Jared Smith on Eldership

2 Identifying Biblical Eldership




If a plurality of elders is the scriptural mode for church governance, as asserted by the Reformed Baptists, then every church falling short of this practice is in error. And a serious error it is, for the Reformed Baptists have made this issue a leading point of doctrine. Their biblical thesis for a plural eldership hinges on four propositions:

First, church officers were chosen from the congregation at which time they became ‘elders’ (whether it be teaching or ruling elders).

Second, the pattern recorded in the New Testament always points to each church having a plurality of elders.

Third, this scriptural pattern is paramount to an apostolic prescription that is binding on each church—ideally, every congregation is responsible to appoint a plural eldership. 

Fourth, the prototype of the church is the Jewish synagogue, each of which was governed by a group of elders. 

These propositions will be scrutinized in the forthcoming studies, at which time I hope to demonstrate the fallacy of all four positions. It is my contention that a plural eldership fundamentally changes the dynamics on how a church is designed to function. As Dr. Kenneth Dix once said to me, “churches have not given sufficient thought as to how a plural eldership changes the distinctive features of a Baptist church.” 

For this study, I wish to examine how the term ‘elder’ is used in the Old and New Testament scriptures, with particular reference to the Jewish Synagogue and its relationship to the church of Christ. These notes, together with all that follows in succeeding studies, are the product of my personal research and arrangement of findings. It is therefore a fresh look at the subject which I hope will prove helpful. 

I. The Existence of Elders in the New Testament.

Strong’s Greek Concordance identifies the Greek term for elder (presbuteros) by number 4245. It means “elderly, older, a senior”. 

1. It is used to identify leaders of a church.

Acts 14:23: “And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.”

Titus 1:5: “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee:”

2. It is used to identify an older son.

Luke 15:25: “Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing.”

3. It is used to identify older women.

1 Timothy 5:2: “The elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity.”

4. It is used to identify an Apostle.

2 John 1: “The elder unto the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth; and not I only, but also all they that have known the truth;”

5. It is used to identify the elders of Revelation.

Revelation 4:4: “And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.”

6. It is used to identify the enemies of Christ.

Matthew 16:21: “From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.”

7. It is used to identify the enemies of the church.

Acts 22:5: “As also the high priest doth bear me witness, and all the estate of the elders: from whom also I received letters unto the brethren, and went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem, for to be punished.”

8. It is used to identify the saints, both men and women, of the Old Testament era.

Hebrews 11:2: “For by it the elders obtained a good report.”

Hebrews 11:4-40: “By faith Abel…By faith Enoch…By faith Noah…By faith Abraham…Through faith also Sara…By faith Isaac…By faith Jacob…By faith Joseph…By faith Moses…By faith [Israel]…By faith the harlot Rahab…And what shall I more say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon, and of Barak, and of…”

As the foregoing Scriptures indicate, the term ‘elder’ carries a much broader application than merely that of church officers. In fact, based on the invariable meaning of the term as it appears in the New Testament, it is surprising anyone would think of an ‘elder’ as anything other than an ‘elderly, older or senior’ person. Nevertheless, the plural eldership advocates constantly assert the New Testament employs the terms elder, bishop and pastor interchangeably, implying every time the term is connected with a church, it must by default refer to the appointed officers (pastors/bishops). However, I would like to challenge this position by asking a basic question—did the Apostles and churches choose certain men to serve as pastors, at which time they became elders, or, did the Apostles and churches choose from the eldership (seniority) certain men to serve as officers, at which time they became pastors? Is the term elder a title representing an elected office, or is it a title of respect given to those of honour (by virtue of age, wealth, wisdom, etc,)? Of course, I take the position that church officers were chosen among the elders of the church, eldership itself being a prerequisite to serve as a bishop (see 1 Timothy 3, one of the qualifications for a ‘bishop’ (official title) is that he must be an elder (husband of one wife and ruling well his own household—one is not appointed to the office of elder, but to the office of bishop; ‘elder’ is an unofficial title of respect for all seniors, whereas ‘bishop’ is an official title for those set apart for that function). In my view, this is the key to unlocking the meaning of “elders” within the New Testament churches.  

II. The Existence of Elders in the Old Testament.

There are six primary Hebrew terms representing our English word, elder(s). They have been translated in a number of different ways (Elder, Elders, Eldest, Great, Nobles, Mighty, Captain, Princes, Senators, Old (Men), Ancients, Aged, Grayheaded, Firstborn, Chief). According to Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary:

1. Gadowl. “Great (in any sense); hence, older.” Identified by number 1419 in Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary.

