Elders in Every Town
1. The Elders
In the previous chapter we dealt with the elders in Jerusalem: people who had already come to faith during Jesus’ sojourn on earth. As witnesses of the first hour they occupied a unique place in the church after Pentecost. Their position is next to the apostles (Acts 15:23). Naturally, they are people who have a front-row position in the expanding church. However, it is also clear that there is no succession in their ranks. Their function is limited to the time when the foundation of the apostles and prophets is laid down for a church that will be built upon it from all nations and in all times (Eph. 2:20). This church will then no longer be a branched-out “church of Jerusalem”, but it will consist of many congregations/churches in all kinds of places.
From the very beginning, the Holy Spirit also caused people to be appointed who had a leadership role in these local churches. When Paul and Barnabas, on their first missionary journey, were able to bring people to faith in various places in Asia Minor, they did not fail to appoint people everywhere on their return journey who would have primary responsibility for these believers after their departure. The group of believers becomes an assembly (church, ekklèsia) led by a number of leaders (elders, presbyteroi) who are officially appointed (either by designation or election, cheirotonia) to keep the congregation before its Lord, in whom the converted Gentiles have come to believe (Acts 14:23).
Luke does not repeat the same things over and over in his book of Acts. He tells at the beginning how the apostles did not conclude their work without having appointed elders in every place. It goes without saying that they acted in the same way later on. It is not necessary for Luke to keep mentioning the appointment of elders in the following missionary journeys. We are not mistaken when we assume that in every place where there were believers, the apostles or their co-workers also appointed elders. That we are not mistaken is evident when reading between the lines in Acts. In 20:17 we read that Paul sends someone to Ephesus to summon “the elders of the church” (the presbyteroi of the ekklesia) to come to him. Almost incidentally we notice that it is taken for granted that a church has such elders, even though Luke did not actually mention their appointment at Ephesus. What happened during the first missionary journey (Acts 14:23) is apparently the norm for what follows (Acts 20:17): elders are found in every place.
The same picture arises when we notice Paul writing in Titus 1:5: “I left you in Crete, so that you might...appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” The correspondence between Acts and Paul’s letters shows the unity of the New Testament witness and also shows the unity of the practice for the churches: right from the beginning the elders belong in every place!
The situation is no different when we also consider Peter’s first letter (5:1-2): “I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker of the glory that is going to be revealed, to shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight...” The foreigners in the diaspora in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia (1:1) are also gathered under the leaders: the elders. Just as Paul was able to summon the elders from Ephesus (located in Asia), so Peter is able to address Christians living in Asia (including Ephesus), among others, as a flock shepherded by elders.
Peter’s words immediately give us an opportunity to look back once more to the elders at Jerusalem. They were not appointed by men, but called by Jesus himself to be witnesses to his suffering on earth. Although Peter has a special task as an apostle, he too belongs to the category of the elders, the people from the first hour. When he addresses the elders in his letter, they are elders appointed in each place, and therefore a different kind of elder. Yet Peter stands beside them when he calls himself a fellow-elder. The particular nature of his own “elder-ship” he notes with the words “a witness to the sufferings of Christ”. The elders to whom he is writing were not in fact witnesses to the sufferings of Christ. But both Peter (and all the witnesses of the first hour) and the leaders in Asia Minor all have a responsibility in the church in their own way: both groups of elders will also share in the glory that is to come (1 Peter 5:1,5).
The distinction between the elders at Jerusalem (who were witnesses to Jesus’ suffering) and the elders in every place (appointed as leaders and shepherds of the believers) easily eludes the New Testament reader because both are referred to by the same term presbyteros. This word is often seen in English as equivalent to “elder”. While the “witness-elders” are also called “elders”, one can hardly distinguish between the two groups of elders. At this point doubt may therefore arise about the distinction: were the elders in Jerusalem not also simply the local elders of that church? We have already dealt with this in more detail in the previous chapter, which was specifically devoted to those elders in Jerusalem. However, we will return to this point once more under the aspect of the term presbyteros.
