Plurality of Elders
PLURALITY OF ELDERS
The word "elder" appears only four times (in the New Testament) in the singular form. The first (1 Tim. 5:19) is in reference a particular elder being accused of sin. Another time, Peter refers to himself as a "fellow elder" (1 Pet. 5:1), as does John in two of his letters (2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1). These are the only times that the word appears in the singular form.
The word "elders" (plural) is found 59 times in our New Testament. It appears 24 times in the Gospels, and 8 times in the book of Acts in reference to members of the Sanhedrin, which included the chief priests, elders and scribes. The word is found 10 more times in the book of Acts as it points to the men who served in the various congregations as "shepherds."
In Paul's first letter to Timothy (5:17), he says, "Elders who rule well should be considered worthy of double honor." Paul writes to Titus (1:5), telling him to "appoint elders in every city." James (5:14) instructs those who are ill to "call for the elders of the church." Peter exhorts the elders (1 Peter 5:1) and reminds the readers of his letter to "subject" themselves to the leadership of the elders (1 Peter 5:5). The word 'elders' appears twelve times in the book of Revelation, always in reference to the twenty-four elders sitting around the throne.
What are we to conclude? The word 'elder' (4) or 'elders' (15) can be found nineteen times in reference to the 'office' or 'work' of the elder (1 Tim. 3:1) as designed by God for and in the church. As mentioned earlier, the four uses of the noun in singular form appear in that form simply because each reference points to a specific person who serves as elder. In ten of the fifteen uses of the plural (Acts 11:30; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; James 5:14) 'elders' pertains to those men serving in various congregations. No mention of any congregation ever having (only) one elder is found.
Both of the passages in Peter's letter, and the scriptures in James and Timothy (5:17) concern the 'roles' of the 'elders' serving in particular congregations. Perhaps the clearest references relating to our subject are found in Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5, which speak of "appointing elders" in every (city) congregation. If it were acceptable to have only one elder in a congregation, why wouldn't Acts 14:23 read something like this, "And when they had appointed an elder for them in every church . . . .?" The phrase "every church" means "each" church. The dictionary defines "every" as "every, each, individual" (The American Heritage Dictionary, 1997 TLC Properties Inc.) Thus, we can conclude that they appointed a minimum of two elders in 'each' congregation.
The word "overseer" also describes the office (and duty) of the elder. "Overseer" appears three times in the singular, each time speaking of the qualifications of 'a man' seeking this ministry (1 Tim. 3:1-2; Titus 1:7). Act 20:28 points out that these men were made overseers by the Holy Spirit. These were the elders (plural) at the Ephesian church. The overseers are again mentioned in Philippians 1:1 as some of the saints at Philippi. And finally, the only reference yet unmentioned on the subject of elders is Ephesians 4:11. The word "pastors" appears here ("bishops" in some versions), describing again the office or work within the church. The word could as easily have been translated "shepherd," for in its definition it shows the work of the men called "pastors" (PASTOR: "a shepherd, one who tends herds or flocks" from Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright (c)1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers).
There can be no misunderstanding as to these twenty-four references to the elders of the Lord's church. The New Testament church did not have less than a plurality of elders in any congregation, unless they had not yet established elders; in which case it was the responsibility of the evangelist to train men for this work (2 Tim. 2:2).
God has not changed. Why should we?