(1) Elder. (Gen 10:21; 27:1,15,42; 29:16; 44:12; 1 Sam 17:13,14,28; 18:17; 1 Kings 2:22; Job 15:10; Ez 16:46,61; 23:4.)

Genesis 10:21: “Unto Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the brother of Japheth the elder, even to him were children born.”

(2) Great. (Gen 1:16,21; Gen 19:11 – verse 4 uses 2205 (showing 1416 and 2205 are used interchangeably))

Genesis 1:16: “And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.”

(3) Nobles. (Jonah 3:7).

Jonah 3:7: “And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water:”

(4) Mighty. (Deut. 7:21).

Deuteronomy 7:21: “Thou shalt not be affrighted at them: for the LORD thy God is among you, a mighty God and terrible.”

2. Rab. “Abundant (in quantity, size, age, number, rank, quality).” Identified by number 7227 in Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary.

(1) Elder. (Gen 25:23).

Genesis 25:23: “And the LORD said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.”

(2) Captain. (Jere 39:13).

Jeremiah 39:13: “So Nebuzar–adan the captain of the guard sent, and Nebushasban, Rab–saris, and Nergal–sharezer, Rab–mag, and all the king of Babylon’s princes;”

(3) Princes. (Jere 41:1).

Jeremiah 41:1: “Now it came to pass in the seventh month, that Ishmael the son of Nethaniah the son of Elishama, of the seed royal, and the princes of the king, even ten men with him, came unto Gedaliah the son of Ahikam to Mizpah; and there they did eat bread together in Mizpah.”

(4) Mighty. (Ez 38:15).

Ezekiel 38:15: “And thou shalt come from thy place out of the north parts, thou, and many people with thee, all of them riding upon horses, a great company, and a mighty army:”

3. Siyb (Aramaic). “Elder (corresponding to 7867, “grey-headed”).” Identified as number 7868 in Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary.

(1) Elders. (Ezra 5:5,9; 6:7,8,14).

Ezra 5:5: “But the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews, that they could not cause them to cease, till the matter came to Darius: and then they returned answer by letter concerning this matter.”

(2) Grayheaded: ((7867 – root for above) 1 Sam 12:2; Job 15:10). 

1 Samuel 12:2: “And now, behold, the king walketh before you: and I am old and grayheaded; and, behold, my sons are with you: and I have walked before you from my childhood unto this day.”

4. Bkowr. “Firstborn: hence, chief:- eldest (son).” Identified by the number 1060 in Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary.

(1) Eldest. (Num 1:20; 26:5; 2 Kings 3:27; Job 1:13,18).

Numbers 1:20: “And the children of Reuben, Israel’s eldest son, by their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of the names, by their polls, every male from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war;”

(2) Firstborn. (Gen 10:15).

Genesis 10:15: “And Canaan begat Sidon his firstborn, and Heth,”

5. Ri’shown. “First, in place, time or rank: ancestor.” Identified by number 7223 in Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary.

(1) Eldest. (2 Chron 22:1).

2 Chronicles 22:1: “And the inhabitants of Jerusalem made Ahaziah his youngest son king in his stead: for the band of men that came with the Arabians to the camp had slain all the eldest. So Ahaziah the son of Jehoram king of Judah reigned.”

(2) Chief. (Daniel 10:13).

Daniel 10:13: “But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me one and twenty days: but, lo, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me; and I remained there with the kings of Persia.”

6. Zaqen. “Old: Aged, ancient (man), elder(est), old (man, men and…women).” Identified by number 2205 in Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary.

(1) Elder. (Job 32:4).

Job 32:4: “Now Elihu had waited till Job had spoken, because they were elder than he.”

(2) Eldest. (Gen 24:2).

Genesis 24:2: “And Abraham said unto his eldest servant of his house, that ruled over all that he had, Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh:”

(3) Elders. (Gen 50:7; Ex 3:16, 18; 4:29; 12:21; 17:5,6; 18:12; 19:7; 24:1,9,14; Lev 4:15; 9:1; Num 11:16, 24,25,30; 16:25; 22:4,7; Deut 5:23; 19:12; 21:2,3,4,6,19,20; 22:15,16,17,18; 25:7,8,9; 27:1; 29:10; 31:9,28; 32:7; Josh 7:6; 8:10,33; 9:11; 20:4; 23:2; 24:1,31; Judg 2:7; 8:14,16; 11:5,7,8,9,10,11; 21:16; Ruth 4:2,4,9,11; 1 Sam 4:3; 8:4; 11:3; 15:30; 16:4; 30:26; 2 Sam 3:17; 5:3; 12:17; 17:4,15; 19:11; 1 Kings 8:1,3; 20:7,8; 21:8,11; 2 Kings 6:32; 10:1,5; 19:2; 23:1; 1 Chron 11:3; 15:25; 21:16; 2 Chron 5:2,4; 34:29; Ezra 10:8,14; Ps 107:32; Prov 31:23; Is 37:2; Jere 26:17; 29:1; Lam 1:19; 2:10; 4:16; 5:12,14; Ez 8:1; 14:1; 20:1,3; Joel 1:2,14; 2:16).

