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


      The title of an office is often taken from some characteristic duty belonging to it. Thus the title President is taken from the act of presiding; Secretary from the act of writing; Auditor (hearer) from the act of hearing financial reports. In such cases, the information derived from the title is generally meagre. In some instances, however, offices newly created adopt the titles of previously existing offices which are similar to them; and in such instances the titles carry with them all of their previous significance, except so far as this is modified by the nature of the new office. Thus the term President, which first meant one who presides over an assembly and enforces order in its proceedings, when transferred to the chief officer of a college, and to the chief magistrate of the United States, carried with it the chief part of its previously acquired meaning. Now, it so happens that all the titles by which the Elder of a church is known were adopted from previously existing offices, and brought with them into their new application much of their former [19] significance. That significance will enable us, therefore, to obtain a general idea of the duties of the office, and to better appreciate the more specific statements of the Apostles which will afterwards be considered.

      The title Elder, which is most frequently used by the Apostles, and which is still the most popular of these titles, obtained an official signification among the Jews long before its adoption into the Christian Church. Originally it designated the older men, or heads of families in Israel, who exercised a patriarchal government over their posterity: See Ex. iv: 29; xix: 7. In the days of Christ it had become the title of the rulers of the Jewish synagogues, and of one of the classes composing the Sanhedrim. Reliable information in reference to the functions of the office among the Jews is quite meagre; but it is sufficient to justify the assertion that those who enjoyed the title exercised authority in some capacity. When it was adopted, therefore, into the Christian Church, it brought with it at least this general idea, that those to whom it was applied were rulers in the church. The exact nature and limits of their authority it could not of course designate.

      The term episcopos brought with it a more clearly defined significance, and furnishes more definite information in reference to the duties of the office. Among the Athenians it was the title of "magistrates sent out to tributary cities, to organize and govern them." (See Robinson's N. T. Lexicon, and references there given.) Among the Jews it had very much that variety of application which the term overseer now has in English. It is used in the Septuagint for the officers appointed by Josiah to [20] oversee. the workmen engaged in repairing the temple, 2 Ch. xxxiv: 12, 17; for the overseers of workmen employed in rebuilding Jerusalem after the captivity; Ne. xi: 5, 14; for the overseers of the Levites on duty in Jerusalem; Ne. xi: 22; for the overseers of the singers in the temple worship; Ne. xii: 42; and for subordinate civil rulers; Jos. Ant. 10. 4. 2. In all these instances it designates persons who have oversight of the persons for the purpose of directing their labors and securing a faithful performance of the tasks assigned them.

      Such a word when applied to a class of officers in the Christian Church, necessarily carried with it the significance already attached to it. It indicated, both to Jew and Greek, that the persons so styled were appointed to superintend the affairs of the church, to direct the activities of the members, to see that everything was done that should be done, and that it was done by the right person, at the right time, and in the right way. Anything less than this would be insufficient to justify the title overseer as it was currently employed in that age. The details of the process by which all this was accomplished will appear as we advance.

      The title Shepherd is still more significant than either of the other two. The Jewish shepherd was at once the ruler, the guide, the protector, and the companion of his flock. Often, like the shepherds to whom the angel announced the glad tidings of great joy, he slept upon the ground beside his sheep at night. Sometimes, when prowling wolves came near to rend and scatter the flock, his courage was put to the test: (Jno. x: 12); and even the lion and the bear in early ages rose up against the brave [21] defender of the sheep. 1 Sam. xvii: 34-36. He did not drive them to water and to pasturage; but he called his own sheep by name, so familiar was he with every one of them, and he led them out, and went before them, and the sheep followed him, for they knew his voice. Jno. x: 3, 4.

      A relation so authoritative and at the same time so tender as this could not fail to find a place in the poetry of Hebrew prophets, and the parables of the Son of God. David's poetic eye detects the likeness between the shepherd's care of his flock and the care of God for Israel, and most beautifully does he give expression to it in lines familiar to every household, and admired in every land:

"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want, 
 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; 
 He leadeth me beside the still waters 
 He restoreth my soul: 
 He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his names' sake. 
 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: 
 For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." Ps. xxiii.

