The following is an excerpt from a new book called Church-Building Elderships, a compilation of the wisdom and experience of elders who have been serving in churches around the world. This book, while not exhaustive, is intended to touch on vital topics for becoming an elder, growing as an elder, and growing as an eldership (group of elders). Available at the DT Media Store.
Who are elders and why are they important inGod’s plan for the church? What does the Bible have to say about this role andits function? In this chapter we will seek to biblically answer these questionsby asking who, what, when, where, and why.
1. Who are the Elders of God’s Church?
As mentioned in the previous chapter, theconcept of older men who were responsible for guiding God’s people was alreadyin place when God sent Moses to deliver the Israelites. As God appeared toMoses in the burning bush, he told him to go back to Egypt and “assemble theelders of Israel” (Exodus 3:16; 4:29). References are made to the elders ofIsrael throughout the story of the exodus, the wandering in the desert, and thetaking of Canaan. Nothing further is recorded about the qualifications of thesemen or how they were chosen. The peoples around what became the nation ofIsrael were also led by groups of men called elders, such as in the town ofSukkoth (Judges 8:14) in the time of Gideon and the elders of Gilead during thedays of Jephthah (Judges 11:4–5).
As the history of the Jewish people continuesin the Old Testament, there are always groups of leaders called elders,throughout the period of the judges, the time of the kings, the exile, and thereturn to Palestine. As Jesus begins his ministry, there is consistentreference to the elders. Again, there is no explanation or commentary on thespecifics of their role or how they were appointed. However, they obviously hadsignificant influence and authority over God’s people.
It seems logical and appropriate that as the church was established God would institute a plan that had already been accepted by the Jews for hundreds of years. The first reference to elders as part of the new covenant is in Acts 11:30 when the church in Antioch sent famine relief “to the elders” of the church in Jerusalem.
As the New Testament reveals more about the qualifications and role of elders, the “who” becomes clearer. Just as in every instance in the Old Testament, in the New Testament the word is always in the plural form, “elders” (Acts 14:23, when Paul began appointing them, and Acts20:17, when Paul met with the elders from the church in Ephesus). The men to assume this role were married men, mature enough to have believing children, and men of good character who were respected both inside and outside the church(1 Timothy 3:1–7; Titus 1:3–9). Paul even expressed that “whoever aspires to bean overseer desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1), indicating that this was an admirable role. (More will be explained about the uses of other terms, like“overseer,” to describe the function of elders.)
2. What is the Elder’s Role?
The elders in the Christian congregation are both shepherds and overseers:
“I exhort the elders among you…: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly.” – 1 Peter 5:1–2 ESV
“ Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God.” – Acts 20:28
Paul also speaks of elders directing the affairs of the church (1 Timothy 5:17). In the original Greek, the New Testament uses some terms interchangeably that in older English translations are rendered “presbyters” or “bishops.” Most modern English translations use“elders” or “overseers.” When Paul refers to “pastors” in Ephesians 4:11 he uses a word always translated as “shepherds” except in this place. It is generally believed that he is referring to the elder-shepherds. All these words indicate the responsibilities and function of biblical elders. Because of the pastoral nature of life in biblical times, people were aware of the role of shepherds to guide and protect the sheep. The church elders appear to have overseen the managerial aspects of the church as well as the spiritual welfare of the church and its members. More specifics of how they carried out their responsibilities are not given.
Another significant charge given to elders is to protect the church from false doctrine, which even in the early days of the church threatened to weaken the faith or cause the abandonment of God’s plan and purpose. Paul instructed Titus to appoint men as elders who were sound in the faith.
“He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” – Titus1:9
It seems apparent that the elders have authority over the church, yet Peter admonishes them not to be “lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3).
3. When were Elders Appointed or Recognized?
As mentioned earlier, in the Old Testament it is not revealed exactly how elders were appointed. Clearer examples can be seen in the New Testament church. After Paul had established congregations, he determined to revisit them to appoint elders in each one (Acts 14:23). Paul later wrote to Timothy about the kind of men who should be elders, and then charged Titus to appoint elders (1 Timothy 3:1ff; Titus 1:5).
There is no example shown of exactly how this process took place. Did the congregation recommend or select elders based on the guidelines Paul gave about character and maturity? Did the evangelists generally choose the men? No record is given of the congregation voting on elders, but they were vetted in some way by the church. No clear pattern is found. Certainly, the Holy Spirit could have given more specific instructions if that were necessary. The book of Leviticus, for example, shows God’s will to give very specific directives about various situations. In absence of specific instructions, it would seem that congregations and evangelists can determine the best selection process. Since Paul told the Ephesian elders that the Holy Spirit makes overseers (Acts 20:28), we assume that congregations were officially recognizing men who were already known for their shepherding hearts.
There is also biblical basis for some elders being supported by the church:
“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.‘” – 1 Timothy 5:17–18
Since elders are required to have children who are believers, it may take a while for some congregations to have qualified men. As congregations mature, more men become available to serve as shepherds by whatever method the church decides to identify them.
4. Where do Elders Serve?
Paul returned to the places where he had preached and “appointed elders for them in each church” (Acts 14:23). He later had an emotional and heartfelt meeting with the elders of the church in Ephesus(Acts 20:17–38). Church history indicates that gradually one elder began to take a lead role over the other elders around him and then eventually over several churches. This pattern does not exist in the New Testament. Certainly, different men have different gifts, backgrounds, and opportunities, but biblical elders seemed to work together in humility, shepherding and overseeing the local congregation. We find instances of geographic regions of churches working together, such as in the collection of famine relief for the churches of Judea, but no group of elders appears to have oversight of another congregation outside of where they lived. Certainly, the apostles and other church founders visited young churches they had started in order to help them grow. When churches are young, wisdom would suggest that they may need shepherding from sponsoring congregations, but each mature congregation is directed by its local elders. While this is the elders’ main focus, we do see examples, such as the council in Jerusalem discussed in Acts 15, in which some of the more experienced elders were called upon to engage at the brotherhood level.
5. Why are Elders Important?
The New Testament teaches that Jesus is our Chief Shepherd (John 10:10–18; Hebrews 13:20–21; 1 Peter 5:4); however, throughout history God’s people have always needed flesh-and-blood leadership. The book of Judges recounts an unfortunate cycle. People more readily served and obeyed God when they had the godly leadership of a judge. When a judge died the people often reverted to disobedience and idolatry. During the days of the kings the spirituality of the nation (and then the two nations after the kingdom split) generally reflected the spirituality of the reigning king. Good leadership is imperative. Even though people are individually accountable to God, the collective body of God’s people often drifts away without spiritual leadership. God’s plan in his church is that elders provide this spiritual leadership to help his people stay faithful and obedient.
For this reason, elders are to be men of good character, seasoned and tested, and men who have been proven in their families so that they can take care of the people and manage the household of God effectively (1 Timothy 3:5). Elders provide maturity and stability for the church when the affairs of the church are handled righteously, prudently, and faithfully. Elders refute false doctrine. They are examples of devoted Christian living and help the church mature.
“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” – Ephesians 4:11–16
Who are elders? They are spiritually mature men of noble character who are respected by everyone around them.
What is their role? They are shepherds and overseers, directing the affairs of the church.
When do they serve? They are appointed as they meet the qualifications and guidelines Paul expressed to both Titus and Timothy.
Where do they serve? The example in the New Testament is that men serve in their local churches, though at times they might serve the brotherhood as needed.
Why are they needed? Elders provide maturity, promote spiritual stability and growth, and keep the church sound in the faith.
May many more men desire the role of elder and prepare themselves to serve God’s people, thus helping the church attain to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.