Genesis 50:7: “And Joseph went up to bury his father: and with him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt,”

(4) Senators. (Psalm 105:22). 

Psalm 105:22: “To bind his princes at his pleasure; and teach his senators wisdom.”

(5) Old (Men). (Genesis 18:11; 19:4; 25:8; 35:29; 43:27; 44:20; Exodus 10:9; Leviticus 19:32; Deuteronomy 28:50; Judges 19:16; 19:17; 19:20; 19:22; I Samuel 2:31; 2:32; 28:14; I Kings 12:6; 12:8; 12:13; 13:11; 13:25; 13:29; II Chronicles 10:6; 10:8; 10:13; 36:17; Esther 3:13; Job 42:17; Psalms 148:12; Proverbs 17:6; 20:29; Ecclesiastes 4:13; Isaiah 20:4; 65:20; Jeremiah 31:13; 51:22; Lamentations 2:21; Ezekiel 9:6; Joel 2:28; Zechariah 8:4.).

Genesis 18:11: “Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.”

(6) Ancient(s). (Ezra 3:12; Ps 119:100; Is 3:2; 3:5; 3:14; 9:15; 24:23; 47:6; Jere 19:1; Ez 7:26; 8:11; 9:6; 27:9).

Ezra 3:12: “But many of the priests and Levites and chief of the fathers, who were ancient men, that had seen the first house, when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy:”

(7) Aged. (2 Sam 19:32; Job 12:20;  29:8; 32:9; Jeremiah 6:11).

2 Samuel 19:32: “Now Barzillai was a very aged man, even fourscore years old: and he had provided the king of sustenance while he lay at Mahanaim; for he was a very great (1419) man.”

Comments on the Old Testament:

1. The term ‘elder’, in one form of another, appears in twenty-seven of the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament—Genesis, Exodus, Levitcus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentation, Ezekiel, Daniel, Joel, Zechariah.

2. It is at once noticeable that the equivalent Hebrew terms for ‘elder’ in the Old Testament point to one and the same meaning as the Greek term in the New Testament—by virtue of one’s age, men and women were recognized by their local communities to be persons of experience, wisdom and influence. These ‘elders’ were never elected or appointed to serve an office, but rather, were granted authority in an unofficial capacity, with members of the community coming to them for help and counsel. Indeed, this remains the universally recognized meaning of elder in every village and province today. 

III. The Existence of Elders in the Jewish Synagogues.

As stated earlier, one of the leading propositions among the plural eldership advocates is that the Jewish synagogue is the prototype of the New Testament church. Since the Jewish synagogue was governed by a plural eldership, so Jesus Christ intended for His church to be governed the same. While I do not dispute the Jewish synagogue was governed by elders, I do raise questions as to who these elders were, how they became leaders in these religious institutions and on what authority is it claimed to be the prototype of the New Testament church. Consider:

1. The Jewish Synagogue came into existence sometime between the Old and New Testament era. It is often assumed that the synagogue is an ancient institution, existing as far back as the days of Moses. This is not true. The term occurs once in the Old Testament (Ps 74:8), but not even it refers to the same institution which existed during the time of Christ. During the Saviour’s earthly ministry, the synagogue was a relatively new institution.

2. The synagogue was not instituted by divine authority. It came into existence as the result of God’s judgment upon the Jewish nation—the divinely instituted temple had been destroyed, the people of God scattered, and in desperation, the scattered people established tiny groups which became known as synagogues. It is an institution that was never designed or sanctioned by the Lord.

3. The synagogue was an institution that rejected the deity of Jesus Christ. For instance, after Paul was converted to Christ, he went to the synagogue preaching Christ, that He is the Son of God. The Jews were confused by this scene, as they knew Paul was one of the most zealous antagonists against Christ. Yet Paul remained in Damascus, proving that Jesus is the Messiah. This is typical of the type of experience Christ and the early Christians shared when they attended the synagogues.

