Previous article in this series: October 15, 2019, p. 40.
In our last article we surveyed the work of the office of elder as prescribed by various articles of our Church Order, the “Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons,” and Article 30 of the Belgic Confession. Our goal was to demonstrate that imbedded in these confessions, if not explicitly stated, is the idea that the work of the office of elder has three basic aspects: rule or oversight, being a pastor or shepherd, and teaching.
In this article we will demonstrate this point from Scripture. In doing so, we will refer not only to New Testament passages that clearly relate to the work of the office of elder, but also to Old Testament passages that set forth the calling of Israel’s kings. The reason for doing this is that the office of elder in the New Testament church finds its roots and basis in the Old Testament position of judge and office of king.
In the Greek New Testament, two different words refer to the office of elder. One, which sounds like “presbyter” in the English language, refers to the office as consisting of older, honorable men. In that sense, it functions like our word “elder,” meaning, “older.” The other, which sounds like “episkopos,” refers to the office from the viewpoint of its work of overseeing.
Interestingly, from these two words come two fundamentally different systems of church government, with two fundamentally different views of how the office of elder functions in the church. The presbyterian (Reformed) system of church government views the body of elders as the rulers of individual congregations, chosen by those congregations, and limited in their rule to those congregations. The episcopalian (Anglican) system of church government is hierarchical. It prescribes that a bishop may be appointed by an archbishop, and the rule of the bishop may be imposed on a congregation, even on several congregations in a geographic area. The latter system takes a biblical concept and gives it content that the Scriptures do not give it.
The point for now is that the second of these Greek words indicates that the work of the office of elder is that of oversight. The word literally means “overseer,” one who watches over others to see that they are doing things properly. It is translated “overseer” in Acts 20:28, and “bishop” in Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1–2, Titus 1:7, and 1 Peter 2:25. Emphasizing that Christ is our Bishop, our Overseer, to whom we answer in the last day, it is translated “visitation” in Luke 19:44 and 1 Peter 2:12.
Several passages in 1 Timothy indicate that the office of elder is the office of rule. God requires a bishop to be a man “that ruleth well his own house” (1 Tim. 3:4) and gives the reason in the next verse: “For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?” Later the apostle says, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor…” (1 Tim. 5:17). In these three passages, the Greek word translated “rule” refers to one who has been appointed or placed over another.
The “Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons” (used in the PRC and found in the back of her Psalter) refers to Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 to demonstrate that the office of elder is one of rule. Romans 12:8 requires “he that ruleth” in the body of Christ to do so “with diligence.” First Corinthians 12:28 reminds us that God has given various offices to His New Testament church. Some of these offices are temporary, having ceased with the end of the apostolic age and the completion of God’s revelation. Others the church needs until our Lord returns. In this latter category is “governments.”
To the office of elder the inspired writer to the Hebrews refers when he says: “Remember them which have the rule over you” (Heb. 13:7), and later in the same chapter, “Obey them that have the rule over you.” The Greek word translated “them that have the rule” refers to a leader, one who goes ahead, indicating that the rulers in the church lead the sheep as they trek through the wilderness of this life.
That the Scriptures speak clearly to the work of the elder as that of ruler or overseer does not surprise us, when we consider that through this office Jesus Christ is present with His church as our King. A king rules. Not surprising, then, that Peter tells the church that Jesus Christ is “the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:25).
Not only is Christ our Bishop, but also our Shepherd, Peter said. Certainly Christ manifests Himself as our Shepherd through the office of pastor, when faithful men appointed to that office prepare good spiritual food for our souls, and nurture us in faith and godliness (Eph. 4:11).
But elders are also shepherds.
Two passages here are significant, for they combine the idea of rule and shepherding. Acts 20:28 records the admonition of the apostle Paul to the elders of Ephesus: “take heed.to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God….” And in 1 Peter 5:1–4, the inspired apostle exhorts the elders to “feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof…being examples to the flock.” Both speak of the church as a flock; both indicate that the work of the elders is to oversee; but both also speak of the need to “feed” the flock. In both passages, the Greek verb means to keep sheep, to ‘shepherdize’ the flock, which involves everything from rule and government (Matt. 2:6, “shall rule my people Israel”), to furnishing food and nourishment (Luke 17:7, “feeding cattle”), to tender loving care.
