The other day I went for a walk in my neighborhood. As I was walking, I ended up behind a woman who was walking the same route. She kept on looking back at me. Then, she got on the phone and called someone. I realized she was doing this because I frightened her. I totally understand. We live in a fallen world. This woman should have been aware of her surroundings. She should be on the lookout. I would want my wife to do the same. Once I realized that I was making her uncomfortable, I took the next road.
As I was walking, I had a thought. If this woman knew who I was she would be comfortable with me a couple of hundred yards behind. She would probably appreciate it because she would know that I would protect her and help her if she were in danger. She was afraid of me because she didn’t know me.
People are afraid of things they don’t know or understand. It is like that with people, places, experiences. It is like that in the church in many different areas. One area is that of elders. People hear about elders and they run. They hear about elders and they change the subject. They hear about elders and they are afraid. The reason for that is because they just don’t understand. The difficult thing in that is elders are talked about throughout the Bible. Makes you wonder, why do we run?
Redeemer Church is a congregational-ruled and elder-led church. The congregation chooses the elders, and the elders lead the church. We do this because we believe this is what is spelled out in Scripture. So, to help us learn about elders, here are some questions and Scriptures to walk us through it. Maybe if we were to learn, we wouldn’t be so scared. We would actually see that God’s design is far better than mans.
What Is an Elder?
According to Scripture, an elder is responsible for the leadership and oversight of the church. Many people look at an elder and a pastor as two different roles, but they are not. They are two different words for the same office. As a matter of fact, the word for pastor is only found one time in Scripture: Ephesians 4:11. It is used as a functional role descriptor for the role of an elder. It generally means to shepherd. An elder is a pastor and a pastor is an elder.
Another term that is found for the office of elder is overseer. Elders are overseers in Acts 20:17-35. Paul uses overseer as a synonym for elder in Titus 1:7. It is clear from the New Testament that there are only two offices for the church—deacons and elders. Elders are pastors and overseers of the church. An elder is one who shepherds (pastors) and governs (oversees) the local church.
It is important to note that elders are not to use their position for their own gain (Titus 1:7) nor are they to lord their position over the congregation (1 Peter 5:3). There are also plenty of ways that members of the church can shepherd and lead as well as participate in governing the church. The elders though must lead in these areas because they are the ones that will give an account for the way they watched over their sins (Hebrews 13:17).
Generally speaking, a vocational elder is called pastor and lay elders are referred to as elders. All are elders.
What Are The Qualifications Of An Elder?
There are three main passages that speak on the qualifications of elders – Titus 1:5-9, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, 1 Peter 5:1-4. Once again, it is important that we follow God’s ways and not our own. God has spoken, that is what the church needs to follow. A church can get in a lot trouble if people unfit for eldership are placed in the role. Of course, people can lie and accept a position, but the church needs to do all that it can in order to have the right people in place. It is important that only qualified men fill the position of elder. The Bible gives more details about elder qualifications than any other part of being an elder. This matters to God.
I encourage you to grab your Bible or click on the links and read these passages. In his book Church Elders: How to Shepherd God's People Like Jesus, Jeramie Rinne breaks down the qualifications of an elder in six ways. I believe these are helpful to us here and will follow suit.
1. A Desire to be an Elder
1 Timothy 3:1 says that anyone who aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Likewise, 1 Peter 5:2 says that elders should not shepherd the flock out of compulsion, but freely and according to God’s will. Elders should want the job. They should want the job because they believe that the Lord has placed them in the position to serve in this way. Now, just because someone wants the job doesn’t mean that they are otherwise qualified, but a good place to start is with men who feel called to this role.
2. Exemplify Godly Character
1 Timothy 3:2-3 and Titus 1:7-8 spell out the character qualifications of an elder. These are not characteristics that are being worked towards, but already being lived out by God’s grace. This is how the elder already lives before they are called to serve the church in this manner. Once again, Rinne is helpful here.
- Above Reproach: An elder should be blameless and above reproach. This does not mean perfect. If it did, there would be no elders in any church anywhere. What this means is the elder is striving to live for Jesus, is respectable to the outside world and living a holy life before God.
- Self-Controlled: An elder should live a self-controlled life. They are disciplined and sober-minded. Galatians 5:23 tells us that self-control is part of the fruit of the Spirit. An elder must be full of the Spirit. In both of the list above, Paul points out alcohol specifically. Scripture does not require elders to abstain from alcohol, but they must practice self-control. If not, they are not fit for the eldership. This goes for any hidden sin that someone can’t control—drunkenness, drugs, pornography, gambling, gossip, anger, spending.
- Gentle: An elder must not be an argumentative person. They must not always want or have to have their way. These men must be able to calmly discuss and lovingly care for their sheep. Being gentle does not mean being weak. As a matter of fact, it is the opposite. Elders must be tough and tender.
- Not Greedy: If you are in it for the money, you are doing it wrong. Flee from those churches where elders are living large and in luxury. This is for lay elders as well. A lay elder should not want to serve in order to protect their own little kingdom in the church.
