Let’s begin to think about the need for gathering a plurality of elders, and how to go about gathering them with biblical wisdom.
We can have a good start by reviewing the biblical data and reflecting on the practical benefits of having a plurality of non-paid elders.
Brief Biblical Background
shows that the words elders (presbuterous, v. 17) and overseers (episkopous, v. 28 [also known as bishops]) are interchangeable, and that both do the work of pastoring (poimainein, v. 28) or shepherding God’s flock.
A pastor, then, is an elder, and an elder is a bishop/overseer—all three terms refer to the same office and the same work of pastoring. Note too that Paul “sent to Ephesus” for “the elders [presbuterous, plural] of the church [ekklΣsias, singular]” (v. 17). The pattern is of a plurality of elders in each local church.
distinguishes the office of elder (episkopos) from that of deacon (diakonos). Each must meet the same character requirements, but elders must also be able to teach—an ability not required for the office of deacon.
Right away, then, we see that elders are different from deacons in that teaching is pivotal to the elder’s responsibility, while the deacon’s tasks lie elsewhere. Both offices must be present for a church to be organized, led, and served according to the Word.
further clarifies the distinction. There we read of a controversy between Greek and Hebrew widows about the equity of food distribution among them. The disciples gather the whole congregation and say, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve [diakonein] tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry [diakonia] of the word” (6:2-4).
The division of labor is clear. The seven chosen men “deaconed” (served) tables, which
released the apostles for “deaconing” the Word. Deacons, then, serve to care for the physical and financial needs of the church, and they do so in a way that heals divisions, brings unity under the Word, and supports the leadership of the elders. Without this
practical service of the deacons, the elders will not be freed to devote themselves to praying and serving the Word to people. Elders need deacons to serve practically, and deacons need elders to lead spiritually.
1. Read . What does this imply about the way Paul structured the churches he planted?
2. Look up at least five of the following verses: ; ; ; ; ; ; ; .
What do you learn about the number and responsibilities of elders in local churches?
3. Compare and 20:28. Then compare , , and 7. What terms seem to be used interchangeably?
The Practicality of Plurality
We’ve seen some of the main biblical arguments for the distinction between elders and deacons, for the roles of each, and for a plurality of elders in a single church. What are the practical benefits of having more than one elder in each church? In other words, is it worth the trouble to switch from a single pastor/multiple deacon leadership structure to a plurality of elders leadership structure with multiple serving deacons?
Let’s think about some of the advantages of making the switch.
It balances pastoral weakness. No pastor is broadly gifted enough to do all the work of the ministry equally well by himself. There are weaknesses in every pastor’s game. We all need other people to balance out our all-too-human deficiencies. When you surround yourself with godly men whose gifts, passions, and abilities balance yours, you provide
more well-rounded leadership for people to follow.
It diffuses congregational criticism. Under the single pastor/multiple deacon model, the pastor often takes the brunt of the criticism alone. Tough decisions can be misperceived, motives can be misconstrued, and before too long the pastor becomes the target of all the critical remarks because he is the one who is perceived to be making all the decisions and
casting all the final votes—and under this model, he often is. Within a plurality of elders, however, leadership is shared with a body of non-staff elders who have been recognized and affirmed by the congregation.
This provision alleviates the pastor from bearing all the criticism, because now leadership and decision making responsibility are shared among the group. Other men can now stand in the gap with the pastor, and they can take both responsibility and criticism together.
Also, the congregation likely will be more willing to follow the tough decisions of a group
of both staff and non-staff elders than to follow those made alone by a paid pastor. So some criticism may be avoided simply by the increased trust that a plurality of congregationally recognized non-staff elders engenders among church members.
It adds pastoral wisdom. Sharing leadership with a group of godly, able non-staff elders will almost invariably keep pastors (especially young ones) from saying or doing dumb things, or from saying or doing the right things in unhelpful ways. None of us is omniscient. We all need to humble ourselves, share leadership, and ask advice. In fact, many of us are impatient when it comes to implementing a vision for godly
change. Godly elders can help us select a pace for change that the congregation can keep up with. They can also help us formulate plans, articulate goals, and handle sensitive situations better than we may do if left to ourselves.
It Strengthen’s leadership. That is, it roots leadership in non-staff members. This is important because the congregation needs to be able to function and continue to grow even if something awful happens to the paid pastor. The last thing we want to do as vocational pastors is to make the congregation so dependent on us that the church would fall
apart if we died, got called somewhere else, or (God forbid) fell into some disqualifying sin.
We want our work to continue to bear fruit long after we’re gone! But that means leadership must be rooted in non-staff members. The best, most biblical way to do that is to incorporate a structure of leadership based on a plurality of elders in which the non-staff
elders outnumber the staff elder (meaning: the paid pastor).
