By Brian Anderson
Who does God want to lead His church? How is the church supposed to be
governed? What is an elder and how is
he related to a pastor? What is an elder supposed to do? How can we know who
God has called as an elder? These
are all important questions that need answering if we are to govern our
church according to the will of God.
Thankfully, the Bible has not left us in the dark in these important
matters! In this pamphlet, we will consider
what the Word of God has to say about:
- The Biblical Pattern for Elders
- The Function of Elders
- The Qualifications of Elders
- The Identification of Elders
I. The Biblical Pattern for Elders
The Plurality in Each Local Church
In the contemporary church there are many different models of church
government in place. The most popular
model seems to be that of one pastor with many deacons who assist him in
ruling the church. According to the
Word of God, there ought to be a plurality of God-ordained men serving the
church as elders. Instead of there
being one man who has the ultimate authority in the church, there should be
a team of men who together lead the
church, as they mutually submit to one another. There are several passages
that show us this pattern:
Acts 14:23 "And when they had appointed elders for them in every church
having prayed with fasting, they
commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed."Notice that there are
to be elders (plural) in every
Acts 20:17, 28 "And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the
elders of the church." "Be on guard for
yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you
overseers, to shepherd the church of
God which He purchased with his own blood." Notice that Paul does not call
to him the elders of the churches.
There were several elders in the one church at Ephesus.
Phil. 1:1 "Paul and Timothy, bond servants of Christ Jesus, to all the
saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi,
including the overseers and deacons."
1 Thes. 5:12-13 "But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those
who diligently labor among you, and
have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you
esteem them very highly in love because of
their work. Live in peace with one another."
1 Tim. 5:17 "Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double
honor, especially those who work hard at
preaching and teaching."
Titus 1:5 "For this reason I left you in Crete, that you might set in order
what remains, and appoint elders in every
city as I directed you."
James 5:14 "Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the
church, and let them pray over him,
anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord."
1 Pet. 5:1-4 "Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder
and witness the sufferings of Christ,
and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed..."
We don't find any church in the New Testament that was governed by a single
man. There may have been churches
like that, but if they did exist, we have no record of them. The Biblical
pattern is that of a group of men that
together work as a team to govern God's church.
An Equality Among One Another
As you study through the Scriptures, you will find different terms used for
an elder; one term is "bishop" or
"overseer" and the other is "pastor" or "shepherd". In Eph. 4:11 there is
reference to "pastors and teachers".
Biblical scholars have been able to determine from the construction of the
Greek text that this office refers to a
single office instead of two different offices. It would be more accurate to
refer to them as "pastor-teachers." How
are the terms pastor, elder and overseer related to one another? Again,
there are different examples in today's
churches. The Episcopalian form of church government goes back to the word
"bishop" (or in the New American
Standard, "overseer"), which in the Greek is "episcopos", and have developed
their government on this basis. They
believe that the "bishop" is a man who rules over many churches. Other
churches have one man who is called the
"pastor" with several others who assist him in administrating the work of
the church. Let's survey the Scriptures to
see how these three words are related to one another.
1 Tim. 3:1-3 "It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the
office of overseer (King James - bishop, Greek
- episcopos), it is a fine work he desires to do." Following verse 1 are the
qualifications for this overseer.
Titus 1:5-9 "...and appoint elders in every city...for the overseer must be
above reproach as God's steward..." The
qualifications for an elder are again listed. Clearly, Paul, in 1 Tim 3 and
Titus 1 is speaking of the same person.
Paul uses the term elder and overseer (bishop) interchangeably! They are not
two distinct offices, but the same one!
1 Peter 5:1-2 "Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow
elder and witness of the sufferings of
Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd
the flock of God among you, exercising
oversight not under compulsion" Here, all three terms are used, and they are
all descriptive of the same person. In
Acts 20:28, the elders are being addressed, yet he calls them "overseers who
are to shepherd the church." An elder
then, is an overseer and does the work of shepherding the flock. The term
"elder" emphasizes who the man is; the
term "overseer" speaks of what he does; and the term "pastor" deals with how
he does it (with a shepherd's heart).
Within the eldership, there will be differences: some men will be gifted in
certain areas. In Eph. 4:11 there is a
certain group of elders called pastor-teachers. These men are called
specifically to give their life to studying and
teaching the Word of God. Other elders are not always called to a public
proclamation of the truth, but they all
work together as a team to shepherd God's church.
