I wrote in a recent blog post on 1 Peter 5 that the word “presbuteros” could mean both “old” and “overseer” at the same time. I stated that it is very possible that the situation in 1 Timothy 5 could be the same.
In my last blog post, I covered the use of the two words for “elder” (presbuteros and presbuteis). I noted that, although there are cases where the word “presbuteros” is used for both “old” and “leader,” there were two passages that revealed the two words being used in fixed situations. When the two meanings are placed near each other, the terms “presbuteros” and “presbuteis” are clearly defined. Despite the fixity of the terms, however, being old in age qualified a person for leadership positions among God’s people (the nation of Israel). Thayer’s Lexicon defined “presbuteros” with the following definitions:
1) elder, of age
1a) the elder of two people
1b) advanced in life, an elder, a senior
2) a term of rank or office
2a) among the Jews
2a1) members of the great council or Sanhedrin (because in early times the rulers of the people, judges, etc., were selected from elderly men)
2a2) of those who in separate cities managed public affairs and administered justice
2b) among the Christians, those who presided over the assemblies (or churches) The NT uses the term bishop, elders, and presbyters interchangeably
2c) the twenty four members of the heavenly Sanhedrin or court seated on thrones around the throne of God (Part of Speech: adjectiveCiting in TDNT: 6:651, 931).
There is one definition that stands out most (from our last post on the Old Testament: that is, “members of the great council or Sanhedrin (BECAUSE IN EARLY TIMES THE RULERS OF THE PEOPLE, JUDGES, etc., WERE SELECTED FROM ELDERLY MEN).”
Thayer’s Lexicon helps us see that old men were selected to be on the great Jewish council because of their wisdom and knowledge. This surely can be seen to be a continuance of old men serving as counselors from the time of Solomon and then Rehoboam (1 Kings 12).
It is now time for me to tackle the issue of Biblical Eldership in the New Testament.
To do this, we will start with the text of 1 Timothy 5:
“Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim. 5:1-2, ESV).
Similar to my post on 1 Peter 5, these first two verses make it seem as though the “elders” of verses 1 and 2 are old men and women—since Timothy is to treat these men and women as “mothers” and “fathers.”
Verses 3-10 refers to widows. Verse 3 says, “Honor widows who are truly widows.” Widows, in this case, are those who are up in age, who have lost their spouses. Notice that Paul writes in verse 4, “If a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their OWN HOUSEHOLD and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.” The widow would have possibly had “children or grandchildren,” which mean that the widow would have been of some significant age. If the widow had family, they were to “honor” their parents, “make some return,” provide for them in their old age. Yes, this would be pleasing to God, for, as Paul wrote in Ephesians 6:2-3, “Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with promise), that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Paul quotes here from Exodus 20:12. The children and grandchildren of widows would be following this commandment spoken by God Himself if they took their parents in and cared for them in their old age. How important is it that widows be cared for? “But if anyone does not PROVIDE FOR HIS RELATIVES, and ESPECIALLY FOR MEMBERS OF HIS HOUSEHOLD, HE HAS DENIED THE FAITH AND IS WORSE THAN AN UNBELIEVER” (1 Tim. 5:8, ESV). To not provide for one’s relatives was to “deny the faith,” to run from the faith, to desert what one believed, to live ungodly. It was a serious charge against someone to not provide for their own family. Paul wrote that the person who abandoned their family was “worse than an unbeliever,” which meant that the person who abandoned their family would be seen as someone who had never come into the Christian church, someone who wasn’t part of the Lord’s family!
Verse 8 says, “Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband…” The older widows were to be selected to serve in the church if they were 60 years old or older. I won’t go into their requirements for selection, now, seeing that the key of this post is to explain 1 Timothy 5.
Verse 17 is the next verse that catches our eye, for it involves the word “elders”: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” Here the word for “elders” is “presbuteroi,” and this refers to the office of overseer, for these elders “rule” in the churches. The word for “rule” (proistemi) means to be “set over others”. These were the overseers of the church, not just old men and women.