It enables corrective discipline. Without corrective discipline, the church has no way to protect the purity of her public corporate witness from the hypocrisy of members involved in scandalous sin.
Yet the discharge of corrective church discipline is far more difficult without a plurality of elders. Performing corrective church discipline requires a leadership structure that won’t buckle under the spiritual and relational pressures of the process. By adding wisdom, diffusing criticism, balancing pastoral weaknesses, and strengthens leadership, plural eldership helps transfer the load of corrective discipline across the multiple pillars.
Plural eldership, then, is critical for the discharge of corrective discipline and therefore is critical for maintaining the corporate witness of the local church in the eyes of the unbelieving community as well.
It defuses “us vs. him.” When disagreements happen between a pastor and the congregation regarding the direction of the church or a difficult decision that affects the whole congregation, an unhealthy “us vs. him” mentality can crop up.
This can make the pastor feel extremely isolated and can often breed adversarial attitudes underneath a surface of friendly pastor/congregation relationships. Granted, a plurality of elders may simply shift the relationship into the “us vs. them” gear.
However, it relieves the isolation of the pastor, and it may prevent such opposition from ever arising if the pastor is wise enough to receive godly counsel by multiple biblically qualified elders (; ; ). Again, by adding wisdom, diffusing criticism, balancing pastoral weaknesses, and strengthening leadership, a plurality of elders can go a long way toward defusing the “us vs. him” bomb.
1. How could you envision a plurality of elders being healthy for your church corporately?
2. How could you envision a plurality of elders being healthy for pastor Joel?
3. Are there some obstacles that are keeping us from moving toward a plurality of elders?
4. What are some ways that you can start praying for healthy change in your church?
What kind of leadership does a healthy church have? Are we healthy as a church?
v Is it a congregation that strives to ensure that the gospel is faithfully preached? Yes ().
v Is it deacons who model service in the affairs of the church? Yes ().
v Is it a pastor who is faithful in preaching the Word of God? Yes ().
But the Bible presents one more leadership gift to churches to help them become healthy: the position of elder.
Surely there are many useful things we could say about church leadership from the Bible; yet we have been traveling through 1 Timothy and so we want to focus primarily on this question of elders, since I fear a lot of us do not know what we are missing.
As your pastor, I pray that Christ will place within our fellowship men whose spiritual gifts and pastoral concern indicate that God has called them to be elders. May He prepare many such men to serve Him in our church!
If God has so gifted a certain man in the church with exemplary character, pastoral wisdom, and gifts of teaching, and if, after prayer, the church recognizes these things, then that man should be set apart as an elder.
WHAT IS AN ELDER?
In , the young church in Jerusalem began to bicker over how food was being distributed to widows. The apostles therefore called upon the church to select several men who could better oversee this distribution. The apostles chose to delegate this particular task so that they could then “… give [themselves] continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” —
That, in the briefest terms, appears to be the division of labor between elders and deacons that the rest of the New Testament develops. Elders are especially devoted to prayer and the ministry of the Word for the church, while deacons help to sustain the church’s physical operations.
Are you beginning to see what a gift this is to us, dear church? God is essentially saying, “I’m going to take several men from among you guys and set them aside to pray for you and to teach you about Me.” What a kind God we serve!
ELDERS AND CONGREGATIONS
All churches have had individuals designated to perform the functions of elders, even if those individuals are called by other titles, such as “deacon” or “Sunday School director or teacher” etc. The three New Testament titles for this office, which are used interchangeably, are episkopos (overseer or bishop), presbuteros (elder), and poimain (shepherd or pastor). All three are used for the same men, for instance, compare and 20:28.
When many Baptists hear the word elder, some of them immediately think “Presbyterian.” Yet the first Congregationalists (capital C, pointing to a formal group of churches) back in the sixteenth century taught that eldership was an office for New Testament churches. Elders could also be found in Baptist churches in America throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries.
In fact, the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, W. B. Johnson, wrote a treatise in 1846 calling Baptist churches to use a plurality of elders since the practice was biblical.
Baptists and Presbyterians do disagree in two areas concerning elders. FIRST and most fundamentally, we who are Baptists are congregationalists (lowercase c, referring to our practice). We believe that the Bible teaches that the final decision on matters rests with the congregation as a whole, not with a church’s elders or anyone outside the church body.
v When Jesus was teaching His disciples about confronting a sinful brother, He said that the congregation was the final court of appeal—not the elders, not a bishop or pope, not a council or convention ().
v When the apostles sought out several men to act as deacons, as we just discussed, they gave the decision over to the congregation. — “…brethren, seek out from among you seven men…”
In Paul’s letters, too, the congregation assumes the final responsibility:
v In , Paul blames not the pastor, elders, or deacons for tolerating a man’s sin, but the congregation.
v In , Paul refers to what a “majority” (v6) of them had done in disciplining an erring member.
v In , Paul calls on the congregations themselves to judge the false teaching they had been hearing.
v In , Paul reproves not just the false teachers but also those who paid them to teach what their itching ears wanted to hear.
