FOUR GREEK WORDS AND THE WORK OF ELDERS

Quentin and Eileen Vennum

Editor's Note: The following article contains several instances of the English spelling of certain Greek words, references to language authorities, and some technical observation. Ordinarily I insist that our writers write in simple English, with as little use of technical language as possible. Some cases justify the use of some technical words. The following is a case in point. This is good material. It will require some careful study, maybe reading two or three times; but it is of sufficient value to justify your serious study.

Should elders rule the church? This question, frequently discussed in THE EXAMINER, is important because it addresses the basic issues of Christlike relationships, Christlike respect for one another, Christlike service of the powerful to the powerless, and the individual responsibility and autonomy of each person under God. In the New Testament, four different Greek words are used in reference to those people who, today, we call "Elders." A study of these four words - most often translated in English as 1) rule, 2) bishop, 3) pastor, and 4) elder - can be helpful in our understanding of the original function of bishops/elders/pastors in the early church. This word study can help us see how the function and responsibility of "Elders" has mutated over the years into something very different from its original form.

1. 'Ruler' (prostatis; noun form) 'Rule' (proistami; verb form)

Several different Greek words are translated in our New Testaments by the one English word "rule." Prostatis/proistami is one of these words. Prostatis means to assist, to join with, to protect, to represent, to care for, to help, to further (Kittle, p. 700-703); to stand before as a defender, to be guardian or protector of, to champion (Liddel/Scott, p. 1526, 1545).

The meaning of unfamiliar words can be discovered by a study of how they are used. Though Bible translators have used several different English words to translate this one Greek word, a common thread of "caring for, protecting, and causing to stand" can be seen in a reading of its many occurrences in scripture. The following sample illustrates.

Throughout this paper, bold type words are the English translation of the Greek word under discussion. If "caretaker," "protector," or "supporter" is substituted for the bold type word in each example of the occurrence of prostatis/proistami, a much different, non-traditional understanding of the work of an Elder emerges. Incidentally, the responsibility of a Christian man to his family is also seen in a different light from the way we often understand it. Note how, in addition to "rule", the translators used many very different English words to render the Greek prostatis/proistami. Note also how their own pre-understandings colored their choices and influenced their translations depending on who was doing the work of proistami.

Acts 24:5 KJV: Unbelieving Jews accused Paul of being "a ringleader (i.e. protector; caretaker; supporter) of the sect of the Nazarenes."

Romans 16:2 KJV: Concerning Phoebe, Paul told the Christians at Rome: "receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you; for she hath been a succourer (i.e. protector; caretaker; supporter) of many, and of myself also." The translators here were apparently uncomfortable with translating prostatis as "ruler" since that would have made Phoebe a ruler of Paul and the church. They showed no such reservation, however, in the next example.

I Timothy 3:4,5 KJV: A bishop must be "one that ruleth (i.e. protects; takes care of; causes to stand) well his own house, ... (For if a man know not how to rule [i.e. protect; take care of; cause to stand] his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)."

I Timothy 3:12 KJV: Deacons also should be "the husbands of one wife, ruling (i.e. protecting; taking care of; causing to stand) their children and their own houses well."

I Timothy 5:17: When proistami is understood as "upholding, caring for, and causing to stand," the context of I Timothy 5:17 suggests a meaning that, though not conveyed by our English translations, flows naturally from the preceding verses. Verse 17 - "Let the elders that rule (i.e. protect; take care of; cause to stand) well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine" - seems quite possible to be speaking of the "older believing women" (and men) discussed in verses 8-10 and 16 who cared for widows so as not to encumber the church. These proistami are those who should be counted worthy of "double honour" ... (See the discussion of presbuteroi, i.e. elders in I Timothy 5:17).

Our favorite example of a secular use of proistami is from a private letter written in 252 B.C. A son wrote to his father: "There will be nothing of more importance for me than to look after you (i.e. protect, take care of, cause to stand) for the remainder of life, in a manner worthy of you, and worthy of me" (Moulton/Milligan p. 551).