Verse 17 mentions the double honor that comes with laboring as an overseer. Paul points out the first group in line for this, “those who labor in preaching and teaching.” In case the above evidence regarding “elder” does not suffice, this phrase confirms my belief about these elders being overseers in the church. Notice that verse 18 gives quotes from the Old Testament (Deut. 25:4) and the New Testament (Luke) regarding compensation for those who labor in Christian ministry. Verse 19 continues to discuss the office of elder, by telling Timothy how to handle accusations against them: “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Verse 20 tells Timothy how to practice church discipline against the elders: “As for those who PERSIST in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.”
It is at this point that I’d like to stop and discuss what the “elder man” and “elder women” of 1 Timothy 5:1-2 mean. As I stated earlier, some have said these verses refer to “old men” and “old women.” But the problem with this is that the end of the chapter, vv. 17-24, deal with the office of elder. We’ve already covered verses 17-20, but verse 22 talks about the “laying on of hands,” which was a sign of ordination to an office in the church. One can see the importance of the “laying on of hands” with Timothy; Paul wrote to him in 1 Timothy 4:14, “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders LAID THEIR HANDS ON YOU…” As Moses laid his hands on Joshua in the Old Testament, and as the elders laid their hands on Timothy when he was installed as Pastor, so should Timothy do the same—but be careful about who would be ordained as a fellow elder in the church.
This is what Phillip Towner, writer of the commentary on 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus of the New International Commentary on the New Testament wrote regarding context of 1 Timothy 5:
“Paul first addresses Timothy’s way of relating to men. ‘Older’ (presbuteros) in this context is primarily a comparative category of age (1 Peter 5:5). A precise age-range is difficult to pin down (see 4:12 and note; Titus 2:2-3), but depending on which classification of ages Paul followed, an ‘older man’ would be at least older than forty and possibly older than fifty, However, despite the breakdown of age and gender groups that seems to replicate the interpretation, two things frustrate it. First, Paul has just used a cognate term, ‘presbuterion,’ in reference to the committee of elders who lead the church (4:14), and in 5:17 and 19 these elders will be mentioned again. Second, in that later reference there will be discussion about the disciplinary process to be followed in the case of erring elders. It is germane here to point out that probably part of Timothy’s task in Ephesus was to correct the leadership, which had come under the influence of the false teaching. That leadership would have consisted of men drawn from the age range above Timothy’s. And since the activity Paul prohibits as the younger coworker relates to older men could describe a ‘harsh disciplinary rebuke,’ it seems possible that Paul at this point is thinking ahead to 5:19 and how Timothy should exercise his authority to correct elders” (330, 331).”
What makes this conclusion so probable is that, when you look at all of the New Testament’s use of the word “elder” (presbuteros), in addition to passages that distinguish the office from someone of “old age,” you find that the New Testament NEVER ONCE uses “elder” for “older.” The New Testament distinguishes between these two meanings, and provides two different words for purposes of distinction: for the word “elder” (the office) the New Testament uses the word “presbuteros”; but for the word “older” or “old,” the New Testament uses the word “presbutas” or “presbutidas” (see Titus 2:3, 4). The word “presbutas” in Titus 2:2 comes from the word “presbuteis” of the Old Testament (Lamentations 5: 14).
Whereas there was some overlap of the word “presbuteros” in the Old Testament, meaning either “older” or “someone of great rank,” the New Testament does not contain such an overlap. Whenever it wanted to refer to the office of elder, it always used “presbuteros.” This can be seen throughout all of the Book of Acts, as well as James 5:14, and the Gospels, where the Pharisees refer to the traditions of the “elders."
Well, this clears the “elder men” of 1 Timothy 5:1—but what about the “elder women”? I’ll write on this in my next post on biblical eldership.