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The Question of Elders
Part 1: What is the name for our church leaders?
(E. Radmacher)

Author's Bias: Interpretation: conservative
Inclination: dispensational
Seminary: Dallas Theological

While one of the great Protestant distinctions is the sole authority of Scripture for faith and practice, we must never allow a doctrinal statement or a tradition to have equal authority. Thus, we need to regularly check our beliefs and practices by Scriptures lest we find ourselves guilty of transgressing the commandment of God by our tradition. One such area of controversy is the whole question of church leadership and government. Is there to be a single leader over a congregation or is leadership to be multiple? Is the congregation to be a pure democracy? Does each member have an equal say in all the affairs of the church? What does it mean to "rule" and to "obey"? Who is to have final authority? Is the church governed by the elders or by the congregation? What should the leaders be called - deacons or elders - pastors or bishops?

1. Three titles are given to the officers of the local church in the New Testament: elder, bishop, and deacon. The office of the deacon concerns the ordered service of the church. Our focus will be on the governmental leadership of the church. How are the terms elder and bishop related? How do they differ? See Acts 20:17; I Peter 5:1-5; I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9.

The titles elder (presbuteros) and bishop (episkopos) refer to the same office, which deals primarily with the governmental leadership of the church. Several lines of evidence in Scripture make this apparent.

First, when Paul summons the leadership of the church at Ephesus, he designates them as "elders," (Acts 20:17) and then proceeds to identify them as "overseers" (episkopous, i.e., bishops) and to speak of their work of feeding (poimainein, i.e., pastoring). Peter does the same thing in I Peter 5:1-5. Addressing the "elders," he charges them to "feed (poimanete) the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight (episkopountes)."

A second line of evidence demonstrating that the designations are interchangeable is seen in the list of qualifications in Timothy and Titus. I Timothy 3:1-7 gives qualifications for a "bishop" and then for a "deacon" in verses 8-13 without ever mentioning an elder, whereas Titus 1:5-9, in referring to the "elder" lists the qualifications given for the bishop in I Timothy 3:1-7. Furthermore, after instructing them to ordain "elders" in every city, Paul identifies them as "bishops" in verse 7.

Finally, in addressing the church at Philippi (Phil 1:1), Paul omits reference to "elders": "To all the saints …with the bishops and deacons." If there were a third order of ministers, namely, "elders", Paul simply would not have overlooked them.

2. Why are there two different designations for the same church office? See 1 Timothy 3:1-2; Titus 1:7; Philippians 1:1.

With respect to these two designations of this one office, what conclusions may we draw? First, the designation used is not of paramount importance as long as it truly expresses the nature and function of the position. In other words, this is not an absolute. In fact, there is some evidence that the New Testament writers used differing terms that were common in the vocabularies of the differing peoples to whom they wrote.

For example, "bishop" was an official title among the Greeks. Lightfoot reminds us that "in Athenian language it was used especially to designate commissioners appointed to regulate a new colony or acquisition…" (Philippians, p. 29). On the other hand, "elder" was uniquely associated with the activities of God’s chosen people. Again, Lightfoot observes: "In the lifetime of the law giver, in the days of the judges, throughout the monarchy, during the captivity, after the return, and under Roman domination, the ‘elders’ appear as an integral part of the governing body of the country… over every Jewish synagogue… a council of ‘elders’ presided. It was not unnatural, therefore, when the Christian synagogue took its place by the side of the Jewish, a similar organization should be adopted with such modification as circumstances required; and thus the name familiar under the old dispensation was retained under the new" (Philippians, p. 96).

Now, it is true that some have concluded that "bishop" refers to the office, while "elder" has more to do with the man. Others, however, believe that "elder" relates to the dignity of the office while "bishop" describes the duties. Is it possible that there is a more significant explanation of the difference? Gene Getz queries (Sharpening the Focus of the Church): "Could it be that Paul, since he used the word ‘bishop’ more frequently than other New Testament writers, did so to communicate more effectively to the mixture of converted Jews and Gentiles in the New Testament church? This can be seen in Paul’s writing to the Philippians (Philippians 1:1), to Timothy who was stationed at Ephesus (I Timothy 3:1-2) and to Titus who was in Crete (Titus 1:7). All of these churches were found in a pagan world and were composed of both Jew and Gentile converts. If this is true, it means that Paul was again mindful of how important it is to communicate in the language of the people. He wanted to bring both groups together in oneness, to show them there was no barrier or ‘dividing wall,’ but rather ‘one new man’. So whether we call them elders (a term well-known to Jews) or bishops (a term well-known to Greeks), it matters not, implies Paul. The important issue is what these men were like, what characterized their lives. The title was secondary, their qualifications and functions were primary." It is interesting to note that the title that has become most common in our churches today, namely, pastor, was not used in conjunction with a church in the New Testament. The regularly used terms were "elder" and "bishop."

