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Definition

The office of eldership is given in Scripture to provide spiritual nurture and protection for the church. Elders are to shepherd the flock of Jesus Christ through the faithful ministry of the Word and are to lead by godly example.

Summary

The role of eldership finds its roots in Old Testament Israel but is unique to the church. The New Testament uses three key terms that arguably all point to the office and role of the elder (presbuteros, episkopos and poimēn), although some groups and denominations will see more than one office represented by these terms. Elders have a duty to care for the church as shepherds, to edify the body of Christ through faithful teaching, and to protect it from error. Elders must be godly in life and are held to a high standard of accountability. The church must honor the elders by responding willingly to their instruction and leadership, by providing materially for those who labor in teaching, and by praying for them.

The Background and Development of Eldership

Like many ancient societies, ancient Israel honored the role of mature, older men within the nation and looked to these “elders” for leadership. The role of elders and the process for recognizing elders in Israel is not outlined definitively in the Old Testament, but their existence and importance as a group are widely attested (Exod. 24:1; Lev. 4:15, 9:1; Num. 11:16; Ezek. 7:26). In the gospel narratives, the Jewish elders are visible as a group (often opposing Jesus). No doubt the pattern of eldership in Israel is the key background to the New Testament office, even if Christian eldership is freshly defined and clearly distinctive.1

As Jesus set about establishing the church, he appointed his twelve apostles to teach his word and, through that teaching, give leadership to his people. As the apostolic age began to draw to a close, the apostles (Paul, in particular) took deliberate steps to raise up a new generation of leaders for the post-apostolic church. Paul was concerned that the leadership of such men (Timothy, Titus, and others) would be a reproducing leadership. In Ephesus he specifically instructed Timothy to invest in leaders who would themselves invest in others: “…what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2Tim. 2:2). It is at this point in early church history – at the handover of local church leadership from Paul and his associates to new leaders – that we see the office of elder take shape and emerge in a formal sense.2 In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas appoint elders for the churches at Lystra, Iconium and Antioch before departing the area. In Acts 20, when Paul returns to Ephesus, he is able to call together the elders of the church (Acts 20:17) and leave them with a charge for their ministry. In Titus Paul states that his main aim in leaving Titus at Crete was “so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). The implication here is particularly interesting: Paul’s work remains unfinished and the church incomplete until elders are appointed.

Key Terms

Our focus in this essay is fixed on three New Testament terms that are used in closely related ways to refer to key spiritual leaders within the church: presbuteros, episkopos and poimēn.3 The meaning of these terms and their relationship to one another have long been matters of debate.

Episkopos and presbuteros are regularly translated “elder” in English (episkopos will sometimes be translated “overseer” as well). Of these two terms, presbuteros appears more frequently in the New Testament, sometimes referring to the Jewish “elders” (in the Gospels and Acts). Where episkopos and presbuteros are used to refer to leaders within the church, it is very difficult to discern any marked difference in meaning between them. In Titus 1:5-9, Paul appears to be speaking of the same group throughout his discussion but uses the term presbuteros in verse 5 and the term episkopos in verse 7. In the account Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, the two terms are again used interchangeably (presbuteros v. 17, episkopos v. 28) to refer to the same group.

Many denominations have based their models of ordination and church governance on the understanding that these two terms identify a single office. A notable exception here is the Anglican or Episcopal Church, which generally understands them to refer to two separate orders of ministry, that of bishop and that of presbyter/priest. Under this system, the presbyter will have charge of a parish, while the bishop will oversee groups of parishes within a region and appoint presbyters to those parishes.4 Generally, though, most Protestant denominations will see those two terms as referring to the same role, that of the elder in the local church. It is significant to note that the New Testament regularly speaks of elders in the plural and refers to them as a group, suggesting that there would normally be a plurality of elders within a local church.5

The next question that arises is the relation of the role of the elder to that of the pastor/shepherd (Greek poimēn). In Ephesians 4:11, when speaking of the types of leader that Christ has gifted to his church, Paul lists “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers.” The structure of that sentence in the original suggests that the shepherds and teachers constitute a single group (“pastor-teachers”).

We know from 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:9 that elders must be able to teach (see also 1Tim. 5:17), so it would stand to reason that the “pastor-teachers” might be elders. This suspicion is confirmed when we learn from other places in the New Testament that elders are to care for God’s sheep as under-shepherds (Acts 20:28 and 1Pet. 5:1-4). Given these observations, we should be cautious about drawing hard-and-fast distinctions between pastors and elders in our leadership structures. Such distinctions are common enough, particularly where elders are primarily viewed as members of a corporate-style “board of directors.” Whatever legal or practical considerations might require a structure of that kind, the New Testament sees elders as first and foremost as shepherds of the flock.

At the same time, lay elders and full-time pastors will not necessarily serve in precisely the same way. In 1 Timothy 5:17 Paul seems to allow for some distinction in focus and intensity of role: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” Paul is not suggesting that some elders will not need to teach at all; he makes it clear elsewhere that all elders must be gifted to teach. But he does seem to expect that some elders will be particularly devoted to that task and give more time to it. From the immediate context of this verse, it is clear that the “double honor” due especially to elders “who labor in preaching and teaching” refers primarily (even if not exclusively) to the pay they will receive for their labor. Not all elders will give their time solely or substantially to the work of ministry and so be financially supported, but some will. Thus there may be distinctions drawn between vocational and lay elders in terms of the focus and intensity of their service, but their fundamental character as under-shepherds of the flock of God is shared.

The Responsibilities of Elders toward the Church

However the particularities of the office may be defined in any given ecclesiology, the role of the elder is a role of spiritual leadership. It is a “noble task” (1Tim. 3:1) and encompasses guiding, protecting, teaching, disciplining and governing the church. The eldership is vital to the structure and health of the church; a church without elders is quite simply incomplete (Titus 1:5).

