How did the saints of the New Testament choose their elders?

Also, were those elders ‘ordained’, and did they function as ‘priests’ of some kind?

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Many bible-translators have made it seem that 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.

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). 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 New Testament times, in the first century.)

This article contains a study on what the New Testament, the Greek text, really says about these things.

First, some basics.

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 care.

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 rsa061.htm considers the matter of “spiritual authority” – the question, who can speak for God?)

The Greek text of the New Testament does not support such concepts as ‘ordaining’ or ‘ordination’.

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 the Greek NT text does not contain any indication that they would have been “ordained”. Again: The resurrected Jesus was the saints’ only priest.

Many bible-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 translators, echoing old Catholic concepts and customs, have rendered those words a number of times as “ordain” or something similar. 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, the word kathistêmi.

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 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)

“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.

(Note the plural form, “elders”. Several NT passages indicate that each town or area had multiple elders. It may be that they formed some kind of “councils”. The article rea012.htm has some notes on this.)

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” which in archaic English was spelled “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. And again, those elders were not “priests”.

What kind of a function did elders have, in the saints’ fellowships? The article rea012.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 word cheirotoneô in the Greek text of Acts 14:23 and 2 Corinthians 8:19.

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)

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.

(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”.)

The above-quoted YLT has, “having appointed to them by vote elders in every assembly”. And indeed, “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 which has to do with transporting the results of 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)

Other Greek words.

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 to join the group of the eleven apostles. (CEV)

“Chosen” – the verb in the Greek is sunkatapsêphizô where the part psêphizô normally refers to a ballot, such as casting votes in an urn.

Please note that that event was not connected to electing elders. Please also note that the NT does not contain any mention or indication 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 distribution of aid to 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.

Why elders were elected through a vote.

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, [b] he desires an honorable position.” 2 So an elder [b] 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)

b Verses 1 and 2, “elder” – the above-quoted NLT04 translates the words episkopê and episkopos correctly here. The article rea012.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 raa081.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 and 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.

Did the saints lay their hands on the elders they chose?

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 records 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 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, that is taken out of the thin air. 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 Never neglect the gift within you, which was given in fulfilment of prophecy at the time of the laying on of hands by the elders. (CT)

2 Timothy 1:6  For this reason let me remind you to keep ever blazing that gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. (CT)

A casual reader 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 “blaze”, was the Holy Spirit; cf. Acts 2:38, “the gift of 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 1 Timothy 4:14 which was quoted above – 1 Timothy 1:18 mentions some unspecified prophecies regarding Timothy. It could be that someone with the gift of prophecy had had a message regarding him, already before he was baptised. But, there may be 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.

The root and origin of the words and concepts ‘clergy’ and ‘ministry’.

‘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 rsa072.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.

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. Again, the article rsa072.htm has more on what is behind the words and concepts “clergy” and “laity”.

‘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 Greek text of the NTWord in the Latin text of the Vulgate NTThe meaning of both words
diakoneô (verb)ministro (verb)attend to, aid, serve
diakonia (noun)ministerium (noun)attending to, aiding, serving
diakonos (noun)minister (noun)attendant, aider, servant
A note: The Latin noun minister (“servant”, “aider”) was formed of minus, minor which meant “smaller”, “subordinate”.

Expressing that in another way:

A note: Centuries of Catholicism has changed the use and meaning of the Latin nouns minister and ministerium, so that today, they are often used in the meanings “priest” respectively “priesthood”. But again, the New Covenant does not have any mortal priesthood. The saints had only one priest: The resurrected Jesus. (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, will see that that is a false concept. Keep also in mind Matthew 23:8–10 which is cited in the first part of this article.)

Another note: Since the days of the 14th century Wycliffe bible which was largely based on the Latin text of the Vulgate version, many bible-translators have in several passages used the Latin-based words “minister” and “ministry”, instead of translating the Greek text into proper English. It may be that they have done that in order to uphold old Catholic-type concepts and manners in “church life”.

Yet a note: In 29 of the places where the Greek NT text has the noun 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 three places, Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8 and 12, they did not do that but left instead 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 rea063.htm has more on this and on the word and concept “deacon”.

Summary.

The concept of “ordaining” is of Catholic origin and 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 may be that they formed “councils” of some kind. (Not to be confused with any present-day religious concepts which contain the word “council”.)

The article rea012.htm has some notes on the role of elders, among the saints.

Among the saints, being an elder was a voluntary undertaking. Elders were not paid. But, many bible-translators and writers have twisted even that matter. The articles rma023.htm, rma032.htm and rma042.htm have more on this. The article rma012.htm sorts out the matter of “tithes” and “offerings”.

See also the “recommended reading” section, below.

Please send or mention the address to this site to others. Please also link to this site. The address to the table of contents page is biblepages.net/contents.htm

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. → rsa092.htm

On the King James version. The story behind king James’ bible, including the men who were involved in producing it. → rsa032.htm

What does the Bible say about authority? Who has biblical, spiritual or religious authority? Who can speak for God? → rsa061.htm

On what the Bible says about elders and their role in the saints’ fellowships. → rea012.htm

What does the Bible say about religious titles, such as “apostle”, “bishop”, “evangelist”, “father”, “pastor” and so on? → raa081.htm

What powers were given to the apostles? Also: Did Simon Peter receive some kind of special authority, such as “primacy”? → raa091.htm

On the words and concepts “clergy” and “laity”. → rsa072.htm

Are believers a “royal priesthood” or “kings and priests”, as some say? How should one understand 1 Peter 2:4–9? → roa032.htm

Some notes on the word and concept “deacon”. → rea063.htm

On Acts 20:35 and its meaning. The apostle Paul reminded the elders from Ephesus that it is more blessed to give than to receive, and he told them to follow his own example in that regard. → rma023.htm

On the example the apostle Paul set, for others to imitate. → rma032.htm

On Galatians 6:6 and its translation and meaning. Does that verse refer to joining in in doing good, as the Greek text indicates, or to sharing one’s goods with a preacher, as some translations make it seem? → rma042.htm

What is the truth about tithing, the concept of giving “tithes” to a church? Also, what about “offerings”? → rma012.htm

Did elders in the saints’ fellowships act as “rulers”, as many bible-versions make it seem? On the translation and meaning of Hebrews 13:7, 17 and 24 and certain other passages. → rea042.htm


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