The Uniqueness of New Testament Church Eldership -- By: David W. Miller

Journal: Grace Theological Journal
Volume: GTJ 06:2 (Fall 1985)
Article: The Uniqueness of New Testament Church Eldership
Author: David W. Miller

The Uniqueness of New Testament Church Eldership

David W. Miller

The uniqueness of NT church eldership is a reason for the view that the NT pattern of eldership is binding on todays churches. NT eldership is not merely a cultural adaptation. NT eldership is distinct from eldership in Hellenistic societies and Jewish organizations. Particularly, differences can be shown between eldership in the Jewish synagogue and the NT church eldership.

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The origin of the NT church eldership is a study deserving great attention due to its implications for modern church polity. The central question is this, did the NT church adopt a previously existing model of eldership, or was the office redefined in qualification and function in NT church practice? If the NT church merely borrowed the whole idea of πρεσβύτεροι / ‘elders’ from previous religious or political societies, then the organization of the NT church is not unique and the whole idea of a basic normative church government structure is less defensible. If the NT church simply borrowed from its immediate, and most culturally acceptable governance structures, then one could argue that a church is free to do the same today. Church polity would then become an area of Christian liberty where the NT pattern of eldership would not be binding. However, if NT church eldership was unique, not a copy of a cultural model, then NT eldership becomes more significant for the church today. Church eldership would not be a mere cultural adaptation, but a unique, divinely instituted organization, normative for believers no matter what the prevailing cultural views on governance would be.

In order to prove the uniqueness of the NT church eldership, one must show that NT church eldership was distinct from other uses of πρεσβύτεροι in its day. There are two general categories of possible models of eldership which the NT church could have copied: (1) Hellenistic organizations and/or (2) Jewish organizations.

The Hellenistic Organizations

Some believe that NT church eldership was copied from a Greek model. Hicks claims that πρεσβύτεροι “had been commonly employed before [its Jewish and Christian usage] in a precisely analogous sense in Graeco-Roman civic life.”1 However, upon closer examination of the evidence, it seems the phrase “precisely analogous” is an overstatement. There simply is not enough evidence of the qualifications and duties of the πρεσβύτεροι of Greek societies t...

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