Part G. Elders in light of Hellenism

I contend that it is important to understand scriptures in light of hellenism, especially in the study of elders and local church leadership. The scriptures were written at a time when extremely different cultures were existing within the same space. Hatred and xenophobia  were rampant. People were accustomed to their own cultures and not very willing to learn about others.

Born directly into this was the “one new man” spoken of in the New Testament. God brought to life a people for himself comprised of individuals from all cultures – Jew and Gentile alike. This was a very messy arrangement for the Apostles to work through!

Without understanding Hellenism, and understanding Judaism to an equal extent, these nuances are unknown to us and we treat every Scripture as if it was written to people in circumstances similar to our own. For most modern readers, this is simply not the case.

In a nutshell, the Jewish people were already familiar with and accustomed to having elders. These do not appear to be an elected office of the synagogue, nor the influence confined to their religious congregations. The Gentiles, as well as Dispersion Jews, were unacquainted with elders and their role in the community, instead being led by civic offices such as governor, magistrate, etc.

Though not always the case, it seems that when “overseer” is mentioned, the context is typically Gentile audiences. When elders is mentioned, the audience is typically Jewish. The Apostles seemed to write and instruct quite a bit in hopes of seeing the role of “overseer” established. I tend to think of these as “gentile elders”.

Overseer are elder are indeed similar, but I don’t believe context allows them to be completely interchangeable as some do. 1 Peter 5:2 and Titus 1:5,6 seem to tie the concept of shepherding and overseeing to that of being an elder, showing their similarities, but there are distinctions how and where these words appear in the New Testament.

As mentioned, those from a Jewish heritage and community were accustomed to having elders. The New Testament provides ample examples to indicate these elders were not governing rulers, but community influencers. Influence is a critical concept in understanding elders and overseers in the New Testament. Rule and influence are very, very different.

Those from a Greek heritage, unless part of the “dispersion” ( those who were Jewish by heritage but scattered among the Gentiles), were unaccustomed to elders, but very accustomed to offices and positions. The New Testament has ample evidence of this as well, including the teachings of Jesus about such distinctions in Matthew 20:25-27.

These Gentile offices were legal and civic and impersonal, much different than the shepherding nature of the Jewish elder.

In contrast, the Jewish elders can be viewed the way we’d imagine the wise old men in a tribe or village, perhaps  in American Indian culture. 

The scriptures appear to delineate between an elder and a ruler. This is evidence by verses such as Acts 4:5, 8, 23 where rulers and elders are addressed in the same sentence, but as different than one another, and also verses such as Mark 15:1 that indicates that the elders were part of a consultation and not rulers unto themselves. Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23 would further appear to indicate that this role of elder, by the time of Acts 15, was still that of advice and council. Furthermore, Jesus clearly says to not be called leaders, but yet the idea of elders are never discouraged and further encouraged by the New Testament writers.

Matthew 23:10 NASB – “10 “Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.”

So who ruled the Jewish people? Within their own sub-cultures, this duty belonged to primarily, the “chief priests”, the Pharisees, and to the “leaders”, who, as mentioned, appear distinct from the elders.

The sacrifice of Christ eliminated the necessity of the role of chief/high priests. Though difficult to imagine or embrace (as witnessed in the book of Hebrews), the first church needed to move away from this role. They did not however vacate the concept of elder, as is apparent all throughout the New Testament in books like Acts, Hebrews, James, etc.

After the Gospels, every clarification or teaching about the specifics of church leadership is written to Hellenized peoples. Is this just a coincidence? Are Jewish people just better leaders? I don’t think so. I believe this is because of the uniquely different cultures coming together into one new “local church” or ekklesia.

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