Augustine was an elder in the childhood years of the church early (5th century) and he recognized the critical nature of leadership within the church to both care for and defend the people of God during subtle and blatant attacks on the faith. Augustine’s passion for healthy leadership led him to speak often to the vital and often difficult aspects of being a spiritual leader in the church:
Disturbers are to be rebuked, the low-spirited to be encouraged, the infirm to be supported, objectors confuted, the treacherous guarded against, the unskilled taught, the lazy aroused, the contentious restrained, the haughty repressed, litigants pacified, the poor relieved, the oppressed liberated, the good approved, the evil borne with, and all are to be loved.”
God-centered leaders are needed as much today as they were in the early years of the Church in order to foster its health. While there may be many ways to organize leadership within a church, we need to pay attention to God’s commands in the qualifications and in the functions of church leadership if a church is to provide a healthy environment development of its people. Therefore, it is vital to have a clear understanding of the qualifications and functions of church leadership. It is to this end that this position paper has been prepared.
Who Were Elders in the Old Testament?
The word translated “elder” is of Jewish origin. The primary Hebrew word for elder, zaqen, is simply a general reference to an aged man. For example, this term was used in Numbers 11:16 and Deuteronomy 27:1, of the seventy tribal leaders who assisted Moses. In these passages, the word “elder” refers to a special category of aged men who were set apart for leadership—much like a senate—in Israel. Deuteronomy 1:9-18 indicates that elders were charged with the responsibility of judging the people on civil matters. Elders were also used by Moses to communicate to the people (Exodus 19:7; Deuteronomy 31:9) and to administer the law of God. The elders would also lead in the observation of the Passover (Exodus 12:21) and perhaps other elements of worship. Later, the elders of Israel were specifically involved in the leadership of cities (1 Samuel 11:3; 16:4; and 30:26). Still, their function was decision-making—applying wisdom to the lives of the people in resolving conflicts, giving direction, and generally overseeing the details of an orderly society of God’s people. The Old Testament refers to this group of men as elders of Israel (1 Samuel 4:3); elders of the land (1 Kings 20:7); elders of Judah (2 Kings 23:1); elders…of each city (Ezra 10:14); and elders of the congregation (Judges 21:16). They served in the capacity of local magistrates and as governors over the tribes (Deuteronomy 16:18; 19:12; 31:28). Another Hebrew word for elder is sab and indicates maturity in years (“gray-headed”), a simple reference to a man who is older. This word is used only five times in the Old Testament and is only found in the book of Ezra. Its usage in Ezra is focused on the group of mature Jewish leaders in charge of rebuilding the Temple after the Exile.
How are Elders Described in the New Testament?
The Greek word for elder, presbuteros, is used about seventy times in the New Testament. Like zaqen and sab, our English word “elder” (presbuteros) is a reference to maturity. For example, in Acts 2:17, Peter quotes Joel 2:28: And your old men shall dream dreams. The Hebrew word used for old men in Joel is zaqen, and the Greek word used in Acts is presbuteros. Therefore, the use of the term elder does not constitute an official title or office; it simply means “an older man.”
In I Timothy 5:2, the feminine form of presbuteros is used to refer to older women. The term creates a simple distinction between older women with younger women:
[Appeal to] the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, in all purity.
In context, the term again signifies only mature age, not an office in the church. First Peter 5:5 contains a similar usage:
You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders.
In this passage, as in 1 Timothy 5:2, the word is used to contrast between age and youth. In such a context, presbuteros is generally understood to mean only “an older person” and not necessarily an officeholder of any kind.
In the time of Christ presbuteros was a familiar term. It is used twenty-eight times in the New Testament to refer to a group of ex-officio spiritual leaders of Israel: the chief priests and elders (Matthew 27:3); the scribes and elders (27:41); officers of the temple and elders (Luke 22:52); and rulers and elders of the people (Acts 4:8). In each of those instances and every similar usage, presbuteros refers to leaders in Israel who were spiritually mature and yet were not priests. Matthew 15:2 and Mark 7:3 and 5 use the phrase, “tradition of the elders.” In these passages, the word presbuteros refers to an ancestry of spiritual fathers who passed down principles that governed religious practice. It would seem that it was the Jewish elders (i.e. presbuteros) that were the teachers who determined Jewish tradition. In this sense, an elder is equivalent to the rabbi and may or may not signify official status. There are twelve occurrences of presbuteros in the book of Revelation. All of them refer to the twenty-four elders who appear to be unique representatives of the redeemed people of God from all ages.
