of autonomy and authority.  In this case the pastor is the top guy in charge.  He’s a one man leader and what he says goes.


In both of these scenarios we see no Biblical basis. The question thus arises, “do we need a Biblical base for our church life or is it evolutionary in nature”?  If church life is to evolve then it can evolve into whatever we feel it should be to best suit our day and age.  But if church life isn’t evolutionary in nature, then where should we find our pattern for church life?             


I’m sure you know where I stand on this issue. I believe we should follow New Testament teaching.  To make it clear, I’m saying we follow New Testament teaching, not New Testament churches because some of these churches had their own problems.     


The Bible has a lot to say about this subject and in this article I will zero in on just two aspects of church leadership.  I want to show that the New Testament teaches plurality of leadership and not the one pastor as leader concept.  And just to note, this group of leaders looks nothing like our modern day church board.   Also, I want to show that there are 5 different titles given to these leaders in the King James Bible, and all these titles speak of the same group of men.


A Bit Of Historical Perspective


History shows us that soon after the first generation of Christians passed on, plurality of leadership began to evolve into something else.  By the end of the first century, among this group of leaders who were called elders, one man rose up to be a lead elder, or the bishop as many called him. 


The reason for this change was based mostly on the need for unity in the church because of  doctrinal differences.  The church was experiencing divisions.  In response to this, certain leaders promoted the idea that unity in the church could come through strict obedience and submission to the one man, the bishop or the head elder. 


I will not get involved in the details, but if you read such men as Ignatius, church leaders who taught near the end of the first century, you’ll see this is true.   


The supremacy of this one man grew to the extent that by around 150 AD the local bishop was beginning to be seen as the spokesman for God to the ordinary Christian in the church, assuming there is such a thing as an ordinary Christian.  This meant that the individual in the church heard from God through his bishop.  The idea of an individual hearing from God himself was beginning to be severely damaged at this point.


Then by the end of the second century, around 200 AD, the bishop evolved into an intermediate person, a mediator between his people and God.  This meant that the individual in the church could only come to God in a real way through his bishop.  At this point the priesthood of the believer was really being threatened if not lost altogether.  This is part of the foundation of the Catholic Church. 


In summery, the first generation church had a group of elders caring for them, with one "possible" exception and that was in the Jerusalem church where James appeared to be a head elder. The reason for this possibility in my opinion is due to the fact that James and the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem did not leave their Jewish heritage behind them to the same extent as Paul and others did.


By 100 AD there was a group elders, of which one elder was more important than the rest.  He was often called a bishop.  Then by 150 AD the bishop become God’s spokesman to the church and  by 200 AD the bishop was becoming the vehicle by which men and women could approach God. 


Now to plurality of leadership and 5 important English words and 3 important Greek words. 



Three Greek Words


In the Greek New Testament (the language it was written in) there are 3 words that are translated into five different English words in the King James Bible denoting church leaders.  The Greek word “presbuteros”, is translated as elder.  The Greek word “episkopos” is translated as overseer and bishop.  And finally, the Greek word “poimen” is translated as shepherd and pastor.


“Presbuteros” simply means, an older man, or when it is used in the plural tense as it always is, means a group of  older men.  This word is translated as  “elder” in the New Testament.


 “Episkopos” literally means to watch over.  It is made up of two Greek words meaning, “to watch” and “over”.  Thus we get our English translation of overseer, and also bishop.  


“Poimen” means one who feeds a flock.  Thus we derive our English word shepherd, and also pastor.


So there you go. There are 3 Greek words that are translated into 5 English words in the King James Bible, the translation I’m using for this article.


There are two simple points I want to make.  Point one is that all 5 of these English words refer to the same group of people.  They are not separate groups of men or separate individuals. Let me also say that this group of men is not seen as an office of the church in the Bible, as in “office of the bishop” as seen in 1 Tim. 3:1 in the King James Bible.  The phrase “office of bishop” in 1 Tim. 3:1 KJV is a poor translation and reflects more of the thinking of 17th century England than 1st century New Testament thinking.  The New Testament emphasizes the actual job to be done by elders, and not  the office King James translators say they hold.    


