The “Elder” has been defined in the past sections of this Manual as the leader whose office begins to be evident under Moses’ authority in the wilderness, with the elders acting as judges and clan leaders, as supports (and sometimes hinderances) to Moses’ leadership.
We have seen that Paul in the New Testament stipulated the presence of Elders in the church and defined the role for the church in ages to come, particularly in the instructions he gives Timothy and Titus in the Pastoral Epistles.
But we have to take notice that the office of Elder has not always been, and still is not, recognised in the majority of the Christian Church in the way that we hold to it within Presbyterianism. How is it then, that the “Elder” as we have defined it from Biblical evidences is an accepted and revered office fundamental to the government of our Church? What happened to the Eldership in the years following New Testament times, and why do we claim it to be vital to the proper rule of government in the church?
The term “Bishop”, which we equate with the term “Elder”, comes from Old English and Wycliffe’s translation (1382) of the Greek word episkepos (“overseer”, “watcher”) throughout his New Testament, particularly in Acts 20:28 where Paul addresses the Ephesian Elders. Whilst Wycliffe, as a proto-Reformer, was ardently against the power and position of the papacy, opposed the abuses of the prelates (Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops, etc) and their meddling in secular affairs and neglect of their spiritual duties, he accepted the understanding of the time that Bishops were first among equals and were given oversight of other presbyters (priests).
It had been accepted, never disputed, since the time of the early church, that this term of episkepos (“overseer”) was a separate office entirely to that of the presbuteros (“presbyter”). The exact time in which a bishop went from being the equivalent of a local Elder to an overseer over a number of presbyters is not precisely known. It is the opinion of the prelatical party of Rome and England that the episcopal power of a Bishop derives from not only the tradition of the church but from Scripture, and so for Episcopalian government they claim the Divine right