The word presbyteros literally means “an older man”. Since advanced age was a positive thing in ancient times, the word can therefore be used for a “respectable person”. Thus, this word can become a technical term for “director” of a particular collective (a farmers’ union, a village, temple staff). The element of advanced age comes second: among priestly elders in Egypt, ages of 45, 35, and 30 also occur. It is understandable that the Greek translation therefore preferred presbyteroi as a translation when it is about the people who govern a city or a tribe (and not the term gerontes, old men). The Greek word is therefore much more general than our ecclesiastical word “elder” and it designates in general people who have a responsibility of leadership. As such it can also be used in all sorts of contexts. One can be a presbyteros in a temporal sense (the “ancients” or “people of old”; Heb. 11:2), by experience of founding events (the elders who entered the land with Joshua, Josh. 24:31; the elders who witnessed the suffering of Christ) or also by appointment (administrators, leaders). Therefore, it is not the actual term that is decisive, but the context of the situation or the history. When church elders are appointed in every place, these people can be referred to by the same word that was used for the witnesses of the first hour and for all kinds of other groups of people who have been given a distinct place in a community: the ones who were prominent.
Joachim Jeremias has proposed that the designation presbyteroi for the leaders of a congregation should be considered as a later term. In Acts, these leaders would be called that at a later time, but in Paul’s letters this designation is missing. He would only use the term “overseers” (episkopoi). Many bible-critical interpreters will have little difficulty with this statement and even derive an argument from it to label the letters to Timothy and Titus (in which the term presbyteroi is actually used) as spurious: they therefore use the term “episkopoi” because, after all, the later term cannot therefore be Paul’s own. Jeremias, however, wants to avoid this conclusion. He judges the letters to Timothy and Titus much more positively and in any case does not want to date them as late correspondence. He puts forward the idea that the author of the letters to Timothy and Titus, in his use of the word presbyteroi, was not yet thinking of special office bearers at all, but only of older men in general.
This thought, however, is untenable. After Paul has instructed Titus about the appointment of elders in Titus 1:5, he continues in 1:7 with a reasoning sentence in which he easily exchanges the word “elder” with the word “overseer” (“Appoint elders who are above reproach...for an overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward”). Writing about the elders who, according to 1 Timothy 5:17, are worthy of double honour, causes Paul to issue a warning not to lay hands on anyone too hastily (5:22): this has to be about being appointed to an office, and not just respect for old age. Meier was therefore right to refute Jeremias’ notion regarding this matter in a thoughtful analysis.
The opposite of Jeremias’ notion and an additional confirmation of the early presence of governing elders in every congregation, is found in 1 Timothy 4:14. There Paul recalls that Timothy received a gift “which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you”. The apostle here uses a word that designates a “college” or “council” of elders (presbyterion). Occasionally we find the Sanhedrin at Jerusalem also referred to by this word “assembly of elders” (Luke 22:66; Acts 22:5). In the earliest Christian vocabulary the term is frequently used for the collective council of the local “elders” or “presbyters”. From the occurrence of this term in 1 Timothy 4:14 it appears that from the beginning there has been a defined group of specially appointed people in each place: they together formed a college or council as elders of the church.
This “church council” is as old as the office of the elders in every place. The laying on of hands, to which Paul alludes in 1 Timothy 4:14, must have taken place at the beginning of Timothy’s activities in the church. He is still a young man (4:12) and has to show that he is making progress (4:16). The gift he received should not lose its worth (4:14)! He received his gift of “public reading, exhortation, and teaching” (4:13) by virtue of a prophetic word under the application of hands of the council of elders. This must have been already in his home church of Lystra. When Paul returns to Lystra at the beginning of his second journey, it appears that the brothers in Lystra and Iconium are able to give a positive testimony about Timothy. By then he is apparently already a remarkably gifted Christian: a reason for Paul to take him along on his journey. The Holy Spirit gave him this gift in Lystra. Paul had only recently appointed elders there (Acts 14:23). It shows that at that early stage they already immediately formed a “council” and Paul can later remind Timothy of a laying-on of hands by that council on the young Timothy.
