Elders

Biblical Background

In the New Testament two Greek words appear to designate this office. The first term episkopas (overseer) derives from Hellenistic society and refers to a presiding official in a religious or civic organization. The other term presbuterous (elder) comes out of Jewish tradition with an equivalent meaning. Hence in the New Testament the two words are used interchangeably. The duties of the overseer/elder include teaching (I Timothy 3:2), leading (I Timothy 3:5), pastoring and guarding the church (Acts 20:28-31).

A careful analysis of all the references to overseers and elders in the New Testament reveals that in the early church some were set apart because of giftedness (I Timothy 5:17), creating a distinctive type of elder. All elders need to exercise leadership and be able to teach, and all are to receive honor. However those who excel in leadership, Paul indicates are “worthy of double honor”. This is especially true for those whose “work” is preaching and teaching. Paul’s use of the word “work” suggests that these elders devote themselves to ministry in and through the church. His following illustrations also indicate that the double honor includes financial support. Essentially the preaching/teaching elder serves as the pastor of the congregation. Together all the elders of the congregation including the pastor or pastors form the eldership or the elder team in the local church. It is their collective responsibility to care for the flock (I Peter 5:1-4).

Organization

The biblical record offers only broad guidelines for establishing elders in the local church. The lack of specific direction allows therefore a certain freedom in methodology. However several basic principles in elder organization do arise from the New Testament text and provide useful guidelines for the contemporary church. This structural flexibility actually encourages each local congregation to determine what procedures work best in the local setting given specific biblical instructions and examples.

Qualifications

The Bible presents one set of standards for elders in the church. These requirements apply equally to all elders whether active in the word and/or ruling the church. This means that whether a person is called as a pastor-elder or chosen as a leading-elder both must meet certain qualifications before serving and overseeing the body of Christ, the church. These qualifications appear in several New Testament passages, principally I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; and I Peter 5:1-4. John Winebrenner summarizes the specific directions given in these and other New Testament passages under four headings. An elder must demonstrate “grace, gifts, a disposition to use them, and a blameless or holy life. These four particulars form the principle ingredients, or prominent features, in the character of a faithful elder or ruler of the house of God.”

As to grace the elder must be “no more carnal but reconciled to God, and truly pious. In other words, he must be …soundly converted …radically changed in heart, and a partaker of the grace of God in truth.” This aspect of elder qualifications can hardly be over emphasized. Regarding gifts or “proper abilities” it is requisite that an elder be as the biblical texts delineate: sober, wise, apt to teach, etc. Furthermore an elder needs to be willing to use these and other gifts in ministry. Peter directed elders to “feed the flock of God; not by constraint, but willingly and of a ready mind.” (I Peter 5:2) Finally the elder’s lifestyle must be “blameless and holy” at home, in the church and before the world. Many of the biblical directives for elders fall into this category of reputation. By definition and practical experience an elder will not be a “novice” or new to the faith, but will be a person rooted and grounded in the word of God.

These qualifications need to be taken seriously by the church and its existing elders, as well as by any prospective new elder. This requires a through examination of any and all candidates. The review process falls chiefly to the existing elders, but the congregation must also be involved. I Timothy 3:10 clearly states that both types of church leaders (deacons and elders) must be proved first. The New Testament does not outline a process, but from the observation of a person’s faith, gifts, character, and lifestyle the existing elders and the congregation will know who is qualified or not to serve as an elder based upon the biblical guidelines. The elders should meet with any and every prospective elder to discuss the qualifications and duties in private. Afterwards the person should be presented to the church for their feedback. Ultimately the evaluation process seeks to identify a qualified, willing candidate for the position of elder whom the congregation can affirm.

