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A Sketch of the Eldership in History


The “Elder” has been defined in the past sections of this Manual as the leader whose office begins to be evident under Moses’ authority in the wilderness, with the elders acting as judges and clan leaders, as supports (and sometimes hinderances) to Moses’ leadership.

We have seen that Paul in the New Testament stipulated the presence of Elders in the church and defined the role for the church in ages to come, particularly in the instructions he gives Timothy and Titus in the Pastoral Epistles.

But we have to take notice that the office of Elder has not always been, and still is not, recognised in the majority of the Christian Church in the way that we hold to it within Presbyterianism.  How is it then, that the “Elder” as we have defined it from Biblical evidences is an accepted and revered office fundamental to the government of our Church? What happened to the Eldership in the years following New Testament times, and why do we claim it to be vital to the proper rule of government in the church?

The term “Bishop”,[1] which we equate with the term “Elder”, comes from Old English and Wycliffe’s translation (1382) of the Greek word episkepos (“overseer”, “watcher”) throughout his New Testament, particularly in Acts 20:28 where Paul addresses the Ephesian Elders. Whilst Wycliffe, as a proto-Reformer,[2] was ardently against the power and position of the papacy, opposed the abuses of the prelates (Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops, etc) and their meddling in secular affairs and neglect of their spiritual duties[3], he accepted the understanding of the time that Bishops were first among equals and were given oversight of other presbyters (priests).

It had been accepted, never disputed, since the time of the early church, that this term of episkepos (“overseer”) was a separate office entirely to that of the presbuteros (“presbyter”). The exact time in which a bishop went from being the equivalent of a local Elder to an overseer over a number of presbyters is not precisely known. It is the opinion of the prelatical party of Rome and England that the episcopal power of a Bishop derives from not only the tradition of the church but from Scripture,  and so for Episcopalian government they claim the Divine right

When the Reformation came, Luther demanded[4] and encouraged the dismantling of the monastic orders in Lutheran Germany and proclaimed the truth of the priesthood of all believers over against the tyranny of Pope and prelates, but at the same time the Lutheran Church retained the office of Bishop separate from that of the ordinary pastor.[5]     


[1] See OED bishop, n.
Forms: 1 biscop, -sceop, -seep, 2-3 biscop, 3-6 bischop, 4-5 bisshop, 3- bishop. Also 1 biscob, 2 bish-, bisshup, 2-3 biscopp, bisscop, -kop, 2-4 (s.e.) bissop, 3 byssop, 3-7 bishoppe, 4 bisschop(e, -oppe, bi(s)shope, -opp, -up, busschop, 4-5 byschop, 4-6 bisch-, bisshopp, busshop, bysshop, bishope, -opp, 4-7 byshop, 5 bis-, byschope, -oppe, -upp, - yp, buschop(e, 5-6 bysch-, bysshopp, -ope, -oppe, 6 bischoipp, biszhop, -oppe, bushopp(e, byshe-, bys-, bysshopp(e, 6-7 bisshope, bushop, 7 biship, busschope.
[OE. biscop (also in North, biscob), bisceop, biscep, an early adopted word (cf. OS. biskop, MDu. bisscop, Du. bisschop), OHG. biscof, piscof (MHG., mod.G. bischof), ON. biskup (Sw. biscop, Da. bisp), a. Romanic *biscopo or vulgar L. {e)biscopus:—L. episcopus, a. Gr. ἐπισκόπος overlooker, overseer, f. ἐπι on + -σκόπος looking, σκοπός watcher; used in Greek, and to some extent also in Latin, both in the general sense, and as the title of various civil officers; with the rise of Christianity it gradually received a specific sense in the Church, with which it passed into Slavonic, Teutonic, and Celtic. With the form biscopo, biscobo, which passed into Teutonic, cf. also It. vescovo, OF. vesque, Pg. bispo, Pr. vesque, bisbe. Cf. BISP.]
1. A spiritual superintendent or overseer in the Christian Church, a. Used in the New Testament versions to render the Gr. word ÉmoKonoç, applied to certain officers in early Christian churches, either as a descriptive term, or as their actual title. In Wyclif, the Rhemish, and Revised Versions, the Gr. word is so rendered in every instance; but in the other versions from Tindale to 1611, it is in Acts xx. 28 (where applied to the npEoßuTEpoi or 'elders' of Ephesus) rendered 'overseers.' Also applied to Christ, as descriptive of his office. (Sometimes applied by those who do not recognize the episcopal order, to their pastor or chief elder, but only as a descriptive term, or as identifying his office with that of the New Testament 'bishop.')
1382 WYCLIF Acts xx. 28 Al the folk in which the Hooly Gost sette 30U bischopis. [TINDALE oversears, CRANMER ouersears, Geneva Ouersears, Rhem. bishops, 1 6 1 1 ouerseers, 1 8 8 1 bishops {marg. or overseers).] 1 Peter ii. 25 3e ben conuertid now to the sheperde and bischop of 30ure soulis [ 1881 the Shepherd and Bishop {marg. or Overseer) of your souls]. c l 3 8 3 Sel. Wks. III. 310 Crist veriest bischop of alle. 1535 COVERDALE Phil. i. 1 Paul & Timotheus..vnto all the sayntes..with the Biszhoppes & mynisters. 1647 JER. TAYLOR Lib. Proph. vii. 130 The Holy Ghost hath made them Bishops or Over- seers.
[2] The proto-Reformation includes the stands for the Gospel taken by the Waldensians before Wycliffe and the Lollards and Hussites after him. See
[3] See {Vaughan 1828}, p. 299. “[Wycliffe] writes ‘prelates, and great religious possessioners, are so occupied in heart about worldly lordships, and with pleas of business, that no habit of devotion, of praying, of thoughtfulness on heavenly things, on the sins of their own heart, or on those of other men, may be preserved ; neither may they be found studying and preaching of the gospel, nor visiting and comforting of poor men.’ The consequence accordingly, of tolerating churchmen, as ‘rich clerks of the chancery, of the commons' bench, and king's bench, and the exchequer, and as justices and sheriffs, and stewards, and bailiffs,’ is said to be, that they become themselves so worldly, as to be in no circumstances to re-prove the worldliness of others.”
[4] See Smalcald Articles Pt 3, Article 14, also Augsburg Confession, Article 6.
[5] See Augsburg Confession, Article 28, and Melancthon’s Defense of the Augsburg Confession, Article 14: “Concerning this subject we have frequently testified in this assembly that it is our greatest wish to maintain church-polity and the grades in the Church [old church-regulations and the government of bishops], even though they have been made by human authority [provided the bishops allow our doctrine and receive our priests]. For we know that church discipline was instituted by the Fathers, in the manner laid down in the ancient canons, with a good and useful intention.”

Old Testament Background
Introduction to Polity
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