Forms of presbyterial oversight in the New Testament

17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” 19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.

1 Tim. 5:17–19 (ESV)


In the first-century church, not everyone holding the office of elder labored in preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17). This is the same office as the office of overseer (Titus 1:5–9), also called the presiding office but better known as the pastoral office. Interestingly, there were those holding the office who did not labor in preaching and teaching.

The Pastoral Epistles say that the elders were overseers devoted to the public ministry of the word of God and fully qualified to preach, teach, and administer the sacraments, unlike the laymen we call “elders” today. New Testament elders had to adhere to the teaching of Scripture firmly enough to use it to encourage the church and expose doctrinal error (Titus 1:5–9). While some of those holding the office of elder labored in teaching and preaching, there is a sense in which others holding the same office did not (1 Timothy 5:17–19). What does that mean?

What was an elder in the New Testament?

The Greek word translated “elder” does not necessarily mean an office but can also mean an older man. As in any clear passage, the meanings of the words are known by the context.

As seen from vv. 17 and 19, substituting “older man” for “elder” does not convey what Paul was writing. Rather, he was using the term to designate the same office he referred to in the beginning of his letter to Titus. Those who labor in preaching and teaching necessarily hold the presiding office but were not necessarily elderly (see v. 17). Accusations tend to be made against leadership, not against the elderly (see v. 19).

Likewise, there was not a council of the elderly but rather a council of those holding the office of presbyter: “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Timothy 4:14, ESV).

Summing up so far, the context identifies an “elder” in 1 Timothy 5:17–19 as an overseer, not necessarily one of the elderly mentioned in 5:1.

Was an elder a layman or a public minister of the word?

A careful examination of Titus 1:5–9 reveals that “elder” is interchangeable with “bishop-overseer” in the Pastorals. Collins observed that the former term emphasizes position, whereas the latter term emphasizes the function of oversight: “The elder and an overseer are one and the same person. The man’s status is that of elder; his function is that of overseer” (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, p. 322). There is no exegetical reason to say “elders” in 1 Timothy 5:17 refers to a different office.

While oversight in the sense of the Pastorals does not necessarily involve laboring in preaching and teaching in the strict sense (1 Timothy 5:17), the office must be held only by those with the qualifications of Titus 1:5–9. Thus, in New Testament polity, non-teaching elders were not laymen but, as public ministers of the word of God, had to meet exactly the same qualifications as other bishops-overseers. That contrasts with the actual practice of the Presbyterian Church in America and other Reformed churches in which “ruling elders” do not have the same training as pastors, the “teaching elders.” That only the latter are normally paid is another difference from the practice of the first-century church.

The Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s (ELS) statement on the ministry calls the position of elder the “presiding office” held by the ministers of the word:

That we may obtain this faith, the office of teaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted” (AC V). This divinely instituted Public Ministry of the Word includes both a narrower and a wider sense. The narrower sense refers to a presiding office that is indispensable for the church … The church is commanded to appoint ministers who will preside over the churches (2 Timothy 2:2, Titus 1:5, Ap XIII, 12), who must have the scriptural qualifications for a full use of the keys: “The Gospel requires of those who preside over the churches that they preach the Gospel, remit sins, administer the sacraments, and, in addition, exercise jurisdiction, that is, excommunicate those who are guilty of notorious crimes and absolve those who repent.…[T]his power belongs by divine right to all who preside over the churches, whether they are called pastors, presbyters or bishops” (Treatise 60–61). God commands that properly called men publicly preach, teach, administer the sacraments, forgive and retain sins, and have oversight of doctrine in the name of Christ and the church (1 Timothy 2:11–12). Therefore a presiding office, whether it is called that of pastor, shepherd, bishop, presbyter, elder or by any other name, is indispensable for the church (Luke 10:16, 1 Corinthians 12:27–31, Matthew 28:18–20, Hebrews 13:17, Acts 20:28, Ephesians 4:11–12, 1 Peter 5:1–2). . . . The church is free to divide the labors of the pastoral office among qualified men (1 Corinthians 1:17, 1 Corinthians 12:4–6). While every incumbent of this office must be qualified for a full use of the keys, not every incumbent must be responsible for full use of the keys. Missionary, assistant pastor, professor of theology, synod president (who supervises doctrine in the church), and chaplain are some examples of this. . . . We reject the teaching that the Public Ministry of the Word is limited to the ministry of a parish pastor.

Elders mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament

Strikingly close parallels to what the pastoral epistles say about that office of elder-overseer may be found in other New Testament passages. Both Peter and Luke described the function of an elder in terms of oversight and shepherding:

Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him … Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
(Acts 20:17, 28, ESV)

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly . . .
(1 Peter 5:1–2, ESV)

The latter passage’s teaching that the apostles were fellow elders underscores the diversity of Christ’s gifts for the oversight of his house by law and gospel (Ephesians 4:11).

What does the Greek word for “labor” mean?

Since the word translated “labor” in 1 Timothy 5:17 can mean “work hard” (BDAG), it may be synonymous with “rule well” in the beginning of the verse. The “especially” in v. 17 then applies to those elders who not only rule well by working hard but who do so preaching (or prophesying) and teaching in a way that other hard-working elders do not. That is clear from how Paul used the key terms and concepts in his other letters:

  1. “The use of a form of the verb kopian for work in the ministry is typical of Paul” (Johnson, The First and Second Letters to Timothy, p. 278, citing Romans 16:6, 12; 1 Corinthians 15:10; 16:16; Galatians 4:11; Philippians 2:16; Colossians 1:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:12). He continued, “… the basic responsibility of the others is governing, with other practices engaged according, perhaps, to need or gift” (p. 278).
  2. Not all “who have the ministry of leadership have the gifts of prophecy and teaching” (Collins, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, p. 145, citing 1 Corinthians 12:28–29). Paul chose the word translated “labor” to stress the hard work involved in the ministry (p. 145).

