The office of elder is the first of two ordinary and perpetual offices in the church. Elders (or presbyters, from the Greek presbuteros) are so named for their duty to be spiritually mature and dignified members of the congregation. Elders are also called overseers (or bishops, from the Greek episkopos; Titus 1:7, cf. 1:5; Acts 20:28, cf. 20:17; Didache, 15), pastors or shepherds (1 Pet. 5:2, cf. 5:1; Eph. 4:11), and teachers (Eph. 4:11), for their duty to watch over, govern, guide, feed, nourish, instruct, exhort, admonish, and pray for the flock of God. While “elder,” “pastor,” and “overseer” may be used interchangeably, “elder” is by far the most common term in the New Testament (the term was derived from Judaism; Num. 11:16–30; Acts 4:8, cf. Acts 14:23).
Churches are to be overseen by a plurality of qualified elders.
Churches are to be overseen by a plurality of qualified elders: “they had appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23); “call for the elders of the church” (Jas. 5:14; cf. Acts 20:17; 1 Pet. 5:1; perhaps 1 Tim. 4:14; Titus 1:5). “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1) and must be tested by the qualifications in Scripture before his ordination or appointment: “an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:2–7; cf. Titus 1:6–9).
All of the elders must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2) and share responsibility for speaking the word of God.
A senior pastor/elder, such as Timothy likely was for the church in Ephesus, may be elected as a first among equals to have the regular, primary role of teaching the congregation; however, all of the elders must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2) and share responsibility for speaking the word of God (Heb. 13:7). “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). Elders should be assisted by qualified deacons with the church’s practical needs (Acts 6:1–7; 1 Tim. 3:8, cf. 3:1; Php. 1:1), since, as the church’s teaching officers, it is not right for elders to “give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2). “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
As those appointed to rule and minister the word, the church has always entrusted elders with ordering worship, administering the sacraments, and overseeing church discipline. Elders must walk worthy of this trust, not lording over the church: “I exhort the elders among you, … shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:1–3; 2 Cor. 3:10). In all things, Christ is the “chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4, cf. 5:2) and only “head of the body” (Col. 1:18); elders are humble undershepherds and gentle servants of the church.
Resources for Further Study
- [Article] “Making Sense of Elders, Pastors, and Bishops,” Holy Joys.
- [Article] “Who Are the Elders in a Local Church?” Holy Joys.
- [Book Chapter] William Burt Pope, “The Pastoral Office,” A Compendium of Christian Theology, vol. 3 (London: Beveridge and Co., 1879), 342.
- [Book] Jeramie Rinne, Church Elders: How to Shepherd God’s People Like Jesus (Crossway, 2014). 144 pages.
- [Book] Dave Harvey, Healthy Plurality = Durable Church: “How-To” Build and Maintain a Healthy Plurality of Elders (Sojourn Network, 2018). 108 pages.
- 9 Marks has a wealth of resources in the “Leadership” section and “Eldership” category on its website. Note that 9 Marks is complementarian and thus teaches that Scripture limits the office of elder to men (1 Tim. 2:12); those who open the office to women are known as egalitarians.