Second Installment: One Kind of Elder, Not Two

In Part One I pointed to resources that argue for only one kind of elder in the New Testament. This is in contrast to most Presbyterian and Reformed churches where the Bible is read to indicate that there are two kinds of elders — ruling elders and teaching elders. The ruling elders are often lay-elders who meet and deliberate with the pastors about church matters, and the teaching elders are usually the seminary trained pastors who have hired onto the church.

In this installment, I will explore more of the debate regarding kinds of elders then I will give a sample article from a church constitution that codifies the position that there is only one kind of elder.

The Question
The writings of the Apostle Paul teach us that there are deacons and elders in the church; i.e., there are at least two offices in the church. And this is where a big debate has erupted. The debate can be summarized by this question: How many kinds of elders did Paul have in mind? This is the number-of-offices debate, often summarized by the question, “two offices or three?” Interestingly, John Calvin identified a fourth office, the doctor of the church (seminary professors), but that won’t concern us here.

What The Bible Does not Teach
The first and most obvious data point must be kept in mind: the Bible does not give two different lists of elder requirements and ordination procedures–it does not teach one set for ruling elders and a different one for teaching elders. Furthermore, the Bible does not reveal that teaching elders are non-members of the local congregation. In the many Presbyterian denominations, teaching elders don’t belong to the the local church, but are members of a different body that is one level higher. I am not saying that a two-level structure of membership is sinful, nor am I saying that its presence invalidate Presbyterian denominations. I am observing that any support from scripture is derivative at best, being based on conclusions drawn from historical narratives in the Book of Acts and not based upon direct Apostolic instructions.

What the Bible Does Teach
The Bible does teach that churches will have elders, and where the Bible goes, we go. What chiefly concerns me here is going forward as a church with the understanding that there are two offices (deacon and elder) not three (deacon, ruling elder and teaching elder). Given that there is only one kind of deacon and only one kind of elder, I want to explore the “now what?” question. In particular, I will show how elders can be integrated into a church constitution.

The Bible Teaches that Elders Handle the Word of God (which was written in Greek and Hebrew)
All New Testament elders are supposed to be able to rightly divide the word of truth. This means they are able to handle the Bible in the original languages (that is the only Word of Truth we have!). An elder is someone who engages the text of Scripture (rightly dividing the word), where those texts were written in Greek and Hebrew (and some Aramaic).

An example would help: If someone is an expert in Chinese literature, we would expect them to read Chinese. Likewise, elders are supposed to be skilled in the Bible, and so we put no greater burden on them but what we put on an expert in Chinese literature.

Rightly Dividing Translations of the Word is not the Task
This does not bar elders who are less expert in their language skills, for each elder will be progressing at different paces in the pipeline of ability and learning. All elders will labor in the actual Word (being Hebrew, Greek and some Aramaic). The luxury of Bible translations is a triumph of the printing press and the Reformation, but it is not meant to make lazy elders who now “rightly divide the translated Word.” The Word of God did not change with the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press and the now widely available translations — it is still the same Word of God: the Hebrew, Greek and bits of Aramaic.

Someone may protest (in fact, someone has) that Hebrew was unknown outside of Israel in the first century. This is false. I only need to point out that Paul went to synagogues where they read the Law, and from such synagogues there came to be Jews who believed in Jesus. Jews were part of the early church, and that they had access to Hebrew scriptures is not unreasonable. Paul of Tarsus spoke Hebrew (get that: he was from Tarsus). Jews from outside of Israel kept their identity and their language; this is not a stretch, it is a fact in the case of Paul. Archaeologically, there are Hebrew fragments found in synagogues outside of Jerusalem. The early church had pastors who studied the languages (Origen used the Hebrew bible for his Hexepla). The evidence points to Hebrew scriptures being understood as we understand them: The Word of God.

A Sample Constitution
In this post and in the last one, I have expanded upon two basic idea: 1. There is only one kind of New Testament elder, and 2. Every elder must rightly divide the Word (that sacred collection of writings written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic).

I now use those two points (combine them with major teachings on Pastors/Elders from the New Testament), and present a summary statement in the form of an Article suitable for a church constitution:

Article on Pastors/Elders

Section 1: Elders/Pastors and Senior Pastor
Elders in the New Testament are men (1 Tim 2:12-3:2). Elders are one and the same as pastors and overseers (see Acts 20:17, 28). Elders are instructed to “rule well” and to teach (1 Tim 5:17). Qualifications of pastors/elders are given in 1 Tim 3:1-7, 1 Peter 5:1-3, Titus 1:6-9, 1 Tim 5:17 and 2 Tim 2:15. The Senior Pastor, in this constitution, is an elder who is “worthy of double honor”, being one “who labor(s) in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim 5:17). All other elders are associate pastors.

