‘Select Capable, God-Fearing Men’
“But you must yourself search for capable, God-fearing men among all the people, honest and incorruptible men, and appoint them over the people.”—EXODUS 18:21, The New English Bible.
1. Why do the terms “overseer” and “older man” have special interest for Jehovah’s Witnesses?
“FROM the time of Homer [about the 9th century B.C.E.] to our days many words have died; many others have been born. Epískopos [overseer] and presbýteros [older man] have continued to live.” This comment of a modern Greek scholar highlights the rich vitality of meaning of the Greek terms for “overseer” and “older man.” For thousands of years these words have been associated with an integral part of Jehovah’s organizational arrangement for his people. If you are associated with Jehovah’s Witnesses, then the following discussion of how these terms found their way into the Christian congregation will be of special interest to you.
2, 3. Whom did Moses have to convince in order to serve as the God-appointed leader of the Israelites?
2 Bible history, of course, takes us much further back than the Greek poet Homer. In the 16th century B.C.E. Moses received the commission from Jehovah to go back to Egypt and lead the Israelites out of slavery. Since he had been away from his own people for some 40 years, to whom was he to present his credentials? “You go,” said God, “and you must gather the older men [Greek, gerousía, “council of elders”; see Septuagint Version] of Israel . . . And they will certainly listen to your voice, and you must come, you and the older men of Israel, to the king of Egypt.”—Exodus 3:16, 18.
3 Evidently from the time of the patriarchs the older men were highly esteemed because of their experience, knowledge, wisdom and sound judgment. They were the ones Moses had to convince so that they would accept him as their God-appointed leader for deliverance.
Qualifications for Older Men in Israel
4. What suggestion did Jethro offer to Moses, and in what did it result?
4 Once the Israelites were out in the desert, free from their Egyptian captors, Moses’ judicial responsibility toward the nation became overwhelming. His visiting father-in-law, Jethro, saw it so clearly that he offered a practical suggestion that evidently had Jehovah’s approval. He said: “It is not good the way you are doing. You will surely wear out, both you and this people who are with you, because this business is too big a load for you. You are unable to do it by yourself. Now listen to my voice. I shall advise you, and God will prove to be with you. You yourself serve as representative for the people before the true God . . . But you yourself should select out of all the people capable men, fearing God, trustworthy men, hating unjust profit . . . and they must carry the load with you.” (Exodus 18:17-23) This new judicial arrangement in Israel served to spread the load to other capable men. The congregation of Israel now had an organized body of elders qualified to handle judicial matters and disputes.
5. Was Moses to choose just any older men that were available?
5 What a contrast with this present world system where so few really appreciate high principles—where bribery and corruption undermine the rulers and the ruled! Back there in ancient Israel the men who were to serve with Moses in administering justice to the nation were to be carefully sought out. As Jethro put it: “You must yourself search for capable, God-fearing men among all the people, honest and incorruptible men, and appoint them over the people.” (Exodus 18:21, The New English Bible) It was not simply a matter of choosing men who were older in years. Moses was to “search” for capable, qualified, incorruptible men. What a marvelous standard for those who must care for the interests of Jehovah’s people today!
Older Men Empowered by Jehovah
6, 7. What action did Jehovah take in order to appoint older men in Israel?
6 Some time later the Israelites complained about the conditions in the wilderness. Moses, feeling that the administrative burden of the nation was now too great for him, confessed the problem to Jehovah. What was God’s solution? We read: “In turn Jehovah said to Moses: ‘Gather for me seventy men of the older men [Greek, presbytéron, Septuagint Version] of Israel, whom you do know that they are older men [presbyteroi] of the people and officers of theirs, . . . and I shall have to take away some of the spirit that is upon you and place it upon them, and they will have to help you in carrying the load.’”—Numbers 11:16, 17.
7 Moses did as he was commanded, and we are told: “Then Jehovah came down in a cloud and spoke to him and took away some of the spirit that was upon him and put it upon each of the seventy older men [presbytérous]. And it came about that as soon as the spirit settled down upon them, then they proceeded to act as prophets.” (Numbers 11:24, 25) Here was clear evidence of the theocratic appointment of these “older men.” Jehovah had organized his people for deliverance from captivity and now he was using ‘capable, trustworthy men, who feared God’ to share the responsibility of leadership and administration with Moses.
