Elders: Do They Rule?

This letter to a friend, who teaches Bible, relates to the ruling role elders have in the church.  He believes they do not rule, manage, direct, or the like, but are just another sheep in the fold.  They lead simply by being examples to the flock.  There is no church “hierarchy” as such.  The body of Christ is rather flat.  Everyone is the same.

No doubt we are all one in Jesus.  No one is better than anyone else.  But I believe elders do rule.  As Scripture teaches.

Perhaps this will be instructive for you as well.
Dear friend,

You have taught that “there are two Greek words that are used interchangeably to describe elders in the local assembly.”  I quote your own descriptions of them:

“‘Episkopos’ (from which we get Episcopalian, an elder-led church) is a compound word— ‘epi’ = above or upper + ‘skopos’ = too look or see.  Therefore episkopos is most often translated ‘overseer.’  The other Greek word for elder is ‘presbuteros’ (from which we get
Presbyterian, another elder-led church).  It means an older, more experienced man (yes, male).  We discussed we should never say we’re an ‘elder-ruled’ church, because the role of elders is to lead, not rule.”

You also taught that “Biblical elders don’t make decisions.  They aren’t administrators.  They are not managers.  They don’t direct others.”  Where is the Scriptural evidence for this?  You gave none.

What does the Bible teach?

Ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos) is: “An overseer, a man charged with the duty of seeing that things to be done by others, are done rightly; any curator, guardian, or superintendent” (Thayer).  The word “curator” has an interesting Wikipedia definition.  It sounds a lot like the “chorus-director” description you gave of the work of Christ orchestrated directly by the Holy Spirit in the church (without a human agent): “a person who selects acts to perform at a music festival.”  Remember, this is in reference to ἐπίσκοπος.  It would relate in this case to the Spirit’s work through an overseer, not independent of him.

Let’s step back in time to gain a historical understanding of the way the word ἐπίσκοπος is used.

The New Testament was written in Koine Greek, the common Greek language in Jesus’ day, the language of the common people (Koine means “common”).  Within the last three hundred years of B.C., a translation of the Old Testament was made in Koine Greek.  It is known as the Septuagint.  The Septuagint, also referred to as the LXX, is actually quoted a number of times in the NT.  There it bears the power of Scriptural inerrancy.  The manner in which words are used in the Septuagint would most likely be similar to, or reflect, their use in the NT.  The reasons for this?   (1) The two periods are interrelated, and (2) both were written in Koine Greek.  Pretty simple.

Below, I refer to three OT books from the Septuagint that use the word ἐπίσκοπος.  These will serve as examples of the manner in which the word is used in a historical setting.  Each time ἐπίσκοπος is found in the LXX, I will present it in bold letters.

Let’s look.

Judges 9:28.  “Who is Abimelech that we should serve him?  . . .is not Zebul his officer [NAS: ‘lieutenant’]?”  Zebul was charged with superintending King Abimelech’s affairs.

II Kings 11:15.  “Jehoiada the priest commanded the captains of hundreds [centurions] who were officers of the host [Greek δύναμις] to have Athaliah removed” from the temple, before she was slain.  These “captains,” also referred to as “officers” (ἐπίσκοποι), were in charge of groups of one hundred men.  They possessed great power and had authority to remove Athaliah from the temple compounds.

Nehemiah 11:9.  Of “the sons of Benjamin, Joel, the son of Bichre, was the overseer [chief]” of 928 fathers of families from Benjamin who lived in Jerusalem, the number one man (prefect) “in command” (NAS).

Nehemiah 11:14.  The “overseer Zabdiel, a son of the great men” (LXX) was chief [OT scholars Keil and Delitzsch refer to the word ‘overseer’ as ‘chief’] of all the before-named priests in verses 10-14.

Nehemiah 11:22.  “The overseer of the Levites at Jerusalem was Uzzi.”  He was in charge of the Levites in Jerusalem.

In all these passages the word ἐπίσκοπος refers to men who were in charge of royal or priestly affairs.  They were responsible for large groups of people.  It was characteristic for them to be (1) under authority and (2) placed in positions of authority over others who were under them.  Much like the centurion in Matthew 8:9.  Likewise, NT elders are under the authority of Christ and given a charge (authority) by Him over His flock.  How could these Old Testament ἐπίσκοποι function in the position they were given without making decisions, administrating, managing, and giving direction: those things you teach that elders/overseers do not do?  They could not have fulfilled their charge without those prerogatives.  You might say it was in their “job description.”  The examples given in the LXX clearly demonstrate this.

Under the headship of Christ, these things are also done through His direction in the elder body.

According to your own definition, the meaning of overseer comes from “a compound word— ‘epi’ = above or upper + ‘skopos’ = too look or see.”  If the prefix ἐπί (“above”, “over”, “upper”) itself does not out rightly express a hierarchical pattern in the church, at the very least it suggests there is one.  The epidermis is the outer covering of skin we possess.  It is over the rest of the body, not blended in it.  When Paul says, “the flock among whom the Holy Spirit has placed you as overseers” (Acts 20:28) and “to the saints in Philippi with the overseers and deacons” (Phil. 1:1), they are not meant as “leveling” statements.   If there are generals among the troops, the distinctions are not lost.  Paul is simply acknowledging that there are overseers and deacons in the churches.  In Philippians he politely addresses everyone in their respective offices when he writes the letter.