What About Elders in the Early Church?
The New Testament church was initially comprised of people with a Jewish heritage, so it would be natural that the concept of being elder-led was adopted for use in the early church. Elder was the only commonly used Jewish term for leadership that was free from any connotation of either the monarchy or the priesthood given it flowed from a general understanding of contemporary leadership in the Old Testament. This is a significant point because the Gospel provided that each believer is a co-regent with Christ, so there could be no earthly king or essential spiritual hierarchy. And, unlike national Israel, the church has no specially designated earthly priesthood, for all believers are priests. Therefore, relating to the common understanding flowing from the Jewish culture as well as the backdrop of the structure in Old Testament leadership, of all the Jewish concepts of leadership the term “elder” best transfers to the kind of spiritual leadership designed to facilitate the Christ-led, Gospel-centric leadership of the church.
Are Elders to Have Certain Character Qualities?
The elders of Israel were mature men; heads of families (Exodus 12:21); able men of strong moral character; men who feared God; men of truth and integrity (Exodus 18:20-21); and men full of the Holy Spirit (Numbers 11:16-17); capable men of wisdom, discernment, and experience—impartial and courageous men who would intercede, teach, and judge righteously and fairly (Deuteronomy 1:13-17). All of the preceding characteristics were then involved in the Jewish understanding of the Greek term presbuteros. The use of the word, presbuteros, seems to now expand to describe church leaders and emphasizes the maturity of their spiritual experience, as shown in the strength and consistency of their moral character. We see the maturity of character in the fact that presbuteros is used nearly twenty times in Acts and the Epistles in reference to a unique group of leaders within the church. From the very earliest beginnings of the church, it was clear that a group of mature spiritual leaders was identified to have responsibility for the health of the church. For example, the church at Antioch where believers were first called “Christians,” sent Barnabas and Saul to the Elders at Jerusalem with a gift to be distributed to the needy brethren in Judea (Acts 11:29-30). This demonstrates both that Elders existed in the church at a very early date and that the believers at Antioch recognized their authority. In fact, it is likely that Paul himself functioned as an elder at Antioch before he stepped out in the role of an Apostle. He is listed in Acts 13:1 as one of the teachers of that church. Additionally, elders played a dominant role in the Council of Jerusalem, as recorded in Acts 15 (see vv. 2, 4, 6, 22, 23; and 16:4). Obviously, elders were very influential in the foundational life of the early church. As Paul and Barnabas began to preach in new areas, and as the church began to extend itself, the process of identifying church leaders became more clearly defined. As the church developed the recognized governing leaders were called elders.
Why a Plurality in Church Leadership?
As early as Acts 14:21-23, we see that one of the key steps in establishing a new church was to identify and appoint elders to serve in leadership.
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 (Acts 14:23).
The pattern was clear, new churches would be established in several cities and the missionaries who planted them, Paul and Barnabas, would return to establish a leadership structure. What is the description of how leadership was established? They appointed elders (plural) in every church (singular). It was possible for churches not to have any elders and still be a church, but, given the pattern of the New Testament, it would not be considered normative nor a healthy expression of the pattern of the early church. Nearly every church we know of in the New Testament is specifically said to have had elders. For example, Acts 20:17 says,
And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church.
It is significant that the church at Ephesus had elders because all the churches of Asia Minor—such as those listed in Revelation 1:11—were extensions of the ministry at Ephesus. We are right to assume that those churches also identified their leadership by the same terms that were set as the pattern in Ephesus—a plurality of elders. Peter wrote to the scattered believers
in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, I exhort the elders among you…shepherd the flock of God (1 Peter 5:1-2).
Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, and Bithynia were not cities, but rather territories. Thus, Peter was writing to a number of churches scattered all over Asia. All of them had elders functioning as shepherds giving oversight and direction in the character and priorities of Christ. It is clear that the model we are given by the Apostles is that there is to be a plurality among the spiritual leadership. This biblical norm is substantiated by the fact that wherever specific local churches in the New Testament are described as having elders, they always have a plurality of elders. For example, there were the elders (plural) of the church (singular) at Ephesus (Acts 20:17). There were the overseers (plural) along with the deacons of the church (singular) at Philippi (Phil. 1:1 cf. 4:15). Also see James 5:14 & Acts 13:1 & 15:2-4. A person will look in vain for a church with just one pastor in the New Testament. Therefore, while a church CAN have one Elder or “Senior” functioning as the sole or primary spiritual leader, it is at best an expression of immaturity that the church has no other competent elders and is, at worse, an ignorance of what Biblical leadership in a church is to be comprised of and will foster a church that is unhealthy in feeding and leading its people. Again, according to the Apostolic pattern, the norm was that there be more than one elder (“pastor”) in each individual church. If a church would have only one pastor for an extended period of time it would be a strong indication of either spiritual immaturity or Biblical ignorance or both. To have a church structure that does not model the Biblical pattern of plurality in leadership is actively diminishing allegiance to the Word of God whether perceived or not. A church’s allegiance to the Word of God must not exclude any area of the Word of God, including a church organization that functions through a group of spiritual leaders.
