From the New Covenant Scriptures

by Al Maxey


Acts 11:30
Acts 14:23
Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4
Acts 20:17, 28
Acts 21:18
Ephesians 4:11
Philippians 1:1
I Thessalonians 5:12-13
I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9
I Timothy 4:14
I Timothy 5:17
I Timothy 5:19-20
I Timothy 5:22
Hebrews 13:7
Hebrews 13:17
Hebrews 13:24
James 5:14
I Peter 5:1-4
II John 1; III John 1


There are three major words used to designate an "elder" in the Lord's church. There are an additional four words which shed further light on the nature of their work. Each of these words makes an important statement as to the position and function of these men in the Body of Christ. The three major Greek words used in the New Testament writings are:

#1 --- Presbuteros. This word appears a total of 67 times in the pages of the New Covenant documents. It is the primary word used for these men. By transliterating this Greek word into English we get "presbyter." The meaning is: "One who is old; one who is older than another; elder." It comes from the word presbutes, which means "an old man" (see Luke 1:18; Titus 2:2; Philemon 9). This word is used a number of different ways in the NT:

a. --- With reference to age, or to those born first: Luke 15:25; John 8:9; Acts 2:17; I Timothy 5:1-2; I Peter 5:5......probably also in II John 1 and III John 1.

b. --- Our forefathers; those who have gone before us: Hebrews 11:2. In Matthew 15:2 and Mark 7:3, 5 the text speaks of teachings/traditions handed down by these men.

c. --- In about 25 passages it refers to Jewish leaders; probably synagogue officials and those serving on the Sanhedrin. The pagans also used this word to refer to their civil and religious officials.

d. --- It is used symbolically 12 times in Revelation to refer to the 24 elders on 24 thrones in heaven. Many scholars feel this refers to the 12 sons of Israel (the 12 tribes) + the 12 apostles = the redeemed of all time.

e. --- It is used 15 times in the NT writings to refer to the spiritual leaders of the church (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; I Timothy 5:17, 19; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; I Peter 5:1). It may possibly be used an additional two times in this sense in II John 1 and III John 1. A form of this word (presbuterion) is used one time in I Timothy 4:14. It means, "an assembly of aged men; an assembly of elders," "an eldership" (J.W. McGarvey).

This word is generally translated -- elder. "The etymology of the term 'presbuteros,' as well as the qualifications set forth in both Timothy and Titus, points to leadership by men of seniority, prominence, experience, and wisdom. The term suggests a leadership built on respect and reverence (cf. Leviticus 19:32), a reverence that recognizes ability, service, knowledge, example, and seniority" (Jack P. Lewis, Leadership Questions Confronting The Church, p. 18, 21). "Those who, being raised up and qualified by the work of the Holy Spirit, were appointed to have the spiritual care of.....the churches" (Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words).

#2 --- Episkopos. This word appears only five times within the pages of the NT writings: Once with reference to Jesus Christ (I Peter 2:25), and four times with reference to the spiritual leaders of the church (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; I Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7). By transliterating this word from Greek into English we get "episcopal." This word is generally translated "overseer," "bishop," or "guardian." The word literally means "to look over; to watch over."

"Protective care is at the heart of the activity" described by this word (Jack Lewis, p. 24). "The term 'elder' indicates the mature spiritual experience and understanding of those so described; the term 'bishop,' or 'overseer,' indicates the character of the work undertaken" (Vine's).

Two forms of this word appear elsewhere in the NT: Episkope appears in I Timothy 3:1 and means "overseership." Some translations render this "the office of overseer," however, as Vine's points out, "there is no word representing 'office'" used in this text! The verb form of this word is episkopeo, and it simply means "to do the work of an 'episkopos,'" which is "to watch over and look out for." It appears twice in the NT: Once with reference to "elders" (I Peter 5:2), and the other occurrence is Hebrews 12:15 where it is translated "see to it; look diligently to." "The word does not imply the entrance upon such responsibility, but the fulfillment of it; it is not a matter of assuming a position/office, but the discharge of the duties" (Vine's).

#3 --- Poimen. This word appears 18 times in the NT, but is used only one time with regard to spiritual leaders in the church (Ephesians 4:11). The meaning of this word is, "shepherd," although in Ephesians 4:11 it is generally translated "pastor" (which is the Latin word for "shepherd"). The verb form of this word is poimaino, which appears 11 times in the NT. It means, "to shepherd; to perform the duties of a shepherd." It is used twice to depict the work of the leadership in the church (Acts 20:28; I Peter 5:2).