Consider the simple meaning of the prefix ἐπί.  Things that are “over” you, like clouds, are generally above.  A lifeguard at his post on the beach, is an overseer.  Though overseers dwell among the flock and identify personally with it, the office has its superintending aspect.  The prefix bears this out.

That does not mean that overseers are “better” or “different” in Christ.  They are not.  We are all equally important in the body of Christ.  All of us are directly connected to Him, like branches on a vine.  The headship and Lordship of Christ is to be demonstrated in each person’s life.  Likewise, we are all priests of God, in close fellowship with Him, through faith in Jesus.  Yet, at the same time, positions of authority have been given.  A hierarchy has been established by Christ for the church’s growth and protection.

Let us move on to the second word used to describe elders:

Πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros).  Thayer makes an interesting observation about πρεσβύτερος.  He says, “The title ἐπίσκοπος denotes the function [of the ecclesiastical office], πρεσβύτερος the dignity.”  Generally speaking, it carries the idea of an older, spiritually-mature, and “venerable” man, as you have correctly pointed out.

It is no secret that at the time of Christ elders in the Sanhedrin were “rulers of the Jews” (John 3:1).  You said in your definition of πρεσβύτερος that “we should never say we’re an ‘elder-ruled’ church, because the role of elders is to lead, not rule” (bold italics are mine).

Paul said to Timothy, “Let those elders who rule well, be considered worthy of double honor” (I Tim. 5:17 KJV, NAS).  The Greek word used here does mean rule.  Thayer says the word means: “rule, manage, devote, am concerned about, care for.”  Notice that two of the things you said elders do not do are listed in the meaning of this word which describes what elders do do: they rule and they manage.  The NIV gives this translation: “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well,” which you also said elders do not do.  I quote you: “They don’t direct others” (the bold letters are mine).  According to the NT they do direct others.

Our church makes a claim you say you aspire to: “Our goal is to give pre-eminence to the Scriptures as our sole authority for both faith and practice.”  What you teach does not reflect this.

There is another Greek word that refers to elders in Hebrews 13:7, 17, and 24.  It also means to “guide” and to “rule.”  To guide is also to give direction, which, as I already pointed out, you say elders do not do.  Thayer says the specific meaning of the word in these verses is: “to be a leader; to rule, command; to have authority over” (notice Luke 22:26); the word is used “with [a] genitive of the persons over whom one rules.”   The word is used to describe Joseph when he became a ruler over Egypt (Acts 7:10).  There are other NT examples, as well, of this word being used for governing rulers like Joseph.  It is common.  See Matthew 2:6; 10:18; Luke 2:2; 3:1; I Pet. 2:14.  When it is used in Acts 15:22, in reference to “leading men among the brothers,” it means “leading as respects influence, controlling in counsel” (Thayer).  To deny that elders rule is one way to actually undermine the headship of Christ which you claim to be advocating by taking “elder rule” from the Bible!  He established this model for the church He is building.

This is not a vindication for “lording over” the flock.  They are not fond of whips.  There is one Lord.  One gentle Christ, who says, “My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

Let us, therefore, take the example of Christ as our reference point as we consider what elders do.  After He washed the disciples’ feet, He said, “If I have washed your feet, the Lord and the Teacher [Master], you ought to wash one another’s feet.  I have left you an example” (John 13:14,15).  What we see as two opposite ends of a spectrum, “master” and “servant,” are united in perfect harmony in Christ.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  Ruling and serving are not an “either-or” issue.  They are united in Christ.  And, as He said, it is His example that leaders in the church are to model.  They, the under shepherds, are representing Him, the Great Shepherd, in the office of overseer/elder they have been given by the Holy Spirit.  That is why, to adequately represent Christ and minister in His behalf, they must be “blameless.”

It is not wise to say that elders do not make decisions, administrate, manage, direct others, or rule (with no Scriptural evidence to back these claims), simply because Christ does all this through the Holy Spirit in every believer.  If that is the basis for deciding what elders do or do not do, why should they teach?  Isn’t this also something the Holy Spirit does in every believer (see I John 2:27; Heb. 8:11; John  16:13)?

One evening, while you were teaching, you told us that the word “appoint” in Paul’s letter to Titus, “I left you in Crete so you would. . .appoint elders in every city” (Tit. 1:5), did not actually mean to “appoint” but to “point them out.”  As I told you then, the Greek word is stronger than that.  It carries the weight of “appoint, ordain, make.”  Thayer says specifically of this very word, as Paul uses it in Titus 1:5, that it means “to appoint one to administer an office.”  So it is much stronger than “scouting out” prospects for eldership and suggesting who may fit the profile.  The Bible says Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders in every church” (Acts 14:23) they established during Paul’s first missionary journey.  And that does mean appoint: “to elect, appoint, create” (Thayer).

Maybe it would be wise to take God at His word.  And not just say we do.  That Paul and Titus appointed/ordained elders, is not in conflict with the Holy Spirit placing them in this position (Acts 20:28).  We give little credit to men like Paul for their intelligence.  Don’t you think they asked for, and were aware of, the Spirit’s direction as they did this, and that the Spirit Himself did it through them?  Elders are not parachuting from God out of the sky.

Keep your eye on the goal.  “Our goal is to give pre-eminence to the Scriptures as our sole authority for both faith and practice.”

I admonish you in love, my friend, and all the flock at our church, in behalf of Christ, whose greatest concern is His sheep and His glory.  Both, I fear, are in jeopardy.

Watchman on a wall near you

Learn more:

Groupthink, No Think


© James Unruh, 2017 and beyond

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