Just What IS an Elder Anyway?
Note: This article appeared as part of a study guide in our church newsletter during a transition I led toward a more Elder-led structure. It is reprinted here for clarity and/or for use as you see fit…
It is my hope and prayer that the restoration or clarification of this biblical office will contribute to the health and growth of the Church of Jesus Christ worldwide.
What is an Elder? To answer this question, we need to start at the very beginning of the New Testament Church era. But first, perhaps we should quickly look at what an Elder is NOT.
A biblical church Elder is NOT:
An elderly or “older” man per se.
Someone “elected” to that office by church members.
Someone “more important” than others.
Someone who likes to “give orders.”
Someone who has, “climbed the ladder” as a deacon, and has “earned the title,” etc.
An Elder is the Bible was never one who thought he wanted more power or influence and therefore pursued the office for that reason. He was never one who could study or do good works such that he’d be accepted in that office. No, had to meet criteria that only God could establish and enable him to attain. In our context, he had to have the right S.H.A.P.E. for this office, and he had to have the right moral character and reputation too. As Jesus demonstrated, Elders are servants who “wash the feet” of those they lead and serve.
Actually, the first Elders were the early Apostles. Just as we understand the church to have “Circles of Commitment” today, the people living at the time of Jesus could be characterized as belonging to the “Community” (all those living in Judea and the towns where Jesus taught), the “Crowd” (such as 5,000 fed on one occasion), the “Congregation” (consisting of the 120 following Jesus as of Pentecost circa 33 AD), the “Committed” (as were the 70 who were sent out on a missions trip prior to the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry), and the “Core” (the 12). Jesus also had what we might call an “inner circle,” almost like a group of staff members or best friends who were closer to him than anyone else (James, Peter, and John).
Apparently, Jesus chose the 12 based on his knowledge of their personalities, their talents, and what would ultimately become their spiritual gifts. It was his desire to eventually give them authority (Matt. 16:17-19), as well as a calling to care for his followers (John 21:12-17), and a call to reach the lost (Matt 28:19-20, Mark 1:17, etc.). After Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven, the 12 understood that they were to lead as a group and acted quickly to replace Judas after suicide to keep the leadership team intact (Acts 1:13-26). The basic concept of a plurality of Elders acting as a team comes from the original Apostles.
The book of Acts as well as the record of early church history shows that the oversight of the church shifted from the Apostles (the 12) to groups of Elders in each local church. This shift occurred for four primary reasons:
The original 12 Apostles eventually died (John 21:18-19).
The church spread to many regions outside of Judea (Acts 1:8).
The ministry of Paul called for the naming of Elders in every town (Titus 1:5).
Even the original Apostles considered themselves Elders in a primary sense (see II Peter 5:1).
These Elders had oversight (Acts 20:17-31, Heb. 13:17) and the authority to do several things:
Lead and protect the flock (I Tim. 5:17, etc.).
Teach (I Tim. 3:2).
To lay on hands for ordination (Acts 6, I Tim. 4:14).
Pray for and anoint the sick (James 5:14).
Determine membership status (I Cor. 5:4-5).
Correct and rebuke those caught in sin (II Tim. 4:1-2).
Restore people to membership (II Cor. 2:1-11)
Equip the saints for works of ministry (Eph. 4:11-16).
The qualifications for being called to the office of Elder are found in I Tim. 3 and Titus Chapter One. Before listing them, it is important to note that nowhere in scripture do we see any precedent for “terms of office” for Elders. These responsibilities, because they were based so heavily on gifting as well as moral example, were never considered temporary. While we can’t dispute the wisdom in giving people a break from certain responsibilities in line with a sabbatical or Sabbath rest, the idea that one would CEASE from being an Elder during such a rest is clearly not found in scripture. In fact, who is man that he should attempt to nullify what God has ordained based on some arbitrary policy?
