The Role of Elders in the Local Church

by Cliff McManis

“Appoint elders in every city as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). So said the apostle Paul around 63 AD to Titus who was leading the church in Crete. Paul was the first church-planter in history, and exemplary in the task. Paul started churches in keeping with God’s command to him. And Paul knew that God required all churches to have a plurality of elders as the leaders of the church. Paul himself modeled this priority in church ministry, for he “appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23).

Elders are to be appointed in “every city,” and in “every church” in every city. A church with no elders is not a church…at least not a biblical one as defined clearly by Scripture. Elders are to a church as parents are to a family, or as administrators are to a school, or as coaches are to an NFL or NBA team, or as bosses and managers are to a business. To be without the required leadership is unthinkable in those cases. The church is no different. 

Sadly, the fact is there are “churches” all across the country, and the world, that don’t have elders. They are trying to function and operate apart from a basic requirement given by God regarding His church. This is like asking the human body to breathe with no lungs or expecting it to pump blood with no heart. Having a true, obedient, healthy, biblical, God-honoring church without elders is not possible. Many of these churches with no elders simply choose to ignore the biblical mandate to appoint qualified elders and instead implement their own counterfeit model of leadership, whether drawn from tradition, the world, the imagination or convenience.

God has been calling for elders to help lead His people since the time of Moses—that’s as far back as 1440 BC, over 3,400 years ago! The first reference to elders in the Bible as a group of men providing spiritual leadership for God’s people is in Exodus 3:16. There God told Moses, “Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, ‘I am indeed concerned about you and what has been done to you in Egypt.’”

From that time on, elders were present among God’s people assisting in administration and leading the people of Israel all throughout the Old Testament up until the time of Jeremiah around 600 BC, where we see “the elders of the exile” (Jer 29:1). In the days of Jesus, the elders ruled alongside the scribes and the chief priests (Mark 11:27). And elders are identified for the first time functioning in Christ’s church in Jerusalem at the beginning of Paul’s apostolic ministry (Acts 11:30).

In keeping with redemptive history, God still expects His people to continue to recognize elders, who are stewards with delegated and limited authority with the charge of leading God’s people. God gives us specific and sufficient information on how to choose, train and install elders in the local church. At least twenty-four qualifications for an elder are listed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. In addition to qualifications, elders need to have the spiritual gift of “shepherding” (Eph 4:11). Prospective elders also need hands-on training and discipling in ministry from other elders (2 Tim 2:2). Biblical elders need to be trusted by the people and they need to have a genuine selfless, sacrificial love for the people (John 21:16; 1 Tim 1:5). 

It is also important to note that the Bible uses the word “elder” in the New Testament interchangeably with the words “bishop,” “overseer” and “pastor” when talking about local Christian churches. For example, in Titus 1 Paul calls “elders” (v. 5) “overseers” in verse 7. So, elders are overseers. The Greek word for “overseer” is episcopos, which the King James translated as “bishop” back in the 1600s. An elder, then, is an overseer and a bishop. Further, in Acts 20 Paul tells the elders of the church of Ephesus to do the work of a “pastor” or “shepherd” (vv. 17, 28). “Pastor” and “shepherd” come from the same Greek word. So, an elder is a pastor, an overseer and a bishop. The words are complimentary to each other. “Elder” emphasizes the maturity needed; “overseer” highlights the office; “pastor” emphasizes the work involved.

Once a church has elders in place as their leaders, what are those elders to do? What is their job? How are they to function? These are critical questions. Again, sadly, there are plenty of churches with elders where the elders are not functioning in a biblical manner and, as a result, they are engaging in malpractice. We hear about such scandals all the time. Situations where this elder or that elder was manipulative, controlling, threatening, heavy-handed, misusing the finances, seeking the preeminence or involved in some kind of immoral behavior. Such compromised elders give faithful, godly elders a bad name.

But God is clear in Scripture as to what He expects of His elders. Simply put, God expects His elders to “shepherd” the people of God. God commands elders to “shepherd the flock of God among you” (1 Pet 5:2). The verb “shepherd” is related to shepherding, one of the oldest and most universal occupations in the world. That is why it is such a good metaphor of what an elder should be doing—all cultures can relate to the work of a shepherd. A shepherd does mainly two things: (1) lead and (2) feed the sheep; or stated another way: (1) guide and (2) provide for the sheep. When people ask me what I do as a pastor, I say, “I lead and feed” with God’s help.

The New Testament fleshes out in detail what is entailed in leading and feeding. Leading includes providing oversight for the local church (1 Pet 5:2), being an example to the people (1 Pet 5:3), serving the saints (Matt 20:26), managing conflict (Acts 15:6), casting vision and giving direction for the local body (Rom 12:8), protecting the people from spiritual harm and threats (Acts 20:28-31), praying for God’s children (James 5:14), and managing God’s resources (1 Tim 3:5).

Feeding entails giving God’s people the truth of Scripture so they can feed their souls with the milk and the meat of the living Word of God (2 Tim 4:2; 1 Pet 2:2). This includes preaching the whole counsel of God’s Word to the family of God (Acts 20:27), teaching God’s truth in all contexts, and giving individual help, guidance, exhortation, encouragement and comfort from the Scriptures.

So biblical elders are to feed and lead. It is also helpful to note what elders should not be doing in the church. This will put in stark relief what they should be doing. It is quite common for people to have wrong expectations of their elders and pastors. It is also just as common for pastors to have the wrong ideas about their own role in the church. Pastors and elders serve in a spiritual capacity with the highest accountability required from God Himself (James 3:1). All pastors and elders are finite, fallen sinners and as such are vulnerable to abusing the position of authority entrusted to them. They need to guard against that temptation diligently.

In light of this sober warning, congregants and pastors alike would do well to remember that elders are not CEOs of the company called the church. They are not social workers. They are not entertainers. They are not generals of God’s army; they are not mini-fathers to the congregation. They are not project managers. They are not called to “control” people or micro-manage Christians’ lives. Elders are not to politicize the church. They don’t have inherent spiritual authority in the church. Pastors are not your personal vicarious saviors. The church does not belong to the elders and pastors. The church belongs only to Jesus, the only true Senior Pastor (1 Pet 5:4) who died and shed His blood to purchase the Church (Acts 20:28). Elders don’t build the church; only Jesus builds the church (Matt 18:16). Elders don’t judge the church. Only Jesus judges the church (Rev 2-3). Elders are not to use the church; they are called to serve the church. Elders are not preeminent in the church; only the triune God is preeminent in the church, the only one to whom any glory belongs (Rom 11:36).  

So, elders, remember you are saved sinners who are called to feed and lead God’s people sacrificially, without ever seeking to usurp God’s authority or rob Him of any glory. And a word to the saints, the people of God: be thankful for your elders; pray for them; honor them (Heb 13:17). Remember Paul’s words when he called on all Christians to “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” (1 Thess 5:12-13).   

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