How did the saints choose their elders? Were those elders ‘ordained’, and did they function as ‘priests’ of some kind?
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The words and concepts “ordain” and “ordination” are of Catholic origin. They come from church Latin, and refer to appointing or admitting men into “the ministry” (in the Catholic Church). All that is connected to the concept “holy orders” which is one of the Catholic “sacraments”. The Catholic “major orders” are “episcopate” (“bishops”), “priesthood” (“priests”), and “diaconate” (“deacons”), but there are also various “minor orders”. Those concepts have then come to be echoed even in bible-translations.
The saints did not practise anything of that kind. They did not have any mortal priesthood. The resurrected Jesus was their only priest. They had elders, but those elders did not act as priests. (Here, the word “saints” refers to those who received the Holy Spirit in the first century.)
This article considers what the New Testament actually says about these things.
Many bible-translators have made it seem that the elders in the saints’ fellowships were “appointed” by someone, and perhaps even “ordained”, but the Greek text of the New Testament does not support those concepts. It indicates that the saints elected their elders through a show of hands. There is more on this, later in this article.
Let us consider something Jesus said to his disciples. We read:
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)
“You are all brothers” – they were equal. But, there is more to that passage. Read it two or three times, point for point, slowly and with thought.
It is true that Jesus spoke those words to his disciples, people of the first century. But certainly, those words are something to take note of, even for people of the twenty-first century.
(The article nsa060.htm considers the matter of “spiritual authority” – the question, who can speak for God?)
Again, the concept of “ordaining” is of Catholic origin. It refers to conferring “holy orders” on someone. That is one of the Catholic “sacraments”.
The saints did not practise anything of that kind. The elders whom they elected, did not act as priests, and there is no indication that they would have been “ordained”. Again: The resurrected Jesus was the saints’ only priest.
Many translators have put into certain New Testament passages which have a bearing on this matter, such words as “ordain” or “ordained”, but that does not reflect the meaning of the Greek text.
Here are the two most relevant words in the Greek text of the book of Acts and the apostle Paul’s letters, when the context is that of electing elders:
Many bible-translators, echoing Catholic concepts and customs, have rendered those words a number of times as “ordain”, “ordained” and so on. However, what they really mean in this context, is “to place”, “to set”, “to establish” (kathistêmi), and “to elect by show of hands” (cheirotoneô). The following takes a closer look at the use of those words in the Greek text of the New Testament.
A note: Here, one must keep in mind that “biblical” Greek-English lexicons are biased and limited, and in many cases even severely misleading. Most of those lexicons have been produced by churches and churchmen, for the needs and purposes of churches and churchmen. (It is, of course, the same with bible-translations and commentaries and similar things.)
Titus 1:5 is the only New Testament passage where the verb kathistêmi is used in connection with elders.
(The word kathistêmi occurs also in Acts 6:3, but there, it does not refer to election of elders but to an event when the saints in Jerusalem chose seven men to take care of the aid distribution tables.)
The Catholic 1899 Douay-Rheims version twists Titus 1:5 and makes it seem that the apostle Paul told Titus to “ordain priests in every city”. Many other translations have wordings to the same effect. But, that is not what Paul was talking about. Here is a more literal translation:
Titus 1:5 For this cause left I thee in Crete, That the things remaining undone thou mightest completely set in order, And mightest establish in every city elders, as I with thee arranged (EB)
(Note the plural form, “elders”. Several NT passages indicate that each town or area had multiple elders. It may be that they formed a “council” of some kind. The article nea011.htm has some notes on this.)
“Establish” elders – the Greek word in question, kathistêmi, refers to such things as “to place”, “to put”, “to set”, “to make”, “to establish”. The above-quoted EB translates that passage correctly.
Even the Vulgate version translates the Greek text of the last part of Titus 1:5 somewhat correctly into Latin – et constituas per civitates presbyteros sicut ego tibi disposui, which means “and establish in each town elders, just as I had arranged with you”.