Just as Jerusalem had the elders as witnesses of Christ’s suffering in its midst right from the day of Pentecost, so the churches of the various nations are placed under the responsible leadership of a council of elders from the beginning.
2. The Elders Have Supervision
The name “elders” indicates the function of responsible persons as such, without giving further substance to the kind of responsibility. This does however occur in another name used for the elders: they are also called “overseers” (episkopoi). This is a different name for the same functionaries. The “elders” from Ephesus (Acts 20:17) can also be addressed as “overseers” (Acts 20:28). And when Titus is to appoint “elders” in each town (Tit. 1:5), Paul speaks in the elaboration of this task of the requirements to be made of an “overseer” (Tit. 1:7). Since the terms appear within the same text as being interchangeable, there is good reason to regard them as synonyms. The reason for a dual designation does not lie in the use of a Jewish term (“elders”) or a Greek term (“overseers”). The Greeks also used the term “elders” as was shown earlier. And when it came to terms from two ethnically-determined environments, they would not both be used within a textual context. It is more advisable to consider these two terms as complementary. They accentuate either more the function as such (“elders” who also form a “council”), or more the activities that have been assigned to them (“overseers” who also have ”supervision”).
In 1 Timothy 3 we find the qualifications for the “overseer” and the “deacon”; that the elders are not mentioned is understandable because they are implied in the “overseers”. The same applies to Philippians 1:1 (the saints are saluted “with the overseers and deacons”): it could also have read “with their elders and deacons”. Conversely, the same applies to 1 Timothy 5:17 (double honour for “elders” who rule well): here no “overseers” are mentioned because they are the same as the “elders”.
The “overseer” does the work of a shepherd who pastures the flock and keeps watch over it. The word episkopos lends itself to all kinds of contexts (overseeing construction; inspecting work; a guardian; an educational leader, etc. When it is used for the Christian elders in a congregation, the comparison with the work of a man charged with overseeing the flock seems to be especially thought of. We read in 1 Peter 5:1-4, according to most manuscripts, that the elders are to shepherd the flock of God, “exercising oversight (episkopountes), not under compulsion, but “willingly” and to do so as “examples to the flock” until the Chief Shepherd will appear with the reward. Since the Saviour revealed himself as the Shepherd (John 10:11-16) and simultaneously involved in this image also the assembly of believers from all nations, it is not surprising that the care of the congregations is described in conscious connection with this image. Did not Christ himself continue this use of words when he instructed Peter to pasture (“feed” and “tend”) his sheep and lambs (John 21:15-17)? Paul also speaks of the work of the elders in terms borrowed from shepherding the flock (Acts 20:28-29): they are overseers over the flock that Christ has bought and paid for, but which is threatened by wolves. Overseers must now keep watch over the flock: their alertness (Acts 20:31) is in keeping with the wording of Jesus himself when he instructed the disciples to keep watch (Mark 13:33-37).
At one instance Christ himself is also referred to as “keeper” or “overseer”. Then, too, with the image of the flock: “For you were straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25). Christ, as the chief Shepherd, has ownership of the flock (1 Peter 2:21-24). Peter points this out in a passage addressed to the slaves. Let those slaves also be obedient to the unjust masters. After all, they have Christ as their Shepherd and Overseer. This extra word will have been chosen here because Peter is writing to people who have to deal daily with (often harsh) overseers. Fortunately, they have another Overseer, who has gathered them together as a Shepherd and cares for them. Because of his control, they will now obey even the harsh masters.
