The History of the Office of Elder (3) During the Apostolic Age

Previous article in this series: May 1, 2012, p. 353.

 

Having treated the history of the office of elder during the intertestamentary period and at the time of Jesus in our last article, we now treat the history of the office during the time of the apostles.

Our thesis is that the office of elder in the New Tes­tament church is the continuation of the office of elder in Old Testament Israel and in the synagogues of the intertestamentary period and of Jesus’ day.

This thesis is not original with me. With these words, Samuel Miller begins his treatment of the his­tory of the office of elder in the New Testament:

In this chapter it is proposed to show, that the office in question is mentioned in the New Testament, as existing in the apostolic church; that it was adopted from the Synagogue; and that it occupied, in substance, the same place in the days of the Apostles, that it now occupies in our truly primitive and scriptural Church.1

Gerard Berghoef and Lester De Koster agree: “It is this synagogue administration which becomes a model for the early Christian congregations.”2 And, to cite no more, Edmund Clowney demonstrates that this is the case because “the church developed after Pentecost in close relation to the form of the synagogue.”3 If the church developed according to that pattern, it stands to reason that the church’s government would also develop according to that pattern.

No New Testament Indication of the Origin of the Office of Elder

Evidence that the office of elder developed out of that office in Old Testament Israel, as continued in the synagogues, is that the New Testament Scriptures nowhere speak of the origin of the office.

That Christ would institute the office of apostle, He told His disciples before He died (John 15:27) and after He arose (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4-8). That Christ through the apostles instituted the office of deacon in the New Testament church, Acts 6:1-6 records.

But the origin of the office of elder is not recorded in the New Testament. Rather, the New Testament assumes the existence of this office, and requires it to be found in the churches.

When first we read of elders in the church after Pentecost, we read of them in the church at Jerusalem. This makes sense; Jerusalem was the mother church. So in Acts 11:18 we are told that, when God visited the church of Jerusalem with a famine, the saints in Anti­och sent a gift “to the elders” of their mother church; and Acts 15 records the first church council, in which the apostles and elders of the church at Jerusalem de­bated how to oppose the false teaching of the Pharisees that the Gentiles must be circumcised according to Moses’ law. But these passages speak of an office of elder that was already in existence.

As more churches were established, elders were ordained in them. Of Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, we read: “And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed” (Acts 14:23). And part of Titus’ work in Crete was to “set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city” (Tit. 1:5).

Without speaking of the origin of the office, then, the New Testament required elders to be ordained when new churches were formed. “Accordingly,” writes Miller,

as soon as we begin to read of the Apostles organizing Churches on the New Testament plan, we find them instituting officers of precisely the same nature, and be­stowing on them, for the most part, the very same titles to which they had been accustomed in the ordinary sabbatical service under the preceding economy4 [that is, the synagogue form of worship, DJK].

And Cornelis VanDam, noting that Luke recorded the appointment of the twelfth apostle in Acts 1, of the deacons in Acts 7, and of the elders in Asia Minor in Acts 14, says, “nothing is said about how the elders came to their office,” and points out that this is not strange “since it would have been perfectly normal for a Jewish congregation to model itself after the synagogue and to have elders from the outset.”5

Characteristics of the Office in the New Testament

Further evidence that the office of elder developed out of that office in Old Testament Israel, as continued in the synagogues, is that the office had the same characteristics in the New Testament as it had in the synagogues.

This means, first, that every church had elders. Acts 14:23 says that “every church” had them, and Titus 1:5, “every city.” Whereas in our day any given city could have a number of churches (not just buildings, but congregations), and even a number of churches of the same denomination, in the apostolic days any given city had but one congregation of the church.

This means, second, that every church had a plural­ity of elders, as Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5 again make clear. So does Philippians 1:1, in which Paul addresses his epistle “to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (“bishops” being another word for elder, and used here in the plural). In the five New Testament instances6 in which the word “elder” is used in the singular (when referring not to elderly people, but to those who hold the office of elder), the reference is to an individual elder. But fourteen times it is found in the plural with reference to this office, each time referring to the body of elders, a plurality of men in every congregation.

Third, this means that the work of the elders was that of rule—spiritual rule of souls and bodies, on behalf of God. So the apostle Paul, speaking of the differing gifts of the various members of the body as they are manifest in the church’s offices, says, “he that ruleth, with diligence” (Rom. 12:8), and adds “governments” to the list of those whom God hath set in the church—that is, those whom God appointed to certain positions (I Cor. 12:28). The inspired apostle tells Timothy that the bishop must rule well his own house, so that it is evident that he is able to take care of the church of God (I Tim. 3:4); he refers again to “the elders that rule well” (I Tim. 5:17); and the inspired writer to the Hebrews admonishes the Hebrew Chris­tians to “remember” and to “obey them that have the rule over you,” reminding the saints that they “watch for your souls” (Heb. 13:7, 17). To the church at Thessa­lonica Paul gives the reminder that those who are “over you” are over you “in the Lord” (I Thess. 5:12).

