Sermon on the Eldership | What’s in a Name?

What's in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

I have always hated my name. No, I don’t hate “Justin,” but I’ve always hated that it was my middle name. The first day of school all the teachers called me “Randall.” I go to the doctor and the nurse always calls for “Randall.”

When I was in the fifth grade, I decided that I had finally had enough of being called by my middle name. At school I started having everyone call me Randall. That worked for a while, but that even became confusing: I’d go to school and be “Randall” all day; I’d come home and be “Justin” all evening. I finally decided that I’d just be “Justin” and deal with the middle name issue.

Have you ever had trouble with your name? Do you have a name that’s difficult to pronounce? Don’t be embarrassed; you should really hear people try to pronounce “Imel!” Do you know people who have unfortunate names? I heard Kyle Butt begin a sermon once by saying that he was glad his father did not name him “Seymour.”

I have always felt sorry for people with the same name as a celebrity. At Heritage Christian University, there is a Michael Jackson. You might have even heard about the Michael Jackson I know. Michael works fulltime at Heritage Christian University, and at one point, he was a part-time youth minister. The congregation where Michael was working participates in House to House/Heart to Heart. Thus, on the front of House to House for the Highland Park church Michael Jackson was listed as youth minister. Someone sent it to Jay Leno, and he used it in his headlines segment.

Names are so important in Scripture, for in Scripture, names often had meaning. Take Abraham, for example: “No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations” (Gen 17:5). Abram means “exalted father;” Abraham means “father of a multitude.” God changed Abram’s name to reflect the reality of what He would do.

When the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph, the angel says, Mary “will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). “Jesus” means “YHWH is salvation.” In the case of our Lord, the name “Jesus” has special significance.

This morning, we want to think about different names for “elder.” Scripture refers to the position with three different Greek terms. “Presbuteros,” translated into English as presbyter or elder. “Episkopos,” translated into English as overseer or bishop. “Poimēn,” translated into English as shepherd or pastor.

I want us to think about what those three words really mean this morning. Here’s what we’ll learn: “Elders provide three vital functions for the church.” Let’s think about how and why that is:


We know that elder, bishop, and pastor all refer to the same office because Scripture uses the words interchangeably.

Paul uses the terms interchangeably as he speaks to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. “From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church” (v 17). “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (v 28). “Overseers” is the same word as “bishop.” “To shepherd” means “to exercise the office of a pastor.”

In Titus 1, Paul uses “bishop” and “elder” interchangeably. “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should . . . appoint elders in every city as I commanded you” (v 5). In giving qualifications for the elders, Paul says, “A bishop must be blameless” (v 7).

In 1 Peter 5, Peter uses all three terms to describe the same position. “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers” (vv 1-2). The only noun is “elders” at verse 1. “Shepherd” and “serving as overseers” are both verbs in verse 2 that describe the function of the elders.

Why would God have His inspired apostles to use these terms interchangeably? Because these three terms tell us much about the eldership. When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them a preacher. Why am I a preacher? Because I preach. Likewise, the three terms used for elders informs us of the function of elders.

Let’s think about the role of elders in light of the biblical descriptions.

These men are elders and presbyters.

The term “elder” or “presbyter” really means the same thing in Greek as in English. The term means to be older; the idea in the word itself is that young men are not to serve as elders. The office is for those who are older. As you think about the qualification of elders, Paul says, “He must not be a recent convert.” (1 Tim 3:6).

Why are elders to be older?

The use of the terminology “elder” surely comes from the Old Testament. Elders assisted Moses in his work (Num 11:16-25). Elders were used to decide cases (e.g., Deut 19:11-13; 22:13-21; et al.).

Throughout the Old Testament you find the elders playing an important role in leading the people of God. Elders were leading the people of God because they were deemed wise. “He deprives the trusted ones of speech, And takes away the discernment of the elders” (Job 12:20). The scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread” (Matt 15:2). I understand completely that Jesus condemns the tradition here; tradition, according to Jesus, can easily make void the word of God. However, why were the people following the elders’ tradition? Because they regarded elders as wise men.

New Testament writers could write about “elders” and Jewish Christians would automatically associate the role with one they had known all their lives.

In the New Testament, we find elders of the church as being men with wisdom.

Think about the Jerusalem elders when the question of circumcision threatened to tear apart the church. Paul and Barnabas went to the apostles and the elders of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2). With the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28), the elders, along with the apostles, bring the matter to a close (Acts 15:22-29; 16:4).

The Apostle John opens both 2 John and 3 John by calling himself “the Elder.” There is absolutely no evidence that the Apostle John served in the role of an elder. Yet, why would he call himself “the Elder”? He’s an older gentleman giving advice.