Section 2: Senior Pastor Search Committee
In the event that the church does not have a Senior Pastor, a Pastoral Search Committee consisting of the Elders will be formed. Additional communicant members from the congregation can be voted onto the committee by the congregation (simple majority) to bring the committee size to a minimum of seven members. The committee’s recommendation shall constitute a nomination. To be called as the Senior Pastor, a candidate must receive three-fourths of the congregational vote.

Section 3: Elders that are not the Senior Pastor
All of the elders/pastors are co-laborers with the Senior Pastor. They work together as a team for the advancement of the vision and mission of the church. The Senior Pastor will appoint (Titus 1:5 and Acts 14:23) qualified elders [this is where an elder must prove to have the right biblical skills and right conduct] who must be confirmed by a majority vote at a Congregational Meeting. All Elders/Pastors are elected for indefinite tenure.

Section 4: Number of Elders
In the New Testament, some churches evidence a plurality of elders (see James 5:14). However, the number of elders will not be plural for the sake of being plural, but will be according to the number of qualified candidates and the size of the congregation.

Section 5: Removal of Elders
Any elder (including the Senior Pastor) can be removed from office by a three-fourths vote to do so at a specially called Congregational Meeting. To call a meeting for this purpose requires a simple majority vote of the other Elders. The Elder being removed cannot moderate the meeting.

Senior Pastor and Associate Pastor — Is that biblical?
The distinction made between Senior Pastor and Associate Pastors is based upon interpreting Paul’s teaching about elders “worthy of double honor” (1 Tim 5:17). I am admitting that this is an interpretation and not a necessary conclusion. Paul is making a distinction between elders, and to that I have chosen to add the title, “Senior Pastor” or “Senior Elder”. I am finding in Paul a rational — a principle — not a non-negotiable proof. But the principle is reasonable. Paul is not here defining two offices of two different kinds of elders, but he does make distinctions among the one office (for more on this, see this important article).

The Senior Pastor, in our vernacular, is that person who excels in teaching and preaching the word. My argument is preferable to alternatives. Rather than make the cumbersome case that there are two offices of elder (one ruling and one teaching), the less intrusive and simpler argument is advanced: among the elders, one will be Senior. This solution is a far preferable to creating another office.

In this scheme, all pastors and elders are alike in passing the same qualifications (a pastor is an elder and an elder is a pastor). The Senior Pastor passes the same ordination as the other elders. As I have already noted, the Bible does not speak of kinds of ordinations for different kinds of elders. The Bible does talk about leaders and about people who take lead roles (Rom 12:8), but it does not multiply offices. From the New Testament data, I believe it is preferable to acknowledge the idea of a Senior Elder distinct from the other Elders (perhaps he is distinct by being full time, or by being the primary preacher), as opposed to mistakenly creating a whole other office in the church.

Does it Matter?
When churches make the mistake of adding a third office, ramifications ensue. In fact, some churches double the mistake by installing “ruling elders” who are not able to teach–men untrained in handling the word in its primary language, untaught in hermeneutics, and who do not meet the basic requirements placed upon their own teaching elders. They turn the office of the elder into two offices, where one office functions in a court setting such that the church becomes a place of quasi legal proceedings. My experience in this comes from years in the Presbyterian world, countless conferences, scores of books on Reformed polity, and debates and conversations to exhaust even the most zealous 27-year old theologian (27 is the representative age of the most aggressive and vocal theological single men). At their best, ruling elders were equivalent to what I understand to be deacons as both have nearly identical ordination requirements. At their worst, they are representative of what it force inventions upon the Word of God and upon the people of God.

If you adopt the above article for your church, you will want to update the rest of your constitution to indicate where the elders have duties. Once you define the office, then go back over your structure and assign to the elders what the New Testament gives to the ministers of the Word. Do not assign to deacons that which the New Testament assigns to elders. Likewise, do not task elders with the work of deacons. Never give to committees what the Bible gives to deacons and elders.

I have tried to give you the most relevant verses and a structure usable in a constitution. Many churches already have a form of elder-rule without saying it just like that (by having Senior and Associate Pastors). By carefully defining what elder-rule means, a distinction can be made between the traditional Presbyterian and Reformed versions, and the version that is still Reforming.

This article was published under Church Elders.

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