What was their role in the saints’ fellowships?
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Churches have priests, bishops and so on. In contrast to that, the saints did not have priests. But, they had elders. What was their role in their fellowships? What does the Bible say about those elders? This article takes a closer look at that matter.
(In this article, the word “saints” refers to those who received the Holy Spirit in the first century.)
Today, many churches have various kinds of “spiritual hierarchies”, and dogmas regarding such. Some of them have “elders” or “presbyters” as one of the “ranks” in such hierarchies. How was it with that matter among the saints?
Let us read what Jesus taught his disciples, in regard to such things.
Matthew 23:8 “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 “And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 “And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. (NASB77)
Those clear words of Jesus give the “basics” in regard to how it was to be among his disciples, concerning such things as “spiritual hierarchies”.
Literally, the Greek-based word “hierarchy” refers to “priest rule” (from hiereus + archô). The Old Covenant had its priests, but in connection with the New Covenant things are different. The saints had only one priest: The resurrected Jesus. The elders in their fellowships were something different. Read on, for more on this.
(The article nea020.htm studies the concept of “ordaining”, and shows that it has no support in the Greek text of the New Testament. The article nsa070.htm considers the words and concepts “clergy” and “laity”. The article nsa060.htm takes a closer look at the matter of “spiritual authority” – that is, the question, who can speak for God?)
In the Greek text of the NT, one of the words for “elder” is presbuteros which literally meant “an older [person]”. It was used of the Jews’ elders of different kinds, and for instance of the twenty-four elders of the book of Revelation. In a number of New Testament passages, such as the last part of Acts 15:2, it refers to elders among the saints. Below, it will be shown that in the NT, even the words diakonos and episkopos are at times used of elders.
Regarding the word diakonos – a check of the Greek text of the New Testament shows that at times, that word was used of elders, in their serving role. Clarification: The old Greek noun diakonos meant “attendant”, “servant”, “aider”. In the Latin text of the Vulgate version, diakonos is often translated as minister (from minus, minor) which likewise meant “attendant”, “servant”, “aider”.
In the NT, the noun diakonos is not used of the seven men of Acts 6 (the article nea060.htm has more on this). But again, sometimes it is used of elders. Even Jesus is called diakonos (see Romans 15:8, Greek text). Here are two example passages where that word refers to the apostle Paul and his companion Apollos:
1 Corinthians 3:5 Who therefore is Paul and who is Apollos? But rather helpers [Greek diakonoi] through whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to each man. (ACV, comment added)
Ephesians 3:7 Of which I became a helper [diakonos] according to the gift of that grace of God, which was given to me according to the working of his power. (ACV, comment added)
So, the nouns presbuteros and diakonos were at times used in connection with the apostles and elders. What about episkopos?
Many bible-translators have, echoing Catholic concepts and practices, put the word “bishop” into some of the eleven passages where the Greek NT text has episkopê, episkopeô or episkopos. – Some might say that the word “bishop” is linguistically derived from the old Greek noun episkopos. But, the actual root and source of the word and concept “bishop” is found in Catholicism. Here is how the 1914 edition of ‘Catholic Encyclopedia’ defines that word:
“Bishop is the title of an ecclesiastical dignitary who possesses the fullness of the priesthood to rule a diocese as its chief pastor, in due submission to the primacy of the pope.”
That is where the word, concept and title “bishop” comes from – from the Catholic Church.
Bishops are priests. But, as was noted earlier, the saints had only one priest: The resurrected Jesus. This and several other things make it clear that the apostle Paul did not use the word episkopos in the meaning “bishop”. So, we must take a closer look at this matter.
First, let us consider a passage in Acts 20 which shows that elders were called both presbuteroi as well as episkopoi.
That chapter records an occasion when Paul was on his way to Jerusalem. He made a stop in Miletus, and called the elders (Greek presbuterous, Acts 20:17) from Ephesus to come to meet him there. He spoke to those elders. The Greek text of verse 28 shows that he used even the noun episkopos of them.
Acts 20:17 And from Miletus having sent to Ephesus, he summoned the elders [Greek presbuterous] of the congregation. 18 And when they were come to him, he said unto them […] 28 Take heed therefore to yourselves, and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit placed you guardians [episkopous], to tend the church of the Lord and God, which he purchased by his own blood. 29 For I know this, that after my departure grievous wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 And from you yourselves men will rise up, speaking distorted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore watch ye, remembering that for three years, night and day, I did not cease warning each one with tears. (ACV, comments added)
Again, in that passage both presbuteros and episkopos refer to elders.
Then, let us consider Philippians 1:1 where the Greek text contains the words episkopos and diakonos within the same sentence.
Philippians 1:1 Paul and Timothy, bondmen of Jesus Christ, to all the sanctified in Jesus Christ who are at Philippi, with the guardians and helpers [episkopois kai diakonois] (ACV, comment added)
Exactly what does that verse mean? Does the plural-form word episkopois in the Greek text refer to “bishops”, as many bible-translators have made it to? Did the saints in Philippi have several “bishops”? – Here, one must keep in mind that bishops are priests, and that the saints did not have any mortal priesthood. Again, the resurrected Jesus was their only priest.
So, regarding Philippians 1:1 – it appears that the apostle Paul used the poetic expression episkopois kai diakonois, “guardians and helpers”, of elders in those saints’ fellowship. Two words regarding the one and same duty.
The word episkopos appears also in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Those chapters record some of Paul’s instructions concerning the needed qualifications for men who were proposed for election as elders. Many bible-translators have, echoing old Catholic dogmas and customs, put “bishops” into those passages, but again, the saints did not have priests. The apostle was talking about the election of elders.