The elders have a general responsibility to care for and protect the church (see Acts 20:28-31). This comes in large measure through their teaching ministry. Among the qualifications set out for elders in the New Testament, the only gift or skill (as opposed to character trait) that is required is the ability to teach (1Tim. 3:2). This teaching gift will have a protective purpose for the church: the elder must “be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also able to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). Thus the faithful teaching ministry of the elder must be both positive and negative in character. We see this again in Paul’s charge to Timothy to “preach the word”; in heeding this charge, Timothy must be ready to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2Tim. 4:2).

Ultimately, the elder is concerned to shepherd and protect the souls under his care through the faithful ministry of the Word. While not explicitly naming them as elders, Hebrews speaks of the “leaders” of the church as people who “are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17). Responsibility for care of souls is a helpful way of thinking of the role of eldership, and the reminder that elders will have to give an account to the Lord for this care is sobering indeed.

The Responsibilities of the Church toward Elders

While elders have weighty responsibilities toward the church family, the Scriptures make it clear that the church family, in turn, has the obligation to respond willingly and joyfully to the leaders God has set in place. In a passage already cited, Hebrews exhorts the church: “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).

Like leaders in any context, church elders will sometimes be exposed to criticism and opposition. They need to be afforded honor (1Tim. 5:17) and protected from unjust attack: ‘Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses’ (5:19). At the same time, elders who sin without repentance are to receive a public rebuke (5:20). Elders are in a privileged position, and so are held to a high standard of accountability (see Jas. 3:1).

Apart from the church’s general obligation to respond willingly to the elders’ leadership, there is a particular responsibility to provide materially for those who labor in the ministry of the Word (1Tim. 5:17-18; cf. 1Cor.9:1-14). Paul’s instruction to give a “double honor” means rewarding good service well, recognizing that the work, if done diligently, is true labor and worthy of honorable treatment and not meagre reward.

Finally, the church has an obligation to pray for its leaders. The writer of Hebrews asks for prayer for himself as a leader (Heb. 13:18). Paul frequently expresses his commitment to pray for believers, and he asks as well for the churches to pray for him (1Thess. 5:25; Col. 4:3-4).

The Qualifications and Commitments of Elders

Paul sets out two (largely parallel) lists of qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, and those responsible for identifying new elders need to ensure that candidates meet the qualifications set out there. It is too easy to import worldly criteria for leaders (success, wealth, popularity, etc.), rather than uphold the standards of Scripture. The elder is to be marked by godliness expressed in self-control and good leadership within the home, all resulting in a positive reputation in the community. The lists focus on godly character rather specific skills, with the notable exception of the ability to teach, which is easily overlooked.

Demonstrating the importance of these qualifications, Peter charges the elders to provide gentle leadership with a willing and eager heart (1Pet. 5:2-3). This willingness to serve is a key component of identifying potential elders. Paul indicates that it will be natural and appropriate for some to desire the task of oversight within the church (1Tim. 3:1). If, after careful consideration, a man has no desire or willingness to serve, this may indicate that he is not well suited to the role.6

One key question that churches need to address is whether the office of eldership should be open to women as well as men. The qualification in 1 Timothy 3:2 might seem to settle the issue: the elder is to be “the husband of one wife.” However, the main point there is probably that the elder is to be faithful within marriage and marked by sexual purity, and so this verse on its own may not settle the issue conclusively. More compelling is the observation that the qualification list in 1 Timothy 3 follows immediately after a key discussion on the roles of men and women within the church (2:8-15). Within that discussion, Paul makes the emphatic statement, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man” (v. 12). That statement, set immediately before the qualification list for elders, provides more a more conclusive indication that only men may serve in an office where, by virtue of the role, he will be called upon to teach and exercise authority over the church as a whole.

The expectation that gospel ministry will involve suffering is one aspect of Christian leadership that is often ignored but that is actually integral to the New Testament pattern. Paul certainly makes it clear in many passages in his epistles that his ministry (as an apostle, but surely serving as a model for all church leaders) involves suffering. That reality is borne out by the record of his ministry in Acts. Surprising as it may seem, Paul indicates that this suffering is not incidental to his work but is somehow integrally related to the very nature of the gospel and the suffering of Jesus himself (Col. 1:24-25). Correspondingly, he calls Timothy, his protégé in ministry, to suffer as well (2Tim. 1:8) and to remember the authentic Jesus of his gospel, who died before he rose again and who endured suffering before he would reign (2Tim. 2:8-13).

Footnotes

1Piper, “Elders”.
2Although note that Peter views himself as a “fellow-elder” (1Pet. 5:1) so that there is a degree of correspondence or “overlap” between the work the apostles and the local church elders who followed them.
3An additional key term, diakonos (“deacon”), is not treated here, but addressed in a separate essay.
4Some would see here a parallel with the work of Titus who was left behind to appoint elders in Crete (Titus 1:5).
5Grudem, Systematic, pp.912-13.
6See the helpful discussion in Rinne, Elders, pp.19-20.

Further Reading

  • Anyabwile, Thabiti M. Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.
  • Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.
  • Jamieson, Bobby. Leading one another: Church Leadership. 9Marks Healthy Church Study Guides. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.
  • Piper, John. “Christian Elders in the New Testament.”
  • Rinne, Jeramie. Church Elders. 9Marks: Building Healthy Churches. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014.
  • Strauch, Alexander. Biblical Eldership. Revised and expanded. Colorado Springs: Lewis and Roth, 1995.
  • Thune, Robert H. Gospel Eldership: Equipping a New Generation of Servant Leaders. Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2016.

This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.