Elders (includes Bishops, Deacons, and Presbyters)

The words elder, bishop, deacon, and presbyter since the time of the Emperor Constantine have increasingly had their meaning shifted by the ecclesiastical elite. The Scripture theme touched upon these words and others within the context of the early church culture. To accentuate this, I will give an example involving the word “duke” which seems strikingly out of culture.

Its earliest usage (Genesis 36:15-43) appeared during the Old Testament period around 1900 B.C. with a listing of some of Esau’s descendants. Later usages can be found in: Exodus 15:15; Joshua 13:21; I Chronicles 1:51-54. Here you find a long list of persons, with many of them designated as “dukes”.  This immediately brings about a cultural disorientation because so many of us have been influenced by the usage of “duke” within the British Empire. This effect is due to the spread of Christianity throughout the world on the back of the British Empire’s expansion, which in the 16th and 17th centuries became the largest empire in history. Along with these missionary endeavors came the widespread usage of the English Bible, primarily the King James Version that contained the word “duke”.

It is mystifying to see these scriptures appear to reference British royalty 3,600 years prior to Britain’s ascension to being a great power. Unless we break through our cultural barriers and see the word within its cultural context, we will remain dumbfounded.

The King James scholars faced scripture that indicated certain people were considered titled in the sense of nobility, but not to the extent of being kings. They faced communicating this information, preferably with one word that would fully convey this concept. And they found it with the word “duke”. Let us look at the word through a dictionary closer to the King James 1611-time frame.

Duke (Webster 1828)

In Great Britain, one of the highest order of nobility; a title of honor or nobility next below the princes; as the Duke of Bedford or of Cornwall.

A chief; a prince; as the dukes of Edom. Gen. xxxvi.

In some countries on the Continent, a sovereign prince, without the title of king; as the Duke of Holstein, of Savoy, of Parma, &c.

Our cultural perception immediately tends to embrace the Great Britain royalty usage. However, with a bit of investigative work we eventually see how the word entails definitions that strip away the cultural disorientation and makes the usage obvious to where we can appreciate how wonderfully concise it is.

As we move forward, it is imperative we embrace this same investigative cultural process with words like elders, bishops, deacons, and presbyters. The first observation is to realize that the words elder and bishop are synonymous.

5For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee:  6If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. 7For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; 8But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; 9Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers. Titus 1: 5-9

Those in preeminence for over 1,600 years have separated elders and bishops into two preeminent categories with bishops generally thrust to the top tier. This is unbiblical since elder and bishop are just two words for the same thing.

Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. I Timothy 4:14

Historically, presbyters are also synonymous with elders and bishops. The above verse is the only one in the Bible where it is used.

There is nothing that tells us who made up the presbytery. However, they must have been within a group of high character, that elicited being “living epistle”, which would fit that of elders. I suspect deacons could have also been included, who also were “living epistles”, but from a slightly different angle than that of elders.

Now is a good time to give the definition of “bishop” as it includes all three words.

Bishop (Webster 1828)

This title the Athenians gave to those whom they sent into the provinces subject to them, to inspect the state of affairs; and the Romans gave the title to those who were inspectors of provisions.

An overseer; a spiritual superintendent, ruler or director; applied to Christ.

You were as sheep going astray, but are now returned to the shepherd and bishop of your souls. 1 Pet. ii.

In the primitive church, a spiritual overseer; an elder or presbyter ; one who had the pastoral care of a church.

The same persons are in this chapter called elders or presbyters, and overseers or bishops. Acts xx.

Till the churches were multiplied, the bishops and presbyters were the same. Ib. Phil. i. 1 1 Tim. iii. 1. Tit. i. 7.

Both the Greek and Latin fathers do, with one consent, declare, that bishops were called presbyters, and presbyters bishops, in apostolic times, the name being then common. Whitby.

The verses in this definition are off as far as supporting a common usage (Acts 20, Philippians 1:1, I Timothy 3:1, Titus 1:7), but what it does reveal is that even in 1828, there was a formal recognition of the names being the same, even though in practice the cultural understanding had solidly moved into that of preeminence.

