Today’s post deals with the question of whether or not there were different degrees or levels of elders in the early bible church. Scriptures indicate that all of the elders were not at the same level of authority and this emerged very early in the book of Acts as well as in Jesus’ ministry. One important concept is that the words elder, bishop and overseer were used interchangeably in the New Testament to describe all elders in ministry of the church. Let us examine the supporting evidence:

A. Generic Greek words were used for the words elder, bishop and overseer.

1. Presbuteros is the word used for elders in Acts 11: 30; 14: 23; 15: 2, 4, 6,22 and Acts 20 :17; 1 Tim 5: 1, 2, 19; 1 Pet 5: 1, 5; 2 Jn 1: 1; 3 Jn 1: 1. The same word was used for elders of the Jews in the gospels.

2. Episkopos was used for bishop in 1 Tim 3: 1, 2; 2 Tim 4: 22; Titus 1: 7; 3: 15 and 1 Pet 2: 25.

3. The word “overseers” was used once in the New Testament. The Greek word was “episkopos” (Acts 20: 28).

B. The context in which the word was used pointed to the individual’s placement in the line of authority

It is important to refer to the context in which the word “elder” was used in order to understand that there were clear lines of authority in the early church based on the criteria of spiritual maturity and other factors discussed earlier for the selection of people to fill this role. Here are some examples:

1. Paul is revealed in the role of Chief Elder of the Gentile churches by virtue of his vantage role. First, he helped to establish many of these churches and functioned in the role of spiritual father by teaching the believers. HE also ordained elders and bishops in the local churches and established greater lines of authority in the church by ordaining bishops such as Timothy and Titus who would be responsible for the functions of these individuals. He also delegated to them the authority to ordain other bishops, elders and deacons who would therefore come under their line of authority.

2. In 1 Pet 2: 25, Peter told the believers that “ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls”. Jesus is described as “bishop” of the souls of the believers with the Greek word being “episkopos”. However, we know that Jesus is head of the church and He was subsequently described by Peter in 1 Pet 5 :4 as “Chief Shepherd”. The word “chief” is used to mean head.

More to come on this as well as C. Why is this important?