II. The Function of Elders
According to the Word of God, there are four things that an elder is to do:
The Elder is to Teach the Church
1 Tim. 5:17 "Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double
honor, especially those who work hard at
preaching and teaching." We can glean several truths from this verse. If a
man works hard at preaching and
teaching, it is right and proper for the church to provide him with
financial remuneration. Not all elders work hard
at preaching and teaching. Other elders will invest their time and energy in
different ways, including overseeing
various ministries in the church. 1 Timothy 3 tells us that all elders must
be able to communicate truth, but not all
elders will give themselves to teaching to the same extent. Some elders may
teach only occasionally and in a small
group or one-to-one counseling setting.
The Elder Must Shepherd the Church
Acts 20:28 says "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among
which the Holy Spirit has made you
overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own
blood." The phrase "to shepherd"
means to care for the sheep. A responsibility of an elder, then, is to lead
and guide the flock to green pastures and
still waters, and to nurture a sheep back to health when he is ill. To be a
shepherd in Christ's church means one
must care for the individual members of the body, in order to see them
mature and grow in grace. This shepherding
will express itself in different ways, such as restoring a brother when he
has fallen into sin, warning someone when
they are going in the wrong direction, and encouraging those who are downcast.
The Elder Must Protect the Church
Acts 20:28 says "Be on guard for yourself and for all the flock" The elder
is to protect the church from bad doctrine
as we see in Acts 20:29-31 -- "I know that after my departure savage wolves
will come in among you, not sparing
the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse
things, to draw away the disciples
after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a
period of three years I did not cease to
admonish each one with tears." There are two kinds of people to be aware of:
wolves from the outside, and people
within the church who will speak things contrary to sound doctrine. Paul
affirms that the elders must guard the
church from anything that would threaten the health of the body. In Titus
1:9, Paul's elders must "hold fast the
faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able
both to exhort in sound doctrine and to
refute those who contradict." Not only must an elder be able to urge the
church to cleave to Christ according to
sound doctrine, but he also must be able to refute those who contradict
truth. Therefore, he must know the word of
God. In 1 Timothy 1:3, Paul is talking to Timothy and says "As I urged you
upon my departure for Macedonia,
remain on at Ephesus, in order that you may instruct certain men not to
teach strange doctrine."
An elder must also protect the church from divisions as stated in Titus
3:10-11 "Reject a factious man after a first
and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning,
being self-condemned." A factious man
is a divisive man, who seeks to split the church. If an individual is being
divisive and will not repent after a first
and second warning, the elders may have to take a very difficult stand by
informing the church that the individual
is no longer welcome in the fellowship until he repents. The same truth is
taught in Romans 16:17, "Now I urge
you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances
contrary to the teaching which you
learned, and turn away from them."
The elder is to protect the church from an ungodly lifestyle permeating the
church or from unrepentant sin. In 1
Cor. 5:1-7 the apostle Paul exhorts the church to remove the unrepentant
offender from their midst. If the elders do
nothing and leave the sin alone, it will spread and ferment and the whole
body will be affected. Thus, the elders
must be on guard to protect the body from false doctrine, divisions, and
The Elder Must Oversee the Church
In 1 Timothy 3:1, Paul refers to "the office of overseer" and in 1 Timothy
5:17 says "Let the elders who rule well be
considered worthy of double honor..." 1 Timothy 3:5 tells us the elder is to
manage the church -- "but if a man does
not know how to manage his own household how will he take care of the church
of God?" Scripture says in
Hebrews 13:17 that an elder is to watch over the souls of the sheep and give
an account -- "Obey your leaders, and
submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give
an account. Let them do this with joy
and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you." This is a heavy
responsibility and not to be taken
lightly! To oversee the church would include seeking direction for the
church and the different ministries, and
appointing other elders and deacons. In the final analysis, the buck stops
with the elders because they must directly
give account to God.
III. The Qualifications of Elders
"An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife,
temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable,
able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle,
uncontentious, free from the love of money. He must
be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under
control with all dignity (but if a man does
not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the
church of God?); and not a new convert,
lest he become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the
devil. And he must have a good reputation
with those outside the church, so that he may not fall into reproach and the
snare of the devil." 1 Tim. 3:1-7
The very first qualification of an elder is that he must be "above reproach"
-- this is the overarching principal for
all of the other qualifications. He "must" be -- it is absolutely essential
and mandatory that he be blameless,
because that's what above reproach implies. Literally the word means "not
able to be held". That is, there is
nothing to accuse him of. We are not talking about sinless perfection, but
we are talking about there not being any
obvious moral defect within his life. This doesn't mean that in his past
he's always lived that way. It doesn't mean
that his Christian life has always been of a sterling character. But for a
period of time now, he's born a reputation
for being above reproach. There are many different areas that he must be
above reproach in.