(Pay super close attention to the next statement) Elders lead, but they do so, biblically and necessarily, within the bounds recognized by the congregation from Scripture alone! In that sense, elders and every other board or committee in a Baptist church act in what is finally an advisory capacity to the whole congregation.
And, while in a sense, your elders would serve the congregation in that “advisory” role, as they submit themselves to Christ; there is the other side of congregational driven churches, is congregational submission.
Within the general equality of all believers, God orders and gives leaders to His church. The congregation’s submission to Christ finds expression in its submission to godly elders (; ; ). All ministry to the church is ultimately Christ’s own ministry and, as gifts from God, elders are an extension of Christ’s ministry to His people.
v The Apostle ()
v The Prophet ()
v The Teacher ()
v The Shepherd (; )
v The Evangelist ()
v The Preacher()
v The Servant ()
All leaders in the church carry on Jesus’ own ministry.
This is a voluntary submission, which must not be coerced and, which assumes that elders are serving as faithful examples and are faithfully leading the congregation in obedience to God’s Word. God’s Word restricts or limits the elders’ authority. Only Scripture can bind the conscience of the Christian, and elders forfeit their authority if they deviate from God’s Word. See this played out in the following texts of Scripture.
Biblical texts that specifically address the notion of authority with respect to the congregation and its leaders affirm elder rule and congregational submission:
v Elders rule/govern/manage (proïstēmi): ; ; ;
v Elders lead (hēgeomai): , ,
v Elders exercise oversight (episkopos; episkopeō): ; ; ;
v The congregation respects (lit. “know”: oida):
v The congregation esteems (lit. “think, consider”: hēgeisthai10):
v The congregation obeys (peithō):
v The congregation submits (hypeikō):
v The congregation imitates (mimeomai): ; ; ,
We believe that the Bible teaches that the final decision on matters rests with the congregation as a whole, not with a church’s elders or anyone outside the church body. While at the same time as the congregation is made known, from Holy Scripture, TRUTH; then, according to Scripture, there is to be this submission from the congregation. This is how God designs His house to be lead: humble, mutual submission to one another, which is how we express our submission to Christ.
SECOND, Baptists and Presbyterians have disagreed over the roles and responsibilities of elders, largely due to different understandings of the following words written by Paul for Timothy: — Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.
Presbyterians understand this verse to be establishing two classes of elders—ruling elders and teaching elders. Baptists don’t recognize this formal division but understand the verse to suggest that certain individuals among a group of elders will simply be given more fully, as a practical matter, to preaching and teaching. After all, Paul clearly tells Timothy earlier in the letter that a basic qualification of every elder is that he is “able to teach” (; see also ). Baptists, therefore, deny the appropriateness of appointing elders who are not capable of teaching Scripture.
PLURALITY OF ELDERS
Where Baptists and Presbyterians often agreed in the eighteenth century was that there should be a plurality (or multiple number) of elders in each local church. The New Testament never suggests a specific number of elders for a particular congregation, but it clearly and consistently refers to the “elders” of a local church in the plural (for example, ; ; ; ; ; )..
A plurality of elders does not mean that the pastor has no distinctive role. There are many references in the New Testament to preaching and preachers that would not apply to all the elders in a congregation.
v In Corinth, for instance, Paul gave himself exclusively to preaching in a way that lay elders in a church could not (; ; ; ).
v Also, preachers seemed to relocate to an area for the express purpose of preaching (), whereas elders seemed settled among the community ().
As the regular voice that proclaims God’s Word, a faithful preacher will probably find that a congregation and the other elders treat him as the first among equals and/or “especially” worthy of double honor (). Still, the preacher or pastor is, fundamentally, just one more elder, formally equal with every other man called by the congregation to act in this capacity as an elder.
NEW TESTAMENT TERMINOLOGY: ELDER, PASTOR, OVERSEER
From the beginning, local churches have been served, governed, and led by elders (; ; ) with the assistance of deacons (; ).
The elder is ordained in a church to lead, teach, care for, and protect that local church. While we most often use the term “elder” for the pastoral office of the church, this is only one of several terms used in the New Testament to describe the role. The Bible refers interchangeably to this office as “elder,” “pastor" (or "shepherd”), and “overseer.”
