The Ministry of Elders
by Steve Atkerson
“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers” (1 Pe 5:2)
It was argued elsewhere on this web site that the ideal is government by the consensus of the whole congregation, and that churches should be elder-led more so than elder-ruled. If this really is the case, are elders really even needed in a church? What function do they serve?
Advantages of Having EldersIt would be a serious blunder to conclude that elders are unimportant to the life of a church. Paul warned that "fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock." (ESV, Ac 20:29). Some wolves are schismatic, others promote false doctrine, and still others practice immorality. Too often, house churches without qualified elders fall in a type of spiritual malaise. No one takes leadership responsibility. There is no ‘point man” to offer direction. Things just coast along. Discipleship is minimal. In many cases, it becomes a case of the blind the blind. Pooled ignorance in “teaching” becomes the norm. Evident sins are overlooked. Social problems are not dealt with. The church can become vulnerable to wolves in sheep’s’ clothing.
During the World War Two battle of Midway, a lone American air torpedo squadron (VT-8), from the aircraft carrier Hornet, attacked the Japanese invasion fleet. Tragically, the squadron was ordered to attack without fighter escort. Like the charge of the Light Brigade, it proved suicidal. Only one airman survived. Elders are to the church what the American fighter planes would have been to the bombers: protection. One important ministry that elders offer is defense against savage wolves. For instance, elders are men who can “refute” those who oppose sound doctrine (Tit 1:9).
The reality of the situation is that house churches are not yet mainstream in Western Christianity. As such, a house church is likely to attract every unattached heretic, rebel and social misfit in the county. Without elders willing to stand at the gate to intercept and deal with such persons, a house church is particularly vulnerable to abuse, strife, frustration, and even disbanding.
Besides fending off wolves, elders serve the body in many other ways. In many respects, a church without an elder is much like a family without a father. Qualified elders provide direction, teach, disciple, help the church achieve consensus, promote the saints’ growth into maturity, train future leaders, lead by example and guard the truth ( Ac 20:25-31, Ep 4:11-13, 1Ti 1:3, 3:4-5, 5:17, 6:20, 2Ti 1:13-14, 2:2, 15, 3:16-17, 4:2-4, Ti 1:9, 13, 2:15 and Heb 13:17). Church leaders are men of mature character who oversee, shepherd, teach, equip and coach. Every now and then they will need to call on the obstinate to submit to their leadership (Heb 13:17).
Elder-Led Congregational ConsensusOne very important ministry elders provide is leadership. All are agreed that the Lord Jesus is the head of the church (Col 1:15-20). Thus, the church ultimately is a dictatorship (or theocracy) ruled by Christ through His written Word and the influence of the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:25-27; 16:12-15; Ac 2:42; Ep 2:19-22; 1Ti 3:14-15). Once we follow the organizational flow chart down from the head, where does the line of authority go?
In speaking to the elders of the Ephesian church, Paul said, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God which He bought with His own blood” (20:17, 28). The use of the terms overseers and shepherds certainly suggests a supervisory position for elders. When writing to Timothy about the qualifications for an elder, Paul asked, “If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?” (1Ti 3:5). This again implies a management role for elders. Peter asked the elders to “be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers” (1Pe 5:2). Once more elders are painted in a leadership mode.
1 Timothy 5:17 refers to elders who direct the affairs of the church well. 1 Thessalonians 5:12 asks the brothers to respect those “who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you.” Hebrews 13:7 commands, “Remember your leaders.” Following that, Hebrews 13:17 adds, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” All of this indicates that there are to be human leaders in the church. These leaders are most often referred to as elders or overseers.
As to the difference between an elder, overseer (“bishop” in the KJV), and pastor (shepherd), an examination of Acts 20:17, 28-30, Titus 1:5-7, and 1 Peter 5:1-3 will show the synonymous usage of these words. All three refer to the same person or ministry. Any modern distinction between them is purely artificial and without scriptural warrant.