How Do the Terms Pastor/Elder/Bishop relate to Church Leadership
The terms “bishop/overseer” or “pastor/shepherd” are not distinct from “elder.” Each term is simply a different way of identifying the same person. The Greek word for bishop is episkopos, from which the Episcopalian Church gets it name. The Greek word for pastor is poimen. The textual evidence indicates that all three terms refer to the same office. The qualifications for a bishop, listed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, and those for an elder, in Titus 1:6-9, are unmistakably similar. In fact, in Titus, Paul uses both terms to refer to the same man (1:5, 7). First Peter 5:1-2 also brings all three terms together. Peter instructs the elders to be good bishops as they pastor: Therefore, I exhort the elders [presbuteros] 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 [poimen] the flock of God among you, exercising oversight [episkopeo] not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God. Acts 20 also uses all three terms interchangeably. In verse 17, Paul assembles all the elders (presbuteros) of the church to give them his farewell message. In verse 28, he says, Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [episkopos], to shepherd [poimen] the church of God. The word bishop is episkopos and means “overseer” or “guardian.” The New Testament uses episkopos five times. In 1 Peter 2:25, Jesus Christ is called the episkopos of our souls. That is, He is the One who has ultimate oversight of us, who understands us best; and He is the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls. The other four uses of episkopos have reference to leaders in the church. Episkopos is the secular Greek culture’s clearest equivalent to the historic Hebrew idea of elders. Bishops were those appointed by the emperors to lead captured or newly-founded city-states. The bishop was responsible to the emperor, but oversight and authority were delegated to him. He functioned as a commissioner, regulating the affairs of the new colony or acquisition. Thus episkopos suggested two ideas to the first-century Greek mind: responsibility to a superior power and an introduction to a new order of things. Gentile converts would immediately understand those concepts in the term since many had been subjected to this order. It is interesting to trace the Biblical uses of episkopos. The term appears in the book of Acts only once, near the end (Acts 20:28). Of course, at that time, there were relatively few Gentiles in the church, and so the term was not commonly used. But apparently, as Gentiles were saved and the church began to lose its Jewish orientation, the Greek meaning of the word episkopos was used more frequently to describe those who functioned as elders (1 Timothy 3:1).
Biblically, there is no difference in the role of an elder and that of a bishop; the two terms refer to the same group of leaders. Episkopos emphasizes the function; presbuteros, the character. The third word that represents church leadership is poimen (“shepherd”) and emphasizes the pastoral role of caring and feeding, and the concept of leadership is also inherent in the picture of a shepherd. The term “pastor” is simply a Latin expression for the word “shepherd,” it comes from an agrarian society to help reflect the values of feeding, leading, healing, and protecting a flock. The focus of the term poimen is more centered on the man’s attitude. To be qualified as a pastor, a man must have a shepherd’s heart.
In summary, the term elder (presbuteros) can be seen as emphasizing who the man is. The word bishop (episkopos) speaks of what he does. And pastor (poimen) deals with how he feels or cares for those under his care. All three terms are used of the same church leaders, and all three identify those who are to feed and lead the church. Each title seems to have a unique emphasis of what it means to be a Biblical elder/bishop/pastor serving Christ in the local church. Therefore, throughout this document, the three terms (elder, bishop/overseer, or pastor/shepherd) will be used interchangeably in order to cultivate a mindset that resonates with the leadership structure of the church as presented in the Bible.
What Do Elders Do?