By the use of these terms "it is the guiding and protecting --- not the domineering or ruling --- of the flock that is stressed" (Jack Lewis, p. 27). "In Palestinian shepherding the shepherd leads the sheep; he does not drive them. We must move from the 'board of directors' mindset in our congregations and create a situation in which the shepherd is leading sheep!" (Jack Lewis, p. 30).

The four additional words which appear in the pages of the New Testament writings, and which shed further light on the nature of the work of "elders," are:

#1 --- Didaskalos. This word means, "teacher; instructor." It is the NT equivalent of the Hebrew "rabbi." It is obvious from several passages of Scripture that "elders" are to be skilled teachers (I Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9; I Timothy 5:17). This word seems to be used of "elders" in Ephesians 4:11 in the phrase "pastors and teachers." The structure of this sentence in Greek makes it very clear that Paul is referring to but one ministry, yet emphasizing two aspects of it: A spiritual leader is both a shepherd and a teacher. Some suggest it should be translated "a teaching pastor."

"The term 'teacher' should remind us that the church is essentially a school. Its members are 'pupils' or 'disciples.' Jesus is the 'one Teacher' (Matthew 23:8), but under Him there are other teachers, and among these are the elders. If one is to teach, he must, himself, know! Furthermore, those things said about the family qualifications of the elder and those things said about his being 'an example' make clear that his teaching is not of the 'do as I say, and not as I do' sort. He teaches by what he has been, by what he is now, by what he does, and by what he says" (Jack Lewis, p. 15).

#2 --- Oikonomos. This is the word "steward," and it is used of "elders" in Titus 1:7. It refers to one who has been "given a trust" to look after the affairs of another's household (in this case: The household of God). Refer to: I Corinthians 4:1-2 and I Peter 4:10-11.

#3 --- Proistemi. This word appears 8 times in the pages of the NT writings. The KJV renders it "rule," and "if one accepts the KJV as final authority, indeed elders do RULE.....however, if he asks what concept 'proistemi' conveys, he might have a modified opinion" (Jack Lewis, p. 30-31). This word is used with reference to "elders" in I Timothy 5:17 (in regard to his relationship to the church), and twice it is used in I Timothy 3:4-5 (regarding his relationship to his own family). Some feel this word is also used with regard to "elders" in I Thessalonians 5:12, but this is extremely unlikely due to the fact that the congregation had only been established three months prior to this writing!

Although the word does mean "to preside over; direct; govern," one must not overlook that it has several other meanings as well, and since ultimately the context must determine which meaning is utilized in a particular passage, these meanings should be considered: "To be a protector or guardian; to give aid; to care for; give attention to" (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 539). "To be concerned about; care for; give aid; busy oneself with something; engage in something" (Arndt & Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 707).

"Translations such as the KJV (King James Version) leave the impression that 'ruling' is an important function of elders.....however, reading into these texts the idea of ruling comparable to political rule is not justified by the meaning of the Greek words" (Waymon D. Miller, The Role of Elders in the NT Church, p. 36.....Bro. Miller is an elder in the church at Tulsa, OK). "The word was usually applied to informal leadership and management of all kinds rather than to definite offices, and was associated with the services rendered.....thus 'helpful leadership in Divine things' would be approximately the thought suggested" (F.J.A. Hort, The Christian Ecclesia, p. 127).

The task of these men, in light of this Greek word, "is in large measure that of pastoral care, and the emphasis is not on their rank or authority but on their efforts for the eternal salvation of believers. Their attention is primarily directed, not to the exercise of power, but to a sincere care of souls" (Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 6, p. 702).

#4 --- Hegeomai. This word is used four times with reference to leaders in the church (Acts 15:22; Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24). Although it may be used of "elders," it may also be used of other leadership positions & functions in the Body. It refers to "a mental process" (Jack P. Lewis); "the ambition to be chief" (Vine's). It is often translated, "to think; to reckon; suppose; to esteem." It is a state of mind, or mind-set, which motivates one to leadership.

However, this is a leadership not of RULE, but of SERVICE. Jesus said, "I am among you as one who serves" (Luke 22:27). In the previous verse (vs. 26) He says that the one who desires to be "leader" (same Greek word as above) must become the "servant!"

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