We tend to use the word “elders” in referring to our congregation’s leaders. This term (presbuteros in Greek) was used in both Jewish and Gentile environments for religious and civic leaders in the ancient world. Jack P. Lewis notes, “The term ‘elder’ suggests a leadership built on respect and reverence (cf. Lev. 19:32), a reverence that recognizes ability, service, knowledge, example, and seniority.”1
The New Testament uses “elders” interchangeably with two other words: overseer (episkopos) and shepherd (poimēn). Bishop is another word used in English for overseer. Unfortunately, it now has some historical baggage and has come to mean something different from its New Testament usage. Pastor comes into English from Latin and is simply a word meaning shepherd. The nouns “overseer” and “shepherd” also have corresponding verbs that are used in leadership contexts: to overseer (episkopeo) and to shepherd (poimainō).2 The following New Testament passages confirm the idea that these words were used interchangeably to refer to the same group of leaders within the congregation: Acts 20:17, 28, Titus 1:5-7, and 1 Peter 5:1-2.
Oversight. So what do elders do? Both the words “overseers” and “elders” suggest oversight, leadership, and decision making. In 1Timothy 5:17, Paul notes elders “who rule well” (ESV). The Greek verb in this verse (proistēmi) can be defined as “to exercise a position of leadership, rule, direct, be at the head (of).”3 The same verb is used in 1 Timothy 3:5 to speak of a elders’s leadership in his family.
Teaching. One of the qualifications of overseers in 1 Timothy 3 is “able to teach” (3:2). Some may “especially” give attention to “preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). “Especially” lets us know that the work goes beyond these things, but may include them. In the qualifications given in Titus, there is the need “to give instruction” (Titus 1:9). And shepherds are linked with others in Ephesians 4:11 as equipping the saints for service.
Guarding. The word “overseers” includes the idea of guardians. The image of shepherds also includes the thought of guardians of a flock of sheep. Paul warns the Ephesian elders of dangers coming to the church and urges them to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock” and “be alert” (Acts 20:28, 31).
Shepherding. Shepherd is a very personal image. The figure of speech evokes the role of shepherd with his sheep: feeding, protecting, caring for wounds, and searching for the lost sheep.
And finally, we note that elders are “examples to the flock,” the church (1 Peter 5:3).
1Lewis, Leadership Questions, p. 21
2I’ve given the first person singular form rather than the infinitive, because it is the dictionary form.
3BDAG, p. 870