How well the true meaning of proistami fits the example of Jesus who, as God incarnate, washed the disciples' feet, assisted, joined with, protected, represented, cared for, helped, furthered, stood before as a defender, acted as a guardian or protector of, and championed their (and our) cause.

When two of His disciples asked for places of preeminence, Jesus told them: "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:41-45 NIV). The Greek word translated "rulers" in verse 42 is not "proistami," but "arche," a true match to our English "ruler."

2. "Bishop" (episkopos; noun form - episkeptomai; verb form)

The Greek word episkopos, often translated "bishop" or "overseer," means "one who looks upon, considers, has regard for, is concerned for, or cares for something or someone (Arndt/Gingrich p. 298-299; Kittles, Vol. II, p. 599f).

In the King James Version of the English New Testament, the word "bishop" occurs about six times with virtually no contextual clues as to its meaning. Examples are Philippians 1:1 ("Paul and Timothy, ... to all the saints ... with the bishops and deacons ..." KJV); I Timothy 3:2 ("... a bishop then must be blameless" KJV); Titus 1:7 ("a bishop must be blameless as the steward of God ..." KJV). Other occurrences include Acts 1:20; I Peter 2:25; and I Timothy 3:1. However, other texts contain clear clues as to the meaning of episkopos.

Luke 7:16 NIV: When Jesus raised the only son of a widow from the dead, the people "were all filled with awe and praised God. 'A great prophet has appeared among us,' they said, 'God has come to help his people'."

Acts 15:13 NIV: When Paul and Barnabas reported on the work God had done among the Gentiles, James said, "Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself."

Acts 15:36 NIV: Paul and Barnabas "bishoped" the churches they had established: "Let us go back and visit (i.e. care for) the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing."

Acts 6:3 KJV: Paul told the early church to "bishops" themselves: "look you out (i.e. consider) among you seven men of honest report.... "

Acts 7:23 NIV: When Moses was a grown man, learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, there arose in his heart a desire to "bishop" his fellow Israelites in slavery: "When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit (i.e. care for) his fellow Israelites."

Matthew 25:36 KJV: Jesus said that those found acceptable at the Judgment would be those who had "bishoped" Him: "I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited (i.e. cared for) me:" On the other hand, those who failed to "bishop" Him would be lost: "I was sick and in prison and you did not look after (i.e. care for) me" (Matthew 25:43 KJV).

James 1:27 NIV: Many years after Jesus' death, His brother James wrote: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after (i.e. care for) orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."

From these verses it is clear that every Christian must "bishop" others. Indeed, according to Jesus, whether or not we "bishop" others will determine no less than our place in judgment.

3, 'Pastor' (poimaino; verb form - poiman; noun form)

The Greek word poimaino/poiman, often translated "shepherd" or "pastor," means "one who feeds, leads and guides with tender care and nurturing."

In Ezekiel 34, Old Testament leaders were condemned as shepherds who plundered the flock: "You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally" (verse 4). Prophetically Ezekiel speaks of a day when God "will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them" (verses 23, 24).

David is the biblical prototype of a good pastor shepherd who is willing to give his life to protect his sheep (I Samuel 17:34f).

John 10:11 & 14: In these verses Jesus accepts Ezekiel's prophecy as speaking of Himself: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep."

Much more is involved in shepherding than merely feeding the sheep. The Greek word "bosko" means simply "to feed" as the prodigal son did for the hogs in Luke 15:15. However "poimaino" includes the full realm of caretaking that a shepherd does for the sheep - feeding, caring for, guiding, guarding, and protecting (Trench, p. 85; Arndt/ Gingrich, p. 144).

In the familiar exchange between Jesus and Peter in John 21:15-17, Jesus asks Peter to both feed (boske) and shepherd (poimaine) His sheep:

Jesus: "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?"
Peter: "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
Jesus: "Feed (boske) my lambs."
Jesus: "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?"
Peter: "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
Jesus: "Take care of (poimaino) my sheep."
Jesus: "Simon son of John, do you love me?'
Peter: "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
Jesus: "Feed (boske) my sheep.

