“Elder”: The Preeminent Term for Church Leaders

Who are the leaders in the local church?  That’s a simple enough question, but it sometimes proves difficult to answer.  Really, there is only one leader of the local church–Jesus Christ, Son of God.  Paul teaches us this in Colossians 1:15-20:

Colossians 1:15-20—He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.  17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

From these verses we learn two crucial truths about Jesus. 1) Jesus is preeminent over all creation (vv.15-18).  2) Jesus is preeminent over the Church (vv.18-20)

While this answer is obvious, we often give lip-service to this truth with little real life application.  So its important for the local Church to look to Jesus as its authority in all things.  And one of those things has to do with who He has appointed to lead His local churches.

While there are several structures used by various denominations and churches that are adequate enough, we are in search for something more than adequate. We are in search for the leadership structure that gives Jesus the most preeminence.  And our search must begin with Scripture and not simply our own traditions.

The first step is to define the terms used for Church leaders in the New Testament.  I believe the best text to start with on this issue is Acts 20:17-29.

Acts 20:17, 28-29—Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. . . . 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.  29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;

1.  Three terms: There are two terms for Church leaders used in these verses (elders/overseers), and the third term (pastor) is indirectly alluded to with the use of the word flock.  We will also look at a fourth term (deacons) that the New Testament mentions as well.

a.  Elder (presbuteros):   This term is used 16 times in the New Testament in reference to local Church leaders (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; 1 Tim. 5:17, 19; Tit. 1:5; Jas. 5:14; 1 Pt. 5:1, 5).  The word elder is best defined as an official within a group and is sometimes translated presbytery.

b.  Overseer (episkopos/episkopein):   The term is used in reference to local Church leaders 4 times (Php. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1, 2; Tit. 1:7).  The word overseer is best defined as one who is engaged in oversight or supervision of a group of people and can also be translated as bishop.

 c.  Pastor (poimein):  The term is used in reference to local Church leaders only 1 time (Eph. 4:11) The verb form of the word is used 2 times (Acts 20:28; 1 Pt.5:2) in reference to local church leaders.  The term is literally translated shepherd (or the verb form, shepherding), which highlights the pastor’s role as a leader and protector of Jesus’ sheep

  d.  Deacon (diakonos):  The term is used in reference to local Church leaders 3 times (Php. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12).  It is best defined in two ways: 1) an agent or courier who serves as an intermediary in a transaction; 2) an assistant who gets something done at the request or command of a superior. Based on the meaning of the word itself and the evidence in the New Testament, the office of deacon is a servant body, NOT A DECISION-MAKING BODY.

This is where many churches (including many Baptists) have erred the most.  No where in Scripture do we see deacons as the primary decision makers in the Church.  Rather, the deacons exist for the purpose of meeting the physical needs of the congregation so that pastors can be freed up for prayer, study, and teaching of God’s Word.

2.  One office: While there is debate among Christians, the biblical evidence is most in favor of these three words being used in an over-lapping sense.

a.  Scripture confirms this:  The Scripture that we read today, Acts 20:17, 28-29, is most convincing, but two others clearly support this understanding as well.

Titus 1:5, 7a—This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you . . . 7a  For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach . . .

In Titus, Paul tells Titus to appoint elders, and then he goes on to describe the qualifications of an overseer (1 Tim.3:1-7).  If the words elder and overseer are not being used in an overlapping sense here, then Paul is indeed confusing.

1 Peter 5:1-2—So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder   and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed; 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly.

This time it’s Peter using the terms in an overlapping sense.  He commands the elders to shepherd (i.e. pastor) the Church by exercising oversight (i.e. overseeing/bishoping).

b.  Scripture never lists separate qualifications for the three terms:  This is proven by looking at Titus 1:5, 7a again and cross-referencing it with 1 Timothy 3:1-7.  Therefore, we can conclude that the three words refer to one office in which qualified men have the same function (primarily that of teaching and leading the flock).

3.  The preeminent term of “elder”:  As we have seen, the word elder is used 4 times the frequency of overseer, and the word elder is used 16 times the frequency of pastor.  Therefore, the preeminent term for a church leader in the New Testament is elder.

4.  Plurality of elders:  While it doesn’t really matter which of the three terms we call the ministers in the local Church, the fact that the term elder is the most prominent does affect our understanding of how a Church is led.  Over the years, I have been convinced from Scripture that a plurality of elders is what God intends for the local Church.  I still whole-heartedly affirm congregationalism, but I have come to believe that a Church should have more than one elder/overseer/pastor.  And that will be the next topic on The Threshing Floor . . .

Soli Deo Gloria,
Jeremy Vanatta

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2 thoughts on ““Elder”: The Preeminent Term for Church Leaders

  1. Good article Jeremy. This is one of those topics (I guess like all things biblical) that simply needs to be repeated and re-repeated in the people’s ears. Thanks. Brad.

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