Selection & Term

According to I Timothy 5:17, Titus 1:7, and I Peter 5:2 elders oversee the work and ministry of the local church. They lead, manage and direct (e.g. rule) its affairs. Hence in the selection of all leadership for the congregation they play a primary role, including the choice of new elders. In the New Testament apostles or their representative initially chose elders for the local churches. (See Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5.) In Titus 1 the term used does not refer to “a formal ecclesiastical ordination … but the appointment, for the recognition of the churches, of those who had already been raised up and qualified by the Holy Spirit, and had given evidence of this in their life and service.” (Vine, p.67) However, Acts 14 may suggest an interesting insight into the New Testament practice of elder selection. The root word cheirotoneo, “primarily used of voting in the Athenian legislative assembly”, [literally means] “to stretch forth the hand.” (Vine, p.69) The term as used in Acts 14 and again in II Corinthians 8:19 for a church representative may or may not refer to an actual show of hands (a vote), but certainly indicates congregational approval.

The New Testament offers no record of elder succession but continuity in leadership requires some method of replacement. Obviously the early church followed some means to maintain ongoing leadership. The twelve attempted a selection by lot to replace Judas (Acts 1:26), but it’s the last mention of the process and the person. Casting lots is little more than election by chance and runs contrary to the principles of elder and deacon selection found in the New Testament. Because the New Testament offers no particular paradigm for perpetuating church leadership, the local church receives a freedom of process that can be suited to the local body. The selection may be accomplished through the larger church body (the Conference) especially in the case of a new work, or a congregational reorganization for whatever reason. The eldership of the local church should be continued by the existing elders, or the congregation, or a combination of both. Ideally the existing elders play a key role in selecting and examining all prospective new leaders and presenting them to the congregation for approval. When a nominating committee is utilized the elders should serve as such or be well represented. In either case the elders ought to give approval to any proposed names. They know the church and the people best. Election to office requires the agreement of the congregation either by mutual consent or by majority ballot.

Just as the process of elder selection remains undefined in the New Testament, so does the issue of term. “The number of persons to be chosen is discretionary or optional with every particular church. Their number should be in proportion to the size and exigencies [needs] of each individual church.” (Winebrenner, p.70) Setting a fixed number of elders could actually be spiritually counterproductive. It could foster jealousies or deny qualified elders, called of God the opportunity to serve. If any number is to be set, it might be a minimum number, not a maximum. In addition the length of term can be determined by the will of the church. In certain situations individuals who prove themselves faithful to the Lord and the church might be designated by the congregation as life elders, not subject to removal except in the event of relocation, apostasy, or misuse of authority. In some cases it might be well to establish term lengths in order to facilitate periodic review and to permit the selection of new leadership. The local church could choose both life and term elders. However since “the Scripture gives no specified rule in this matter, it is unquestionably right for a majority of the members of each particular church to determine whether its officers are to be temporary or perpetual.” (Winebrenner, p.70)

Upon completion of the examination and selection process the church should set a time to publicly install any new or reelected elders. Again the New Testament provides only the barest guidelines for installation. From the available texts it appears that elders and other church leaders were formally installed into office by the laying on of hands, fasting, and much prayer. (Acts 13:3, 14:23, I Timothy 4:14) In fact the whole process of elder selection needs to be prayer oriented by all the parties involved. Often the church gives entirely too little time to prayer when making its leadership decisions. A public service seals the mutual decision to appoint a person to the eldership of the local church. It also confirms the person in the position and pledges the body to support that person in leadership.

The Elder Team

The elder team or eldership of the local church consists of all those who meet the biblical qualifications and have been called of God and affirmed by the local church to serve as elders. The team includes those who receive their livelihood from the church as well as those who do not. The responsibility of the team is to oversee the life and ministry of the congregation. They function as a team and though there may be some specialization in service they minister with equal responsibility and diligence. Shared leadership is the New Testament norm. Time and again the leadership of the local church is vested in the elders (plural). Over the centuries the church too often made the grave mistake of vesting leadership in either the episcopacy or the congregation. They stand as opposite poles in church leadership models, but neither holds up in a through examination of the apostolic record. Leadership in the first century church rested squarely upon the presbuteroi or elders.