It is striking that the term “shepherds” has not become customary for the elders. Is not it their job to “shepherd”? Only once a reference is made to “shepherds and teachers” (Eph. 4:11) and there it is evidently not an official, fixed title. When we consider that Christ is the actual Shepherd and that the elders are merely hired, appointed, employees, we can understand that for them the designation “overseers” is more appropriate. They are entrusted by the Shepherd with the oversight of the flock. They are called to keep watch over it and to pasture it. Like all overseers, they are accountable to the owner or principal. The term “overseers” thus not only accentuates the responsibility towards the congregation, but also the subordination to Christ as the chief Shepherd. In a certain context Christ can be called “Shepherd and Overseer” once, but he is never just called ‘”Overseer”. In a certain context, people may be called “shepherd and teacher” once, but people are not called “shepherd’ unreservedly, and for them the usage name “overseer” is chosen instead.
We find the same weight of the word “overseer” when this term is placed in the framework of a householder. The overseer must be above reproach “as a steward of the house of God” (oikonomos: administrator, manager): as an “elder” he has to take care of the house of Another (Tit. 1:7). He is not an owner, not a shepherd prince, but an executor and responsible person.
3. Supervision Through Word and Doctrine
In 1 Timothy 3 we read a few things about the qualifications or demands that can be made of an overseer. It would be a mistake to read this chapter first of all as a kind of checklist of conditions that Timothy needed to apply when instituting the offices. There are already elders in Ephesus (1 Tim. 5:17-22), although it remains a possibility that because of the growth of the congregation their number was increased by the appointment of additional overseers (see 5:22). Not only the appointment, but the overall qualifications of the work of the office bearers come into view in 1 Timothy 3. Paul writes these things so that everyone may know how to behave in the household (oiko) of God, which is the church of the living God (1 Tim. 3:15). Some in Ephesus did not know how to behave properly. They engaged in disputes about words that do not serve to edify (1 Tim 1:3-4; 6:3-5,20-21). Paul now shows how the work of the overseers is a “noble task” (1 Tim.3:1): it also needs to be performed with integrity and uprightness, otherwise outsiders may blaspheme the name of God’s house because of the actions of the leaders (1 Tim. 3:7). From this angle, it is understandable that the apostle especially accentuates how the overseer must be above reproach, not addicted to wine, not hot-tempered, not a brawler or a miser. He must not indulge himself, but needs to “care for the church of God” (1 Tim. 3:5). The situation of the church at Ephesus implies that 1 Timothy 3 says more about the blameless and beautiful ministry of the office than about its actual content.
Nevertheless, we do find some clues. Accurately translated, 1 Timothy 3:1 reads as follows: ‘“Trustworthy’ is the key word. If someone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task”. We are not going to provide an exhaustive treatise here on the expression “the saying is trustworthy” in the letters to Timothy and Titus. We would like to point out, however, that the expression first and fully appeared in 1 Timothy 1:15: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Saving sinners continued to serve as a theme in 1 Timothy chapter 2 (2:4, 6, 15). Now, in abbreviated form, the echo of 1:15 resounds again in 3:1: “the word is trustworthy” namely, the word of the gospel that Christ came and did so to save sinners. This repetition concludes chapter 2 or and introduces chapter 3. Because the message of the gospel is trustworthy, it is beautiful work to care for the congregation of Christ as an overseer. After all, the church is the house of God, based on the mystery of Christ’s appearing (1 Tim. 3:15-16). Because the word is trustworthy (3:1), the church is firmly established as the pillar and foundation of the truth (3:15). The actual serving in the offices must fit in with this in all respects. This implies that the oversight of the congregation is first of all an oversight with the word, an instruction to the congregation. We are strengthened in this thought when we read in Titus 1:9 that the elder or overseer “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction (or ‘to exhort’) in sound doctrine and to rebuke those who contradict it”. Here the expression “trustworthy word” returns, once again in combination with the mention of the overseers. And now it is very clear that it is precisely with this trustworthy word that they are to shepherd the congregation and keep out the wolves. It is somewhat more explicit in Titus, because in Crete the situation of the institution of the church is still present. Less is assumed to be known and it is built from the ground up. What is found on the surface in Titus, however, is also present more implicitly in 1 Timothy 3, given the connection to 3:1.
