Who Are the Elders in a Local Church?

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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 establishes very specific qualifications for both offices.

According to 1 Timothy 3:1–7, an elder 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.

Moreover, he must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive; he must not be a recent convert; and he must be well thought of by outsiders.

A similar list of qualifications for elders is given in Titus 1:6–9.

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

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 according to the qualifications in Scripture.

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’re the ruling elders.” But this is also 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). They are given by God to fill a specific role (Eph. 4:11–12).

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). A church’s success is said to rest on how many calls that Pastor Joe or Pastor Tim can record in his log book.

Even now, leading pastors are rarely held to all of the scriptural 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 and falls short of the New Testament model. Many pastors have settled into sub-biblical leadership models that look more like an American business than a biblical ecclesiology.

In Scripture, 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 or overseers/bishops (see Acts 20:17–28; 1 Pet. 5:1–5). 

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 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 every elder is 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 [plural] in every town [singular]” (Titus 1:5). In Acts 14:23, “they had appointed elders [pl.] for them in every church [sing.]” Paul “sent to Ephesus and called the elders [pl.] of the church [sing.] to come to him” (Acts 20:17). James assumed that every church would have many elders: “Let him call for the elders [pl.] of the church [sing.], and let them pray over him” (Jas. 5:14).

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 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 scriptural 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 shepherding and equipping the flock. 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 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 scriptural model. The path forward may be difficult, but we must begin to forge it. 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.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.