This is important to understand when looking at the naming of Elders. While the congregation may help discern and affirm through the Holy Spirit, those who seem to meet the following criteria, it must be understood that God through the existing leadership, (Elders and Deacons), will ordain or finally place them in office (Acts 6:1-6, I Tim. 4:14, etc.). In a congregationally governed church, the members could certainly work with the other Elders or Deacons to remove an Elder who ceased to meet the criteria found in scripture (Matt. 18:15-18, I Tim. 5:19-20, etc.). If all the Elders became corrupt, one possibility might be to use other pastors or leaders from within their denomination or other local churches to act as moderators of a dispute. Still, while in office, Elders should be allowed to lead as biblically mandated (Rom. 12:8, etc.).
Here is a summary of the Biblical qualifications of an Elder as found I Timothy 3 and Titus One:
A man, (there are no female Elders in scripture).
A blameless reputation
Sober or Mature.
Not abusing alcohol/drugs.
Not easily angered—no “hothead”.
Loves the good in people and sees it.
One who doesn’t like to fight or argue.
A gifted leader in his home.
Holy/Called and “Set-Apart.”
Will stand against heresy.
Good reputation with unbelievers.
A heart or desire to do good.
Spiritually bound to only one woman.
Diligent as a just leader.
A good moral example.
Gifted to teach.
Not violent or abusive.
Not covetous of others power, etc.
A mature Christian.
Balanced and given to moderation.
Knows the Word.
Even these criteria speak to God’s desire that these men should lead, oversee, and protect the congregation. The idea that they should only “teach and pray” while other “elected” church officials rule and make the churches business decisions, etc., is clearly not accurate.
At first glance, these criteria seem almost too rigid. One may feel that no man could ever meet them all. In fact, the application of these criteria is somewhat subjective. For example, what may be “just” in one person’s opinion may not be considered “just” to others. Still, the overall picture is of a man with leadership gifts, teaching gifts, and the moral character necessary to assume the responsibility of leading God’s church along with others of like calling. To use our S.H.A.P.E. paradigm, he should have:
Spiritual Gifts: Leadership, Hospitality, Teaching.
Heart: To lead, serve, care, and oversee.
Abilities: Parenting, Stewardship, etc.
Personality: Patient, Not pushy, etc.
Experience: Good reputation, Good family life, etc.
In addition, he must have a reputation of good Christian living. Remember, an Elder’s job is to equip the saints—that’s you and me—for ministry. His job is not to DO ministry for us!
How might the Church apply this?
* First, I believe we must seek to ordain Elders and cease ordaining "pastors." There is no precedent in scripture for ordaining other offices beyond that of Deacon or Elder. While the function of pastor is clearly biblical, pastors are merely Elders who hold the primary role of shepherding the flock.
* Furthermore, when we conduct ordination councils, it's time to stop making our pet Theological positions the primary criteria. The pastoral epistles provide plenty of fuel for our review fire without adding questions about one's particular view of historic premillennial dispensationalism, etc. I'm often amused at how we would literally be forced to toss Paul, Peter, and even Jesus to the curb based on some of the ordination criteria we've added to what scripture offers.
* Next, this means that we should treat the office of Elder with the proper respect and care. Elders should go through an ordination process and not merely be "elected" or appointed by pastors based on leadership skills or business acumen, etc. Rather, they should meet the biblical qualifications found in Paul's epistles.
* Finally, those ordained should be allowed to lead. Having elders but then relegating them to the role of giving "spiritual input" without authority to make/change policy or make even financial decisions, etc. is a grave mistake. This would be like electing a president but then telling him his job is merely ceremonial. In the scriptures, elders lead local churches. It really is that simple.
These changes can produce many blessings to the Body of Christ. They can make her stronger, safer from the Enemy's attacks, and more focused on her mission since leaders lead and the rest of us serve or do the ministries God has given us. It is my prayer that we will soon see this--especially in the Evangelical West and move in that direction.