Elders and Bishops in the New Testament

Featuring Worshipedia Posted on June 10, 2010

There is no record to indicate when the office of elder, or presbyter (presbuteros), was instituted. Elders are found early in the Christian communities of Judea (Acts 11:30), while Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in charge of the congregations they established on their first missionary journey (Acts 14:23). This office was borrowed, though modified, from the Jewish synagogue, where a company of elders ruled the religious and civil life of the community. Primarily custodians of the Mosaic Law, these Jewish elders taught and interpreted its precepts and administered discipline to its offenders.

The New Testament also designates Christian elders by the name episkopos ("bishop," or "overseer"). Although sometimes disputed, the evidence strongly points to this identification. In Acts 20:17 Paul summons the elders of the church at Ephesus, while in verse 28 he calls these same men "overseers" (bishops). In Philippians 1:1 Paul extends formal greetings to all the Christians at Philippi, along with their bishops and deacons, but he takes no notice of elders. This omission is inexplicable unless overseers (bishops) and elders were the same. In 1 Timothy 3:1–13 Paul sets forth the qualifications of overseers. Yet he specifically mentions elders in 1 Timothy 5, where he ascribes to them the same functions of ruling and teaching that in the earlier passage are attributed to bishops (cf. 1 Timothy 3:4–5; 5:17). In Titus 1:5–6, after commanding Titus to appoint elders in all the churches in Crete, Paul counsels him to restrict his choice to men who are "blameless." He then qualifies this requirement by adding, "Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless," a pointless argument if the two terms do not designate the same office (v. 7).

"Elder" and "bishop," then, are synonymous, but whereas "elder" indicates the great dignity surrounding this office, "bishop" signifies its function of rule or oversight. In the New Testament oversight is especially related to the figure of the shepherd, who feeds and cares for his flock. It is therefore natural that pastoral language is interwoven with the use of the terms overseer and bishop (Acts 20:28; cf. John 21:15–17). In their pastoral oversight of congregational life, elders reflect Christ’s own office as the Shepherd and Bishop of souls (1 Peter 2:25; cf. John 10:11–16; Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 5:4).

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