The biblical references to “rule” by overseers could, if taken in isolation, easily lead to a wrong view of how elder rule should operate. There is more to the equation than at first meets the eye. Consider the steps of church discipline in Matthew 18:15-17 as it relates to a church’s decision making process (see also 1 Corinthians 5:1-5; Galatians 6:1). Notice that the whole congregation is to be involved in the decision to exercise discipline. Notice also that the leaders are not especially singled out to screen the cases before they reach the open meeting nor to carry out the discipline themselves. It is a congregational decision.
This corporate process is also glimpsed in Acts 1:15-26. The apostle Peter placed the burden for finding a replacement for Judas upon the church as a whole. In Acts 6:1-6, the apostles turned to “all the disciples” (6:2) and asked them to choose administrators for the church’s welfare system. Both these examples point to congregational involvement.
Paul wrote to “all” (1:7) the saints in Rome, and made no special mention of the elders. The letters to the Corinthians were addressed to the entire “church” (1Co 1:2, 2Co 1:1). Again there was no emphasis on the overseers. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that Corinthians deals with church discipline, marriage, the Lord’s Supper, and interactive meetings. The greeting in Galatians 1:2 focuses on the “churches” in Galatia. The message was not first filtered through the leaders. The “Saints in Ephesus” (1:1) were the recipients of that letter (Ep 1:1). In Philippians 1:1 the saints were given equal billing with the overseers and deacons, who are finally mentioned in a salutation.. In Colossians 1:2, the salutation went to “the holy and faithful brothers in Christ.” All of this implies that the elders were themselves also sheep. The elders were a subset of the church as a whole. There was no clergy/laity distinction.
This lack of emphasis on the leadership is also seen in 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1; James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; 1 John 2:1, 7, and Jude 1:1. In fact, the book of Hebrews was written to a group of believers and it was not until the very last chapter that the author asked them to “greet all your leaders” (13:24). He did not even greet the leaders directly!
Much may be gleaned from the way that New Testament writers made appeals directly to entire churches. They went to great lengths to influence ordinary rank and file believers. The apostles did not simply bark orders and issue injunctions (as a military commander might do). Instead, they treated other believers as equals and appealed directly to them as such. No doubt local church leaders were led in much the same way. Their primary authority lay in their ability to influence with the truth. The respect they were given was honestly earned. It was the opposite of military authority wherein soldiers respect the rank but not necessarily the man.
Hebrews 13:7 reflects the fact that the leadership style employed by church leaders is primarily one of direction by example: “Remember your leaders . . . Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” Along this same line, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 reveals that leaders are to be respected, not because of automatically inferred authority of rank, but because of the value of their service — “Hold them in highest regard in love because of their work.” Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” (Mt 20:25-28).
The word church in the New Testament is used a few times to refer to the universal church. Most occurrences, however, refer to organized local churches. No organized church should be any bigger than a single congregation, and no church has official jurisdiction or authority over any other church (though there naturally will be inter-church cooperation and assistance). Each house church is ideally to be guided by its own elder(s). Each elder is equal in authority to any other elder. There is to be no senior pastor nor presiding bishop over a city. A leader’s primary authority is based on his ability to persuade with the truth. He is to lead by example, not lording it over the church (1Pe 5:3). Church polity is thus a dynamic process of interaction, persuasion, and right timing between the shepherds and the sheep.