What did the elders do?

As seen above, the Pastorals say that some holding the office of overseer-elder did not labor in preaching and teaching and yet that those holding the office are the ministers of the word. That indicates that there were ministers of the word in the first-century church who did not labor in preaching and teaching in the same sense as others.

There is some tension here since a minister of the word by definition teaches and preaches. The Pastorals have listed “teaching” alongside related duties but sometimes presented it as if it included all the duties of an overseer. The apparent contradiction is that not all ministers of the word labored in preaching and teaching. This is not to be resolved by denying the teaching of any clear text.

For example, some qualification is needed of Kim’s claim that a differentiation between ruling and teaching “is clearly found not only in 1 Tim. 5:17 but also in 1 Tim. 3:2–7. It is seen in Rom. 12:6–8 as well” (Novum Testamentum, Vol. 46, Fasc. 4, 2004, pp. 360–368). While there was a distinction between the two forms of elder or gifts (1 Th. 5:12; 1 Cor. 12:28; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Tim. 4:2), all elders (i.e., overseers) were ministers of the word according to the Pastoral Epistles. The ruling or governing carried out by an elder-overseer necessarily involved the judicious application of the word of God, for example, by exhortation, rebuke, and encouragement (Titus 1:5–9, etc.). In short, they were to govern not by force but by the application of law and gospel.

What does that mean? Evidently, some holding the office taught in a different sense than others. Some exercises of pastoral oversight are obviously more didactic than others. Not every public action of binding or loosing sins, although qualifying as teaching and preaching in a broad sense, would constitute teaching and preaching in a narrower sense such as classroom instruction or preaching a sermon to a congregation. Pastoral oversight does not consist in earthly administration but rather in the application of law and gospel, for Christ rules his church through his word. An example of such oversight without teaching a congregation of laymen is that of ecclesiastical supervision.

Pastoral care for pastors

Just as the sacraments should only be administered by those holding the office of pastoral oversight, other exercises of pastoral oversight should only be executed by those holding the office. It is inconsistent to permit a synod to authorize a layman to exercise pastoral oversight of pastors in his district without also permitting a church to authorize a layman to administer the sacraments. As authoritative uses of the keys of God’s kingdom, both activities are specific to the divinely instituted office of pastoral oversight.

How ironic if laymen, not holding the God-given office of overseer, were placed at the highest levels of doctrinal oversight in a church body! How bizarre if parish pastors charged with such oversight were told that it was essentially left-kingdom work, not their real pastoral work! That would encourage oversight by the principles of business administration rather than by law and gospel.

Since believers have the keys and priesthood of the kingdom (John 20:21–23; 1 Peter 2:9), they are free to choose a district president not only to correct pastors but also to absolve them on behalf of the church. Wouldn’t law without gospel be as harmful in pastoral supervision as it is in disciplining children or any other believers? In fact, Matthew 18:15–18 does not permit withholding absolution from those responding to Christian discipline. No one may absolve as a representative of the church without a proper call.

In any case, there is nothing in the New Testament to rule out the possibility that some ministers of the gospel were teaching and preaching in the familiar sense while other ministers of the gospel labored in church discipline, which would involve teaching in a less formal sense or to a lesser extent. The office of elder-overseer would be the same and does not include laymen.

In conclusion, the tension in Scripture’s teaching that some ministers of the word did not labor in teaching and preaching can be largely alleviated by exploring narrower and wider senses of teaching and preaching.

Confessional Lutheran orthodoxy

The idea that some ministers of the gospel preached and taught while others administered church discipline is not as novel as it might seem at first glance. Chemnitz, an author of the Formula of Concord, taught on on the basis of 1 Timothy 5:17 that some performing the “ministry of the Word” preached and taught while others administered ecclesiastical discipline* (Examination of the Council of Trent II, Kindle location near 12990). That would imply that they exercised church discipline not by secular administration but rather by law and gospel.

That coheres with his more general observation that the “orders” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:28–30, Ephesians 4:11, 1 Timothy 5:17, and other Scriptures “were free at the time of the apostles and were observed for the sake of good order, decorum, and edification, except that at that time certain special gifts, such as tongues, prophecies, apostolate, and miracles, were bestowed on certain persons by God. These ranks, about which we have spoken until now, were not something beside and beyond the ministry of the Word and sacraments, but the real and true duties of the ministry were distributed among certain ranks for” the welfare and edification of the church (Examination II, Kindle ~13000).

As is well known, the lists of gift in 1 Corinthians 12:28–30 and Ephesians 4:11 are not comprehensive. Bound only by the word of God, believers remain free to distribute the duties of the gospel ministry according to the circumstances.


This post on church and ministry grew out of discussions with Rolf Preus and David Jay Webber.

* On this issue, Brug interpreted Krauth in opposition to Walther’s recognition that God gave multiple forms of the public ministry (The Ministry of the Word, pp. 282–286).

16 December 2014. Hyperlink added 17 December 2014.