Introducing Biblical Eldership (Part 1)
Part and parcel to God’s design in building the church and equipping her members is providing exemplary leadership through whom he administers his own shepherdly care. While the risen Jesus Christ is the chief Shepherd of the church, he enjoys administering his care to the church through qualified men whom he so gifts, equips, and appoints (Matt 16:18; Acts 20:28-35; Eph 4:1-16; Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 1-4). The Lord uses these leaders to press the truth and grace of his character into the life of the congregation. Insofar as these appointed men look like Christ and follow him, the congregation will benefit. Health and fruitfulness flow from churches who understand the strategic significance of church leadership and whose leadership reflect the faithfulness of the One who leads his people beside still waters (Ps 23:1-6).
Introducing Biblical Eldership
The role of such leadership in the church belongs to the elders. In the New Testament, each local church recognized, affirmed, and submitted to the leadership of biblically qualified elders. Elders provide the spiritual oversight of the congregation through prayerful submission to God’s word which expresses itself in the regular discipleship, leadership, protection, and care of God’s flock (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Eph 4:11-16; 1 Tim 3:1-7; 5:17-21; Tit 1:5-9; 1 Pet 5:1-4; Jas 5:14; Heb 13:7, 17). The New Testament also speaks of the office of deacons, but rather than providing the primary spiritual oversight of the congregation, deacons assist the elders with any service that will support and promote the ministry of the Word, new and existing ministries of the church, and/or the care for her members (Rom 16:1-2; 1 Tim 3:8-13; cf. Acts 6:1-6). The aim of the present post, however, is to equip you with a biblical understanding of eldership. More posts will follow on the nature of eldership and how the congregation serves alongside them.
1. Elders, Pastors, Overseers, Are Interchangeable Terms
The New Testament uses various words to refer to those entrusted with the primary spiritual oversight of a local church: “elder,” “pastor/shepherd,” and “overseer.” The use of the different words suggests not a distinction of office, but a distinction of function within the same office. We might say that “elder” is a primary descriptor of the leadership office, while “overseer” and “pastor/shepherd” further describe the functions within that office. Three examples suffice:
- “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 [lit., “to shepherd”] the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:17, 28).
- “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you...For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach…” (Tit 1:5, 7).
- “So I exhort the elders among you...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 Pet 5:1-2).
2. The Paradigm Is a Plurality of Elders for Each Local Church
As the apostles fulfill the Great Commission in spreading the gospel and planting churches, they established not just one pastor to lead a local church but a plurality of pastors, or elders, within each local church (e.g., Acts 14:23; 20:17; Tit 1:5). All of these men so appointed to the office of elder were equal in governing authority and together provided the spiritual oversight of the entire congregation. Some may be employed by the church (1 Tim 5:17), while others receive their compensation through means outside the church (1 Cor 9:1-18). Those employed by the church are normally freed up to devote themselves further to the regular preaching ministries within the church (1 Tim 5:17-18).
3. The Office of Elder Belongs to Male Leaders
Because of God’s good and wise designs in the created order and because of God’s desire to provide utmost care and protection and prosperity for women in their unique, complementary role alongside men, he has restricted the office of elder to male leaders (Gen 1:27; 2:18, 22; 1 Tim 2:11-3:5; cf. 1 Cor 11:2-11; 14:33-35; Eph 5:22-33; Tit 2:3-5). That does not mean women cannot serve in other capacities, nor does it mean that women have no voice in the church (e.g., Luke 8:2-3; Acts 18:26; Rom 16:1-3; Tit 2:3-5). As Paul counted a number of women as co-laborers in the gospel (Phil 4:3), so we too consider it a privilege to walk alongside our sisters in the faith and find ourselves all the more strengthened by them.
4. The Office of Elder Belongs to Qualified Leaders
The New Testament has not left the church without help in discerning which men they should recognize and appoint to serve as elders. Indeed, it has even provided very practical insight for recognizing the particular grace of God given to the men God desires to shepherd his people. This grace includes a brother’s compulsion, his character, and his competency.
While Christ is the one who gives elders to the church (Eph 4:11), he does not do so apart from their aspiration to oversee God’s people (1 Tim 3:1). When the Spirit gifts and appoints someone to lead the church (Acts 20:28), he does not do so apart from giving them zeal to carry out their leadership (Rom 12:8). Elders are not to shepherd the flock under compulsion, but willingly as God would have them (1 Pet 5:2). Thus, an elder should indicate a response to God’s working in his life by expressing a Spirit-wrought desire to shepherd God’s people.
An elder will also possess an exemplary lifestyle before God and others that consistently bears witness to the transforming power of the gospel. As outlined in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, and 1 Peter 5:1-3, he will exemplify a life that is devoted to Jesus Christ and that brings no disrepute upon the gospel, his family, or the church. We should not expect perfection in the qualities listed (cf. 1 Tim 4:15), but evidence of God’s grace working in the brother an exemplary and imitatable life in godliness mandated of all Christians. The Lord grants these necessary qualities even before one begins shepherding and does so in order to help his people identify his appointed men for pastoral leadership (1 Tim 5:22-25; Tit 1:5-9; cf. Acts 14:23).
While most of the entries in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, and 1 Peter 5:1-3 consist of qualities in godliness mandated of all Christians elsewhere in the New Testament, two additional entries exist that are unique to elders: the requirement that an overseer be “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:9) and the requirement that an overseer “not be a recent convert” (1 Tim 3:6). Being “able to teach” means an elder must demonstrate that he possesses both the requisite knowledge and the ability to communicate it to others (1 Tim 3:2; 4:16; 5:17; 2 Tim 2:2, 24; Tit 1:9; 2:1; Jas 3:1). Not being a recent convert means an elder must have proved his commitment to Christ and the church over time (1 Tim 3:6; cf. 1 Cor 4:2; 2 Tim 2:2; Heb 5:12-13).
When the church recognizes the grace of God working the above qualifications into a brother, they should take full responsibility in confirming that work for the overall health of the church and the ongoing service of the gospel’s advance to the world.
In the next post, we'll look at the nature of biblical eldership.