From Acts 20 it becomes very clear that the elders exercise oversight through instruction and exhortation (Acts 20:20-21, 27, 31). And Peter calls them to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3).
The core of the work of the overseers lies in teaching and exhorting the members of the congregation. This also becomes apparent when we consider what distinguishes them from the deacons, the helpers. If we were to organise an overview of the descriptions we find for overseers and deacons in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, we will discover that the “requirements” for overseers and helpers are almost identical. The same words are not always used: neither are they systematic lists of technically well-defined terms. In practical terms, however, the qualifications do not appear to diverge much. There is only one issue that we find in both cases with the elders and not with the helpers, and this concerns the requirement of being “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2; more broadly in Titus 1:9). The key word for the helpers is that they are to “serve” (1 Tim. 3:10, 13).
When we read in Ephesians 4:11 about apostles, prophets, evangelists and “shepherds and teachers”, and when, because of the one definite article before the two words “shepherds and teachers”, it is about one set of people who are typified by two words, then it is to be thought of as teachers who are in charge of pasturing a congregation. After the apostles, prophets and evangelists, come the overseers of the locally instituted churches, who through their teaching shepherd the flock and help to build up the body of Jesus Christ.
Since the deacons are involved in their work as assistants to the overseers according to the circumstances of their work and ability, we should not be surprised that they are only mentioned a few times (for the sake of completeness; see Php. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3), but often they do not come into the picture either, since they are positioned behind the elders or overseers and do not perform an independent service alongside them.
4. Two Kinds of Elders?
Is there a certain distinction to be made between elders and other elders? There is one instance in Paul’s letters that gives rise to this question. We find it in 1 Timothy 5:17. The apostle writes, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching.”
It is obviously not Paul’s intention to distinguish between good-quality-elders (“who rule well”) and elders of inferior quality, who would then only deserve a lesser honour. The apostle wants to call for a general and double honour for the elders. However, he avoids the notion that they, as functionaries, are entitled to that honour by virtue of their title. They may lose their right to that honour when they do not perform their tasks well. The office of elder is not an honorary job: it is a work assignment in the congregation. Therefore, anyone who is truly an elder in that way and thus provides good leadership, is doubly deserving of the honour due to an elder. If someone is an elder but does not lead well and falls into sin, then he also needs to be admonished doubly: in front of the whole congregation so that the others may stand in fear (1 Tim. 5:20). When everything is functioning well, there is actually only one kind of elders: those who provide good leadership and care to the congregation with the word of Christ.
Such true elders should be worthy of double honour. As widows receive honour (1 Tim. 5:3), so elders receive double honour (1 Tim.5:17). This is not primarily and exclusively a matter of remuneration and an honorarium. The Greek word for “honour” (timè) can also mean “value, price”, but then it is about a price that has to be paid for something (e.g. the fee of a physician who provides services: see Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 38:1). In the case of elders it is not about services that are provided in return for payment, but about people who voluntarily lead the congregation as called by God. When one “honours” elders, this will certainly include support and financing in some cases. However, in such cases the support stems from the willingness to actually honour Christ’s workers and not from the idea of compensation for services rendered. Thus, honour for widows also appears to include support in a number of cases (1 Tim. 5:3, 16), but the perspective is broader, up to and including participation in honourable work in the church (1 Tim. 5:9-11). If we were to conceive of the word “honour” first of all as “an honorarium” the word “double honour” would also give us trouble. Should an elder receive twice as much honorarium as a widow? However, when we think of “respect” then the word “double” serves in an intensifying sense. Elders who do their work well should be honoured “doubly so”, and should receive a special regard.