4. 'Elder' (presbuteros; noun form - presbeuo; verb form)

"Elder" (presbuteros) is a generic noun used frequently in the Bible and secular literature to refer to the age of a man or woman. This older one could have been good, bad, or indifferent. For example, in Luke 15:25 KJV, the Prodigal Son had an elder brother.

Paul (Ephesians 6:20, Philemon vs. 9), Peter (I Peter 5:1), and John (II John, vs. 1) each referred to themselves as elders. Paul called himself, "an ambassador (i.e. old man) in chains" (Ephesians 6:20), and "an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus" (Philemon 9). According to human judgment, Paul was a powerless old man in chains; but Paul, the elder, was powerful in his portrayal of Christ by example of life.

Over the years, the word "elder" took on the additional meaning of an honorary title used for a member of the Sanhedrin, the group of religious leaders who ruled Israel at the time of Christ (Mark 11:27; also see Kittles, Vol. 7, p. 659-660). A modern example of a similar evolution of words can be seen in the English word "representative." Though describing the function of someone who represents us to Congress, the word "Representative" has come also to be used as a title.

The Elders in the Sanhedrin bought and paid for the betrayal (Matthew 27:3) and perjured testimony that killed Jesus; they oppressed the powerless as their predecessors had done in the time of Ezekiel. Peter, Paul and John all warned that even within the church some leaders would become corrupt, dominant people who would intimidate and oppress the powerless (I Timothy 4: 1-3; II Thessalonians 2:1-12; II John vs. 9-10; Acts 20:17, 28-31).

Peter wrote: "To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers* -not because you must but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being an example to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away" (I Peter 5:1-4). (*Not in the most reliable Greek texts.)

Ezekiel had prophesied that in Christ's new kingdom, with Christ as our shepherd, we should be like brother and sister, mother and father, all yielding to each other with sincere concern and care: "Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity" (I Timothy 5:1-2 NIV; also see I Peter 5:5).

Jesus placed such extreme importance on helping others that He valued it even above correct religious doctrine. When an expert in the Old Testament law asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus told the story of a man in religious error (The Good Samaritan - See John 4:22) who helped a stranger in need (Luke 10:25-37). Indeed, Jesus' entire life was lived as the perfect example of helping, caring for, nurturing, and feeding those in need. As our good shepherd, He set the example for all of His followers to be nurturers and caretakers as well.

Two Views of the Qualifications and Works of Elders

Most Churches of Christ teach that Elders are ordained to rule the church and have divine authority to make final decisions in all matters of judgment. These elders are appointed from a small group of married men who have never experienced the loss of a wife through separation, divorce, or, as is sometimes maintained, even death. They have never experienced betrayal as Hosea did with Gomer or God did with Israel.

These elders must have a wife who is physically capable of bearing at least two children and they themselves must be physically capable of becoming a father. Their children should be old enough to be baptized. In order to prove themselves fit to rule the church of God, these elders must rule (often understood as "dominate") their families. Along with "faithful attendance at church" these are often the only requirements for a man to be an Elder, probably because these "qualifications" are most easily checked off a list and require no judgment on our part.

By contrast, we submit a second, nontraditional viewpoint we believe to be biblical. Just as sheep need a shepherd Christians need more mature Christian men and women to guide and care for them as they grow in Christ-likeness. Thus, Christian communities should recognize those people who are mature in the faith and who are willing and capable of taking the responsibility for the welfare of others, point them out as caretakers, and encourage them as they encourage and uphold others. The most basic characteristic of these shepherds should be that they are Christlike in their concern for others.

Which position does God want us to hold? In Acts 6:3 the apostles asked the people in the church to choose out (bishop) men full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit. We are likewise charged today. We must come to a consensus of opinion based on prayer, discussion, and a careful examination of the evidence.

You are the jury. Best wishes to you as you prayerfully render a verdict.