As the apostolic era came to a close, the office of elder emerged as the highest level of local church leadership. Thus it carried a great amount of responsibility. The New Testament bishop, or overseer, is specifically responsible for teaching/preaching (1 Timothy 3:2; 1 Timothy 5:17), feeding, protecting, and generally nurturing the flock (Acts 20:28). The elders were charged with the spiritual guidance of the entire church. There was no higher court of appeal, and no greater resource to know the mind and heart of God with regard to issues in the church than the elders. First Timothy 3:1 says, It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer [episkopos], it is a fine work he desires to do. In verse 5, Paul says that the work of an episkoposis to take care of the church of God. The clear implication is that an elder (i.e. bishop or pastor) primary responsibility is that of being the caretaker for the church. However, an elder’s responsibility involved a number of more specific duties. Perhaps the most obvious is the function of overseeing the direction and belief system of the local church. First Timothy 5:17 says, Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor. The Greek word translated “rule” in that verse is proistemi, used to speak of the elders’ responsibilities four times in 1 Timothy (3:4, 5, 12; 5:17), once in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 (where it is translated, have charge over), and once in Romans 12:8, where ruling (or governing) is listed as a spiritual gift. Proistemi literally means “to stand first,” and it speaks of the duty of general oversight common to all elders. The elders of a local church are not fundamentally bound to any higher earthly authority outside the local assembly. With the elders lies the responsibility to preach and teach. They also are responsible to regulate doctrinal issues for the church and have the responsibility of proclaiming the truth to the church. First Timothy 3:2-7, which lists the spiritual qualifications of the overseer, gives only one qualification that relates to a specific function: “he must be able to teach.” All the other qualifications are personal character qualities that are expected from all members of the church. The only real difference is that the elders have matured in these specific areas to the point of being able to consistently lead and model these traits to others. Titus 1:7-9 also emphasizes the significance of the elder’s responsibility as a teacher: “For the overseer must…be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.”
Already in the church, the threat of false teachers was so great that a key qualification for leadership was an understanding of sound doctrine and the ability to teach and defend that doctrine. Exhort (parakaleo), literally means “to call to a person.” In the New Testament, the word parakaleo is applied to various leadership responsibilities. It involves:
- Persuasion (Acts 2:14; 14:22; Titus 1:9)
- Pleading and urging (2 Corinthians 8:6)
- Comfort (1 Thessalonians 2:11)
- Encouragement (1 Thessalonians 4:1)
- Patient reiteration of important doctrine (2 Timothy 4:2)
The elders of a local church are also to be a resource for those who seek partnership in prayer. James wrote; 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 (James 5:14).
In Acts 20:28 it says that this is another function of the elders:
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.
The concept involved in shepherding is the twin responsibilities of feeding and protecting the flock. Verses 29-30 reemphasize the fact that the protecting ministry of the overseer is essential to counter the threat of false teachers. A pastor also acts as a caring and loving shepherd over the flock, but never in Scripture is it spoken of as “his flock,” or “your flock.” It is the flock of God (1 Peter 5:2), and he is merely a steward—a caretaker for the possession of God. Elders, as the spiritual overseers of the flock, are to determine church policy (Acts 15:22); oversee (Acts 20:28); appoint other elders/pastors/bishops (1 Timothy 4:14); rule, teach, and preach (1 Timothy 5:17); encourage and rebuke (Titus 1:9); and act as shepherds, setting an example for all (1 Peter 5:1-3). These responsibilities put elders at the core of the work of the New Testament church. Elders are to devote themselves first of all to prayer and to the ministry of the Word, and to the selection of deacons to handle the matters of physical needs (cf. Acts 6:3-4) that may distract elders from functioning in their sphere of responsibility. The fundamental authority of the elder over the church is not by force or dictatorial power, but by precept and example flowing from the authority of Christ (Hebrews 13:7)
How Do Elders get Appointed as Elders?
The New Testament clearly indicates that elders were uniquely set apart or appointed to their office. The term normally used for the appointing of elders in the New Testament is kathistemi, which means “to ordain.” The concept of ordination implies official recognition and installation by the leadership of the church and a public announcement setting a person aside for a specific ministry. In 1 Timothy 4:14, Paul says to Timothy,
“Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hand on you.”
Interestingly, the laying on of hands comes from the Old Testament sacrificial system. When a sacrifice was given, the hands of the offerer were placed upon the sacrifice to show identification. So the laying on of hands became a means by which one could identify himself with another. In the same way, the New Testament ordination demonstrated solidarity between the elders and the one on whom they laid their hands. It was a visible means of saying, “We appoint you to the ministry. We stand with you, support you, and affirm your right to function in a position of leadership in this church.” The leadership team serves as a group and must affirm and recognize that each member of the team is a voice that must be heard to be fully assured of God’s leading. Paul writes to warn Timothy,
Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thus share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin (1 Timothy 5:22).