There is no distinction between elders and elders when it comes to double honour. However, a distinction does seem to appear when we read that this honour is owed especially “to those who are in charge of preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17b). Are there, then, two groups of elders, one of which is occupied with preaching and teaching, while the other group has no specific task in this but is involved in providing good leadership? It may be well known that especially Calvin defended a distinction between ruling elders and teaching elders on the basis of this text. In Calvinistic churches it has therefore become customary to regard the ministers as “elders charged with preaching and teaching,” while the elders are to be the men “who give good leadership”. In the realization that the teaching elder in 1 Timothy 5:17 also belongs to the group of ruling elders, the position of the minister in these churches has therefore become a dual one: he is an elder with the other elders in ruling, but he is also a teaching elder or pastor. Thus, the teaching elder is simultaneously a member (often also chairman) of the local church council. This ecclesiastical arrangement rests primarily on the interpretation of 1 Timothy 5:17.
The distinction into two types of elders in this text is rather complicated by the sentence structure and its coherence, so it is understandable that not everyone wants to distinguish between elders and elders. We mention the following points:
- It already became clear to us that all elders or overseers are to be competent to teach and have a task in the shepherding of the congregation in word and doctrine (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:9; Acts 20:28-31). How, then, can the labour in word and doctrine suddenly become the exclusive work of a subset among the leading elders?
- Throughout the New Testament we find no evidence of the institution of two types of elders: the appointment of elders is always spoken of indiscriminately (Acts 14:23; Tit. 1:5; see Acts 20:17; 1 Peter 5:1). It is therefore not an obvious matter that in 1 Timothy a distinction into two types of elders can be mentioned in passing as if it were a natural distinction.
- If it had been the intent of 1 Timothy 5:17b to identify a second group of elders, one would expect that the function-indicating word “elders” would have been repeated. Now we find only a specific field-designation (“word and doctrine”/“preaching and teaching”), which is not distinctive with respect to what the elders have been entrusted with. The accent is on the verb phrase “who labour in” (or: “are tasked with”). If one emphasizes this, the inevitable conclusion is that the other elders are not active in word and doctrine. These are therefore no longer elders who rule by the word. The adoption of teaching elders in verse 17b forces us to reduce the ruling elders in 17a to a kind of church guardianship. Since this is incongruous for more than one reason, people allow the ruling elder to still be a man who gives good leadership by the word. However, this means that there is no longer any real difference between the elders in 17a and 17b.
- Verse 17b begins with the word “especially” and thereby indicates that Paul is continuing to speak of elders who provide good leadership. In verse 17b then follows a qualifying verb (“to labour; to give much time and energy to”) and then gives a repetition of the scope of the ruling elders’ activity (“preaching and teaching/word and doctrine”). It is therefore much more obvious to conclude that here there is no distinction between two kinds of elders, but only a difference in intensity with which one (can) give oneself to the work of the elders. Whoever wants to honour the good elders should especially not forget those who put in a disproportionate amount of time and effort into this work of the elders.
- When we relate 1 Timothy 5: 17b to those elders who put a lot of time and energy in their ministerial work (e.g. as catechist) a good and proper connection to verse 18 arises as well. From this verse, which speaks of the threading ox that should not be muzzled, and of the worker who is worthy of his wages, it has been argued that in verse 17 the “double honour” must be a matter of honorarium after all. We have already concluded that this is not possible. Double honour does not mean a double honorarium, but extra respect. On the other hand we cannot deny that verse 18 does speak of sustenance and wages. And in addition, verse 18 is also linked as providing a rationale for verse 17 (verse 18 begins with “for”). This becomes understandable when we see verse 18 as a further argumentation to verse 17b. Why, in particular, should these “hard workers/labourers” not be forgotten? Because those people, like a threading ox, are busy the entire day for the congregation: honour them as such and in their case also make sure that they are not left hungry. Invite them to a meal; provide them with means of subsistence. When Jesus sent out the twelve and later the seventy in a day-long task, did he not say, “The worker is worth his wages” (Luke 10:7; Matt. 10:10)? Both passages of proof deal with animals/humans who are constantly on task. So are the ones who “labour in preaching and teaching”. Therefore, double honour for the good elders certainly also implies not forgetting to honour these hardworking people according to their needs, and for them that means to look after their livelihood. This connection of 1 Timothy 5: 18 to verse 17b is possible only when one emphasizes the intensifying character of the verb “labour” in 17b. However, anyone who emphasizes the words “in preaching and teaching” in 17b as a specialized area in which the teaching elders are distinguished from other elders, is compelled to take a more colourless view of the verb ”to labour” (to be busy in; to be burdened with). This in turn leads to verse 18 no longer being linked to anything in 17b, and to verse 18 then having to be understood as giving reasons for the whole of verse 17. This leads to the incongruity that “double honour” would mean “double payment”. And so it appears from verse 18 that it is a dead-end road when one seeks to conclude from verse 17 that it speaks of two kinds of elders.