A note: The makers of the Vulgate did not translate the word πρεσβύτερος [a] in the Greek text of that verse into Latin. Instead, they put in that Greek word, in the transcribed form presbyteros.
a The old Greek word πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros) is the comparative form of the adjective presbus which means “old”. In other words, presbuteros simply means “older”; in archaic English the spelling was “elder”.
Again, the Greek text of Titus 1:5 talks about establishing elders in the saints’ fellowships, in each town, the way Paul had previously instructed Titus. And again, those elders were not “priests”.
What kind of a function did elders have, in the saints’ fellowships? The article nea011.htm has some notes on that matter, but in short: The New Testament does not tell us the details regarding their role. What is clear, is that they were not priests.
The old Greek verb cheirotoneô came from cheir, “hand”, and teinô, “to stretch”. It refers to voting about things or electing people, through a show of hands. [b]
Acts 14:23 and having appointed to them by vote [Greek cheirotoneô] elders in every assembly, having prayed with fastings, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (YLT, comment added)
“Appointing by vote” is exactly what the verb cheirotoneô means and refers to.
(Even some Catholic writers have admitted this. The article “Holy Orders” in the 1914 edition of ‘Catholic Encyclopedia’ notes that the words cheirotonein and cheirotonia refer to “electing by show of hands”. But then, that encyclopedia also notes that within Catholicism, the meaning of the word cheirotonia has been changed, so that it has come to refer to “ordination by imposition of hands”.)
The verb cheirotoneô occurs even in 2 Corinthians 8:19 which refers to Titus, in a connection where Paul mentions a collection of relief aid to poor believers in Jerusalem.
2 Corinthians 8:19 and not only so, but who was also appointed by vote [cheirotoneô] by the assemblies, our fellow-traveller […] (YLT, comment added)
b Related words in old Greek: Acheirotonêtos, “not elected” or “not granted by vote”; anticheirotoneô, “to vote against”; cheirotonêtos, “elected by a show of hands”; cheirotonia, “a vote by a show of hands”; diacheirotoneô, “to choose between two persons or proposals, by a show of hands”; suncheirotoneô, “to be elected together with” alternatively “to be elected at the same time”.
There is also the verb tithêmi (“to set”, “to put”, “to place” and so on), 1 Timothy 1:12 and 2:7 and 2 Timothy 1:11. But, those passages refer to how Jesus chose and commissioned Paul as an apostle. They have nothing to do with how the saints chose their elders.
Then there are the verbs histêmi and sunkatapsêphizô. Acts 1:20–23 records how the disciples set forth (histêmi) two men as candidates as a “witness”, in place of Judas Iscariot. Verses 24 and 25, they asked God to help them to know which of them was to be chosen. Verse 26, they made the final decision by “giving forth their lots”. Does that mean that the disciples “drew lots” for choosing a man? Or, is the meaning of the words “they gave forth their lots” (KJV) that each of the disciples – there were around 120 of them, see verse 15 – gave their opinion, after which the result was counted? It could be that it was the latter.
Acts 1:26 They drew names, and Matthias was chosen [c] to join the group of the eleven apostles. (CEV)
c “Chosen” – the verb in the Greek is sunkatapsêphizô where the part psêphizô normally refers to a ballot, such as casting votes in an urn.
Anyway, that was not connected to the election of elders. (A note: There is no mention or indication in the NT that the saints would have elected their elders through “lottery” of some kind.)
Another Greek word is eklegomai. Acts 6:5 with its context mentions seven men whom the saints in Jerusalem chose (eklegomai) to take care of the distribution of aid to the aged and poor people among them. Background: The apostles did not have time for such things, so they told the saints in that town to select a number of men and put them (kathistêmi, verse 3) to take care of the aid distribution. But, that had nothing to do with choosing elders.
Obviously, it was for ensuring that persons of the right kind were chosen. There were certain qualifications. Only the local believers could know who met those qualifications, and who not.
In a letter, Paul told Timothy what kind of men elders were to be.