3. Teach the Bible
An elder must be able to handle God’s word appropriately. That means they must have an understanding of it and be able to share about it. This does not mean that every elder get up on Sundays to preach to the congregation. But they must be able to proclaim God’s Word with authority.
4. Lead Your Family
An elder must lead his family well. The church is the family of God. If an elder cannot lead his family of much fewer members, how can he do that with a whole church family? This means they must love their wife well, lead and train their kids well, and be hospitable.
5. Be a Man
The Bible states that an elder must be a one-woman man. That he must lead his family. It is apparent that these roles are for men as is the role of elder in the church. There are plenty of areas for women to teach and shepherd in the local church, but the role of elder is a specific office designated by God.
6. An Established Believer
An elder must be someone who has been walking with the Lord for a significant part of their lives. This does not necessarily mean that only people over 60 are qualified as elders, but it does mean that you have to have some sort of history following Jesus. Wisdom and experience are essential to an elder. Those are things a recent convert does not possess yet.
In all of these, Jesus is our example. Does an elder’s life look like Jesus? If you are aspiring to be an elder, does your life look like Jesus?
What Do Elders Do?
A lot of times, people look at elders as men who are running the church, not leading it. What I mean by that is people look at the pastor as the CEO of the church and the elders as a board of trustees. The pastor leads the church, but the elders look over the finances, set the policies, approve or reject ministry direction, and do the hiring and firing. There is a definite need for administration in the church, it is a spiritual gift after all. However, the elders are not members of a corporate board of trustees. Remember, elders are pastors. Whether a paid pastor or a lay pastor, they are pastors.
This is foreign to us because pastors go to seminary and are hired by churches. Sure, there are differences in training and pay and time and position. But elders are pastors, we went over that at the beginning of this post.
So, what do elders do?
Elders are under shepherds. They are called to shepherd the flock of God that is among them (1 Peter 5:2). What does a shepherd do? Here are some Biblical job descriptions of an elder.
- Feed: A good shepherd will always make sure the sheep have the nourishment that they need to thrive. An elder must make sure that their congregation is getting a steady diet of the Word of God. A church should feast on the Word of God, it is what it needs to live (Matthew 4:4). An elder should be involved in the teaching ministry of the church in one way or another.
- Lead: A shepherd leads the flock to the good pasture. This is what an elder must do as well. They lead the church, and as they lead, the church experiences the goodness of God. The only way an elder can lead well is if they are following after the Good Shepherd, Jesus (John 10:11). If an elder is not being led by Jesus, they have no business leading at all. Elders have to be men who can say follow me as I follow Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). They model the Christian life to the congregation in godliness and holiness.
- Tend: Shepherds look after their sheep. They take care of them. Elders are called to pray for their church (Acts 6:4). Elders should be men of prayer and their prayers should often be for their church. They also take care of their flock by visiting those who are sick and praying for them (James 5:14). The elders should take care of the church the way Jesus took care of them.
- Protect: An elder must protect the church from harm. That means they are looking out for false teaching, behavior that could hurt the church, and cracks in unity. The devil is prowling around like a roaring lion ready to devour the sheep (1 Peter 5:8). An elder will do all that he can in God’s strength to protect the church.
- Go After the Strays: A good shepherd goes after the sheep that begin to wander from the flock. An elder must be willing to run after those who are turning away from the church. If you haven’t seen someone in a while, check up on them. If someone is living contrary to the Gospel, an elder will point that out in grace and love and help bring that person back into the community of believers. This is the example we have from Jesus, leaving the 99 to go after the one (Luke 15:1-7).
How Many Elders Should A Church Have?
As you read about the different churches in the New Testament, it is apparent that they regularly had multiple elders. This is called a plurality of elders. In Acts 14:23, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the churches of Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, and others. Paul said farewell to the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul greets the overseers of the church. In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he said that elders who rule well are worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. James 5:14 calls for the elders of the church to pray for those who are sick. In each of these instances, there appears to be multiple elders within the church.
There are plenty of reasons for a plurality of elders.
- Accountability: With a plurality of elders, one elder cannot lord their position over the rest of the church. When they get out of line, other elders can intercede.
- Wisdom: Wisdom is a key component of being an elder. This comes from experience. With a plurality of elders, there are more men to draw from their experiences. There is wisdom in listening to others.
- Different Gifts: It is a good thing to have qualified people working together for the Gospel. People are equipped in different ways. Having a plurality of elders makes sure that the gifts necessary are available for the congregation to thrive.
- Burden Sharing: It is good for an elder to be able to share the burdens of ministry with other elders. That is what we are called to do as Christians (Galatians 6:2). Being a Christian is tough, shepherding a church is tough too. Elders can’t do it on their own, that is why a plurality is encouraged throughout the New Testament.
God is the giver of good gifts (James 1:17). One of the greatest gifts he has given us is the local church. The church is made up of regenerate people who have been gifted by God to serve the church (1 Corinthians 12:4-7). Another gift that the Lord has given the church is the men he has called as elders (Acts 20:28). Let us celebrate the good thing that the Lord has done in every member of the Body of Christ, and encourage one another in love to fulfill the purpose to which they have been placed in the Lord’s Church.