Leadership by a council of elders appears throughout the Old Testament. It follows that the early church should utilize a similar pattern as seen in the temple and synagogues. This structure also resonated with the Greeks and Romans of the first century. It offers several benefits. It offsets weaknesses with strengths. Where one elder lacks another can fill the gap. It makes the work load lighter for all. Many hands make light work as grandfather often said. It provides a larger wealth of wisdom and experience to assist the church and help its people. It serves as a check and balance system providing accountability and credibility to the work of the church. It encourages the emergence of new leaders and thereby fosters the continuance and expansion of the gospel witness. It can have a downside such as inaction or slow action, but the benefits far exceed the difficulties.

As in any team individual members will assume particular responsibilities. All bear the responsibility of getting the job done, and all bear an equal load of accountability; yet, each elder will in their own unique way contribute to the team. I Timothy 5:17 declares “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” In every congregation there need to be and will be those elders who emerge as “first among equals”. Peter, James, and Paul served as such among the apostles. Such elders because of calling and giftedness serve on the elder team much like a quarterback or job foreman. They serve as the point person for the elder team. They lead the team, direct the work, and often serve as spokesperson. However they hold no exalted status and can never “lord it over” those whom they serve or work along side. Such elders may be worthy of double honor, but they don’t seek it. Often these persons make their livelihood from the ministry, devoting full time to service in the church.

Duties and Responsibilities

Congregational Leadership

Mission/Vision Development & Oversight: The elder team plays a critical role in vision casting for the congregation. They serve so to speak as the keepers of the flame. If they do not provide the congregation with a clear sense of mission and vision, as the prophet says “the people perish.” This responsibility to lead the congregation falls to a large degree upon the point elder, the one who is devoted to the preaching and teaching ministry. Generally speaking this elder serves as a catalyst for the other elders in identifying the church’s mission and articulating the vision. The result should be a clear understanding of purpose that the whole church shares. The resulting view of ministry will govern decision making and direction for the church. The job of the elder team extends beyond developing and promoting the mission/vision of the church to its implementation. The elder team needs to evaluate all congregational ministries in light of the mission and vision. It is their charge to keep church ministries on task and in accord with the stated mission/vision. On not less than an annual basis they need to review past progress and project future goals and objectives. As elders their task is to provide oversight in all areas of ministry in order to achieve greater effectiveness.

Long Range Planning

The Planning Agreement

Negotiation
Ownership

Document Review

Constitution/By-laws, etc.
Prior Planning Guides

Mission and Core Values Clarification

Context Assessment (S.W.O.T. Analysis)

Strategic Issues Identification (3-6 key items to be addressed)

The Strategic Response

Creation of a “Vision of Success”

Communication Tools: Logo, Slogan, Graphics, Literary Piece, etc.
Establish Time Tables
Allocate Resources

Implement & Evaluate

Three Year Plan (Max)
Annual Review & Triennial Revision

Church Calendar

The Annual Schedule

Planning Retreat/Meeting

Considerations: (Acts 2:42 ff.)

Worship: Regular Services & Holiday Schedule Events
Teaching: Preaching Agenda & Music Objectives (Choirs, etc.)
Fellowship: Special Events & Outreach
Spiritual Development: Prayer & Renewal, Stewardship

Congregational Support

Multi-year Plan (Refer to Long Range Planning Above)

Future Projections & Arrangements

Budget Priorities/Direction (Salary Proposals)

Budget Development

Establishment of a Budget Task Force/Committee
Review of Past Expenditures & Future Needs
Budget Projection in light of the church’s LRP

Staff Salary Determinations

Pastoral Support Team: Search Committee, Sounding Board, Accountability, etc.

Worship Involvement

Worship Leadership

Prayer Partners

Administration of the Ordinances: Public & Private

Ministry of the Word

Bible Teaching & Preaching

Doctrine (C.E. content, etc.)

Church Growth & Evangelism

Missions & Outreach

Pastoral Care of the Congregation

Staff: Paid & Volunteer

Search & Selection

Personnel Committee

Periodic Evaluation
Counsel & Direction
Salary Determinations

Leadership Development & Oversight

The Membership (Receiving, Training, Deploying, Holding Accountable)

Maintaining Unity:

Conflict Resolution: Individual & Corporate (Matthew 18:15-17)
Discipline & Restoration (Galatians 6:1-5)
Conference Involvement

Visitation (Prospective, Spiritual)