Jesus’ comments on leadership truly must be the starting point and final reference in our understanding of an elder’s authority (Lk 22:24-27). Dr. Hal Miller has insightfully observed, “Jesus’ disturbing teaching about authority among his followers contrasts their experience of it with every other society. The kings of the Gentiles, he said, lord it over their subjects and make that appear good by calling themselves “benefactors.” They exercise their power and try (more or less successfully) to make people think that it is for their own good. But it should never be so in the church. There, on the contrary, the one who leads is as a slave and the one who rules is as the youngest (Lk 22:24-27). Lest this lose its impact, you should stop to reflect that the youngest and the slaves are precisely those without authority in our normal sense of the word. Yet this is what leadership among Jesus’ people is like.”1
Though they were technically apostolic workers, Timothy and Titus clearly functioned as substitute elders until permanent local men were appointed. The elders that were later appointed could be expected to do the same types of things that these temporary apostolic workers had done on the local level (1Ti 1:3, 4:11, 5:17, 6:17, Tit 1:12-13, 2:15, 3:10). From this it is clear that it is proper an for elder, in exercising servant leadership, to authoritatively reprove, speak, teach, and guide. An elder is to “rule well” and “oversee” the church, taking the initiative in prompting and guarding. As a mature believer, his understanding of what constitutes right or wrong behavior and doctrine will most probably be correct. An elder naturally will often be among the first to detect and deal with problems. He is to be proactive, not merely reactive. However, if those he confronts refuse to listen, the elder’s final recourse is to then present the matter to the whole church in accordance with the Matthew 18 process. Though a elder is critical to the consensus process, authority, ultimately, still rests with the church corporately (congregational consensus).
There is a delicate balance to be reached between the leadership role of elders and the decision making responsibilities of the congregation. Too far one way and you have a pope. Too far the other and you have a ship with no rudder. In essence, both the arguments for the leadership of the elders and for the corporate responsibility of the entire church are valid. On one hand, you have elders leading by example, guiding with teaching and by moderating the give-and-take discussion of the assembly. On the other hand, you have the flock. The church corporately makes the final decision, yet they are exhorted to follow their elders and to allow themselves to be persuaded by their leaders’ arguments (Heb 13:17). Elders’ words have weight only to the extent that the people give it to them. Elders deserve honor due to the position in which God has placed them (1Ti 5:17).
The Appointment of EldersHow should elders be appointed? All potential overseers must meet a lengthy list of qualifications (1Ti 3:1-7; Tit 1:5-9). That a man is both willing and able to be an elder is obviously the work of the Holy Spirit (Ac 20:28). Once these prerequisites are met, the would-be elder is then appointed. In Ac 14:23 Paul and Barnabas apparently did the appointing, and Titus was left in Crete by Paul to appoint elders (Tit 1:5). As Nee observed, “they merely established as elders those whom the Holy Spirit had already made overseers in the church.”2
After the apostles (missionaries/church planters) appointed elders and moved on, there is virtual silence as to how subsequent elders were, or ought to be, chosen. Operating from the principle of Acts 1:15-26 & 6:1-6, one could conclude that the succeeding elders were chosen by the whole congregation (following the requirements laid out in 1 Timothy 3:1-7), under the leadership of the existing elders, and under the advisement of any itinerant ministers that have earned the right to be heard by that local congregation.
The PresbyteryThe New Testament pattern is for each house church to be led by a body of equal brothers (some of whom are elders), depending upon one another, accountable to one another, submitting to one another, and living out a mutual ministry. Is there supposed to be one elder per church, several elders per church, or several churches per elder? According to Acts 14:23, Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders in each church.” The biblical evidence seems to support a plurality of elders in every church.
However, a bit of confusion arises because the New Testament sometimes speaks of only one church in certain cities. For instance, Acts 8:1 mentions “the church at Jerusalem.” Paul wrote to “the church of God in Corinth” (1Co 1:2) and to “the church of the Thessalonians” (1Th 1:1). Jesus told John to write to “the” church in Smyrna, “the” church in Pergamum, etc. (Re 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). It is possible that these examples reflect the doctrine of something called the city church. As there is biblically only one church universal, so too some argue that there is philosophically only one church per city. Yet just as the universal church is an abstract reality with no outward organization, so too the city church concept would be an abstract reality, without earthly organization. An examination of the New Testament will reveal that, though all churches were united under Christ as head, there was no outward ecclesiastical organization uniting them. Though cooperating voluntarily together, each church was autonomous. Theirs was a strong inward bond, a spiritual oneness of life in the Lord. Though independent of outward government, they were interdependent in responsibility to one another (see 2Co 8-9). Thus, philosophically, there would be only one church in Atlanta, one in London, one in Moscow, etc. Each abstract city church would be made up of many local, organized, autonomous house churches. If this approach is accurate, the plurality of elders referred to in the Scriptures could flag a plurality per city, but not necessarily in every house church.