1 Timothy 3:1 This is a trustworthy saying: “If someone aspires to be an elder, [d] he desires an honorable position.” 2 So an elder [d] 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, note signs added)
d Verses 1 and 2, “elder” – the above-quoted NLT04 translates the words episkopê and episkopos correctly here. The article nea011.htm has more on this, but in short: The saints had no “priests” or “bishops”, and there were no “ranks” among them. In the Greek text of the NT, all of the words diakonos, episkopos and presbuteros are at times used of elders. (See also the article naa080.htm which considers what the Bible says about religious titles.)
Again: Who could know which persons were fitting as elders (see the criteria, 1 Timothy 3:1–7, quoted above), except those who had lived together with them in the same community, and knew them well? Also, it was demanded that even outsiders (non-believers) considered those men to be honourable (verse 7). Only the local believers could know who among them were respected by outsiders. Paul, Titus and Timothy and others who travelled around, did not know all those people, not to mention their background. And then, the easiest way to find out the opinion (judgment, assessment) of the believers in a given town, concerning which persons were qualified to serve as elders, was a discussion, followed by a show of hands. A vote, if you please.
That must be why the word cheirotoneô, “elect through a vote by a show of hands”, was used in that context.
Acts 14:23 and having appointed to them by vote [cheirotoneô] elders in every assembly, having prayed with fastings, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (YLT, comment added)
A note: It was local people, respected and mature, who were elected as elders. And, it was the local people who elected them, from among themselves.
The facts are that the Scriptures do not tell us how it was with that matter. The New Testament does not contain any mention or example of laying hands on a person, after he was elected as an elder. Read on, for more on this.
Acts 6 tells us that the saints in Jerusalem – perhaps because of some old Jewish custom – laid their hands on the seven men whom they put to take care of the aid distribution tables. But again, that had nothing to do with electing elders.
Then, Acts 13:1–3 records that the Holy Spirit led the saints in Antioch to send Paul and Barnabas on a special mission. In that connection, some of the saints there laid their hands on them. But, that was not a matter of electing elders.
(A side-note: Some have claimed that on that occasion, Paul and Barnabas were “raised in rank, to apostles”. But, the New Testament does not say anything of that kind.)
In regard to laying on of hands, let us consider even these passages in Paul’s letters to Timothy:
1 Timothy 4:14 Neglect not the gift that is in you, which was given you by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. (AKJV)
2 Timothy 1:6 Why I put you in remembrance that you stir up the gift of God, which is in you by the putting on of my hands. (AKJV)
Casual bible-readers might come to think that those passages refer to hands being laid on Timothy as a newly elected elder. But, it is obvious that the “gift” which Timothy had received and which he was to “stir up” (a symbolic expression), was the Holy Spirit. And so, the mention of Paul and elders laying their hands on Timothy, must refer to what was done when he was baptised.
A note regarding the word “prophecy” in the above-quoted 1 Timothy 4:14 – 1 Timothy 1:18 which mentions some unspecified prophecies regarding Timothy, might eventually indicate that someone with the gift of prophecy had had a message regarding Timothy, already before he was baptised. But, there are even other ways to interpret that latter verse and its Greek text.
Then, 1 Timothy 5:22 records how Paul warned Timothy, “don’t be too quick to lay hands on anyone” (HCSB). It is not clear what that referred to, but probably, Paul meant that Timothy should not baptise people before he was somewhat certain that they really were called and ready for baptism and the life after that.
In short: We do not know whether the saints laid their hands on the elders they elected.
“Clergy”: The word and concept “clergy” is constructed around the word klêros which occurs in Deuteronomy 18:2 in the Greek text of the Septuagint version (LXX). In that verse, the noun klêros refers to the lot or inheritance which the tribe of Levi came to have under the Old Covenant. The article nsa071.htm explains that matter in more detail, but in short: The core of the concept “clergy” is a claim that the New Covenant has a mortal priesthood, consisting of men who have somehow “inherited” the Levites’ lot. But, while the Old Covenant had mortal priests, the New Covenant does not have that. Many churches have priests, but that practice is of Catholic origin and has no basis in the Greek text of the New Testament. Again, the saints had only one priest – the resurrected Jesus.
