Rhys Scott takes a look at Elders and church leadership in the Bible.
As we work towards having an eldership team in place at Trinity Central, we want to put foundations in place as to how we understand Biblical church leadership, so that we have Godly expectations of the leaders who serve us, and an understanding of how God has chosen to have His people led in continuing Christ’s mission on planet earth.
Talking about ‘elders’ is slightly strange in our modern context; we don’t really use this term much. We might think of elders in an African tribe, or of people who are our elders- i.e. older than us!
Why then are we continuing to use this term?
Because it’s Biblical. We want to be able to open our Bibles and read scripture and see how it applies not only in our personal lives, but also in our corporate life as a church. As we read the Bible and hear about elders, it’s helpful to be able to use the same language for what we are doing here today.
Actually, there are three words that are used interchangeably to describe elders in the Bible:
Firstly: elder, which would have been familiar to Jewish Christians, as Jewish cities had elders presiding over them. In New Testament Greek this word is Presbuteros, from which the Presbyterian church use the term ‘presbyter’.
Secondly: overseer, from the Greek word episkopos meaning ‘manager’, or ‘director’ or ‘guardian’. This was a common term, used to describe those with oversight responsibility. Somewhat unhelpfully, the King James Version translates this as ‘bishop’. However, where we read the term bishop in the Bible it isn’t referring to someone who oversees many churches (that was an apostle); it’s referring to a local church elder or overseer.
Thirdly: shepherd. The Latin translation of the word for ‘shepherd’ is ‘pastor’ – meaning someone who takes care of, feeds and leads. It is a word that describes the nature of the elder or overseer’s leadership: to care for and nurture the people. For some reason it is the term that has stuck most in the Western church, and sadly it is often used as a generic title for a Christian church leader, rather than being seen in the context of team and with the specific meaning of shepherd.
How do we know that all three terms are actually referring to the same people?
Have a look at Acts 20:
17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.
18 And when they came to him, he said to them:…..
28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
So, in this section Luke notes that Paul called the Ephesian elders (presbuteros) together, and addressed them with regard to their role as overseers (episkopos), and spoke of the importance of their caring for and paying attention to the flock as shepherds of God’s flock.
Similarly, in Titus 1:5-7, Paul uses both the word elder (presbuteros) and overseer (episkopos) to describe the church leaders that Titus was to appoint.
So, as we consider this question of elders/overseers/pastor-shepherds we can note that:
- They functioned as teams (in the church in Jerusalem there were 12, in the church in Antioch there were 5, Paul calls the elders (plural) in Ephesus together, and refers to the elders (plural) in the church in Philippi.)
- Elders are appointed by the Holy Spirit (not by a vote, or by virtue of a seminary degree) – Acts 20:28 – we look for God’s grace on people for eldership.
- Paul places a high emphasis on character when it comes to appointing elders (1 Tim 3 and Titus 1)
- Paul speaks of the ability to teach as part of the qualification of an elder- while elders are not all necessarily great public speakers they should be able to help those in their care apply scripture to their lives
- Paul expects that the apostolic team will be involved in appointing elders in the local church (both Timothy and Titus were given authority to appoint elders)
- Elders lead the local church, in relationship with apostolic ministry.
- Elders follow Jesus in their serving of the church. As under shepherds they serve the church as Jesus Himself serves the church. Peter writes “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (1Pet. 2:25)
How does the word ‘elder’ help us?
The use of the word ‘elder’ denotes maturity – these are men who are of mature faith in the church community, and therefore their focus is not on themselves, but on caring for others in the community.
Biblical maturity is not about knowing lots, but about a focus on serving others. Thus Paul divides believers in the church into three categories: children, young men and fathers. Children are unable to feed themselves – they need care from others. Young men are beginning to feed themselves, growing in their faith as self-feeders. Fathers are those who feed others, caring for the church and putting the needs of those in their care above their own.
Thus, when Paul addresses the character qualifications of an elder to both Titus and Timothy he asks them to consider the way a man treats his family, and cares for others in the church. Is he self-centred, or does he pour himself out for them? In the church, is he always looking out for others, caring for them, welcoming them into his home, showing hospitality, giving wise and Godly counsel, instructing them in Biblical truth that will help them to live for God? Is he focussed on himself and his hobbies etc at the expense of life in the church, or does he lead his family and those around him in the church to greater love for God and inspire them to be involved in God’s mission for the church?
Sometimes people take the word ‘elder’ to refer to someone who is older. While life-experience and maturity in age is often valuable and helpful, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is spiritually mature. An 80 year old can be a new Christian, with years of entrenched bad habits. A man can have been a believer for 20 years and still be self-centred and immature. Unfortunately, this is all too common! There are many people who’ve been Christians for many years, but who have shied away from taking steps of faith, who accommodate a lazy attitude to obedience and sin, whose posture is one of a consumer rather than a servant, and whose hearts seek after their own good, rather than laying down their lives.