Fourth, this means that in the church, the elders were also authorized to carry out discipline, to the point of excommunication if need be. Jesus authorized this (Matt. 18:15-18) when He said “tell the church”—“which can in no wise be understood of all and every member of the church in particular, but very properly of those who govern the church out of which they are chosen.”7

These four characteristics of the office of elder in the New Testament were all true of the elders in the synagogues as well. Again we quote from Miller, who draws attention to these similarities between the eldership in the synagogue and in the apostolic church. Referring to Jesus’ words in Matthew 18, he says:

We can scarcely avoid the conclusion, then, that our blessed Lord meant to teach His disciples, that, as it had been in the Jewish synagogue, so it would be in the Christian Church, that the sacred com­munity should be governed by a bench of Rulers regularly chosen and set apart for this purpose.8

The First Epistle to Timothy

A notable development in the office of elder in the New Testament is not that its work or qualifications or basic characteristics changed, but that the Holy Spirit provided the New Tes­tament church an inspired and divine manual regarding the office. This He did in the first epistle to Timothy.

To say this is not to ignore that the Spirit refers to the office in other Scriptures as well. He certainly does, as we have seen above. But the theme of I Timothy is the place of the special offices of elder and deacon in the New Testament church of Christ.

I Timothy 3 (as well as Titus 1) contains a comprehen­sive list of the qualifications for the office of elder. The church’s elders must be this sort of men. Today’s believers must know these qualifications, and judge the men in the congregation to be so qualified before voting them into office and approving of their ordination to office.

In a significant passage, the Spirit through Paul makes distinction between the ruling elder and the elders who labor in the Word and doctrine: “Let the el­ders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine” (I Tim. 5:17). On the basis of this passage, Reformed churches have historically taught that the pastors of the church, like the apostles, were also elders—but a special kind of elder.

In that epistle the church’s elders are given direction regarding governing worship (ch. 2) and overseeing the office of pastor (ch. 4). I realize that the words were written to Timothy, a pastor, but they were written to him so that he would teach the church these things.

And the church’s calling toward our elders, that of honoring them in every way, is set forth in I Tim. 5:1, 17-19.

This epistle gives significant instruction regarding the office of pastor and deacon as well; not everything in it pertains specifically to that of elder. But this epistle is as close as we can come to having an inspired manual regarding the office of elder.

Significance

This New Testament data regarding the office of elder is significant, first, in that it puts beyond dispute the question of whether having the office of elder in the New Testament church is necessary. The institution of a new church requires the choosing and installing of elders. If a body of believers has no elders, it cannot consider itself an instituted church.

This view is confessionally Reformed. Reformed be­lievers confess in Article 30 of the Belgic Confession:

We believe that this true church must be governed by that spiritual policy which our Lord hath taught us in His Word, namely, that there must be ministers or pastors . . . ; also elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors, form the council of the church . . . . By these means everything will be carried on in the church with good order and decency, when faithful men are chosen according to the rule prescribed by St. Paul in his epistle to Timothy.9

Article 37 of the Church Order adopted by the Synod of Dordt says: “In every congregation there shall be a consistory consisting of ministers of the Word and elders.” Article 38 speaks of the organization of a new congregation, but it does so by using the language of establishing a consistory: “It is understood that in places where the consistory is to be newly established, the same cannot take place except with the advice of the classis.”10

The second significance of this data is that it makes clear that this eldership may not be reduced to one man. Many independent and congregationalist churches do this by representing the office if elder by only one man, the pastor, who is assisted by deacons. Rome does this, in making one man a bishop, with oversight over several churches; and ultimately, in making the Pope the supreme elder of the church. But Christ’s will for His church is that each congregation have a body, a plurality, of elders, who are distinct from the pastor.

The third significance of this data is that it sets forth clearly God’s norm and will regarding the qualifications for the office, the work of the office, and the honor of the office. The church is not left in the dark regarding this. When the church does not adhere to this norm, she is knowingly guilty; when by grace she does adhere, she shows herself striving to be faithful.

The history of the office of elder after the time of the apostles, as we shall see in upcoming articles, God willing, is one of continually departing from this norm, and then by God’s grace returning to it through refor­mation.