A Treatise on the Eldership
J. W. McGarvey  (1870)


      The term eldership means the office of an elder. This assertion will be proved in proving that an elder is an officer. The termination ship appended to the title of an officer, as secretaryship, auditorship, governorship, is indicative of office.

      But there are some, who deny that the term elder is ever used in the New Testament in an official sense. They hold that it always means older person, and that the eldership of a church consists of the older men of the church. We are now to test the correctness of this assumption, and to determine whether elder is ever used as an official title.

      It is well known that the term elder is an adjective in the comparative degree, and that its primary [10] meaning is older. When used as a substantive, it means an older person. The same is true of its Greek representative, presbuteros. It is also well known that many words have, in addition to their primary meaning, a technical or official signification. For example, the familiar adjective general is sometimes used as the title of a military officer. Major, greater, is the title of another; and corporal which means pertaining to the body is the title of still another. So the terms secretary, auditor, judge, mate, professor, and many others, have each an official as well as a primary signification. So it may be with the term elder. Whether it is so or not is to be determined, as the same question is determined in reference to these other words, by usage. We will now examine its New Testament usage sufficiently to settle this question.

      The following statement is made concerning Paul and Barnabas while engaged in their first missionary tour: "When they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed." Acts xiv: 23. The term here rendered ordained is cheirotoneo. It is compounded of cheir, the hand, and teino, to stretch forth, and its primary meaning is to stretch forth the hand. But from the fact that bodies of men frequently expressed a choice by an elevation of the hand, it acquired the meaning of to choose or to appoint by an extension of the hand; and finally it came to mean to appoint without reference to the method of appointing. Such is the testimony of scholars, and it is confirmed by the usage of the term. It occurs in only one other place in the New Testament, where it is said of an unnamed brother whom Paul sent to Corinth with Titus, that he "was chosen by the [11] churches." 2 Cor. viii: 19. How the churches choose him, whether by a show of hands or in some other way, is not determined by this term, nor by the context. Another instance of its use is found in Josephus. He represents Alexander Bala, the Syrian King who claimed jurisdiction over Judea, as writing to Jonathan, the brother of Judas Maccabaeus, these words: "We therefore do ordain thee this day high priest of the Jews." Here there was no stretching out the hand, but an appointment to office by a single individual, and through the instrumentality of a letter. Clearer proof of the definition we have given could not be demanded.

      Substituting this definition for the term ordained in the passage we are considering, we read that Paul and Barnabas "appointed" for them elders in every church. These elders, then, were made such by appointment; but Paul and Barnabas certainly did not make older men by appointment; neither would the passage make complete sense if it read, "They appointed for them men in every church." To complete the sense, it would be necessary to add the office or position to which the older men were appointed. The considerations show that the term is here used not its primary sense, but in a sense which designates position obtained by appointment. But an appointment puts men into office, and elder is therefore the official title conferred by this appointment. The process of appointment will be considered in another part of this treatise.

      The same conclusion follows from Paul's statement to Titus: "I left thee in Crete, that thou shouldst set in order the things that are wanting and ordain elders in every city." Ti. 1:5. The term here [12] rendered ordain is kathisteeemi, the Greek word most commonly used in both the New Testament and the Greek version of the Old Testament, for appointing to office. It is used to express the appointment of Joseph as governor over Egypt, and of the other officers under him, Gen. xli: 33-34; Acts vii: 10; for the appointment of David as ruler over Israel, 2nd Sam. vi: 21; for the appointment of rulers over household servants, Matt. xxiv: 45; of a judge in civil jurisprudence, Ex. ii: 14; Acts vii: 27; and of Jewish high priests, Heb. v: 1; viii: 3.

      Now, the fact that this term so frequently expressed the idea of appointment to office does not necessarily prove that it has this meaning in any given passage. Whether it does or not, is to be determined by the context, and we should always try its primary meaning first. Its primary meaning is to set or place locally. It is so used twice in the New Testament, Acts xvii: 5; Jas. iii: 6. But Paul could not mean that Titus was to set elders or place elders in every church. There would be no good sense in such a rendering, and therefore, the secondary sense of the term must be adopted. With the universal consent of scholars and critics, we render it appoint. Titus, then was to appoint elders in every city, and the term elders designates the office to which they were appointed.

      We shall now regard it as an established fact that the term elder is sometimes used in the New Testament as an official title. In this fact we find further proof of our first proposition, that there is such an office in the church as the eldership. We shall find, as we proceed, still further confirmation of both these conclusions. In the meantime, we must prescribe a rule by which to distinguish between those [13] instances in which the term elder is used in its primary sense and those in which it has its official sense. The law of the context, the first great law for ascertaining the meaning of ambiguous terms, must be our guide. When the context indicates that a comparison as to age is intended by the writer, we must give the term its primary sense of elder; but when the context shows that the persons spoken of sustain an official relation to the church, it must be understood in its official sense. In nearly all instances the distinction is drawn; in a few, the meaning is somewhat uncertain. We shall see and know more of these instances as we proceed further with the discussion.

      The second title of this office which we shall consider is expressed by the Greek word episcopee, rendered in the English version once bishoprick and once office of a bishop. It is derived from the verb episcopeo, whose primary meaning is to look upon; but in usage it conveys the idea of looking upon with a view to inspection or control. The noun episcopee, therefore, means inspection or oversight; and from the fact that visiting is often done for the purpose of inspection, it is sometimes rendered visitation. The visitations of God were sometimes for good and sometimes for evil to the party visited, and this term is used in both cases. See Lu. xix: 44; Is. x: 3, Septuagint.

      We have also, from the same root, the masculine noun episcopos which means the man who performs the act designated by episcopeo, and is best represented in English by overseer. The term bishop, by which it is most usually rendered in the common version, is objectionable on two accounts: first, it does not correspond in meaning to the original; [14] second, it conveys a meaning to the mass of readers not attached to the original word. Overseer corresponds to the original, in etymology, and also in current meaning, and it is the only English word which does so. It should, therefore, be adopted into the English version, and into the speech of those who would call bible things by bible names.

      Now, it is not claimed for either of these substantives that in its primary sense it refers to an office in the church; for primarily, neither has any allusion to the church. But it is claimed that like the term elder, they acquired an appropriated sense, one of them becoming the title of a church officer, and the other the name of his office. The proof of this we will now present; and we beg the reader to remember, lest he grow weary of these apparently useless inquiries, that we are now discoursing upon this subject as though nothing were known of it, and we must therefore take nothing as granted. We happen also to know that there is practical need for this part of our inquiry.

[ATOTE 10-15]

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