In the same way, a 25 year old might be mature in God, not self-serving, but carrying the church in his heart and willing to lay down his life for the church. Age doesn’t necessarily correlate with spiritual maturity.
Paul reminds Timothy not to be hasty in laying on hands – meaning that we should take time in coming to a decision to appoint someone as an elder. Likewise, in 1 Tim 3 he tells Timothy that an elder should not be a young Christian. Paul reminds Timothy that, though he is young, he should lead the church well…
These qualifications remind us that character and spiritual maturity are the defining characteristics for choosing elders.
How does the word ‘Overseer’ help us?
The word ‘overseer’ helps us to understand the role of an elder. It reminds us of an elder’s calling and gift, which is given by the Holy Spirit.
The word speaks of an oversight role in the church, of those who have a broad view over the church. They don’t do all the leadership in the church, they raise up leaders of all kinds, but they oversee that leadership.
It reminds us that there is a necessary leadership aspect to the role an elder plays in the life of the church. They carry the final responsibility for governing the affairs of the church.
In Acts 6 we read the story of how a dispute arose in the church in Jerusalem because the Greek widows were not being cared for in the same way as the Hebrew widows. The elders are not passive in this situation, rather, they engage with it, find a great solution to the problem, and appoint a team of seven men to administrate it. The result of their leadership and oversight is that the church continues to grow!
Overseers are thus responsible for raising up leaders within the church – selecting those they feel are the right people and giving them authority and responsibility to lead and serve. They are responsible for stewarding the resources of the church – most likely with the help of others in the church.
How does the word ‘shepherd’ help us?
‘Shepherd’ gives us a sense of the function of eldership within the church, and speaks to the style of leadership that elders bring. They don’t drive the church, rather they nurture the church, they feed the church by leading the flock to good pasture. They protect the church, and they go looking for lost sheep. They tend the sheep.
Shepherds carry responsibility for the souls in their care. They don’t take their role lightly, they’re not hired hands simply doing a job so that they can get paid and make a living out of it. They are invested in the people. They carry the people in their hearts. Pain in the church causes them pain. Joy in the church leaves them rejoicing!
One of the primary ways in which elders shepherd the church is through teaching and instructing. Taking the church to good pasture is, in that sense, taking the church to scripture, to feed and strengthen them.
Elders look to build a healthy understanding of (among other things):
- Salvation – how God has acted in love and forgiveness toward us through the cross
- Relationship with God – how the Spirit draws us to the Father through the Son
- Identity – who we are in Christ as individuals and together, and how we live as new creations
- Community – how we live and interact with one another as God’s household
- Hope – how our lives are caught up in eternal realities
- Mission – how we participate in Christ’s mission on planet Earth, started 2,000 years ago
Shepherds are engaged in the life of the sheep, gently helping them to grow in applying scripture to their lives in every aspect. As elders teach the word of God to the church they bring a sense of growth, security and challenge to the church community.
How does the church respond to the elders?
Peter, after speaking about how an elder should lead, then ask the ‘young’ to ‘be subject to the elders’ (1 Pet 5:5) In this he’s asking the church to willingly submit to the elders’ leading, to follow well.
Again, we find the same theme in Hebrews:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb 13:17)
We find in scripture this wonderful sense of how the elders lay down their lives for the church, carrying responsibility before God for the people, and how the church respond with submission and obedience.
In fact, the church are exhorted to make it easy for the elders to serve them, they are to make their role a joy, not a hardship, for unhappy, abused, discouraged leaders will be of little benefit to the church.
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. (Heb 13:7-9)
Here we are encouraged not only to remember our leaders, but to think about their way of life and to imitate them. We are to look at the example of lifestyle which they set and we are to follow in their footsteps. We are to emulate them – which points to how important it is that we have elders who are worthy of being imitated!
Particularly, we are to imitate their faith i.e. the way they trust in God. This relates to how they trust God in every area of their lives: their decisions, their obedience to Him, in their family life, in their ministry among the church, in their finances, in their putting God first in all things.
Eldership is a wonderfully unique blend of leadership qualities and characteristics given to the most unique group of people on the earth: God’s church. God has designed it this way to make for a healthy church – when leadership is healthy, so is the church!
They don’t do all the leading, rather they raise up leaders across the church, equipping and serving others so that the whole Body grows and develops together.
Let’s pray that God will make clear to us the elders He wants to give us. And let’s not settle for anything less than the Biblical model that we see so clearly emerging in the New Testament.