      The same beautiful image is employed by Isaiah, when with prophetic eye he sees the great Persian king gathering together the scattered sheep of Israel in distant Babylon, and sending them back from their long captivity. He exclaims in the name of the Lord, "Cyrus is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasures; even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built, and to the temple, Thy foundations shall be laid." xlv 28. But he sings a still sweeter note in [22] the same strain, when he foresees the life and labors of the Son of God, and exclaims, "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall gather the lambs with his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young." xl: 11. The Saviour himself re-echoes the sentiment, and says, "I am the good shepherd," "I know my sheep, and am know by mine." "I lay down my life for the sheep." Jno. x: 14, 15. Even the less poetic Paul is touched by the beautiful metaphor, and makes a prayer to "the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of sheep," (Heb. xiii: 20); while Peter says to his brethren, "Ye were as sheep going astray; but now are returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls." 1 Pet. ii: 25.

      A word thus highly exalted by the pens of prophets, and even by the lips of Jesus, almost appears too sacred to represent the relation and responsibilities of an uninspired laborer in the cause of God. But even before the church came into existence it had been consecrated to this usage, and was a favorite term with the later prophets by which to designate the religious leaders of Israel. Jeremiah pronounces a woe upon the shepherds of his day who destroyed and scattered Israel, and predicts the time when God would bring the sheep again to their folds, and set up shepherds over them who would be real shepherds to them. Jer. xxiii: 1-4. The connection shows that the prediction has reference to the Christian age. Ezekiel speaks in the same strain, and in almost the identical thoughts of Jeremiah, except that in contrast with the unfaithful shepherds of his age, he says: "I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David: he shall [23] feed them, he shall be their shepherd." Ez. xxiv: 1-23.

      With such a history, the word shepherd came into the terminology of the church with a most clearly defined secondary meaning. When applied as a title in the church it necessarily represented its subject as the ruler, the guide, the protector, and the companion of the members of the church. When Paul and Peter, therefore, exhorted the elders to be shepherds to the flock of God, all these important and tender relations were indicated by the word.

      We have already taken notice of that general conception of the duties assigned the eldership, which is derived from the title applied to the office. In the confirmation of the conclusions drawn from this and overseer are enjoined upon the elder by express command.

      In two distinct passages already quoted, (Acts xx: 28; 1 Pet. v: 2) the elders are exhorted to be shepherds to the church. This exhortation, or rather this apostolic command, has fain d to make its due impression on the English reader, because of the very inadequate translation of poimaino in the common version. It occurs eleven times, and is seven times rendered feed, and four times rule. When connected with church work it is uniformly rendered feed. No doubt the translators intended by this rendering to make their version intelligible to their uneducated readers in England and Scotland, where very little is known of a shepherd's work except feeding the sheep through the long winters. But this attempt at adaptation has led to serious misapprehension; for even to this day, and in America as well as in Great Britain, the term feed in these passages has been [24] understood by the masses as a metaphor for public teaching, and the whole work here enjoined is supposed to be accomplished when a suitable address is delivered to the saints on the Lord's day. Many an elder has imagined that the chief part of his work is accomplished when he has called together the flock once a week, or it may be once a month, and give them their regular supply of food, even when the food is given is nothing better than empty husks. And many an evangelist, miscalling himself a pastor, has labored under the same mistake. Let it be noted, then, and never be forgotten, that the term employed in these passages expressed the entire work of a shepherd, of which feeding was very seldom even a part in the country where this use of the term originated. The shepherds of Judea, and those of Asia Minor, pastured their sheep throughout the entire year. Their duty was to guide them from place to place to protect them from wild beast, and to keep them from straying; but not to feed them.

      The Apostle Paul leaves us in no doubt as to his own use of the term in question; for after the general command, "Be shepherds to the church," he proceeds to distribute the idea by adding these words: "For I know this, that after my departure shall ravenous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also, of your own selves shall men arise speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them. Therefore, watch; and remember that by the space of three years, I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears." Acts xx: 28-31. Here, continuing the metaphor of the flock, he forewarns the shepherds against ravenous wolves, who can be no other than teachers of error who would come into Ephesus from abroad, such, for example, as those [25] who had already infested the Galatian churches; (Gal. i: 6-7; v: 12;) and he commands them to watch. He also predicts that men of their own number, like unruly rams of the flock, would rise up, speaking perverse things, and seeking to lead away disciples after them. The shepherds were to watch against these also, and as they saw symptoms of such movements, within, they were to "warn every one, night and day," as Paul had done.

