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What is the meaning of the Biblical term, "elder"?

The Bible uses the word “elder” in many different connections. In each case, the context will show, however, how the word is to be understood.

“The Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words,” by W.E.Vine, gives a fairly accurate description of the meaning of the word “elder,” with the exception of several related or unrelated blatant mistakes, as will be pointed out by us through annotations in brackets:

Vine’s commentary states the following:

“A. Adjectives

“1. PRESBUTEROS…, an adjective, the comparative degree of ‘presbus,’ an old man, an elder, is used

“(a) of age, whether of the elder of two persons, Luke 15:25, or more, John 8:9, ‘the eldest’;

“or of a person advanced in life, a senior, Acts 2:17;

“in [Hebrews] 11:2, the ‘elders’ are the forefathers in Israel [including spiritual teachers]; so in [Matthew] 15:2; Mark 7:3,5;

“the feminine of the adjective is used of elder women in the churches, 1 [Timothy] 5:2, not in respect of position but in seniority of age;

“(b) of rank or positions of responsibility,

“(1) among Gentiles, as in… [Genesis] 50:7; [Numbers] 22:7;

“(2) in the… nation [of Israel; Vine says here, “Jewish nation,” which is too restrictive, as the nation of Israel consisted of more than just Jews; “Jews” referred originally to just ONE of the TWELVE tribes of Israel],

“firstly, those who were the heads of leaders of the tribes and families… [Vine refers here to passages such as Numbers 11:16; Deuteronomy 27:1– it should be noted, however, that here the word “elders” clearly includes RELIGIOUS responsibilities, not JUST political leadership], and those assembled by Solomon;

“secondly, members of the Sanhedrin, consisting of the chief priests, elders and scribes, learned in Jewish Law [both the inspired Word of God and Jewish human traditions which were sometimes in conflict with the Word of God], e.g. [Matthew] 16:21; 26:47;

“thirdly, those who managed public affairs in various cities , Luke 7:3;

“(3) IN THE CHRISTIAN CHURCHES, those who, being raised up and qualified by the work of the Holy Spirit, were APPOINTED to have the spiritual care of, and to exercise oversight over, the churches. To these the term bishops [episkopoi], or overseers, is applied (see Acts 20, ver. 17 with ver. 28, and [Titus] 1:5 and 7), the latter term indicating the nature of their work; ‘presbuteroi’ their maturity of spiritual experience… the duty of elders is described by the verb ‘episkopeo.’ They were appointed according as they had given evidence of fulfilling the Divine qualifications, [Titus] 1:6 to 9; [compare] 1 [Timothy] 3:1-7 and 1 [Peter] 5:2;

“(4) the twenty-four elders enthroned in Heaven around the throne of God, [Revelation] 4:4, 10; 5:5-14; 7:11, 13; 11:16; 14:3; 19:4… the word ‘elder’ is nowhere applied to angels. [This is one of Vine’s terribly wrong conclusions, based on the erroneous teaching that we go to heaven when we die. NOWHERE DOES THE BIBLE TEACH THAT MAN ASCENDS TO HEAVEN WHEN HE DIES. Therefore, the word “elder” in the context of Revelation CLEARLY applies to angelic spirit beings–and NOT to humans. For instance, we find that God Almighty is described in Daniel 7:22, as “the Ancient of Days”–referring to the fact that He has ALWAYS existed. Even though angels were created by God and had a beginning, they are nevertheless much “older” than any human being; therefore the term “elder,” in describing them, is very appropriate.]

“2. SUMPRESBUTEROS… a fellow-elder (‘sum,’ with), is used in 1 [Peter] 5:1.

“3. MEIZON… greater, the comparative degree of ‘megas,’ great, is used of age, and translated ‘elder’ in [Romans] 9:12, with reference to Esau and Jacob.”

“B. Noun

“PRESBUTERION…, an assembly of aged men, denotes

“(a) the Council or Senate among the Jews, Luke 22:66; Acts 22:5;

“(b) the elders or bishops in a local church, 1 [Timothy] 4:14…”

Addressing now the word “elder” within the confines of the Church of God, Peter called himself a “fellow elder.” But he was also an apostle. In addition, John, who was also one of the original apostles, called himself “the elder” (2 John 1; 3 John 1). However, we also read about a clear distinction, at times, between apostles and elders (Acts 15:4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4).

Christ gave different ranks, roles and functions to the ministry.

In Ephesians 4:11, Paul writes:

“And He Himself [Jesus Christ] gave SOME to be apostles, SOME prophets, SOME evangelists, and SOME pastors and teachers…”

The word for “pastor” here is “poimen,” meaning “shepherd or “feeder”–who “leads” or “takes” care of the “sheep,” the flock of God,” and who “feeds” them with God’s Word.

Although the passage in Ephesians 4:11 addresses “ranks or positions of responsibility” (Compare Vine, p. 21, under “Elder, Eldest”), it also clearly talks about functions.

In addition, we read Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:28-29: “And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues [languages]. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles?”

Note that “evangelists” and “pastors” are not mentioned in that Scripture. But Paul says that God has appointed “teachers” in the “third” position. If Paul was addressing ranks here, as distinguished from functions, he would have had to list them in the “fifth” position, in order to not contradict his statements in Ephesians 4:11-12.

Paul calls himself “an apostle,” “a preacher” and a “teacher” (1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11), describing his functions and responsibilities. In addition, he, as well as Barnabas, who would become an apostle (Acts 14:14), are also designated as “prophets and teachers” (Acts 13:1-3).

On the other hand, the word “bishop” simply means “overseer.” The Greek word is “episkopos” and is applied to “elders,” as Vine correctly points out (compare again Acts 20:17 with Acts 20:28, and Titus 1:5 with Titus 1:7, describing “elders” as “bishops” or “overseers”–in Greek, “episkopos.”). 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:7 describe the qualification of a “bishop” or an “overseer”–that is, an elder. In its ultimate sense, the word “bishop” is also applied to Jesus Christ (as is the word “Apostle”; compare Hebrews 3:1), as we read about Christ’s FUNCTION as a “Bishop” in 1 Peter 2:25:

“For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and OVERSEER [Greek, “episkopos,” i.e. Bishop] of your souls.”

At one time, the Church of God distinguished between “local” elders (not employed by the Church) and “preaching” elders (employed by the Church). Even though they were both understood to be “elders,” with full ministerial credentials, the role of a local elder was perceived as mainly overseeing a local church, under a more experienced elder or pastor, while the function of a preaching elder included additional preaching responsibilities. However, as such designation cannot be specifically found in Scripture, we distinguish today in the ordained ministry between elders, pastors, evangelists, prophets and apostles–regardless, of whether or not they are employed by the Church. At the same time, we realize that an evangelist would also have the function and responsibility of a pastor and an elder–and that a pastor would have the function and responsibility of an elder.

As of today, we do not find that God has presently ordained a minister to the office of apostle or prophet, but we cannot rule out the possibility that He will do so in the future. We DO believe that the late human leader of the Worldwide Church of God, Herbert W. Armstrong, who died in 1986, was in fact fulfilling the role and function of an apostle, and that he held such spiritual rank. If God chooses to appoint ministers as apostles in the future, this will have to become very obvious and manifest, by the FRUITS of such individual(s). It stands to reason that the TWO WITNESSES (compare Revelation 11:3-7, 11-12) will fulfill the office, rank and function of both apostle and prophet (as some of the early apostles, such as Paul and Peter, fulfilled several functions, roles and responsibilities, including the function of “prophet,” “preacher,” “teacher” and “elder”).

Lead Writer: Norbert Link