That emphasizes the seriousness of the statement of solidarity. In other words, Paul is saying, “If you lay hands on a man who is sinning or not called of God to be a pastor/elder/bishop, and thereby ordain him, you have entered into his sin. If you don’t want to be a participant in sin, don’t fail to seek the mind of the Lord in the appointment of a leader in Christ’s Church.”
A man should be considered for leadership as an elder only after he has proved himself suitable for a ministry of leadership through a period during which he is tested, during which he is observed functioning in a limited position of delegated oversight. If he demonstrates capability in leadership and loyalty to the message, he can be publicly acknowledged as one who is to be trusted in the service of leadership. Biblically, the laying on of hands was done by the recognized leaders of a church. In this way, they identified themselves with those who were joining the leadership team. The process of identifying leaders may also have involved the people of the local church. Acts 14:23 says,
“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.”
The word for “appointed” in that verse is cheirotoneo, which literally means “to choose by raising hands.” It is the same word used to describe how votes were taken in the Athenian legislature. It came to mean “to appoint.”
It is important to remember that it is God who calls elders. Fundamentally, it is not the church members, or even the present leadership of the church who decide who will be pastors in Christ’s church. The duty of the Church leadership and members is to carefully recognize the gifts and desire placed in a person Christ is giving to His church and to Whom the Spirit is working to become an elder/pastor/bishop. They are to recognize all such gifts and only such gifts according to the directions contained in the Scriptures. Since pastors come from God, churches which are lacking needed pastors should look to God to supply the needed shepherds for their souls. They should pray the Lord and that He would give them the ability to accurately recognize and help cultivate and encourage the gifts being given to his church.
How Do You Recognize God’s Calling to Church Leadership
A man who is interested in serving as an elder must desire the role. First Timothy 3:1 says, It is a trustworthy statement:
if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.
The starting point in identifying a potential elder is the desire in the heart of the individual. First Peter 5:2 says,
“Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God.”
In other words, we are not to go out and recruit men to become elders. There is not a ideal blend for churches of the right pastor/congregant ratio. One who is qualified to be an elder will be eager to give his life in shepherding the flock of God without any thought of gain at all. He will desire the office, pursue being set apart and devote himself to the Word of God. No one will have to talk him into it; it will be his heart’s passion. Furthermore, he serves voluntarily, according to the will of God. His service as an elder is a calling from God. If a man has the desire, feels he is called and has all the qualifications, one thing is still necessary before he can be installed in the Biblical office of elder. The Elders of a local church must together seek God’s will and affirm that He is in the decision.
Acts 14:23 describes the process the Apostles followed in selecting elders:
And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they and believed.
It is reasonable to assume that before the Apostles appointed elders, they gave themselves over to prayer and fasting. The Apostles viewed serving Christ’s church in the office of an elder with great seriousness.
Acts 20:28 affirms the Holy Spirit’s work in the selection of elders:
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.
In response to His call, God plants in a man’s heart a passion for the ministry and then confirms it by the leading of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the existing leadership through prayer. A man should not become an elder just because he has a vague notion that he would like to use his gifts and abilities to help the church. He should not become an elder simply because he has taught and been a member of the church for a long time. He must not be considered because he is a professional, or gets things done, or regularly contributes large amounts of money. He should be motivated by a burden to lead the people of God in spreading the fame of God through the making of disciples and this passion causes him to seek leadership in Christ’s Church. Acts 13:2 says that the instructions from the Holy Spirit to set apart Paul and Barnabas came while they were worshipping the Lord and fasting. The call of God is not to be taken lightly, and the will of God is not to be sought superficially. God’s will in the matter of selecting/appointing of other church leaders will be expressed through the collective sense of God’s working among the leadership and displayed among the church population. The church functions to affirm the call of a particular elder who desires to serve in this role. At Grace Fellowship, we have a particular process by which a person must go through that involves time, education, leadership opportunities, and various equipping dynamics including not only the man seeking this office but also his family as well.
In summary, elders are a group of specially called and appointed men with a great desire to lead and feed the flock of God in the Biblical office of Elder (also described as “Pastor” or “Bishop”). They are initiated by the Holy Spirit, confirmed by prayer, and qualified through the consistent testimony of a pure life in the eyes of the members of Grace Fellowship. Elders are called and appointed by God, confirmed by the church leadership, and appointed to the task of leadership. To them are committed the responsibilities of being examples to the flock, giving the church direction, teaching the people, and in general, leading the congregation. Since God has given the elders the responsibility to lead the church in whole, it implies the responsibility to govern in all areas of policy and doctrine since these are the fundamental ways to give direction to a church.