Secondly, I want to show that these words, especially the most common word is always used in the plural tense.  That is to say, the New Testament speaks of leaders, not a leader.


To show you these things we will look at just a few passages of Scripture.  We could look at many more, but these will show my point quite clearly.


Act 20:17 and 28


Acts 20:17 and onward is the account of Paul speaking to the Ephesian elders for the last time. He’d never see them again.  This was one sad good-bye.   Verse 17 says, “And from Miletus , he (Paul) sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church”  Here the Greek word “presbuteros” is translated as elders.  Note the word is in its plural form.  Paul called for the “elders” of the church at Ephesus , not for the elder, and especially not for the pastor.


Verse 28 reads,  ”Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all of the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost has made you overseers, to feed the church of God , which He has purchased with His own blood” 


Note that the elders “feed”  the people in the church.  The Greek word for feed is translated from the Greek word “poimen”, from which we get our English word “shepherd”.  Paul also tells these men that they have been made “overseers”.  This is the Greek word “episkopos”.  So in these 2 verses we have all 3 Greek words used, and 3 of their English equivalents.


Do you remember the Transitive Law that you learned back in your high school days?  The Transitive Law says, if A equals B, and if B equals C, then A must equal C, and in fact A,B, and C are all equal to each other.  You didn’t think you’d get a math equation in a Bible study, did you? I make this point for a reason.


According to the Transitive Law, and by the context of this Scripture, we see that elders equal overseers, and overseers equal shepherds.  In fact all 3 of these words are used for the same body of men.  Also, all 3 of these Greek words are used interchangeably throughout the New Testament. 


The church of Ephesus had a group of men called elders, or overseers, or shepherds caring for individuals in Jesus’ church.  That is to say, three different names for the same group of men.  Note again, in verse 17 the word elders is in the plural form. Also note in verse 28 the word overseers is plural.


Titus 1:5 to 7


Titus 1:5 to 7 says, “For this cause left I you in Crete , that you should set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed you ... for a bishop must be blameless as a steward of God…”  Here we have the introduction of another English word.  It is the word bishop, translated from the Greek word “episkopos”. 


I’d like to comment on the cultural significance for the insertion of the word “bishop” but I won’t.  I’ll only repeat what I’ve said earlier and that is that the King James translators inserted the word “bishop” with its 17th century meaning, but this meaning does not reflect  the meaning Paul had in mind. 


Anyway, Paul equates elders and bishops as the same in these verses.  So once again, according to our Transitive Law, if bishops equal elders, then bishops also equal overseers and shepherds.  We now have 4 out of the 5 English words equaling each other.  Note again, that the word elders is in the plural form.  There’s still one more word to go to complete my point.


1 Peter 5:1 and 2


1 Peter 5:1 and 2 says, “ The elders which are among you I exhort, … feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly…”   Here once again all three Greek words are used, “presbuteros” translated as “elders”, “episkopos” translated as “taking the oversight”, and “poimen” translated as “feed” (as a shepherd feeds his sheep).  Once again 3 Greek words used for the same group of men. And notice again the word “elders” is plural.


Ephesians 4:11


Ephesians 4:11 says, “ He (Jesus)  gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.”  Here the word “poimen” is translated as “pastors” plural.  In every other place in the New Testament ”poimen” is translated as shepherd, or, to feed as a shepherd would feed his sheep.  We now have English word number 5. The word “pastors” is added to the list.  Thus by the Transitive Law, overseers, elders, pastors, shepherds, and bishops are 5 different names for the same group of men.  In the list of verses we’ve looked at so far, all these 5 words are used interchangeably. 