1 Timothy 3:1 This is a trustworthy saying: “If someone aspires to be an elder [Greek episkopê oregetai], he desires an honorable position.” 2 So an elder [episkopon] must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach. (NLT04, comments added)
Titus 1:7 For an elder [episkopon] must live a blameless life. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered; he must not be a heavy drinker, violent, or dishonest with money. (NLT04, comment added)
(There is a bit more on Titus 1, below.)
Again: In this kind of context, episkopos = diakonos = presbuteros. Three different words, used of elders.
Here, it must be noted that the New Testament does not make it clear what role or function elders exactly had, among the saints. It appears that each local fellowship had several elders; it could be that they formed a “council” of some kind. But, a number of NT passages tell us at least some details, regarding elders. Read on.
Paul’s letters to Titus and Timothy contain passages which show what qualifications were required of those who were proposed for election as elders. Here is one of those passages:
Titus 1:5 For this reason I left you in Crete, that you might set in order what remains, and establish elders [Greek presbuterous] in each town, as I told you 6 – if any be blameless, the husband of one wife, with faithful children, not accused of profligacy or loose living. 7 Because, an elder [episkopon] must be above reproach as God’s steward, not arrogant, not choleric, not addicted to wine, not a brawler, not seeking shameful gain 8 but generous, benevolent, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, 9 holding to the faithful word taught so that he may be able to both encourage with sound teaching as well as refute those who teach differently. (BPT)
In that passage, the words presbuteros and episkopos in the Greek text refer to elders. It is the same with episkopê and episkopos in 1 Timothy 3 which is quoted further down.
Regarding verse 5, “establish elders in each town” – indeed, “establish” and not “ordain” as many bible-translators have made it seem. The concept of “ordaining” is of Catholic origin and has no basis in the Greek text of the NT. Let us consider Acts 14:23 as an example passage. The Catholic 1899 Douay-Rheims translation has in that verse, “when they had ordained to them priests in every church”. But again, the saints did not have priests. And, the wording in the Greek text indicates that they elected their elders through a show of hands, a vote. Here is another translation of that verse:
Acts 14:23 and having appointed to them by vote elders in every assembly, having prayed with fastings, they commended them to the Lord […] (YLT)
The 1912 Weymouth version has, “they selected elders by show of hands”. The Greek text has cheirotoneô, from cheir, “hand” and teinô, “to stretch”. The verb cheirotoneô simply referred to electing people through a show of hands. The article nea020.htm has more on that word and matter, including some notes on related words in old Greek.
Back to the earlier quoted Titus 1 – verse 6: An elder was to be a “man of one woman” – Greek mias gunaikos anêr – that is, married [to one woman]. Same verse and onward: Those who were considered for election as elders, were to be known to live in a respectable and honourable manner.
Then, 1 Timothy 3:6 shows that those who were “new in the faith” were not to be elected as elders. (Also: Obviously, elders were to be mature persons, and not youngsters.)
1 Timothy 3:1 This is a trustworthy saying: “If someone aspires to be an elder [Greek episkopê oregetai], he desires an honorable position.” 2 So an elder [episkopos] must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach. 3 He must not be a heavy drinker or be violent. He must be gentle, not quarrelsome, and not love money. 4 He must manage his own family well, having children who respect and obey him. 5 For if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? 6 An elder must not be a new believer, because he might become proud, and the devil would cause him to fall. 7 Also, people outside the church must speak well of him so that he will not be disgraced and fall into the devil’s trap. (NLT04, comments added)
The New Testament does not make it clear what role or function elders actually had, in the saints’ fellowships. It appears that each local fellowship had several elders. It could be that they formed “councils” of some kind. What is clear, is that they were not priests. The resurrected Jesus was the saints’ only priest.
Elders were not “ordained”; that is an originally Catholic concept which many bible-translators have written into the texts which they have produced. (Ordination, the concept “holy orders”, is one of the Catholic “sacraments”.) The Greek text of the New Testament indicates that the saints elected their elders through a show of hands (a vote). The article nea020.htm has more on this.
In the New Testament, the word “elder” is sometimes a translation of the Greek noun presbuteros which literally meant “an older [person]”. In some passages, even the nouns diakonos and episkopos are used of elders. Those words were not “titles” or “ranks”. (The article naa080.htm has some notes on the matter of “religious titles”.)
Elders were to be mature, married men who were known to take good care of their families. They were to be honest and reliable men of good reputation, so that even outsiders had respect for them, 1 Timothy 3:7.
Being an elder was not an employment. Elders were not paid. For more on this, see these articles: nma020.htm (on Acts 20:17–35, Paul’s reminders and warnings to the elders in Ephesus), nma010.htm (on the “tithe question”) and nma030.htm (on the example which Paul and his companions set, in regard to certain things).
A number of bible-translators have made it seem that elders acted as “rulers”, but it was not so. The article nea040.htm sorts out that matter.
See also the “recommended reading” section, below.
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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa090.htm
What does the Bible say about ordaining or ordination? How did the saints choose their elders? Were those elders “ordained”, and did they function as “priests” of some kind? → nea020.htm
On the words and concepts “clergy” and “laity”. → nsa070.htm
What does the Bible say about authority? Who has biblical, spiritual or religious authority? Who can speak for God? → nsa060.htm
What does the Bible say about deacons? → nea060.htm
Acts 20:35 – what the apostle Paul meant when he reminded the elders from Ephesus that it is more blessed to give than to receive. → nma020.htm
What does the Bible say about religious titles, such as “apostle”, “bishop”, “evangelist”, “father”, “pastor” and so on? → naa080.htm
What is the truth about tithing, the concept of giving “tithes” to a church? → nma010.htm
On the example the apostle Paul set, for others to imitate. → nma030.htm
Did elders in the saints’ fellowships act as “rulers”? On the translation and meaning of Hebrews 13:7, 17 and 24 and certain other passages. → nea040.htm
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