I would agree with Getz that we ought not be "locked in" to certain titles. We ought to be free to choose titles from our 20th Century vocabulary and culture that clearly describe the New Testament function. On the other hand, we should not hasten to change simply for the sake of change. Again, I think Getz is "right on" when he concludes that "… the criterion for change is when certain terms become a hindrance, rather than a help to the function of a church. Note, however, that because Paul was flexible in terminology when describing leaders in a church, it does not mean that he was indefinite in other areas. When it came to leadership qualifications and functions, he was definite, precise, and consistent. This helps us to differentiate absolutes from non-absolutes in the area of leadership."

Perhaps we should seek to determine an appropriate title for our culture. Should we stay with the most common New Testament title, i.e., elder, or the currently popular term, i.e., pastor, or is there yet a better term for this day?

Dr. Earl Radmacher was born some seventy years ago in Portland, Oregon just a couple of miles from Western Seminary where, in the providence of God, he would later serve on the theological faculty for thirty-three years (1962-1995) and in administrative positions as Dean of the Faculty (1964-1965), President (1965-1990), and Chancellor (1990-1995). In 1995 he was designated President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology Emeritus.

His parents, who were immigrants from Romania and Austria, settled in Portland in 1913 where they brought eight children into this world, Earl being the last. The whole family was very active in local churches so every Sunday found Earl spending all day in church-Sunday school, morning worship, potluck lunch at the church, recreation break, youth service, evening service, and after service. Even though he heard the gospel preached Sunday after Sunday, he did not personally receive Christ as his Savior until he was fourteen years of age. He has often stated that sitting in church Sunday after Sunday doesn't make one a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes a car…

At that juncture in his life, Earl came in contact with another Earl-Earl Gile-a faithful Sunday school teacher who lived right across the street from the grade school he had attended, and he opened up his home as an outreach to boys from the school. Mr. Gile's church rented the school gymnasium on Thursday nights and made it available for boys to play basketball if they came to Sunday school on Sundays. That sounded like a good deal, so he went. Shortly after that, the teacher announced a forthcoming boys camps at Twin Rocks Beach, Oregon. He decided to go; and there, at fourteen years of age, he accepted Christ as his Savior.

Although the church preached the gospel faithfully, they didn't go beyond the gospel to build up believers in the faith. He has often said, "As a believer, I didn't need a birth message, but I did need a growth message. That being absent, I tended to flounder, and my growth in Christ was stunted. Thus, the high school years were a disaster as far as the things of Christ and spiritual growth were concerned."

As graduation time neared, he took the normal batch of tests to determine which line of work he should pursue. The tests indicated mathematics or mechanics, so he decided to go the route of mathematics and join it with money by starting a career in a savings and loan institution. He started as a file clerk and worked up to an investment statistician that year.

His plans in the investment business were dramatically interrupted, however, by a visit to Portland of a new evangelist on the scene, Billy Graham, in August of 1950. A friend invited him to go to the meeting and although he had little spiritual appetite at that time, God seemed to press him toward the affirmative. As the poet Francis Thompson has written: "He tracked me down the corridors of time." As it turned out, Earl not only went that night but every night thereafter for six weeks. The only meeting he missed was the women's meeting (they wouldn't let him in!).

After listening to the powerful preaching of Billy Graham for six weeks, at the conclusion of the last service, he found himself standing on his feet, going forward, grabbing Cliff Barrow's hand, and telling him that God called him to preach. His next question was, "What do I do now?" Cliff said, "You go to college to prepare" and he recommended his alma mater in South Carolina.

Once again, god had a man prepared to help him take the next step. As the tabernacle cleared out, he saw a man he hadn't seen since grade school. In the beautiful providence of God, this man, Jerry Burleson, was going to the same college in South Carolina that Cliff Barrows had recommended, and he was looking for one more rider. Although it was just two weeks before Fall semester, Jerry assured him that they would accept him on probation through his recommendation. He worked nights for two weeks training another person for his job so that he could leave with the good graces of his employer.

Twelve years and four degrees later (together with broad opportunities of experience in preaching and teaching, overseas missions and military chaplainry, local church pastor and parachurch ministries, rural and urban outreaches), he ended up not in the pastorate, but in the training of evangelists, pastors, and teachers at Western Seminary. His years there involved traveling over ten million miles and preaching and teaching over twenty thousand hours in over a thousand Bible conferences and thousands of churches.

Among the numerous books and articles that Dr. Radmacher has authored or edited are the following books: You and your thoughts (1977), The Nature of the Church (1978, 1995), Can We Trust the Bible (1979), What to Expect from the Holy Spirit (1983), Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible (1984), The NIV Reconsidered (1990), The Nelson Study Bible (1997), Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Commentary (1999), and Salvation (2000).

Dr. Radmacher has often stated, "In my wildest dreams fifty years ago, I could never have imagined the exciting plans that God, in His sovereign grace, had for me." His life mission is found in 2 Timothy 2:15, "Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." His personal life verse is 2 Corinthians 3:18, "But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord."


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