What is the Relationship between Elder and the Church?
The elders share unique responsibility and position in the church and, therefore, are worthy of great respect. First Thessalonians 5:12-13 says,
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.
The word translated “appreciate” in that passage means “to know intimately.” Along with the rest of this passage, it implies a close relationship involving appreciation, respect, love, and cooperation. And the reason for this great feeling of appreciation is “because of their work.” We are to respect them because of the calling that they are fulfilling—not only because of their diligent labor and the task they have but primarily because of the calling to which they have been appointed. It is not only the responsibility of the elders at Grace to know the people of Grace, but it is also the people’s responsibility to get to know the elders. The person who calls Grace Fellowship his or her church home should never say, “the elders are responsible make the effort to know me” since it is a responsibility of both parties, elder and member/attendee, in a mutual commitment to the relationship.
In Hebrews 13:7 it says,
Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.
This verse emphasizes both the elder’s responsibility to live as an example, manifesting in his life the result of virtue and the church member’s duty to be mindful of those who have led them in this way. Verse 17 adds another dimension of the congregation’s duty toward their spiritual leaders:
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.
In other words, the congregation is spiritually accountable to the elders and the elders are accountable to God. In Acts 20:28, it indicates that elders are made overseers to “shepherd the church of God.” The sphere of their authority, i.e., is the local church. It is not the state, or the family, or the business place. Therefore, pastors should limit the exercise of their authority to that sphere of authority. Our Lord was an example of this in Luke 12:13-14 when He refused to assume the authority of a civil ruler. The sphere of His earthly focus during His first coming was the spiritual care of men’s souls and the establishment of a spiritual kingdom — not an earthly political kingdom. Elders, pastors, or bishops must also keep within the legitimate bounds of their God-given authority. The members of Grace Fellowship are called by God to submit to the direction of the Elders as they function within their God-ordained realm of authority. If the members of Grace Fellowship are submissive and obedient, the Elders will be able to lead with joy and not with grief.
How Do You Deal with Disobedience within Church Leadership
Elders in any church can still fail and falter at times. The willful and abiding sin of an elder must not be ignored, but dealt with according to Scripture. First Timothy 5:19-21 says,
“Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest may be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality.”
An accusation of sin against an elder is not to be received lightly, nor is it to be overlooked. An Elder who may be caught in a sin and refuses to repent is to be disciplined for turning from God’s will in the same way anyone else in the church would be. In no way are they to receive preferential treatment. The testimony of the church is most visible in the lives of the elders that govern it. If elders ignore the Biblical mandate for holiness, the church will suffer the consequences. Equally, if the members of Grace Fellowship are not submissive to the Biblical mandate God has given to them, its testimony will suffer, its priorities will be unbalanced, and ultimately its potency as the carrier of the Gospel that liberates us from sin will be lost.
Our “Ask” of You
We hope that this Position Paper on the Biblical Role of Elders has helped you better understand God’s commands and commitment to Grace Fellowship Church. The Leadership Team at Grace asks you to pray for us to continually stand firm in broadcasting God’s truth in a way that is both caring and clear. We also ask that you continually pray for all evangelical churches to continue to stretch and develop their organizations reflecting the Biblical pattern so that the lives of people can be changed to reflect the character and priorities of Christ and, thereby, spread the fame of God.
- “The IVP Bible Background Commentary” by Craig S. Keener; 1993
- “Acts:An Expository Commentary” by James Montgomery Boice, 1997
- “History of the Christian Church”: Vol. 1, by Philip Schaff; 1858
- “Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity” by Mark A. Noll; 1997
- “Rediscovering Pastoral Ministry” by John MacArthur, Jr. and the Master’s Seminary Faculty; 1995
- Sermon: “The Role of the Pastor” by D.A. Carson; Sept. 25, 1994 at Capitol Hill Baptist Church
- “Answering the Key Questions about Elders” by John MacArthur, Jr.
- “Biblical Eldership” by Alexander Strauch and Lewis & Roth 1988
- Lecture: “The Living, Earthly Officers of The Church” by David Merck, June/July, 1997.
- Article: “The Bishop at Work” by Bruce Shelley, Christian History Magazine.
Note: Original language and expositional references are not cited.