Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Scholarly Agreement About Church Elders

By Pastor Bruce Oyen
E-mail: bk_oyen@hotmail.com
     As the title says, this article presents scholarly agreement about church elders. Even though there is not absolute unanimity among Biblical scholars on the subject of church elders, many do hold the same view. 
          First, consider the view of theologian H. C. Thiessen, whose denominational affiliation is unknown to me. Thiessen wrote the well-known and widely-used book, "Lectures In Systematic Theology." Unfortunately, at the present time the original book is out of print. It is different on some important matters, from the one based upon the original. For example, he was not as Calvinistic as the book based on his work. I prefer the original work.
    The following quote is from the original book. It is found in the section on the local church. Thiessen wrote: "(1) Pastor, Elder, Bishop. These three terms denote one and the same office in the New Testament. In Acts 20:17, 28, the 'elders' of the Church at Ephesus are said to have been made 'bishops' over the flock, with the purpose that they should 'feed' (shepherd, poimainein) the church of God. Here we have the terms for 'elders,' 'bishops' and 'pastors,' all used of the same men. In 1 Peter 5:1, 2 the duties of a 'pastor' are assigned to the 'elders among you.' That is, the two were one and the same. Both John (2 John 1; 3 John 1) and Peter (1Peter 5:1) were apostles, yet they called themselves 'elders.' Surely this did not imply an office inferior to that of pastor or bishop. In Titus 1:5 - 9 the terms 'elder' and 'bishop' are used interchangeably. The Greek term occurs 18 times in the New Testament, but only in Ephesians 4:11 is it translated as 'pastor.' Its real meaning is that of shepherd; this is the meaning it has in all the other references (e. g., Matt. 9:36; 26:31 ; Luke 2:8; John 10:2; Heb. 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25). As we have pointed out (above), the elders and bishops in the Church  at Ephesus had been entrusted with the work of 'shepherding' the flock, i. e., they had been made 'pastors' over the church. Paul addresses the Church at Philippi 'with the bishops and deacons' (Philippians 1:1). If there had been 'elders' and 'pastors' in that church distinct from the 'bishops,' Paul would be addressing only a part of the officials of the church, - an unlikely supposition."
    Following these statements, Thiessen went on to say: "The above is the view of the leading writers on Early Church History and on Pastoral Theology. Only a few need be cited." And then he cited a few examples.
     Second, consider the view of Albert Barnes. He is the well-known Presbyterian author of "Barnes' Notes," a commentary set expounding the Holy Scriptures from a conservative position.
     He agreed with Baptist John Gill on this subject. For instance, in his commentary on Acts 20:28 he made these comments on the word "overseers": "This passage proves that the name bishop was applicable to elders; that in the time of the apostles, the name bishop and presbyter or elder, was given to the same class of officers, and, of course, that there was no distinction between them. One term was originally used to denote office, the other age, and both were applied to the same persons in the church. The same thing occurs in Titus 1:5-7, where those who in verse 5 are called elders, are in verse 7 called bishops. See also 1 Timothy 3:1-10; Phi. 1:1."
     Third, consider the view of W. E. Vine. He was the author of Vine's Expository Dictionary Of New Testament Words. I believe he was from the Brethren or Plymouth Brethren denomination. In his Dictionary, he explained the term "elder," and pointed out that it comes from the word "presbuteros," which refers to rank or responsibility "among Gentiles," "in the Jewish nation," and "in the Christian churches." Vine said in such churches it refers to "those who, being raised up and qualified by the work of the Holy Spirit, were appointed to have the spiritual care of, and to exercise oversight over, the churches. To these the terms bishops, episkopoi, or overseers, is applied (see Acts 20, ver. 17 with ver. 28, and Titus 1:5&7), the latter term indicating the nature of their work, presbuteroi their maturity of spiritual experience."
    Fourth, consider the view of F. F. Bruce. He was  from the Brethren denomination, and the author of numerous books, including his biography, "IN RETROSPECT," in which we learn of his denominational affiliation.
    In his commentary on Acts, part of the New International Commentary On The New Testament, Bruce gives his view of our subject. Part of his comments on Acts 20:28 is this: "There was in apostolic times no distinction between elders (presbyters) and bishops such as we find from the second century onwards: the leaders of the Ephesian church are indiscriminately described as elders, bishops (i.e. superintendents) and shepherds (or pastors)."
     Fifth, consider the view of William Barclay. He was a theological liberal in the Church of Scotland, and his books must be read with this in mind, But he agreed with the previous authors on this subject. For instance, his commentary on First Timothy reveals his view of our topic. In his discussion of chapter three we read, "The great question is: What was the relationship in the early Church between the elder, the presbuteros, and the overseer, the episkopos? Modern scholarship is practically unanimous in holding that in the early Church the presbuteros and the episkopos were one and the same."
    Barclay's comments on 1 Timothy 5:17 give more support to this view of the subject: "It is to be noted what kind of elders are to be specially honoured and rewarded. It is those who toil in preaching and teaching. The elder whose service consisted only in words and discussion and argument is not in question here. He whom the Church really honoured was the man who worked to edify and build it up by his preaching of the truth and his educating of the young and of the new converts in the Christian way."
    Note that Barclay's point was about the industrious elder versus the lazy one, not the teaching elder versus the ruling elder, a distinction not found in Scripture.