Did the plurality of elders serve the city-wide church as a whole, or only individual house churches? That elders worked together is clear from Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 4:14 and Titus 1:5. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that they collectively were over multiple churches as some sort of ruling presbytery. Since any elder’s authority lies primarily in his ability to persuade with the truth, and since any respect due him is earned via personal interaction, there is no way a presbytery of elders could rule over a group of churches anyhow. Ideally, each house church should have its own elder(s). In those transitional situations where a house church has no one qualified to be an elder, temporary leadership could be sought from a respected church planter, a missionary, an elder in a nearby church, or an itinerant pastor-teacher (Ep 4:11).
ConclusionHarvey Bluedorn offers this excellent biblical summary of the ministry and authority of elders:
1. The New Testament Standard — As the pattern of things shown to Moses established the standards for the tabernacle (Ex 25:9,40; 26:30; 39:42,43; Ac 7:44; Heb 8:5), and as the pattern of things shown to David established the standards for the temple (1Ch 28:11-13,19), so the pattern of things shown in the New Testament establishes the standards for the assembly, the temple of God (1Co 3:9,16,17; 6:19,20; 2Co 6:16; Ep 2:21,22; 4:13-16; 1Ti 3:15; 1Pe 2:5,9; Re 1:6; 3:12; 5:10; 20:6).
2. Servant Leaders — Leaders are a functional necessity for the assembly. The Lord Jesus raises up men from among the members of the body, and equips them to meet stated qualifications. They will inevitably emerge from among the membership and become apparent to the assembly, and the assembly must formally recognize the Lord's calling in those whom the Lord has truly gifted and qualified to serve as guides, teachers, and examples to the whole body. Such servants are called elders and overseers, or shepherds and teachers (Tit 1:5, Ep 4:11).
3. Multiple Elders — A plural number of elders will ordinarily emerge from the membership of an assembly (Ac 14:23), although in a newly formed assembly it may require some time to pass before the Lord fully equips and qualifies elders (Lk 12:42; 1Co 4:2; 1Ti 3:6,10; 5:22; Tit 1:5; Heb 5:12,13). Among the pastor-elders there are some who especially toil in discourse and teaching (Ep 4:11; 1Th 5:12,13; 1Ti 5:17).
4. Decisions by Full Agreement — Decisions are made by the full agreement of the assembly, as represented in the men of the assembly, under the advice and counsel of their servants, the elders. Presumably, the men may, by full agreement, delegate certain on-the-spot-type decisions to someone, including to elders, but they must always reserve the right to make the decision themselves, or to determine the policy for such decisions, and they must require of those to whom they delegate decisions a full report and accountability to the assembly.
5. Elders are Servants, Not Lords — The Word of Christ rules by His Spirit in the midst of His people, through the regenerate hearts and renewed minds of the members of the assembly as He brings them to complete mutual agreement, unanimous accord, or consensus. Elders lead by the moral authority of a servant who provides word and example, and who commands respect for what he gives, not for what he requires. Elders do not rule as independent authorities. Their role is advisory and supervisory, not the lordly authority of command and conform. Elders are instrumental, through their leadership, teaching, and example, in bringing about consensus in the assembly, but all authority rests in Christ alone. All members — including elders — submit to the Lord, then to one another in the Lord — including elder members, who submit to other members, including to other elder members. In other words, there is no chain of command — God, then Christ, then elders, then members — but only a network of submission, and elders have the greatest burden of submission and accountability because they are servants to the whole assembly. Only those who humble themselves to the level of servants before the Lord and His assembly may be raised to this level of accountability. By the nature of the case, those who would exalt themselves to a position of authority over all, have necessarily disqualified themselves from a position of service.
