Throughout the history of the church, the biblical idea of “elders” or “presbyters” has been understood in numerous ways, and it has been used to justify levels of oversight stretching from the communal rule of single congregations to the supervision of a single bishop or archbishop concerned for the spiritual wellbeing of large territories. As Lutheran theologian and pastor Tilemann Hesshus (1527-1588) identifies, however, the basic understanding of this office remains constant, as it is the role of elders to exercise judgment of the church, ensuring the truth is taught and morality upheld.

On Ruling

Let each person discharge his duty. For he is still speaking about those who are preeminent in the church . . . “He who is in charge, let him act with zeal,” that is, let him discharge his task with great diligence.Diligent vigilance is especially necessary for a person in charge. Here Paul speaks about the rulers of the church, who were the censors of morals and elders in the church, who along with the pastors or bishops exercised judgment over the church. From these he requires zeal and diligence. For as it says in the proverb: “The eye of the master feeds the horse.” And Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 10: “By laziness the roof will deteriorate, and by a slackening of the hands the house will leak.” Diligent vigilance is especially necessary for a person in charge, for people’s petulance is boundless and must be restrained at once; if by negligence some sin is committed in governing, it is restored to integrity with difficulty.

Commentary on Romans 12:8.

Philip D. W. Krey and Peter D. S. Krey, eds. Romans 9-16. Reformation Commentary on Scripture, NT Vol. VIII, p. 137.