What action is required on our part because we have elders or presbyters in this congregation?

We need to seek their counsel.

When you’re facing difficult decisions, it’s always right to pray to God who gives wisdom to those who ask (Js 1:5).

However, I’m worried that we don’t often stop to ask for the guidance of our elders. I don’t mean that if we’re trying to decide on a color of carpet, we call the elders (but, guys, if you and your wife can’t agree, you can call the elders, get their advice, and follow it. Your wife could then be angry at them instead of you). If we’re facing a difficult decision, why would we not want to go to the elders and get sage, wise advice?

We also give them respect.

“Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders” (1 Pet 5:5). “Elders” and “younger people” are used literally here; those who are older in a congregation and those who are younger. However, I do believe that Peter is still speaking about “elders” as leaders in the congregation (that perfectly fits the context).

We need to respect the elders, not just because they are elders, but because they are God’s appointed leaders in this congregation.

How can we respect our elders?

  • We can pray for them.
  • We can speak kindly to them and about them. Nothing shows greater disrespect to the elders and does more harm to a congregation than speaking ill of the elders. Not a one of us will always agree with them; yet, we must disagree with respect.
  • We can praise them when they get things right.
  • We can ask what we can do to make their work easier.

This week find a way to honor these fine men.

These men are bishops and overseers.

When we hear the term “bishop,” we might have a tendency to think in terms of “high church,” i.e., we think of men who wear robes and are over many congregations. Although that’s an unbiblical practice, the idea behind it can help us understand the function of a bishop. The Greek term refers to one who watches over others to make sure a job is performed properly. You can think of a superintendent.

Thus, elders stand over the local congregation. They, therefore, have real authority. “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct” (Heb 13:7). “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Heb 13:17).

There are many who want to deny that elders have any real authority in congregations. The idea of bishop/overseer says that elders do have real authority.

I think the application here is quite obvious: We obey the elders.

The authority of the elders really comes down to a very important principle: The authority of the elders is to make the authority of God alive and well in this congregation. As we mentioned last week, they keep error away from this congregation. Also, they help keep sin away from this congregation. That’s why elders visit members caught up in sin. That’s why elders discipline members.

You and I need to submit to their authority.

They have deemed it wise to have Bible class on Sunday morning and on Wednesday night. How many of you are faithful in your attendance then? When I spoke about attendance a few weeks ago, we talked big picture: We ought to want to worship God more than anything else in this world. However, we cannot ignore the fact that the elders have authority, and, they, in exercising that authority, have determined that we need to assemble through the week for Bible study.

Thinking about the authority of elders as it relates to corporate Bible study is interesting. Elders are to keep error away: Nothing keeps error away like Bible study. Elders are to keep sin away: Nothing keeps sin away like Bible study. How faithful are you in corporate (and private) Bible study?

Even when I disagree with the elders, I need to submit to them.

These men are pastors and shepherds.

We sometimes get leery of using the term “pastor” because denominational folks have a tendency to misuse the term. In my opinion, we cannot lose the richness of a biblical term just because someone misuses the term.

I’ll be honest, however. We get a ton of solicitation calls here at the church—people want to sale us education material, pianos, new carpet. You name it, and sales folks will call to sell them to us. When they ask for the pastor, I love being able to say, “They’re not in right now, but I hope you have a pleasant day.”

In Scripture, elders are told to shepherd the church. Paul told the Ephesians elders to “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God” (Acts 20:28). “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you” (1 Pet 5:2).

The image in the word “shepherd” or “pastor” refers to a gentle, caring, compassionate leader. Look at the gentle compassion of the LORD in the 23rd Psalm where David, himself a shepherd, speaks of YHWH has his shepherd. In John 10, Jesus calls Himself the “good shepherd.” Read that passage and see the tender way Jesus acts as a shepherd.

How should we live because elders are pastors?

We need to get to know them.

“I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own” (Jn 10:14). Spend some real time getting to know the elders: Have them over for supper, come to a workday and sweat alongside them, talk to them beyond the cursory, “Hi. How are you?”

It’s important for you to know the elders. Why you ask? Think about this: When you have a real spiritual need, would you rather talk to men you don’t know from Adam or men whom you know well?

We need to take burdens to them.

In this country, we like to be self-reliant and do things on our own. However, the idea of a “pastor” in a congregation indicates we sometimes need help.

I don’t know what burdens you’re carrying this morning. Is it the case that you need to take a burden to the elders? You will find love, compassion, and a willingness to help. If you need their assistance, please go to them.


The elders of this church, or any church in the world, are not the only pastors and overseers. Jesus Himself is the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls. “You were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet 2:25).

Do you need to come to Jesus?

This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Dale Ridge church of Christ in Roanoke, Virginia.

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