Elders in the Early Church

These are notes from Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 231–232.

In vv. 1–4 Peter addressed the elders in the church. The word “elders” (presbyteroi) is often used in the New Testament to refer to those who had leadership positions in the church.58 The church or churches in Jerusalem had elders (Acts 11:30; 15:2, 4, 6, 22–23; 16:4; 21:18).59 According to Acts 14:23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in all the churches visited during their first missionary journey. When a contingent of leaders visited Paul from Ephesus, they were called “elders” (Acts 20:17). The person who is sick and needs prayer is encouraged to summon the elders of the church for prayer and anointing according to James (Jas 5:14). The Pastoral Epistles show that elders functioned in Ephesus (1 Tim 5:17) and were to be appointed in Crete (Titus 1:5). Every piece of evidence we have shows that elders were widespread in the early church. They are mentioned by different authors: Luke, Paul, Peter, and James. They stretch over a wide region of the Greco-Roman world: from Jerusalem, Palestine, the whole of Asia Minor, and Crete. It is also likely that elders functioned as a plurality in the churches since the term is always plural, and Acts 14:23 says elders were appointed “for them in each church.” Further, the elders who visited the sick in James were plural, but the elders who visited were almost certainly from one local church. Most scholars believe that the term was borrowed from Jewish usage, for the term “elders” is quite common in the Old Testament and the Jewish tradition.60

58 Supporting an official use here is Selwyn, First Peter, 228; Bigg, Epistles of Peter and Jude, 183; Goppelt, I Peter, 340; Kelly, Peter and Jude, 196; Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 321–22; J. H. Elliott, “Ministry and Church Order in the NT: A Traditio-Historical Analysis (1 Pt 5, 1–5 & plls.),” CBQ 32 (1970): 371. Richard thinks the emphasis here is on the age of the elders instead of office (Reading 1 Peter, Jude, and 2 Peter, 202).

59 Calvin says that elders are equivalent to pastors and presbyters and that it designates office, not necessarily old age (Catholic Epistles, 143, 145).

60 For the background of the term see B. Merkle, The Elder and Overseer: One Office in the Early Church (Ph.D. diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2000), 27–68.

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