1. “elder” comes from the Greek presbuteros (; ,,,,; ; ; ; , ; ; ,). When used of the office in the church, the implication is that the man is a mature and wise man, not necessarily that he has reached a certain age ().
2. Another term used of elders in the New Testament is “pastor” or “shepherd” (Gr., poimēn) as in , “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” (cf. ; ; ). Places like and remind us of the specific, individual care that God extends to us as our “Good Shepherd” and model for us what is meant by the term as it is applied to the elders of a local church.
3. Another term is “overseer” (Gr., episkopos) as in : “If anyone desires the office of bishop [overseer], he desires a good task” (cf. ; ; ). This term captures the authority and leadership entrusted to elders.
It is critical that we see the equivalence of these three terms in the New Testament: an elder is a pastor is an overseer. We can see the synonymous nature of the terms in:
v where Titus is told to “appoint elders” (v. 5), and then he is instructed concerning potential candidates: “the overseer…must be” (v. 7).
v Further, in the Ephesian “elders” (20:17) are told how they must “shepherd” their flock as “overseers.”
v In he addresses “elders” (v. 1) and tells them to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (v. 2), specifically by “exercising oversight” (v. 2). Here, the ideas of elder- shepherd - overseer are clearly overlapping terms.
Thus, we ought to use all three terms to refer to the same office. Further, we need to let our understanding of the pastoral office include the associations of all three terms. We cannot let one term swallow up the other two. So:
v The leadership and authority implied by “overseer” is to be joined to…
v The protection, care, and nourishment implied by the use of “pastor”; and both of these are to be attached to…
v The wisdom and mature discernment implied by the term “elder.”…
As our practice has been: the Bible itself must guide our use of these different terms, not how they have become traditionally understood in many of our denominational circles.
The Responsibilities of the Elder
The elder-pastor-overseer has four broad responsibilities within the local church.
Elders feed, oversee, care for, and protect the flock entrusted to them.
v First, pastors are to “feed” the flock entrusted to their care (). Elders are “teachers” () who build the church in their care by “preaching and teaching” (). This is why an elder must be “able to teach” (). Teaching happens through the ministry of the Word on Sunday mornings but also in the more private “reproof…correction…training” (), and exhortation (4:2) that happens in the pastor’s ministry to individuals.
v Second, elders are to oversee the flock entrusted to them (). Elders provide leadership and thus manage “God's church” (). This leadership requirement is seen by the use of the title “overseers” to describe an elder (; ; ; ). Further, the use of the term “manage” in and the reference to “ruling” (Gr., proistēmi) in also support the notion that elders govern the church in a leadership capacity (cf. ; ; etc.). , which uses the more general term “leaders” (participle from ēgeomai, “lead, guide”), commands Christians to “obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls,” which seems to provide support regarding the management and governing responsibilities of elders. Additionally, reminds pastors that they are to be those “serving as overseers, not by compulsion”
v Third, pastors are to care sincerely for the flock entrusted to them by God (). Just as the great commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor (), and apart from love we accomplish nothing and are nothing (), so a shepherd must “be genuinely concerned” for the “welfare” of every member of his respective church, not seeking his own interests, but “those of Jesus Christ” ().
v Fourth, elders protect the flock, looking out for “wolves” that can come from without or within the church (). Elders are to “pay careful attention” and to “be alert” (vv. 28, 30).
-This is not to give an elder a suspicious heart, but a watchful one; not a cynical heart, but a cautious one. For example, the elder must know the difference between someone who disagrees with him and a divisive man who is actually a “wolf” (; ). Such attentiveness and discernment is part of the role.
BENEFITS OF ELDERS
My hope is that in the near future, as a pastor, the usefulness of following the New Testament practice of sharing, wherever possible, the responsibility for pastoring a local church with other men rooted in the congregation will be confirmed.
v Decisions involving the church but not requiring the attention of all the members should fall not to the pastor alone, but to the elders as a whole. This is sometimes cumbersome, but it has immense benefits.
v It rounds out the pastor’s gifts, making up for some (in my case-many) of his defects and supplementing his judgment.
v It creates support in the congregation for decisions, helping unity and leaving leaders less exposed to unjust criticism.
v It makes leadership more rooted and permanent and allows for more mature stability.
v It encourages the church to take more responsibility for its spirituality and helps make the church less dependent on its “employees”.
This practice of a plurality of elders is unusual among Baptist churches today (in N. W. Indiana), but not by Southern Seminary (Louisville, KY) nor historically. It was needed in New Testament churches and it is needed now.
So the biblical pattern is consistent, and the practical benefits are clear, both for the pastor and for the congregation. The question, then, isn’t why should we have elders, but why shouldn’t we?