A SCRIPTURAL STUDY OF ELDERSHIP
The New Testament eldership was described by the terms "elder", "shepherd" and "overseer". These terms were used in conjunction with one another and were interchangeable. (1 Peter 5:1-2)
The ancient cities of Israel were governed by local assemblies of elders. These men functioned as a sort of "town council".
Background: Apostolic Church
In the original Apostolic church (Jerusalem following the Pentecost experience) the apostles apparently functioned in the role of elders. (Acts 6: l- 7). However, within a few years, they apparently shared this function with others (see the record of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15).
From the scriptural record it appears that the monarchical bishop (one elder holding all authority) was unknown in the New Testament. While elders were referred to as such individually (e.g. "...if anyone desires to be an overseer"--l Timothy 3:1), their action is described only in the plural (e.g. ...he should call the elders of the church to pray over him..."--James 5:14). In other words, the elders always carried out the function of elders as a group. The monarchical bishop, or "The Pastor" of a congregation as a singular ruler does not appear in the early church history until the Roman persecutions. It apparently gradually became a popular way to insure quick decision making under the extreme circumstances of the persecutions.
Peter refers to Jesus himself as the Chief Shepherd. The clear implication is that the church's elders are "sub shepherds" and that their work was an extension of Jesus' own work. (I Peter 5:4) This is consistent with the admonition given to him and the other apostles by Jesus himself: "Make followers of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." (Matthew 28: 19-20a)
Most people did not become elders. The role was not one to be taken lightly, and only those who qualified were to be put in these positions. Paul outlines qualifications for elders in the church in 1 Timothy and Titus. In addition, elders are given a function to fulfill and presumably must be able to do so (see below).
Distinction from Diakonos
The distinction between the elders and the deacons ("servant", from "diakonos") is unclear, because we have less teaching about the deacons than we do about the elders. Two passages seem to shed light on the difference in these roles. First, in Ephesians 4 the shepherds are among the group listed as given to the church to equip the church for service ("service has the same root word as "servant"). Second, in Acts 6, the apostles, functioning as elders, specify that their function is the "service of the word and prayer", while directing the church to choose men full of the Spirit and wisdom to fulfill the task they characterize as "waiting on tables".
In the Councils of Elders in Israel, the elders functioned as the leaders of the city. They gave general and specific guidance in secular affairs, including legal opinions (both civil and criminal. For example Deuteronomy 21:18-21). In the Apostolic church, the Apostles specifically rejected the task of providing for the Greek widows, insuring they were cared for by commanding the church to "appoint" men known to be full of the Spirit and "wisdom" to oversee and carry out the necessary functions. Instead, they insisted that their time be spent on "prayer and the ministry of the word" (Acts 6: 1- 7). The apostles were regularly given to teaching in the house gatherings (Acts 2:41).
The functions of the elder/shepherd/overseer in the New Testament include:
shepherding (1 Peter 5:2)
overseeing (Acts 20:28)
ministry of the word and prayer (Acts 6)
prayer and anointing the sick (James 5:14)
equipping the church for service (Ephesians 4: 11-13)
encouraging...by sound doctrine and refuting those who oppose it (Titus 1 :9)
Elders and the "professional" ministry
In the New Testament, the idea of "clergy" did not exist. The early references to this phenomenon are in the early second century when one church father wrote of the separation of the "laity" from the church leadership. Interestingly enough, it was not because of the elevation of the leadership, but because the laity was doing less and less of the ministry. In other words, the "laity" pulled away from their appropriate role, thus creating the professional clergy. Combined with the increasing use of the monarchical bishop, this occasioned the early development of the clergy.
There were "professional" Christians in the sense of leaders whose livelihood came from the churches. There are two examples of this in the New Testament. The first is that of the apostles themselves. Paul notes that, at times, he supported himself, and at times he was supported by the churches much the same as other apostles. (1 Corinthians 9). It is probable that others functioning in the same role as Paul, and at his direction (e.g. Timothy, Titus) were supported in a similar way. The second instance of "professionalism" is unclear. However, it is generally agreed that Paul's reference to elders who are worthy of "double honor" refers to elders whose teaching was so important to the church that they were freed from the distractions of providing for their own living in order to devote themselves fully to their ministry, reminiscent of the apostles in the early church. (1 Timothy 5:17-18)