Even though a presbyter might also include being a deacon, I will lump it with elder/bishop. With that in mind, for all other website writings, I will usually refer only to the word elder rather than elder/bishop/presbyter.

Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Philippians1:1

Note that bishop and deacon is not singular. It would seem all who held the characteristics of either a Deacon or Elder were given that designation. Out of 300 believers, if 50 had elder characteristics, then there would have been 50 elders; if 70 were of deacon character, then there would have been 70 deacons. These numbers are at the high end for the purpose of accentuating that this is not a preeminent designation but a designation for others to emulate as “living epistles”.

All the Apostles were directly taught by Jesus, including Paul in a special dispensation (Galatians 1:11-12). They were the “living epistles” that would be passed on to others. They set the example in word and deed. Certain criteria were set down to help identify those who followed their example. Within each fellowship they were then marked as “living epistles” for others to emulate.  Eventually as others met the same criteria, they too would have been marked as “living epistles”. The names given to those who fit the criteria were elders and deacons. Through the work of the Holy Spirit and guidance of God, everyone was being nurtured to have the characteristics of an elder or deacon. There were no exclusions from being led by Jesus and shaped by the Holy Spirit to becoming a “living epistle”.

1This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. 2A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; 3Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; 4One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; 5(For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) 6Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. 8Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; 9Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. 10And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. 11Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. 12Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. 13For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus. I Timothy 3:1-13

Those Christians, meeting the listed criteria, were to be examples in word and deed for others to aspire to. Those so characterized would be designated as a deacon or elder. Eventually, others would meet the same criteria and be labeled as an elder or deacon. This process was to continue until our Lord’s return. This is how so much of the Gospel was propagated in the early church through these “living epistles” that demonstrated the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit along with the guidance of our great Shepherd, Jesus Christ.

The common elements for Elders and Deacons were to be sober, not greedy for money, having only one wife, ruling children and house well, and being blameless. There are two main characteristic I see where the lists split. For deacons, the wife also has a separate list of criteria which seems to focus on them being “living epistles” as a dedicated, serious, and upright husband and wife team. The elder’s list divergence is focused on a man who has a strong aptitude for teaching his fellow believers.

There is much we could discuss concerning each criteria list, but the focus here concerns how these words that describe “living epistles” have been captured by the elite to be used as preeminent titles. Or, in other situations, have been diminished to elevate certain titles like pastor or priest. In these diminished cases deacons have been relegated to custodians and elders to managing the church’s operations and are part of the church’s executive board. This has resulted in the actual Biblical concept of elders and deacons being redefined out of existence.

17And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. 28Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. Acts 20:17,28

Here we see elders tasked as being overseers. Their credentials include being “apt to teach” which would reflect feeding the church of God.

Overseer (Webster 1828)

As a noun: one who overlooks; a superintendent; a supervisor.

As a verb transitive: to superintend; to overlook, implying care.

6Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: 7Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, 8Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.Proverbs 6:6-8

Our concept of superintendent or supervisor can still draw us toward that of ruling over another. This verse from Proverbs makes a distinction between ruling and being an overseer. It is Jesus Christ who preeminently rules his flock, the assembly of believers, gathered in his name. Elders are to be those identifiable living epistles that facilitate the work of God, particularly through their teaching that also reflects their character.

The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. 4And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away. 5Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. I Peter 5:1-5

Peter indicates that he fit the criteria of an elder and functioned as an elder; a living epistle with a desire to teach the things of God. Knowing the danger of preeminence, Peter stresses to these elders that having this responsibility of being an elder was not a license to lord it over others. They were to take great care not to usurp the preeminence of Jesus by trying to wrest away God’s heritage. They were to be examples to God’s heritage, living epistles, of exceptional character, especially in righteousness.

Having oversight, they were to have the big picture, recognizing dangerous wolves that might try to invade the fellowship and being ready with a barrage of answers and teachings to thwart their every attack. And no matter how difficult the task set before them, a faithful elder would never allow money to be their motivation.

Jesus, the chief Shepherd declared that maintaining this example was so important that each faithful elder would have a crown of glory waiting for them when they left this earth.  Those who were younger were directly instructed to submit to these living epistles so they too would one day fit the criteria of an elder and be an example to others.

17Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. 18For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward. I Timothy 5:17-18

And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also. II Timothy 2:2

Being a good example, overseeing those within the church to protect, guide, and facilitate them, plus carefully and diligently teaching others according to God’s word was to be considered a highly honorable role. Elders were never to be motivated by money, but those within a fellowship were always told to reward those who labored much for their benefit; those who spent a lot of time and care in dispensing good teaching.

They were not to hold this role of teaching to themselves only but were to constantly look for other faithful men to be teachers. Like themselves, those committed would most likely be designated as elders. However, elders always needed to take care not to squash other people by using this honorable commission to become preeminent over others.

1Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; 2The elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity. I Timothy 5:1-2

This verse refers to an elder not in the formal “living epistle” context but concerning older people. The Bible in many other places instructs us to treat those who are older with deep respect and dignity.

 Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. I Timothy 5:19

In Titus 1:6-7 a bishop (elder) is twice told to be “blameless”. This double emphasis accentuates the responsibility to those designated as “living epistles” for others to emulate. Any accusation against them was to be taken most seriously. A violation of an elder’s character could heavily damage the church, the Gospel, and Jesus Christ. That is why there needed to be solid witnesses, who if true, would require stripping the person of his bishop/elder designation. Then, everyone in the fellowship would clearly know not to use him as an example, because he violated one or more criteria for being an elder. Instead, they would all be called upon to lovingly nurture him to a place of repentance and hopefully, to once again, become an elder.

5For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: 6If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. 7For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; 8But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; 9Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.

Titus would have been a “living epistle” who was commissioned to look for those in Crete that fit the criteria for being an elder. This shows the progression of the Gospel in the early church, primarily through “living epistles”. It should be notable that Titus was not to look for a singular elder in each city, but elders. All who fit the criteria would be good examples as “living epistles” and were to be ordained as elders. He was not looking for a preeminent Christian in each city, but for those examples for others to emulate in word and deed.

Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Philippians 1:1

Just as in Crete, the church at Philippi is seen to have multiple bishops and deacons. This plurality highly indicates that anyone who fit the criteria of a “living epistle”, either as an elder or deacon was to be ordained as examples. In this way, God wonderfully designed the Gospel to propagate throughout the world. Jesus, as their shepherd, would be guiding all the saints to follow the “living epistle” example of elders and deacons. The Holy Spirit would be molding them and empowering them in his sanctifying work to become more and more like Jesus, the living word of God.

Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: James 5:14

These “living epistles”, who could only fulfill the criteria of their office by their reliance upon God, are called upon to do the anointing. These would not be men of doubt, but men of strong faith, testifying to the entire assembly that God is able to heal anyone of any sickness.

The elder unto the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth; and not I only, but also all they that have known the truth; II John 1:1

The elder unto the wellbeloved Gaius, whom I love in the truth. III John 1:1

9I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. 10Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church. III John 1:9-10

Here the Apostle John refers to himself as an elder. He writes to those he has gotten to know in depth through loving relationships that are anchored in truth. One thing he makes clear is that the position of elder is not to be taken as a preeminent position as we see him soundly condemning that practice.

For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick let another take. Acts 1:20

Every Apostle was to be a “living epistle” for others to follow as elders or deacons. Judas was to be an elder, but like Satan, fell from his position. It was prophesied for there to be a replacement, whom Jesus selected to be Paul.

For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls. I Peter 2:25

A bishop is an elder whose criteria recognizes him being one who nurtures and cares for believers within his sphere of influence. The first example to be passed on from generation to generation was Jesus himself. From Jesus, it passed to his 12 disciples (with Paul the replacement for Judas). They then passed it on to the elders and deacons, who passed it on to others until the Roman Empire was saturated with “living epistles”. The elders and deacons were never to control or muzzle their fellow believers. Rather, they were tasked to facilitate their development in becoming exemplary examples in word and deed.

Unfortunately, several hundred years after Pentecost, elitism predominated. Words were taken hostage and became titles to help elevate the ecclesiastical elite. The “living epistles” became dead letters as believers were muzzled, set in rows, and subject to the commands of the elevated clergy.