What is an Elder? The are three primary words in the New Testament that are used to describe an elder: Poimen (shepherd), Episcopos (overseer), and Presbuteros (old man or elder).
Let’s look at the word, shepherd. John 10 gives us the discourse of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. If you want to know what Christ’s under-shepherds are to do in tending his flock, read John 10. Shepherds take care of sheep. They know where there is fresh water and good grazing, and they are dedicated to ensuring their sheep have the best of both. Shepherds also provide for the physical safety of their flocks. They are on guard against the predators who would ravage the flock.
What is true of sheep and shepherds is also true of churches and elders (shepherds). Elders are to know the living word of God. And they are to lead their charges into knowing God better and loving him more. In addition, Christ’s under-shepherds are to guard God’s people from sin and doctrinal error. They are on constant alert to protect Christ’s redeemed from the devil who is going about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.
Shepherds are called of God and anointed by the Holy Spirit to feed, preserve, and protect Christ’s flock until the day of his return. Christ’s under-shepherds are not hirelings. They are not good businessmen hired to manage a business. That kind of elders fold under pressure. They are people-pleasers who go with the flow and compromise the faith once delivered to the saints.
Now let’s look at the Episcopos. The word is made up two Greek words, epi, or over, and scopos, or look. We get the words telescope and microscope from scopos.
An Overseer or Bishop is to watch over or look out for the people of God. A faithful overseer guards the doctrines of the church. He makes certain that what is taught and what is believed is in accordance with the revelation of God in Scripture and in Jesus Christ. This is a hard task! No one likes to be told they are believing a lie, and not too many of us find it easy to say. But that’s the job! We want you in heaven with us. Part of God’s work in saving men and women is to send overseers to point the way to heaven. We usually don’t call our Elders and Pastors, Bishop, but that is part of their job description.
And let’s look at Presbuteros. The word means, old man, and it is usually translated as, elder. We sometimes use the phrase, “He is wise beyond his years,” to describe a young person who displays unusual wisdom. We expect the young to lack wisdom because wisdom results from the intersection of knowledge and experience, and we are pleasantly surprised when they can tap into the experience of others and show wisdom in a situation.
So an Elder to be an Elder in the biblical sense, needs to be one who is knowledgeable and experienced in the Word of God, and who is able to bring that combination which we call wisdom into the governance of the church.
Churches need wise elders – elders who can shepherd the people of God, who can oversee God’s people to protect them from false doctrine and the devil who desires to destroy them, and who are wise in discerning truth from error and the temporal from the eternal. Churches need teaching elders to pastor and ruling elders to guide. May God continue to give us such men.