In refuting this idea of two types of elders, it became clear that 1 Timothy 5: 17 in fact speaks of one kind of elders, some of whom are labouring rather intensely in the work that is entrusted to elders. It should not be the case that such hard workers among the elders become hard-pressed: honouring them also means that one takes care of their maintenance as far as necessary. In Galatians 6:6 we read it more directly: “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.” Nowhere do we read that the elders receive a fixed fee based on their title. But if some elders take on a great deal of work in the congregation through teaching (catechesis for members of the congregation, young people, and interested gentiles), then the continuation of such work must also be made possible through compensation.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15 we also find an appeal for special honour for workers in the congregation: “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labour among you (kopiōntes!), and are over you (proïstamenoi!) in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.” Just as Paul in 1 Timothy 5:17 asked for double honour for those who gave good leadership (proïstamenoi) and especially for those who made special efforts for it (kopiōntes) in word and doctrine, so he asks of the church in Thessalonica that persons who make special efforts will be esteemed very highly because of their work. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul immediately turns his attention to the “labourers” in the work of “leading”. Therefore, there is no distinction here between “labourers ”and “leaders”. It is now also understandable why in 1 Thessalonians the word “elders” is not used. One senses that this is about people who have been entrusted with a special task. Paul, however, does not approach this matter from the perspective of the office-as-an-institution, but from the perspective of the office bearer as someone who works hard in the church. That is why the designation as “elders” is omitted, and the attention is focused on the elders who serve the church with their work with special effort and concentration.
A call to honour the leaders of the church is also found in Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do it with joy and not with groaning, for that would not be of any advantage to you.” These leaders were already mentioned in Hebrews 13:7. Then it was a matter of remembering former (already deceased or executed) predecessors: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” From these words it is once again clear that the leaders have their task in watching over souls by speaking God’s word to the church. God holds them responsible for that work. The designation of the work of the leaders in Hebrews 13:17 closely matches Paul’s words to the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20:28-31). The reference is to the leaders of the church in general: here, too, the elders are spoken of without any distinction.
We conclude that the apostles appointed one kind of elders in each congregation with the task of pasturing the congregation through word and doctrine. The fact that some could be more intensely engaged in this than others and that they may also have been entrusted with special and time-consuming tasks. does not justify the introduction of two kinds of offices. When some are more burdened than others in the ministry of the elders, it remains one ministry and one task. More intensive labour only leads to more intensive honour, and where necessary also to material support. This distinction between one kind of elders and other elders is gradual and incidental; it is not a structural or essential difference.
5. No Hierarchy
The data we have summarized so far from the New Testament do not point in the direction of a hierarchy within the circle of the elders. They are individually and collectively charged with the responsibility of keeping the congregation under Christ, and with the task of shepherding it to that end with the word and commandments of the Saviour. There are no traces of any pyramidal structure within the college or council of the elders.
The fact that in 1 Timothy 3:2 a singular word is used when speaking of the requirements for the episcopos (“overseer”) cannot possibly be interpreted as an indication of an episcopacy that has only one head. In the preceding verse Paul had said in general terms that one may aspire to the office of overseer with reason, because it is a noble task. Such a general recommendation of this work would make little sense when there was only one overseer in Ephesus, and when he had been appointed earlier. The same is true of the general formulation in 1 Timothy 3:5. We are dealing here with a generic singular by which the type is indicated, just as we can say, “Teaching the youth is beautiful work, but the teacher must be equipped for it” — as applying to teachers in general. We find a similar singular in Titus 1:7. From the preceding (1:5) it appears that here it deals about a number of elders who are charged with the task of oversight.