An Elder Must Be Above Reproach In His Marital Life
"The husband of one
wife." There has been much
conflict over this phrase by interpreters with many suggestions being
offered as to the correct interpretation. One
interpretation is that this phrase refers to polygamy. Some believe the
verse teaches that a man could not have more
than one wife. The problem with that view is that neither the Jews nor the
Romans commonly engaged in that
practice at this particular time. Another interpretation suggests that an
elder can never have been divorced for any
reason at all. But Paul does tell us that there are lawful causes for
divorce (dissertion and adultery). Another
interpretation suggests that an elder must not remarry if his wife has died.
However, this would contradict what
Paul says in 1 Cor. 7. There, he encourages a widower to remarry but only in
the Lord. Another interpretation
affirms that this verse teaches an elder must be a married man. The problem
with that view, however, is that Paul
was a single man, yet he was an Apostle, which is a higher ranking
individual within the church than an elder.
What then is he talking about? If you examine the Greek terms for the words
"husband" and "wife", you will find
that they can be changed to "man" and "woman" - "the man of one woman"; or a
one-woman man. If this is the
most accurate rendering, than the plural refers to the character of a man's
life and the state of his heart, not his
marital state. Is he a one-woman man? If he's married, is he completely
devoted to his wife, or is he a ladies' man?
Is his mind preoccupied with other women? Does he have a constant problem
with lustful thoughts? If he's single,
is he flirtatious? A man considered for the office of elder must be one who
keeps himself chaste and holy in all his
behavior towards members of the opposite sex.
An Elder Must Be Above Reproach in His Spiritual Life
In 1 Tim. 3:2, Paul
tells us he has to be temperate and
prudent. The word "temperate" means "calm and collected in spirit" or
"sober-minded". The word "prudent" speaks
about exercising sound judgment in practical matters. This describes a man
who doesn't make decisions on a
whim, or depending on how he feels from day to day. He thinks and prays
seriously before he makes decisions.
In verse 3, it says he can't be addicted to wine. We can't prove that Paul
is saying an elder can never drink any
alcohol, because Timothy himself drank alcohol (1 Tim. 5:23). But it would
indicate that if a man was under the
power of alcohol, he would be disqualified. If this man did use alcohol, he
must be careful not to stumble or
weaken a brother by his use. The same would apply to the use of drugs.
Furthermore, he is to be free from the love of money (v.3). He should not
serve the church for the financial gain he
can get out of it. Peter says that an elder should not shepherd the flock of
God for sordid gain, but instead must
serve out of love for God and His people. Additionally, he can't be a new
convert -- "And not a new convert, lest he
become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil" (v.
6). He must be a spiritually mature
man. Titus 1:7-8 adds further qualifications -- "For the overseer must be
above reproach as God's steward, not self-
willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond
of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving
what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled."
An Elder Must Be Above Reproach In His Social Life
In 1 Timothy 3:2 it
says he must be respectable, by
diligently fulfilling his responsibilities. The opposite word for respect is
"chaos". His life is not in chaos or
confusion. Moreover, he must be hospitable, meaning that he has a love for
strangers. In our cultural setting,
strangers would be those who are new to the body. An elder must receive them
warmly into his home to see how he
might serve them. An elder's hospitality may often extend to inviting
visiting ministers and missionaries into his
home as well. Paul says an elder cannot be pugnacious (v. 3). In other
words, he can't be a fighter, who wants to
settle things with his fists. Additionally, he must not be contentious. The
contentious man argues verbally. Instead,
he must be gentle.
An Elder Must Be Above Reproach In His Family Life
"He must be one who
manages his own household well,
keeping his children under control with all dignity." (v. 4) The phrase
"under control" is a military term, meaning
"lining up in rank those under your authority". The elder's children must
line up under his authority, so that they
are respectful, disciplined and under control. Titus 1:6 informs us that an
elder must "..have children who
believe.."; his children profess faith in Christ.
An Elder Must Be Above Reproach In His Business Life
(v. 7). "And he must
have a good reputation with those
outside the church, so that he may not fall into reproach and the snare of
the devil." A good test to see whether a
man is qualified to be an elder is to see if he has a good reputation with
those he is in business with or other non-
Christians. These people may not like him, but if they are honest, they
will admit he is a man of integrity, honest,
just and upright.
There are other passages in the Bible that speak of qualities that must be
present in an elder:
An Elder Must Have A Servant's Heart - Mt. 20:25-28 "But Jesus called them
to Himself, and said, 'You know that
the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise
authority over them. It is not so among
you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and
whoever wishes to be first among
you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served,
but to serve, and to give His life a ransom
for many." Jesus came to serve and to give and this must be the heart of a
pastor. He wants the people to grow in
grace and he's willing to sacrifice and invest his time, energy, and life in
teaching them, discipling them, and
praying for them.