4. The synagogue was an institution out of which came some of the most heinous tormentors of Christ and His people. Jesus Himself warned that the religious zealots would “lay their hands on [them], and persecute [them], delivering [them] up to the synagogues, and into prisons, being brought before kinds and rulers for My name’s sake.” (Lk 21:12) I ask you, is it likely Christ fashioned His church after this godless institution, which not only rejected His deity, but sought to annihilate the remembrance of His existence by killing Him and His followers?

5. It would appear the synagogue became a prominent place for evangelistic outreach. The apostles, for instance, would often preach the gospel first, in the local synagogue, then in the streets and from house to house. It was a natural place to begin this work, for the synagogue was the central hub where the Jewish people would meet for the purpose of studying the scriptures. It was therefore a convenient place to preach Christ, for the scriptures testify of Him. Henceforth, rather than the synagogue serving as the prototype for the New Testament church, it became a vehicle for preaching Christ to the lost.

6. Jesus chose to call His institution a church, not a synagogue. Although the term synagogue refers to a gathered people, yet Christ purposefully avoided the term, choosing to distinguish His body of people as a church (assembly, congregation). If, therefore, Christ intended to model the church after the Jewish synagogue, why would He not have borrowed the term when identifying His church?

7. The Scriptures never state nor imply the church was modeled after the Jewish synagogue. It is astonishing how many Christians assume as a matter of undisputed fact, what the scriptures never explicitly or implicitly state. The only scriptural evidence for the synagogue serving as the prototype of the church is its silence on the matter. Based on the silence of scripture, it has been conjured up out of pure conjecture, gaining an authoritative footing among Reformed believers, now serving as a fundamental presupposition upon which they construct their ‘eldership’ views. It is easy for them to boast ‘sola scriptura’ (only scripture), but when many of their views are examined in the light of scripture, they prove to be some of the most blatant violators of the maxim.  

8. There is little evidence to confirm the exact mode on how each synagogue was governed during the New Testament era. While there exists a good amount of material relating to synagogues of the third and fourth centuries, we must be careful to not impose those records onto the synagogues of the first century. Once again, presupposition tends to be the governing principle here, and in my view, it is quite presumptuous for anyone to establish dogmatic teachings connected with the governance of the church of Christ, based on mere speculation.

9. Eldership was in existence long before the synagogue had been established. Plural elder advocates seem quite satisfied resting their ideas for the church upon what they assume existed in the Jewish synagogue. They tend to take the attitude that they have traced the matter to its roots—the Jewish synagogue was governed by many elders, so the church should be governed by many elders. But what if they are wrong? What if the meaning and significance of eldership predates the Jewish synagogue? What if the elders referred to in the New Testament churches actually find their roots much earlier in history? What if the root meaning of eldership may be traced as far back as the fourth day of creation, when God called forth the sun and the moon? Yes, the plural eldership advocates are wrong! If they want to understand the essential meaning of the term, and the invariable way in which it appears throughout the Old and New Testament Scriptures, then we must trace it back to the beginning, which is not the Jewish synagogue, but the luminaries called forth by God on the fourth day of creation—the greater (elder) light to rule the day, and the lesser (younger) light to rule the night. More on this in an upcoming study.


I have sought to demonstrate in this study that the term elder is an unofficial title given to men and women by virtue of their age. With age often comes experience, wealth, wisdom and influence, and it is in this capacity members of a community bestow honor upon their elders. Although elders are looked to for leadership, it is only in an unofficial capacity, for they are not elected or appointed to an office of ‘eldership’. However, when men and women are elected or appointed to an office, they are always selected from the senior (elder) members of the community. Henceforth, while not all elders are elected officials, yet all elected officials are elders. It is in this sense the term elder is used on rare occasions when speaking of church officers, such as bishops. Whereas most elders in the church are not bishops, yet the bishop of the church is by default an elder. This is affirmed by Paul’s language in 1 Timothy 3, where he uses the official title bishop (“if a man desire the office of a bishop”), and then makes one of the leading qualifications for serving as a bishop to be that of an elder (he must be a household head—the husband of one wife, ruling well his children). I therefore do not believe the terms elder and bishop are to be used interchangeably, although it is not improper to refer to a bishop as an elder, for that he was before he became a bishop. Although plural eldership advocates argue there is overwhelming evidence for their view contained in the New Testament Scriptures, I will make the case in this series of studies that there are only two definite passages which refer to bishops/pastors as elders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5), and therefore the evidence is minuscule compared to their exaggerated claims. It is noteworthy that only certain Christian denominations have changed the meaning of elder to be one and the same with bishop and pastor. Nowhere else in the world is the term so used, and it is my contention that to abuse it in this way leads to erroneous views of church governance.