8. When the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, what role did the older men play?
8 In time, the nomadic Israelites conquered the Promised Land and went back to fixed dwellings in towns and cities, as had been their way of life in Egypt. This meant that the older men now became responsible for the people at a community level. They acted as a body of overseers for their respective communities, providing judges and officers for the administration of justice and the maintenance of peace, good order and spiritual health.—Deuteronomy 16:18-20; 25:7-9; Ruth 4:1-12.
Is Gray-Headedness Sufficient?
9, 10. Along with physical maturity, what are other requirements for an “older man”? Give Scriptural support.
9 Does the foregoing mean, then, that any older man in Israel would automatically be an “older man” in a judicial or administrative capacity? Would a certain age limit convert an Israelite into an “older man” in that sense? No, such a conclusion would not be reasonable. Elihu expressed matters clearly, saying: “It is not those merely abundant in days that prove wise, nor those just old that understand judgment.” And the wise congregator wrote: “Gray-headedness is a crown of beauty when it is found in the way of righteousness.” (Job 32:6, 9; Proverbs 16:31; Ecclesiastes 12:9, 10) The Hebrew Scriptures clearly show that in the qualified “older man” old age and experience had to be allied with wisdom and a righteous course of conduct.
10 However, age and experience are of great value. To qualify for privileges of service, older men must accept the guidance of God’s spirit and acquire understanding of his Word. It is not enough to be able to quote scriptures. Knowing how to apply them wisely is the vital factor for an “older man.”—Proverbs 4:7-9; Titus 1:9.
Older Men in the Christian Congregation
11, 12. (a) Did the Jewish communities still have older men when Jesus Christ was on earth? (b) Under what kind of arrangement were elders appointed in the Christian congregation?
11 From what we have considered, it is obvious that since ancient times qualified “older men” have been used to take the lead in the affairs of Jehovah’s people. But by the time that Jesus Christ was on the earth the Jews had established in Jerusalem a central body of priests and elders known as the Sanhedrin. It served as a Jewish high court. (Matthew 26:57-68) Nevertheless, evidence indicates that groups of older men were still active in community affairs in the cities and not just at a national level.—Luke 7:3-5.
12 With this historical background in mind, it is easy to see how the early Christian congregation would continue to use a theocratic arrangement similar to that approved by Jehovah in Moses’ time. Under the guidance of God’s holy spirit, those appointed as “older men,” or elders, in the Christian congregation would be ‘capable, honest, incorruptible and God-fearing men.’
13. Why were active, capable men needed in the Christian congregation?
13 From Pentecost of 33 C.E. onward the congregation of believers grew rapidly. (Acts 2:41; 4:4) They were not separated into private, secluded Bible study groups as if they were some Essene sect. Christianity was not a private affair. It was to be made public knowledge, to be announced to the nations. (Matthew 5:14-16; 28:19, 20) For this reason, active, capable men were needed to take the lead in the Christian organization. Logically they would be the “older men.”
Qualifications for “Older Men”
14. What requirements for elders did Peter highlight?
14 Certainly, by the seventh decade of the Common Era spiritual qualifications had been established for those older men who would take the lead in the Christian congregation. Thus we find ample references to these in the writings of the apostles Peter and Paul. For example, Peter wrote:
“Therefore, to the older men among you I give this exhortation . . . : Shepherd the flock of God in your care, not under compulsion, but willingly; neither for love of dishonest gain, but eagerly; neither as lording it over those who are God’s inheritance, but becoming examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:1-3)
Logically, when Peter stressed that the “older men” were to serve not “for love of dishonest gain, but eagerly,” he was echoing the counsel that Moses select ‘capable, God-fearing, trustworthy men, hating unjust profit.’—Exodus 18:21.
