“Elder” words (1)

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!)

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4 thoughts on ““Elder” words (1)

  1. Evan Shows 08/03/2011 / 10:28 am

    Thank you for the depth of study into this concept, Brian. Definitely a lot to consider, and I feel, as is often the case, that there is so much we lose in our translations because we don’t understand the original language. Some very good points in your post!

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  2. Sylvia Shows 08/03/2011 / 10:28 am

    So often, the church is wanting to fill the “roles” and do not even reflect on the responsibility of an elder. It is not uncommon to see young men in the faith being put into a position that they should not be in. Consider Paul’s admonition in Hebrews 13:17- Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit to them: for they watch in behalf of your souls, as they that shall give account; that they may do this with joy, and not with grief: for this were unprofitable for you.

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  3. Don Braugh 08/03/2011 / 10:30 am

    Evan, not contradicting you, just adding to your wonderful clarity: additionally, restrictions are placed upon those who should be eligible to serve: namely, divorced persons for reasons that aren’t their making but common sense is left out of the decision. For ex. I know intimately of one case where in one congregation he was an elder (not COC mind you) and in one he was forbidden to serve b/c of his unwanted divorce (for spiritual reasons in this case). The man was my late father, and I never saw a better, wiser, more qualified elder, spiritually. Hats off to him.

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  4. Brian Casey 08/03/2011 / 10:34 am

    Evan, thanks. I’ll be interested to see what you think about tomorrow’s post, if you have time to read it.

    Don, what a good tribute. I remember your dad’s face and can well believe he was the man you pay tribute to. I think you’re right that discernment is in order when dealing with lists of “qualifications.” Those are better seen as “qualities,” perhaps, and although each is important, the whole package and pattern are to be considered, in addition to mitigating circumstances!

    Sylvia, thanks for your words. I’ve dealt with the Hebrews word/passage in tomorrow’s post!

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