If my math is correct, here is an interesting side note.  The word “pastors” is only used once in our King James New Testament while the word bishop is only used 3 times in reference to this group of men. 


Knowing this, why does our modern Evangelical church use the word “pastor” next to exclusively when speaking of a church leader when it’s only used once in our New Testament.  Also, why is the word bishop used so much when it’s only appears 3 times in the New Testament.  The word “elders” is by far the most common word  used in our Bible for this group of men but one of the least used words in our vocabulary today.  Overseers and shepherds are both used as well, both in their noun form and their verb forms. Wouldn’t you think that we should adopt the word “elders” since it’s used more than any other word  in the New Testament.  Why we don’t is beyond me, but that’s only my viewpoint.   


1 Timothy 5:17


1 Timothy 5:17 says, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they that labour in the word and doctrine.”  Do I need to point out the plural form of the word “elders” again?  The second phrase of this verse sheds a little light on this group of men.  Paul tells Timothy that those elders who rule well, and especially those who labour in the word and doctrine should receive double honour.  Look closely at this phrase.  If we are to give double honour to those who labour in the word and doctrine, this implies that not all labour in the word and doctrine. They must labour in some other way.  From this I conclude that this body of elders are made up of men with different callings and different talents.  Not all are preachers or teachers.  Each man has his own gifting.  One man is not gifted to do everything.  Here is a group of men working together, all with their individual talents and callings.  What one man can never do, a group of men can.   


A Lead Elder


In my introduction I said that by the end of the first century one man rose up among the elders to become the lead elder, or bishop as they became to be known.  There is only one hint of this happening in the first generation of Christians.  James appeared to be the one leader among the elders in the Jerusalem church.  Personally, I am not one hundred percent convinced that he was a lead elder because of lack of sufficient evidence, but I can see the point that some make concerning James being a one man leader.


Acts 12:17 says, “...and he (Peter) said,  go show these things to James and to the brothers…”   James is distinguished from the rest of the brothers therefore some say this distinction suggests that he’s a lead elder.  


In Acts 15 the apostles and elders at Jerusalem met together and  James seems to take charge of things,  implying that maybe he was a leader among leaders. Yet still, in my thinking, this is not conclusive evidence. It’s a little speculative.  I only mention this because those who promote one man leadership will point this out to you.  


Also in Acts 21:18 Paul went in unto James and the elders to talk with them.  This may imply James as being a leader among leaders.  Yet if this is really so, beyond the Jerusalem church, there is no mention of such structure anywhere else.  And as far as we can see from Paul, he would tell men like Timothy and Titus to affirm elders in every city, not a pastor.  (Titus 1:5)


To repeat what I said before concerning James, he did not give up his Jewish heritage to the same degree as Paul.  It’s quite possible that in the back of his mind, whether he realized it or not, he viewed himself as a “high priest”.   


In Conclusion


In conclusion, plurality of leadership is nothing new in the world of Christendom.  It appears to be what the first generation of Christians taught and practiced.  It is not necessarily what twenty first century Christians teach and practice.  We may find security in the one pastor situation, paying him to do many things we  should be doing, but it wasn’t so in the beginning days of the church, I see a group of men called elders caring for a full-functioning  body of believers.  Each person in the body had their part to play.  The elders were there to care for, feed and oversee,  but never to do all the work for the people, and never to dominate them in arrogant tyranny that came to be the norm in centuries following. 


I believe what I have said is New Testament thinking, yet it is obvious that we do not follow such thinking in most of our North American churches today.  The question remains, “do we follow what the New Testament teaches, or do we believe the church is evolutionary in nature”?  If you choose the latter, that’s your choice, but don’t call it Biblical teaching.  And if you do believe the church should evolve into something altogether new and different, then I ask,  “how important is the Bible in your thinking and practice, and is it really God’s Word to live by, or  just a book of suggestions ”?


Note - All Scripture that has been quoted above has been taken from the King James Version of the Bible.                   



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