Is the office of elder/overseer currently relevant to the church?

Titus 1:5 “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and
appoint elders in every city as I directed you…”

The following is adapted from a study I am working on of the
words πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) and ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos), which are translated “elder” and “overseer,” in the New Testament. It is an answer to the question, “Is the office of elder/overseer currently relevant for the church?”

Before getting to the answer to that question, I want to address Titus 1:5. I take from this verse
and others that God’s design for each local church is that a group of qualified men be in charge,
not one pastor, or even a lead pastor with assistant pastors. All elders are to be equal. I have
written this piece from this perspective.

The office of elder/overseer is not an office unique to the Church in the first century but has had
relevance to the Church from the day that it was started. After Jesus ascended into heaven, Peter preached the sermon at Pentecost and the Church came to be. The Lord left it to his apostles to continue establishing the Church in the Spirit (1 Cor. 3:10; Eph 2:20, 3:5). As the Apostles work to spread the gospel and establish local churches, we see that they brought young men and even women alongside to help in the work. Some examples of these people are Timothy, Titus, Luke, Epaphroditus, Aquila and Priscilla, et al.. We would think that the apostles’ disciples would themselves take on disciples, that a pattern would be established coming down to us today and that that would be how the church would be overseen.

A single leader, such as a so-called Timothy or a Titus, on whose shoulders a local church should
be run, is not the pattern that God sets for His Church. Instead, we see a gradual transition from
the oversight of the Apostles to that of the πρεσβύτεροι. At the beginning of Acts 15, just after
Paul’s first missionary trip, some men visited Antioch and started to teach that circumcision is
necessary for salvation. At first, Paul and Barnabas debate them, but then the saints at Antioch
decided to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to deal with this false teaching. They go to
Jerusalem to talk with the apostles and the πρεσβύτεροι. Both groups collaborate throughout the
chapter to resolve the controversy (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4). One remarkable thing about the
joint effort of the apostles and πρεσβύτεροι is that the letter they send to Antioch to clear of the
false teaching begins, “The apostles and the brethren who are πρεσβύτεροι…” Luke is recording
that the apostles and the πρεσβύτεροι both had the authority to decide on a doctrinal matter such as this. It must be said that an event like this is singular in church history, since the New
Testament had not been penned. After the New Testament is completed, the Apostolic generation has passed away, but the office of πρεσβύτεροι continues with the counsel of God’s word to oversee the church. God offers no hierarchies or synods or complex structures to lead His Church. After the generation of the apostles, there should just be the saints, the elders/overseers, and the deacons (Phil 1:1).

The practice of having πρεσβύτεροι is typical among the churches in the New Testament. First
off, we can assume that there were πρεσβύτεροι at Antioch who decided that Paul and Barnabas
ought to take first the contribution and then the salvation controversy to Jerusalem (Acts 11:30,
15:2). We don’t have to assume that there are πρεσβύτεροι in the other churches; it is
documented. At the end of Paul’s first missionary journey, Paul appoints elders in every city he
visited in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey. Peter, also writing to Christians in Asia Minor,
exhorts both the elders of those churches and those under them (1 Peter 5:1-5). Paul addresses
the πρεσβύτεροι of Ephesus in Greece in the book of Acts (20:17, 28). Paul begins his letter to
the saints in Philippi, another city in Greece, by including the ἐπίσκοποι and deacons (1:1). Paul
commands Titus to appoint πρεσβύτεροι in every city on the island of Crete (Titus 1:5). James,
writing to Jewish Christians in the dispersion, which could cover an area from Greece to modern-day Iraq, commands πρεσβύτεροι to pray over the sick (James 5:14). The biblical record shows
that among the churches that the apostles established and ministered to, the practice was to
have πρεσβύτεροι in charge of each local church.

The Bible teaches that the office of πρεσβύτεροι/ἐπίσκοποι is fundamentally relevant to the church. The πρεσβύτεροι have been entrusted by God with the care and the shepherding of the church. A system in which one man pastors a Church has no origin in the New Testament. We have seen that the apostles worked with the πρεσβύτεροι to determine doctrinal matters. The apostles’ teaching has been left to us completely in the New Testament. Elders from the completion of the New Testament until now have been armed with it and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to lead the Church as God wants. This is how the Lord wants His church to be run.

Matthew lives in Northern Virginia. He is a teacher by trade and loves to study the Scriptures and the history of the church. His wife Marina and he fellowship at Nokesville Bible Chapel.