6. The Saints are Kings and Priests — It is a severe violation of the adult conscience to treat the saints as children under the over-lordship of elders. The ultimate effect of treating the saints as children is that they will either remain children in their understanding as they submit to bondage, or they will rebel. Elders exercise appropriate authority as fathers within their own households, but their role in the assembly is not as fathers and lords over children and servants, but as elder brothers in the faith and humble servants to the whole.
7. A Deliberative Assembly — The gathered assembly is a deliberative body. The men in the assembly are encouraged to interact in an orderly manner with the reading, exhortation, and teaching in the assembly, regardless of what form that interaction assumes - informative lecture, thoughtful consideration and discussion of propositions of Scripture, logical debate of different sides of a question, or consultation on practical issues. This is not a Quaker-like meeting of "whenever-the-spirit-leads," nor is it a family-friendly-style meeting of token affirmations by heads of household, nor is it a worship-centered meeting of lively entertainment, but it is a genuine discipleship learning process which edifies and brings the whole assembly to maturity in Christ through the interaction of the men of the assembly.
8. Independent Congregational Accountability — Each congregation constitutes its own communion and is independently accountable to the Lord, but all true congregations exist within the same spiritual kingdom. They depend upon the same Lord, and they cooperate as much as circumstances require and allow, both on the level of individual persons and on a congregational level. There should be no ungodly jealousy between brother believers, nor between sister assemblies.
Notes1 Hal Miller, “As Children and Slaves: Authority in the New Testament,” Voices, (Salem, MA: March/April 1987), 6-7, 20-21.
2 Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Church Life (Colorado Springs, CO: International Students Press, 1969) 41.
Discussion Questions1. Why are elders needed in a church? What function do they serve?
2. Following the church organizational flow chart down from Christ the head, where does the line of authority go?
3. What is the difference between an elder, and overseer (bishop) and a pastor?
4. Why were church leaders not mentioned in the greetings of the epistles, and often not even mentioned or written to in entire letters?
5. What examples did Jesus give, in Luke 22:24-27, of the authority that church leaders have over the church?
6. Why were elders not mentioned in the church discipline process of Matthew 18?
7. How should elders be appointed?
8. Did the plurality of elders serve the city-wide church as a whole, or only individual house churches?
9. Is a church without an elder really a church?
10. Which point from Harvey Bluedorn’s summary of the ministry of elders did you find the most interesting?
11. In general, what type of man should a church look for to be an elder, based on 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1?
12. Are the qualifications for elders primarily those of character or ability (1Ti 3, Titus 1)? Explain.
13. Why is it important that a man meet the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 in order to serve as a elder?
Want help teaching this topic? To aid you in leading others to the truths of New Testament church life, teaching notes have been prepared for this subject. They will give you ideas on how to lead an interactive (Socratic) group discussion. The idea is to guide people to discover for themselves what the New Testament says about this topic. At the end of the guide there are study questions to pass (or e-mail) out in advance.
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Married since 1983, Steve Atkerson and his wife Sandra have three children, two in college and one married, and one grandchild. A graduate of Georgia Tech, Steve worked for several years in electronics before enrolling in seminary. While there he served on the part-time staff of a 14,000 member Baptist church. After receiving an M. Div. from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, he ministered on the pastoral staff of a Southern Baptist Church in Atlanta with a membership of around 1000 folks. Then in 1990, after seven years in the traditional pastorate, he resigned to begin working with churches that desire to follow apostolic traditions in their church practice. He thus has transitioned all the way from mega churches to micro churches! He travels and teaches about the practice of the early church as the Lord opens doors of opportunity. Steve is an elder at a local house church, is president of NTRF, edited Toward A House Church Theology, authored both The Practice of the Early Church: A Theological Workbook and The Equipping Manual, and is editor of and a contributing author to both Ekklesia and House Church: Simple, Strategic, Scriptural.