    Sixth, consider the view of Matthew Henry. This man is famous for his Bible commentary set, used by so many lovers of the Word of God. I am not certain of Henry's denomination. Maybe he was what was called an independent churchman. However, his comments on I Timothy 5:17 concur with what the previously quoted scholars said on this subject. Read his comments carefully: "The presbytery ruled, and the same that ruled were those who labored in the Word and doctrine: they had not one to preach to them and another to rule them, but the work was done by one and the same person. Some have imagined that by the elders that rule well the apostle means lay-elders, who were employed in ruling but not in teaching, who were concerned in church government, but did not meddle with the administration of the Word and sacraments; and I confess that this is the plainest text of Scripture that can be found to countenance such an opinion. But it seems a little strange that mere ruling elders should be accounted worthy of double honour, when the apostle preferred preaching to baptizing, and much more would he prefer it to ruling the church; and it is more strange that the apostle should take no notice of them when he treats of church officers; but, as it is hinted before, they had not, in the primitive church, one to preach to another to rule them, but ruling and teaching were performed by the same persons, only some might labour more in the Word and doctrine than others."
     Seventh, consider the view of the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary, which might have been written by men from The Church Of England. It says this on Acts 20:17: "Those here called 'elders' or 'presbyters,' are in Ac 20:28 called 'bishops.' (See on Ac 20:28). The identity of presbyters and bishops in the New Testament is beyond all reasonable dispute."
     Here are this commentary's comments on 1 Peter 5:2: "Feed--Greek, 'Tend as a shepherd,' by discipline and doctrine. Lead, feed, heed: by prayer, exhortation, government, and example. The dignity is marked by the term 'elder'; the duties of the office, to tend or oversee, by 'bishop.' Peter has in mind Christ's injunction to him, 'Feed (tend) My sheep . . . Feed (pasture) My lambs' (Joh 21:16). He invites the elders to share with him the same duty (compare Ac 20:28). The flock is Christ's."
    Eighth, consider the view of Adam Clarke, the Wesleyan Bible scholar famous for his Bible commentary set. Clarke said this on Acts 20:17: "Now, as these elders are called  bishops, in Acts 20:28, we may take it for granted that they were the same order; or, rather, that these superintendents of the Church were indifferently called either presbyters or bishops."
    Ninth, consider the view of A. T. Robertson, who was a Baptist, and who is considered by many persons to be the greatest American scholar of New Testament Greek. The following quotes are from his set of books, "Word Pictures Of The New Testament."
   Here is what he wrote on Acts 20:17: "The very men whom Paul terms 'bishops' (episkopouv) in verse 28 just as in Titus 1:5,7 where both terms (presbuterous, ton episkopon) describe the same office. The term 'elder' applied to Christian ministers first appears in Acts 11:30 in Jerusalem and reappears in 15:4,6,22 in connection with the apostles and the church. The 'elders' are not 'apostles' but are 'bishops' (cf. Philippians 1:1) and with 'deacons' constitute the two classes of officers in the early churches."
      Here is what he wrote on Acts 20:28: "Bishops (episkopouv). The same men termed elders in verse 17 which see. To shepherd (poimainein). Present active infinitive of purpose of poimainw, old verb to feed or tend the flock (poimnh, poimnion), to act as shepherd (poimhn). These ministers are thus in Paul's speech called elders (verse 17), bishops (verse 28), and shepherds (verse 28). Jesus had used this very word to Peter (John 21:16, twice boske, feed, 21:15,17) and Peter will use it in addressing fellow-elders (1 Peter 5:2) with memories, no doubt of the words of Jesus to him. The "elders" were to watch over as 'bishops' and 'tend and feed as shepherds' the flock. Jesus is termed 'the shepherd and bishop of your souls' in 1 Peter 2:25 and 'the great Shepherd of the sheep' in Hebrews 13:20. Jesus called himself  'the good Shepherd' in John 10:11."
    Tenth, consider the view of John GillHe was one of the most highly respected Baptist theologians of all time. He was such a prolific writer that C. H. Spurgeon wondered when he had time to sleep. In Gill's commentary on Acts, we get his representative view of church elders. On Acts 20, where we read of Paul calling the Ephesian elders to himself for final words of instruction, Gill said this about the "elders of the church": "not the ancient members of the church, but the officers of it; the pastors, bishops, and overseers, as they are called, verse. 28, and are so styled from their office, not their age."
    And Gill made this statement about Acts 20:28: "This is said to the elders of the church, ver. 17, which shews that the office of an elder and a bishop is one and the same office."
   Gill consistently applies this interpretation throughout his exposition of the Scriptures that refer to this subject. For instance, his exposition of I Timothy 5:17, which says, "Let the elders that rule well;..." is very clear. He wrote, "By whom are meant not elders in age; ...nor are Civil magistrates intended; ...nor are deacons designed, for they are never called elders in Scripture;... nor are lay-elders meant, who rule, but teach not; since there are no such officers appointed in the churches of Christ; whose only officers are bishops or elders and deacons: wherefore the qualifications of such are only given in a preceding chapter. There are no other that rule in churches, but who also speak to them the word of God; wherefore by him that rules, and the labourer in word and doctrine, are not meant two distinct orders, but different persons of the same order; some of these ruling well, but do not take so much pains in the ministry of the word; whilst others of them both rule well and labour in the word, and who are to be reckoned deserving of the honour hereafter mentioned."
In Conclusion
    As these quotes prove, there is much scholarly agreement about this subject. These men represent only a small portion of that agreement among Bible scholars. Therefore, we encourage all readers to be like the Bereans in Acts 17 and search the Scriptures to determine if this scholarly agreement is correct. I believe an open-minded study of the matter will lead you to agree with these authors.
    After a study of all the verses pertaining to the subject,  it is clear to me the New Testament teaches that all elders are also pastors and overseers (bishops). Therefore, it is not Scriptural to make a distinction between elders and pastors and overseers. If you are one of them, you are all of them.

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