15. What requirements did Paul set out for an “older man”?
15 Paul, in his letter to his trusted colaborer Titus serving on the Mediterranean island of Crete, instructed him to “correct the things that were defective” in the congregations and to “make appointments of older men [presbytérous] in city after city.” Interestingly, the Greek word translated “older men” implies a “mature man, suitable by his experience and prudence for the ruling of his family or people.” (Episcopos y Presbyteros, by Professor Manuel Guerra y Gómez) This understanding is also highlighted in the requirements that Paul spelled out to Titus for those Christians who would qualify to serve as overseers. He wrote:
“If there is any man free from accusation, a husband of one wife, having believing children that were not under a charge of debauchery nor unruly. For an overseer [Greek, epískopon] must be free from accusation as God’s steward, not self-willed, not prone to wrath, not a drunken brawler, not a smiter, not greedy of dishonest gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, sound in mind, righteous, loyal, self-controlled, holding firmly to the faithful word as respects his art of teaching, that he may be able both to exhort by the teaching that is healthful and to reprove those who contradict.” (Titus 1:5-9)
A careful review of these requirements helps us to appreciate that an “older man” in the Christian congregation had to reach a high standard of conduct and spirituality.
16. How do we know that elders were also overseers in the first century C.E.?
16 It is also interesting to note how Paul uses the Greek terms presbyteros and epískopos, “older man” and “overseer.” We can deduce from this that the qualified older men fulfilled the duties of overseer in the congregations. Other texts show there could be a number of such older men-overseers in the same congregation.—Acts 14:23; 20:28; Philippians 1:1.
17. (a) What requirements for an overseer did Paul send to Timothy? (b) Why must an elder also be active in the preaching activity?
17 In writing to Timothy, Paul also laid out requirements for an overseer, but in slightly different terms, perhaps taking into account different circumstances. (1 Timothy 3:1-7) Since the early Christian congregation was by its nature an evangelizing organization, it was taken for granted that these older men would also be zealous in proclaiming the good news. There was no room for sluggishness.—Luke 24:46-48; 1 Corinthians 9:16; compare Matthew 25:24-27.
Apostasy Makes Inroads
18. How did apostasy affect the position of overseers?
18 As the congregation moved forward into the second and third centuries, things began to change. The apostasy that had been foretold took root. (Acts 20:29, 30; 2 Peter 2:1) Ambitious men rose up from among the very elders in the congregations. With subverted motives they began to view their office of overseer as a position of power and prestige. Certain congregation overseers even became “bishops” ruling over a diocese or group of churches. In time these bishops were voted into office by the laity, some of whom were influential rulers. Therefore, as one Catholic historian wrote: “This brought a very great danger, especially from the moment that the episcopate’s prestige was increasing and these positions were accompanied by considerable income and material interests . . . [thus] raising to the most influential sees [bishoprics] political men.”
19. What was the final result of the apostasy?
19 Yes, each bishop became raised up like a powerful monarch. In turn, this contributed to the divisions and schisms in Christendom, which had long before ceased to be true Christianity. The theocratic arrangement of capable, honest, spiritually minded elder-overseers degenerated into a hierarchy of clergymen. The voluntary service to the congregation was transformed into a paid profession requiring years of higher education in theology, philosophy and canon law.
20. What questions now require answers?
20 Did this mean that true Christianity, with its original theocratic arrangement for each congregation, would never be restored? Or that the wholesome simplicity of service rendered by “older men,” or “overseers,” was lost forever? And what about Isaiah’s prophecy pointing to an upgrading of the theocratic organization? It states: “Instead of the copper I shall bring in gold, and instead of the iron I shall bring in silver, and instead of the wood, copper, and instead of the stones, iron; and I will appoint peace as your overseers and righteousness as your task assigners.” (Isaiah 60:17) The following article will answer these vital questions.
Can You Answer?
□ What kind of men were chosen to share the judicial responsibility with Moses in ancient Israel?
□ In what capacity did the “older men” serve when the Israelites had settled the Promised Land?
□ What are some of the outstanding qualities expected in Christian elders, or overseers?
□ How did the foretold apostasy affect the elder arrangement?
[Picture on page 19]
The older men of Israel served as judges at the city gates