An Elder Must Have A Teachable Heart - He must be able to receive
instruction from others, because the day that
he stops receiving instruction is the day he stops growing in grace. He is
a man who is willing to listen to the voice
of God through all of God's people, and submit to it.
An Elder Must Have A Submissive Heart - He must be willing to submit to
authority, because if a man is not
willing to be under authority, how can he exercise authority? In order to
find out whether he is submissive, the
church should look at his relationship with God. Does he obey the word of
God? Is he submissive to other
authorities like the government, police, etc.?
An Elder Must Have A Committed Heart - God's work requires 100 percent
commitment. He will never be able to
minister effectively unless he is a man with strong commitment to the work.
An Elder Must Be Able To Teach - 1 Tim.3:2, Titus 1:9. He is a student of
Scripture, knows God's Word, is able to
communicate sound doctrine to others, and is able to refute error.
It is not perfection of life but the direction of a man's life that God
requires. If God required perfection, no man
would qualify. The real issue is, "Are these qualities descriptive of the
direction of this man's life"?
IV. The Identification of Elders
How do we know who should be an elder in the church? How do we know who
should be appointed to serve in this
capacity? How do we know what God's will is and what men God has selected
to be shepherds or pastors in His
There are four different tests to find out the will of God in this matter:
1. Is there a confirmation from the individual?
Peter, writing to his fellow elders, says in 1 Peter 5: 1 "Therefore I
exhort the elders among you, as your fellow
elder and as a witness of the sufferings of Christ and a partaker also of
the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the
flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but
voluntarily, according to the will of God;
and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness." The elder should exercise
oversight of the church according to God's
will. He should be convinced that God has called him to this task. In Acts
20:28 Scripture says "Be on guard for
yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you
overseers, to shepherd the church of
God which He purchased with His own blood." These elders didn't just up and
decide one day to become elders,
but God selected them. God has to uniquely call, choose, gift, and enable a
person to function in a particular role.
All the church can do is ratify or confirm what God has already done. The
church is simply to recognize and
confirm what God is doing. The question is, "Who is God raising up from our
midst?" The individual has to have
a sense that God has called him to this.
An obvious question is "How will they know if God is calling them to
eldership?" In 1 Timothy 3:1 the Holy Spirit
says "It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of
overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do."
Notice that the man has an aspiration for this -- it is something that is
upon his heart. It is a divine weight that
God has placed upon him. Paul does not put him down for this aspiration,
but says it is a fine thing that he desires
to do. It is assumed that this is a God-given desire. The man will have to
ask himself, "why do I desire to do it?".
"Do I have wrong motives?" If he can sincerely answer that he desires it
for the glory of God and the good of His
church, then it is probably a God-given desire. This is why it is
completely wrong to recruit people or persuade
people to become elders when they don't feel the call of God to do it.
2. Is there a confirmation from the Holy Spirit that this is the will of God?
The Holy Spirit is the author of Scripture; holy men of God spoke as they
were moved by the Spirit. If we are to
have a confirmation from the Holy Spirit, then we must go to the word of God
and find out what the biblical
qualifications are. Paul describes very clearly these qualifications in 1
Timothy 3:2 "an overseer, then, must be
above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable,
hospitable, able to teach." The church
must carefully analyze the prospective elder's life against the Word of God.
3. Is there a confirmation from the present leadership that this is the will
Why must there be a confirmation from the leadership? Because they are the
ones who will represent the church in
publicly appointing him to the office. Acts 14:23 declares "And when they
had appointed elders for them in every
church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom
they had believed." 1 Tim 4:14
"Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed upon you
through prophetic utterance with the
laying on of hands by the presbytery." Some questions the elders must ask
are: "will we be able to work together as
a team?", and "are we close enough in our doctrinal understanding to be able
to minister together effectively?"
4. Is there a confirmation from the church that this is the will of God?
Acts 6:3 "But select from among you, brethren, seven men of good reputation,
full of the Spirit and of wisdom,
whom we may put in charge of this task." The people should be able to
confirm the appointment of a man to the
office of elder. There should be a general agreement in the church that the
man is qualified and called of God to
this task. After all, the church is going to have to follow this man's
leadership. Therefore, there must be a sense of
unity before the appointment is made.
Please prayerfully consider these things as you consider either yourself, or
somebody else as an elder at Milpitas
Bible Fellowship. May the Lord be pleased to grant us strong and godly
leadership for the sake of His church!