The role of elders is crucial in organic church. However, the idea of what the word “elder” means has been so distorted by history that we need to clear up some misconceptions before we can even talk about what elders do and how they play an essential role in the Church. So this will be a brief, two part series. In this post, I’ll talk about how the word “elder” was used in the Early Church. In the next post, I’ll discuss the important role elders played and how they reproduced themselves organically.
The New Testament word for elder is one of those words whose meaning has been severely distorted by history. In the nearly 2,000 intervening years, we have significantly wandered away from the meaning of “elder” as it was used in the New Testament. I discussed this issue of changing meaning in a recent post When Words Get Ruined. Here is a “definition” from Bible Study Tools.com, of the Greek word presbuteros which we translate as the word “elder.”
1. elder, of age,
a. the elder of two people
b. advanced in life, an elder, a senior
2. a term of rank or office
a. among the Jews
i. members of the great council or Sanhedrin (because in early times the rulers of the people, judges, etc., were selected from elderly men)
ii. of those who in separate cities managed public affairs and administered justice
b. among the Christians, those who presided over the assemblies (or churches) The NT uses the term bishop, elders, and presbyters interchangeably
c. the twenty four members of the heavenly Sanhedrin or court seated on thrones around the throne of God
This definition is a mixture of correct definition and history with some dangerous historical anachronisms added in. Of particular interest is definition 2b: “A term of rank or office,” and “Among the Christians, those who “presided over” the assemblies (or churches) The NT uses the term bishop, elders, and presbyters interchangeably.”
It is true that the word episkopos, or bishop (an overseer, one who watches over) is used interchangeably with presbuteros, an elder. However, the idea that such people “preside over” the assemblies, is not quite on the mark. What is happening here is that we have transposed our current non-biblical church structure and culture onto the text. We are interpreting the New Testament through what we currently do, instead of basing what we do completely on the New Testament in its historical context. This is a dangerous hermeneutical practice.
Let’s look at the actually meaning of the word presbuteros. It means literally, someone who is older or more mature. That’s the way it was used in the New Testament. But, it was used metaphorically. It doesn’t necessarily mean whoever is advanced in years, but someone advanced in spiritual maturity. It is simply someone who is spiritually mature. This idea that it was a “rank or office” and that such a person would “preside over” another Christian would completely mystify the original readers of the New Testament. It probably would have offended the very early believers.
From the perspective of Jesus statements about leadership in Luke 22: 24-27 to have a “rank or office” would be akin to having a rank or office like a “king” among the Gentiles. And to “preside over” is just a nicer way of saying “lord over.” Christians aren’t supposed to lord over, preside over, or even lead. They are supposed to serve. And, they do it not from a position “over” but from a position of weakness, that of a child or slave. Just read Jesus’ actual statements. Keep in mind that this rebuke by Jesus was precipitated by the disciples trying to set up a primitive hierarchy where some disciples were greater than others. For more on this see my post Leadership???.
Whatever an elder did, in the Early Church, it was not from an office or rank; that’s Gentile behavior which Jesus warned us away from. In other words, it’s the way the world works; worldly behavior. Further, it was not even done from higher, but non-titular, status where one could “preside over.” Again, that’s what Jesus told us not to do. In fact, anything a more mature person, an elder, was going to do had to come without rank or power, but rather from a position of weakness. In the words of Jesus, “But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Lk. 22:26).
An elder, then, is a more mature Christian. And such a mature Christian would use their maturity to serve others, coming from a position of humility and weakness, not from any position of apparent strength, title, power or positional authority. To do otherwise would be to set aside Jesus strict instructions about how “greater” (i.e. more mature) people were to behave. In my next post I’ll talk about how such people actually behaved and the important role they play in organic church.
- Why do you think we have turned elders into people having positions of power, title and rank?
- How can someone who is more mature actually help another from a position of powerlessness and weakness? Can someone help another if they don’t have the power to control their behavior?
- Can you see why reading the New Testament through the lens of our current practice instead of reading our current practice through the lens of the New Testament can be dangerous?
- Has it ever occurred to you to try to analyze our current church practice through what Jesus said in Luke 22: 24-27? And, can you see why, if we do so, we must be careful to read it through the actual historical lens of the New Testament, not through the lens of our current church culture and practice?