Four biblical words pertain to the role of what should be the most significant (scripturally speaking, that is) church leader. Briefly and simplistically, here are the four:
- Poimen ≈ shepherd, pastor
- Episkopos ≈ bishop, overseer
- Presbuteros ≈ elder
- Hegoumenoi ≈ leaders
Ever since I learned the first word, I’ve loved it. There is so much shepherd/sheep imagery in scripture, and this concept of poimen is richly descriptive of caring for a group. In any NC writings that are clear on this subject, poimenoi is a plural group. Notably, 1 Peter 5:2 is a word from an apostle who views himself as a sort of “fellow shepherd” (NOT as a fledgling “pope,” mind you!) to other shepherds. I suppose that since Peter’s audience is a group of churches, not a single church, it might be that there is a single poimen in some church, but never do the NC writings assume one man has charge of a church.
Episkopos comes to mind somewhat less frequently. It connotes considering, overseeing, reflecting on, and even visiting, e.g., the sick. This word is also important when attempting to gain a more thorough understanding of the biblically based role of church leaders, and it should probably come to mind more often. Overseeing is certainly an important part of some “leadering.”
I tend not to use, or even think about, the word-concept presbuteros much–it refers, in part, to seniority. I’m more interested in spiritual qualities than checklists of “qualifications” and chronological age. In this case, the connotation can be quite positive–not “old and decrepit,” but rather, “old and therefore experienced and worthy of attention.”
I knew a man who was an “elder” of a church at 35. That made sense, because he had been a Christian for 20 years, had a believing family, and was in a very young church. (Then there are those Mormon “elders”–20-year-olds sent on missions. Not a silly practice, but a downright ludicrous label for them.) The human context is important when considering the age factor: if there are wise, spiritual men in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, no 35-year-old should be a presbuteros.
When disagreement occurs over doctrinal or procedural matters, I am hard-pressed to ignore the simple fact that I have been a Christian leader longer than one of my church’s presbuteroi has been a regenerate believer. I don’t often claim much wisdom. It’s not one of my gifts. 🙂 But I do have experience, and even though a “presbuter” may have a few chronological years on me and is in some ways a better “shepherd” or “overseer” than I could ever be, I could actually function as his “elder” in the faith.
I tried to squelch this observation a few weeks ago; truth be told, I’d prefer not to think about it. But the man’s lesser spiritual experience (here, I’m avoiding the word “maturity,” because he’s probably more mature than I in several respects) keeps rising in my consciousness.
Next … hegoumenoi (more interesting stuff!)