In the 21st century, we commonly see the terms “elders,” “presbyters,” “bishops,” “pastors,” and “overseers” referring to different roles that man has developed. In the first century church, however, all of these terms referred to only one God-defined role. In Acts 20:17-38 Paul is instructing the elders from the church of Ephesus. They are referred to as elders in v17 (Greek word presbuteros) and he also calls them bishops in v28 (Greek word episkopos). Paul also describes that their work was to feed the flock (to shepherd or to pastor from the Greek word poimen). A similar interchangeability of terms is used in I Peter 5:1-2. All of these words, which describe different aspects of the role, refer to the same individuals – the elders. Men have turned this role into a variety of different offices, but there is no authority for this from scripture. (Elders and deacons are indeed different roles, but we won’t cover that topic in this article.)
As I Timothy 3:1 shows, theirs was to be a working role, not just a position of status or honor. They were to feed the flock, the local church which they were in charge of, as shown in I Peter 5:2. They were to rule over those in their charge (I Timothy 5:17), and to oversee their activities (Acts 20:28), and to watch out for those who would teach error (Acts 20:31).
The authority of the elders came not from themselves. They were not to believe or teach anything that had not been delivered to them (Galatians 1:7-8). Their function was to teach, demonstrate by example, and enforce what the Holy Spirit had showed them to be true. The Lord has not changed this role description.
How many elders were intended to be over each congregation? There is no precise number given. We do see, however, that there was always a plurality of bishops. Paul and Barnabas helped select “elders in every church” in Acts 14:23; the “elders” of Jerusalem are referred to in Acts 15:2; Paul talks with the elders of the church at Ephesus in Acts 20:17-38; Titus was instructed to appoint “elders in every city” (Titus 1:5); the sick were told to call for the “elders of the church” in James 5:14 – here James refers to those sick from a local congregation and they were to call for their elders to pray for them. The Scriptures never refer to one elder (pastor, bishop, overseer, or shepherd) being over a congregation of God’s people.
Neither is there evidence in scripture of elders presiding over more than one congregation. Peter instructed the elders to “tend the flock of God which is among you” (1 Peter 5:2). Paul told the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28 “Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops.” In this case, Paul was speaking to those who were elders of the congregation in Ephesus – the saints at Ephesus were the ones the Holy Spirit had entrusted to them. Nothing is ever suggested to show that elders were shepherding anyone but the members of their local flock.
Who is eligible in God’s sight to perform this work of oversight of local congregations of the saints? Paul was clear with two first century preachers about what to teach on this matter. The qualifications are clearly laid out in Titus 1:5-11 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7, 11 and they indicate that only a certain type of individual living a certain lifestyle met the requirements for pastoring over His flocks.
Can a woman rightfully perform the role of being one of the presbyters of a local congregation of God’s Christians? The inspired qualifications given in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 leave us answering “no” to this question. The woman cannot be the “husband of one wife.” This scripture in no way gives any suggestion that men are better than women – only that God has differentiated their roles according to His will.
It is up to us to adhere to the authorized description of leadership for the Lord’s church. If we change, or update the qualifications that were given, we do it on our own authority and not God’s. We must follow that pattern that we know God finds acceptable just as the first century church did.