      Here, then, are two specifications under the generic idea of acting the shepherd, and they are strictly analogous to the work of the literal shepherd. It is made the duty of the eldership, first, to protect the congregation against false teachers from abroad; second, to guard carefully against the influence of schismatics within the congregation; third, to keep watch both within and without, like a shepherd night and day watching his flock, so as to be ready to act on the first appearance of danger from either direction.

      The first of these duties is again emphasized in the epistle to Titus, where Paul requires that elders shall be able, by sound teaching, both to exhort and convict the gainsayers, and adds: "For there are many vain and unruly talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision, whose mouths must be stopped." Ti. i: 9-11. The duty of watchfulness is also mentioned again, and in a manner which shows most impressively its supreme importance. Paul says, "Obey them who have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account." Heb. xiii: 17. From these words it appears that the object of the watching enjoined, is not merely to keep out false [26] teaching and to suppress incipient schism, but to do these in order to save souls from being lost. That priceless treasure for which Jesus laid down his life is at stake, and the elders of each church, like the shepherds of each flock, must give account to the owner of the flock for every soul that is lost. The task of Jacob, concerning which he said to Laban, "That which was torn of beast I brought not to thee, I bore the loss of it; of my hand didst thou require it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night," is a true symbol of the task assigned the shepherds of the Church of God. Well might they all exclaim, "Who is sufficient for these things?"

      The duty of "taking oversight" is enjoined upon the elders in express terms, and the expression is used as the equivalent of acting the shepherd. Peter says, "Be shepherds to the flock, taking the oversight thereof." 1 Pet. v: 2. The essential thought in overseership, that of ruling, is frequently enjoined. Paul says to Timothy, "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor." 1 Ti. v: 17. The Greek word here rendered rule is proisteemi, the etymological meaning of which is to stand or place one object before another. But the fact that rulers stand before their subjects, with all the eyes of the latter looking to them for direction, led to the established usage of this term in the sense of ruling. It is so defined in the lexicons, and so used in both classic and Hellenistic Greek. It expresses the rule of a father over his family, 1 Ti. iii: 4-5, 12; of a deputy over a district, 1 Mac. v: 15; of a King over his subjects, Jos. Ant. viii: 1, 2, 3, and of the elders over the church, 1 Ti. v: 17; 1 Thess. v: 12; Ro. xii: 5-8. By use of still another Greek word, Paul [27] expresses in the epistle to the Hebrews the same general idea of ruling. He says: (13: 7), "Remember them who have the rule over you, who have spoken to you the word of God," again, (verse 17), "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls as they that must give account," &c.; and again, (verse 24), "Salute them who have the rule over you." The term here employed heegeomai, means primarily, to lead. When applied to the mind it means to think or suppose, because in this mental act the mind is lead to a conclusion. See Acts xxvi: 2; Phil. ii: 3-6; et al. But the present participle of this verb came to be used in the sense of ruler, because a ruler is one who leads, sometimes, indeed, it means a leader in the sense of a chief man, as when Silas and Judas are called "chief men among the brethren." Acts xv: 22. When the idea of ruling is expressed by it, the fact is indicated in the context: e. g., Pharaoh made Joseph "ruler (heegoumenon) over Egypt," (Acts vii: 10), where the expression "over Egypt" indicates the relation of authority. So, in the second of the three examples under discussion, the terms obey and submit yourselves show that the relation of authority is expressed, and that the rendering of the participle should be rulers, or "them who have ruled."

      Another duty of the eldership, distinct from the preceding, is that of teaching. By a mistake already mentioned, this duty has been supposed by many to be the chief work indicated by the term pastor or shepherd; but in the only place where the latter term occurs in the common version in its appropriated sense pastors are distinguished from teachers. "He gave some, apostles and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some pastors and teachers." The [28] distinction here evidently made between pastors and teachers, does not imply that they are always different persons; for as one person might be both a prophet and an evangelist, so, for the same reason, he might be both a pastor and a teacher. But the distinction made shows that one might be a teacher and not a pastor. From other passages, however, we know that all pastors or shepherds, in addition to what is implied in this title, are also teachers. In the statement of their qualifications, Paul says that they must be "apt to teach," 1 Ti. iii: 2; and that they should be "able, by sound teaching, both to exhort and to convict the gainsayers;" Ti. i: 9. That they should be able to teach, necessarily implies the duty of teaching.

[ATOTE 19-29]

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