Church & Ministry

Who Are the Elders in a Local Church?

One of the most prominent features in the pastoral epistles is Paul’s detailed description of two offices in the local church: elder (also called overseer or bishop) and deacon. Paul established very specific qualifications for both offices. According to Titus 1:6-9, elders are expected to:

  • Be above reproach
  • Be the husband of one wife
  • Have children who believe and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination
  • Not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain
  • Be hospitable, a lover of good
  • Be self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined
  • Hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught
  • Be able to give instruction in sound doctrine
  • Be able rebuke those who contradict it

A similar list of qualifications for elders is given in 1 Timothy 3:1-7.

The qualifications that are set down only make sense and carry weight if they describe an office that everyone is familiar with. Paul expected the office of elder to be so clearly defined and visible in the church that someone could aspire to it (1 Tim. 3:1). Unless we know exactly who the elders are in a given church, it is impossible to obey God by evaluating them by the qualifications inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The qualifications for eldership only make sense and carry weight if they describe an office that everyone is familiar with.

The “Preacher”?

You might be quick to think, “that’s my preacher! He’s the one who Paul is talking about.”

But consider 1 Timothy 5:17: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”

“The elders who rule”
“The elders…who labor in preaching and teaching”

“Elder” cannot only mean “preacher” because every church is expected to have some elders who help to rule the church but do not labor in preaching and teaching.

Board Members?

Perhaps you think, “it’s the board members, too! They are the ruling elders.” But this too is problematic. When is the last time that your church board members were held to the Biblical qualifications for eldership?

When Paul describes ruling elders, he speaks of men with an active role in shepherding the flock. They labor alongside the primary preaching pastor(s). The church looks up to them for spiritual guidance (Ac. 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:3). They share the burden of discipling and equipping the saints (1 Pet. 5:2; Eph. 4:11-12). They will give an account for the flock (Heb. 13:17).

When people pick up their Bibles and read Titus 1 or 1 Timothy 3, they do not think of board members. In some cases, board members are expected to do little more than show up to meetings and vote.

Blurring the Biblical Lines

If we are honest, most churches are shepherded by only one or two preaching elders (e.g. the Senior Pastor and Assistant Pastor). This is why we refer to churches as “Pastor Joe’s Church” or “Pastor Tim’s Church” and imply that a church’s success rests on how many pastoral calls Joe or Tim can record in his log book.

Even now, leading pastors are rarely held to all of the Biblical qualifications. When is the last time that a pastor at your church was evaluated using 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1? When is the last time a pastoral search committee intentionally ensured that a pastor was “able to rebuke those who contradict [sound doctrine]” (Titus 1:9) or “well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim. 3:7)?

Blurring the clearly defined Biblical lines around the office of elder has resulted in a local church governance that is centered on one man or a few men, and falls short of the New Testament model. In the Bible, the term “elder” is synonymous with our more familiar word “pastor,” which highlights the nature of every elder’s rule: shepherding the flock through pastoral oversight. Thus, elders are freely referred to as pastors, shepherds, and overseers (bishops, KJV).

Blurring the clearly defined Biblical lines around the office of elder has resulted in a local church governance that is centered on one man or a few men.

Elders/pastors/shepherds/overseers/bishops are called by God to oversee the flock and equip the saints for the work of the ministry. Some elders fulfill their shepherding duty by ministering through the public preaching and teaching of God’s Word. But all elders are responsible for overseeing the flock.

Working Towards a Plurality

That the church is to be governed by a plurality of elders is consistent with Paul’s reference to “the council of elders” in 1 Tim. 4:14 and his charge to Titus to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5).

When people hear this for the first time, there is typically some pushback. “That’s not practical!” Or, “If that’s the case, I’d have no one left on my board!” But questions of practicality come second to Biblical authority. The first question must always be, what does the Bible say? Once we understand what is Biblical, we must pursue it at any cost, even if it means reforming systemic hurdles to its implementation. If it is Biblical, it will work. And it is Biblical. The Bible is clear that churches are to be led by a plurality of elders—some who bear primary responsibility for preaching and teaching and others who help to shepherd the flock, but all held to Biblical qualifications.

Nothing is impractical about this. In fact, it’s highly desirable. It makes perfect sense that God would want his church to be led by four or five or six qualified and accountable elders instead of one superhero Senior Pastor, an assistant, and a board that shares no responsibility for the shepherding and equipping work of discipleship. The reason we do not practice it is because it is hard. And it is hard for good reason: God has a high standard for those who govern his church. 

It makes sense why Paul would leave Titus on Crete for the express purpose of raising up elders: it’s hard work. In many contexts, we have simply not raised up enough men who can be held to the Biblical qualifications for elder. We need better discipleship.

We have simply not raised up enough men who can be held to the Biblical qualifications for elder. We need better discipleship.

Regardless of our present condition, we do not have the authority to ignore God’s expectations for the governing of his local churches. We must get busy at working towards a Biblical model. Meanwhile, we should do the best that we can. But we should never settle comfortably into an unbiblical ecclesiology.

If a church is not governed by a plurality of men who are held to the Biblical qualifications for eldership, then it is first priority to disciple men until they are able to fill these offices. For a church with an unhealthy or unbiblical leadership structure, this may take some time. But it is a matter of obedience. Let us pursue it joyfully, fully confident that God knows what is best for his church.