There are some who think they can point to a certain development in the direction of a one-headed church leadership in Revelation 1-3. In chapter 1, John sees Jesus Christ in his heavenly glory. He then discovers, among other things, how Jesus, standing between seven golden lampstands, holds seven stars in his right hand (Rev. 1:16). The meaning of those seven stars and golden lampstands is explained as follows: “The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches; and the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Rev. 1:20). Here one can think of the seven churches in the province of Asia as mentioned earlier (Rev. 1:11). We are dealing here with a double image representing the same thing. The lampstand is the bearer of the light and the star itself is the bearer of light: the two belong together. For the star (the “angel” of the church) it is a threat to hear that Christ might come and remove the lampstand (Rev. 2:5). The star is shining on the lampstand. But of what is this star or angel an image? Does it refer to the leader of the church and should we see here an indirect trace of a later development towards a one-headed church leadership? We do not think we can follow this explanation. The seven letters in Revelation chapters 2-3 are addressed to the angel of each church. They are also basically stated in the second person singular. However, this turns out to be a singular in which the whole congregation is summarized, so that sometimes a plural is used as well (Rev. 2:10, 13, 23-25; see 3:20). At the end of each letter there is the exhortation to hear what the Spirit says to the churches: the letters address the churches and not one responsible leader. This church could possibly be referred to as an angel in the language of Revelation. Just as Paul was to be received “as an angel of God” (Gal. 4:14), so the church then stands shining in the world like a star shining in the darkness (Php. 2:15-16) and she is like an angel of God here below. Likewise, anyone who receives Christ’s messengers receives himself (Matt. 10:40-42). The double image describes the church according to her being instituted (the lampstand) and according to her holy functioning to the glory of God (the star). When the light fades, the lampstand will no longer remain. In the expression “the angel of the church in —”, we would then be dealing with an explicit genitive (“the angel, namely the church, in — ”). The true angels stand on their own two feet; the churches are angels only because and inasmuch as Christ carries them with his right hand and preserves them through the Spirit. If the meaning that the seven angels in a certain way refer to the seven churches is correct, there is no reason to suspect a rather base development behind their heavenly appearance in Revelation, directed towards a form of ecclesiastical hierarchy in the churches.
In 2 John we find a certain parallel for a dual mode of speaking about the church. Just as in Revelation she is both the angel of God as church (ekklèsia, assembly of people), so in 2 John she is on the one hand “the elect lady” and on the other hand she is referred to as “her children”. John addresses the lady and rejoices in the walk of her children (v. 4). He addresses her in the singular (v. 5), but imperceptibly he switches to a plural again in verse 6 (“as you (pl.) have heard”). In verse 13 the elect lady addressed receives the greetings of the children of her chosen sister. This greeting would be strange if that sister and her children were not equally coincidental as the lady is in fact identical with her children. The congregation is Bride, Lady. She is composed of people: her children.
If there is any development to be found in the New Testament in the direction of a hierarchic structure, it would at most be found in 3 John, where it is then mentioned in a disapproving sense. Diotrephes is seeking to “put himself first” and he puts certain people out of the church (v. 9). John calls on Gaius not to imitate evil, but to imitate good. Over against the lust for power, he puts love and hospitality toward the brothers through which they become co-workers and colleagues for the truth (vv. 6-7).
We end with the conclusion that the New Testament does in fact distinguish the elders in each place, charged with the oversight of the congregation, according to the intensity with which they can give themselves to tasks, but that it contains no indication pointing in the direction of a hierarchically ordered authority structure in the churches. This is not all that surprising when it concerns the body of Christ, of which he is the Head and in which human persons can never be more than members with a special function in the whole. Nor is it surprising that the elders receive relatively little attention in the letters. They are, as it were, overlooked when apostles address all the saints — those whom it is all about, also when elders have been appointed.