Seven Things About Elders In The Church
Most believers recognize the fact that leadership in the local church is not a luxury but indispensable. But there is difference of opinion on who those leaders should be. The biblical answer is rather straightforward: the elders are called to direct and oversee the affairs of the church. But what is precisely their task? And what should their leadership look like?
Here are seven things you should know about elders in the church.
1. Elders are necessary, not optional. Jesus Christ is the head of the Church (Col. 1:18) and he demands each believer to submit to His loving care and rule. But within this equality, God has ordained the principle of leadership in the local church (1 Pet. 5:2; Acts 20:28). Paul appointed elders (or overseers, these terms are used interchangeably) in every church he planted (Acts 14:23). He left his protégé Titus on the island of Crete to do the same there (Tit. 1:5). Paul knew that without solid spiritual leadership a church can easily fall victim to false doctrine and internal clashes. Elders are essential to the health and vitality of the local church.
2. Elders must be spiritually mature and of exemplary character. We have an Spirit inspired checklist on what qualifies a man to be an elder (1 Tim. 3:2-7; Tit. 1:5-9). Only one ability is listed (“able to teach”); everything else pertains to his character. This is hugely important. It’s easy to be enamored with a man’s natural abilities or professional expertise. But just because someone is a good communicator, or a successful president of a multimillion-dollar company doesn’t automatically make him a good elder. Skills and experience can be valuable, but they are not a criterium for eligibility, character is. An elder must be above approach (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6). He can't be perfect, but his walk and talk must reflect spiritual maturity and center on the Gospel.
3. Elders have a distinct calling. Don’t look in the Bible for a detailed job description for an elder, it’s not there. But when you put together the different passages that speak about elders, a clear picture emerges of what an elder is supposed to do. Elders rule; they exercise oversight, while managing the affairs of the church (1 Pet. 5:2; 1 Tim. 5:17). Elders are God’s agents to protect the church against false teaching and imposters (Tit. 1:9; Acts 20:28-31). They teach the congregation God’s Word (1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17; Tit. 1:9). Elders also care for the congregation. Like a shepherd, an elder genuinely loves and nurtures his sheep, especially the weak, sick, struggling and hurting (Acts 20:35; James 5:13).
4. Elders co-lead the church. Scripture presents a shared leadership model of the local church. Paul never appointed one spiritual leader in a church but always at least two (Acts 14:23). The concept of a separate office (“pastor”) above the office of elders has no biblical merit. "Pastor" is not so much an office held, but the exercise of a spiritual gift. The Bible does teach the principle of “first among equals”. Usually one of the elders is more prominent due to his gifting and calling. He then is the first among equals, the lead elder, the primary one to labor in preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 5:17), but without special authority over his fellow elders. There is much beauty and strength in this shared leadership model. Elders complement each other as they share the joy and burden of leading the church.
5. Elders are first and foremost spiritual leaders. Some people in the church suggest we exchange the shepherd imagery the Bible uses for the elder with that of the CEO. “We’re trying to sell a product and grow the church”, they argue, and they’re convinced this necessitates a top down leader with strong organizational and managing skills. Most forms of leadership include some measure of organization and management. It’s no different in the church. But this is not the main thing. The church is not about a product but about a Person. It’s not about filling the pews with people, but about filling hearts with Christ. Leading a church is a thoroughly spiritual venture (Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Pet. 5:2). Yes, there must be room for vision and strategy, but always with spiritual goals in mind, using spiritual means, not the latest marketing techniques.
6. Elders lead by serving. Power tends to corrupt, and elders have sin natures. Elders can pursue their own agendas, instead of God’s. They can plow through, hard and insensitive, blind and deaf to the opinions and convictions of church members. But elders must be like Jesus, the greatest leader and greatest servant of all (Mk. 10:45; Phil. 2:5-8). Elders should not be known for their pushy and domineering attitude but for their example of godliness (1 Pet. 5:3). The church of Jesus Christ follows an upside-down logic: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mat. 20:26). Elders can prove the power of this principle by how they lead.
7. Elders will give account to God. Every believer will one day appear before the Lord to give an account of his life (Rom. 14:10). For the elders this reckoning includes their responsibility as church leaders. The church belongs to God. He purchased her with the blood of His precious Son (Acts 20:28). This means that elders don't own the church; they are stewards. And one day they will give an account for each soul entrusted to their careful watch (Heb. 13:17). This sobering thought does not need to intimidate the elder. It should propel him forward to sacrificial and biblical leadership and create a longing to hear the Master say on that day: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mat. 25:21).