“Ministry”: Just as it is with so many other “religious” words in the English language, even the words “minister” and “ministry” come from “church Latin”, the Latin text of the Catholic Vulgate version. Details:
|Word in the Latin text of the Vulgate NT||Word in the Greek text of the NT||The meaning of both words|
|ministro (verb)||diakoneô (verb)||attend to, aid, serve|
|minister (noun)||diakonos (noun)||attendant, aider, servant|
|ministerium (noun)||diakonia (noun)||attending to, aiding, serving|
|A note: The Latin noun minister (“servant”, “aider”) was formed of minus, minor which meant “smaller”, “subordinate”.|
Expressing that in another way:
But, centuries of Catholicism has changed the use and meaning of those Latin words, so that the nouns minister and ministerium have come to used in the meanings “priest” respectively “priesthood”. Since the days of the 14th century Wycliffe bible which was largely based on the Latin text of the Vulgate, bible-translators have in many passages used the Latin-based words “minister” and “ministry”, instead of translating the Greek text into proper English. That has probably been done in order to uphold old Catholic-type concepts and manners in “church life”. (Such as “ordination”, “priesthood” and “clergy” versus “laity”.) For, in the Catholic religion, the Latin noun ministerium has for centuries been used in a changed meaning, as referring to “priesthood”, instead of “serving” and “aiding” which was the original meaning.
And so, in many churches, being a “minister” is the same as being a priest. Some churches call their “ministers” by the name “elder”, but even they tend to act as if they were priests, some kind of “mediators” between people and God. Those who study the New Testament in more depth, including the Greek text, can see that that is a false concept. Once again: The saints did not have mortal priests; the resurrected Jesus was their only priest. They had elders, but that was something different.
The claim that some men in our day supposedly form a “clergy”, a “continuation” or “replacement” of the Old Covenant’s Levitical priesthood, is nonsense. – The article nsa071.htm has more on what is behind the words and concepts “clergy” and “laity”.
e In most of the 29 places where the Greek NT text has diakonos, the makers of the Vulgate version translated it properly with the Latin noun minister which originally meant “attendant”, “aider”, “servant”, just as diakonos did. But, in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8 and 12 they did not do that but left that Greek word untranslated, in the latinised forms diaconis, diaconos and diacones. This is why even many English bible-versions have “deacons” in those three verses – that is copied from the Catholic Vulgate version. The article nea062.htm has more on this and on the word and concept “deacon”.
The New Testament indicates that each of the saints’ local fellowships had several elders. It may be that they formed a “council” of some kind.
Among the saints, being an elder was a voluntary undertaking. Elders were not paid. But, even that matter has been twisted, by bible-translators and writers. The articles nma021.htm, nma031.htm and nma040.htm have more on this. The article nma011.htm sorts out the “tithe question”.
The article nea011.htm has some notes on what role elders had, among the saints.
The concept of “ordaining” has no basis in the Greek text of the New Testament. The Greek text indicates that in each town, the saints elected a number of mature and respected local men as elders. It could be that they formed a council of some kind.
The concept and practice of “ordaining” people is of Catholic origin. Many bible-translators have copied that concept into the texts they have produced, but it has no support in the Greek text of the New Testament.
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. → nsa091.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 elders? What was their role in the saints’ fellowships? → nea011.htm
What does the Bible say about religious titles, such as “apostle”, “bishop”, “evangelist”, “father”, “pastor” and so on? → naa080.htm
On the words and concepts “clergy” and “laity”. → nsa071.htm
Are believers a “royal priesthood” or “kings and priests”, as some say? How should one understand 1 Peter 2:4–9? → noa030.htm
What does the Bible say about deacons? → nea062.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. → nma021.htm
On the example the apostle Paul set, for others to imitate. → nma031.htm
On Galatians 6:6 and its translation and meaning. Does it refer to sharing one’s goods with a preacher, as some translations make it seem, or to joining in in doing good, as the Greek text indicates? → nma040.htm
What is the truth about tithing, the concept of giving “tithes” to a church? → nma011.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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