What shepherd does not rule his sheep? Does not his rod (staff) serve a practical purpose? Yet, what shepherd is not also tender toward his sheep, and attends to their distresses? So the elder rules as a shepherd, as one who loves his sheep and is compassionate toward them.
The godly kings of Old Testament Israel were concerned not merely to govern the outward lives of the people by applying an outward code to them, but especially to instill a love for the law and for Jehovah that would proceed from the hearts of the Israelites and would be the way to enjoy the deepest blessings of Jehovah.
The ungodly kings were rebuked for being unfaithful shepherds. The “pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture” (Jer. 23:1) were evidently wicked kings, for that description of the pastors is sandwiched between a denunciation of Coniah and a promise that the Messiah will come: “a king shall reign and prosper” (23:5). The same is the case in Ezekiel 34, a chapter rich with the shepherd imagery. Jehovah pronounces Himself against the shepherds who have destroyed the flock (v. 10), will Himself perform the true work of a shepherd (v. 11ff.), and “will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David” (v. 23), another reference to Jesus Christ.
Jesus referred not only to His work as Prophet and Priest but also to His work as King when He said, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10). He is “the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:25), and “the chief Shepherd (who) shall appear” to give faithful elders “a crown of glory that fadeth not away” (1 Pet. 5:4).
If the idea of rule and oversight does not suggest to the elder that he should have a continual care for the church of God that shows itself in a compassion and pity for each member, the idea of a shepherd must. No shepherd worthy of the title lies on his back on a grassy knoll, only to check on the sheep occasionally; his care of them is constant. He guards, watches, feeds, leads to still waters—always. Likewise, the elder feeds the sheep with the Word of God.
If the elder feeds with the Word of God, he must be a teacher. Again, one might say, “But pastors are teachers. Do not Reformed churches consider the words ‘pastors and teachers’ (Eph. 4:11) to refer to one and the same office?” Certainly.1
Yet, as I argued some years earlier with regard to the office of deacon, each special office in the church has a teaching aspect to it. So does the office of elder.
Just as the inspired list of divine qualifications for the office refers to elders as rulers, so it refers to them as teachers. “A bishop must then be…apt to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). And, “holding 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” (Tit. 1:9).
That significant passage in Acts 20:28, which indicated that the elder is both overseer and shepherd, does not speak explicitly of the elder as teacher. Yet the idea is implied. The apostle has just told the elders of Ephesus that, while among them, he “taught [them] publicly, and from house to house” (20). Now he warns them against wolves that will destroy the flock. How? By their teachings: “speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (30). So when the apostle says, “Therefore watch” (31), he means, guard by teaching! And when he commends them “to God, and to the word of his grace” (32), he reminds them of the very means by which they can teach and the food (God’s Word) that they must set forth as shepherds.
In the Old Testament godly kings provided for the instruction of Israel.
For one thing, David and Solomon were both kings and prophets. In this respect, they were exceptions; many godly kings in Israel were not prophets. But how lovely that, at the height of the glory of Israel as an earthly manifestation of God’s kingdom, the kings taught not only the law that God had already revealed, but also new revelations from Jehovah!
Jehoshaphat was not a prophet. Yet we read that he, working to reform Israel, sent princes to teach God’s law in the cities of Judah (2 Chron. 17:7–9).
Already in the time of Moses, God had prescribed that the king of Israel, when she had one, must write out by his own hand his own copy of the law of God, that he might know it and keep it (Deut. 17:18–20). This would also prepare him to teach it.
Elders in Christ’s church must teach, in addition to ruling and shepherding. Indeed, the three aspects of their office are all related. Elders cannot rule without shepherding. They cannot shepherd without teaching. They cannot teach without ruling.
Christ’s church needs elders who have a comprehensive idea of what their work involves. The flock needs rulers who shepherd, and shepherds who teach.
According to this threefold division, therefore, we will begin to examine the work of the elders in more detail.
1 John Calvin took the position that these terms referred to two different offices. The pastor was the pastor of a congregation. The teacher was the doctor of theology, the professor in the seminary. However, Reformed churches generally have concluded that, grammatically, the two terms must be understood as referring to one and the same office, that of pastor, who is a teacher.