In this blog post, I demonstrate that the plural term “elders” does not refer to the leadership of a local church, but refers to all the pastors of the city-church.
There are three levels at which the word “church” is used in the Bible.
First, the word “church” is used of all the believers in the world. We call this the universal church:
Ephesians 1:22 (NKJV)
22 And He [God] put all things under His [Jesus’] feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church,
Second, the word “church” is also used of all the believers in a city or town. We call this the city-church:
Acts 11:22 (NKJV)
22 Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch.
Third, the word “church” is also used of a congregation that meets in a house. The first century city-[church] was thus subdivided into house-churches. Excavations from that period indicate that the atrium of larger homes could hold up to 36 people and courtyards could accommodate up to 200 people. The house-church is equivalent to what we would typically call the local church today:
Romans 16:5 (NKJV)
5 Likewise greet the church that is in their house.
Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia to Christ.
1 Corinthians 16:19 (NKJV)
19 The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.
Colossians 4:15 (NKJV)
15 Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea, and Nymphas and the church that is in his house.
Philemon 2 (NKJV)
2 to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Each house-church had a leader. All the house-church leaders in a city were collectively known as the “elders” of the church in that city. This is similar to the fact that in ancient Israel, the most basic level of eldership was comprised of the heads of each household (see Exodus 12:21 where "all the elders of Israel" is a reference to every head of a household). Even so, the city-church eldership was made up of the leaders of each house-church. Because each house-church in a city had one elder, the city-church could be said to have “elders”. Therefore, it is the city-church, not the house-church, to which the plural term “elders” applies. The verses below pertain to the eldership of the city-churches:
Titus 1:5 (NKJV)
5 For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you—
Acts 14:21–23 (NKJV)
21 And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.” 23 So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
The city-church was a single community. Those who were part of the house-church saw themselves as part of the wider city-church, and Paul would address the city-wide church as a single entity, even though it was comprised of many house-churches:
1 Corinthians 1:2 (NKJV)
2 To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours:
The word “elder” denoted the spiritual maturity of the house-church leader. The elders were also known as “pastors” and “overseers”. These terms denoted the function of the elder, namely the pastoral responsibility of feeding the church with God’s word, caring for and leading them; and the responsibility to oversee the church. The word “overseer” is translated “bishop” in some translations. In the first century church, a bishop (overseer) was simply a house-church leader:
Acts 20:17–18, 28 (NIV)
17 From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. 18 When they arrived, he said to them: “…28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds [i.e. pastors] of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.
Ephesians 4:11 (NKJV)
11 And He Himself gave some to be… pastors
Titus 1:5–7 (ESV)
5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain,
The house-church pastor was assisted by “deacons” who served in practical ways. Notice that in the following passage, “overseer” is singular whilst “deacons” is plural, indicating that there was one pastor and several deacons in each house-church. Notice also that there are strict criteria for those who may be appointed to these positions:
1 Timothy 3:1–13 (ESV)
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
8 Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
In the early church, the apostles provided leadership to the elders. However, the apostle Paul did not envision that the Ephesian elders would remain dependent upon him, but trained them so that they could function without him. Nonetheless, for reasons that aren’t clear it seems that Paul found his way back to Ephesus and had to leave Timothy there to sort out problems that had arisen:
Acts 20:25–27, 32 (NKJV)
25 “And indeed, now I know that you all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, will see my face no more. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. 27 For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God…. 32 “So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
1 Timothy 1:3 (ESV)
3 As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine,
This blog post was been taken from chapter 7 of my book Firm Foundations: Knowing What You Believe available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.
Verses marked NIV are from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. Verses marked HCSB are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Holman CSB®, and HCSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers. Verses marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Verses marked NLT are from Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved. Quotations marked NEB are from The New English Bible: The New Testament © ‘The
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