A key question answered
Does a clear pattern for Church government emerge from the pages of the New Testament (NT)? I believe it does. The NT reveals a pattern in which each local Church was placed under the spiritual care of a plurality of godly leaders called Elders. When Churches disregard this plan, they invite trouble on their assemblies because they contradict the instruction of the Chief Shepherd. Churches following congregational-rule (the opposite of elder-rule) will experience long-term, debilitating problems.
Tracing the history of NT Church leadership, God initially gave the Church apostles and prophets as leaders. These leaders did the foundational work after the birth of the Church (Ephesians 2:20;4:11). As the Church grew, the apostles handed the baton of leadership to elders. Elders were appointed for each Church (see: Acts 14:23;15:6,23; 20:17,28). These men were given responsibility to shepherd and oversee local churches (Acts 20:17, 28; I Peter 5:1-4).
There is no indication in the NT that the office of apostle was meant to continue beyond the first century. In the restricted sense, no one today could meet the qualifications for being an apostle (Acts 1:21-22; I Cor.15:8). And, since the early church gave itself to the teaching of the apostles (the content of which is now found in the NT epistles), what level of authority would we give to the teaching of people who want to be viewed as apostles today? Appointing new apostles for the Churches is not an action supported by the pattern of the NT.
Understanding Biblical Eldership:
Elders in the Old Testament:
Exodus 3:16; 4:29; 12:21; 19:7-8; Lev. 4:13-16; Deut. 21:3-9; II Sam. 5:3; 17:4; Num. 11:10-17; Gen. 50:7 – Egyptian elders Psalm 37:25
Elder: πρεσβυτερος- (Presbyteros) older. (Luke 15:25-“…the older ‘Presbyteros’ son)
“Israel’s elders were not mere figureheads. Although there is no explanation of their origin, appointment, or qualifications, Israel’s elders are mentioned approximately 100 times in the Old Testament. Their vital leadership role is displayed by their active involvement in every crucial event in Israel’s history. From the time they were slaves in Egypt, the elders provided leadership of the people. God acknowledged the elders’ leadership role by sending Moses to them first to announce the people’s deliverance (Ex. 3:16).”
“When Israel settled in the Land of Promise, each city, each tribe, and the nation as a whole had a council of elders. As community leaders, the elders were to protect the people, exercise discipline, enforce the law of God, and administer justice. According to Mosaic law, as well as by traditional practice, the elders exercised far-reaching authority in civil, domestic, and religious matters. The elders’ role as a judicial body is described in the legislative portions of the Old Testament. The book of Deuteronomy especially lays out specific situations that required the elders’ judgment and counsel — from hearing murder cases to judging the most intimate family matters (Deut. 19:11, 12; 21:1-8, 18-20; 22:16-19; 25:7-9; Josh. 20:2-4). The elders were to know the law, the bear (along with the priests) responsibility of communicating the law to the people regularly and publicly, and to ensure that the law was obeyed (Deut. 27:1-8; 31:9-11)” (Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership, pp. 122-123).
Elders in Judaism:
Matthew 15:2; 16:21; 26:3; 27:57; Mk. 8:31; Lk. 22:66; Acts 22:5- elders, chief priests, scribes
Elders in the early Church: Acts 11:30 —elders appeared without explanation in the early Church because the elder structure of government was well-known to Hebrew Christians. Many of the earliest members of the Church were previously devote and godly believers under the OT scriptures.
Some thirty years later qualifications for eldership were provided for Timothy and Titus as they worked among Gentile converts (See: I Timothy 3 & Titus 1 and chart below). Generally, the Gentile believers were new to the faith and unfamiliar with eldership.
Three interchangeable terms for Church leadership
The NT uses three primary words with reference to spiritual leaders. The term of title is elder. The functional terms are pastor and overseer. All three terms may be used interchangeably to refer to the same body of leaders. Consider Acts 20:17, 28:
1. Elder: (presbyteros) A mature adult recognized for his wisdom and experience. Acts 20:17; I Peter 5:1; Titus 1:5,7
“Although the strict sense of advanced age is eliminated from the meaning of elder when referring to a community leader, certain connotations such as maturity, experience, dignity, authority, and honor are retained. Thus the term elder conveys positive concepts of maturity, respect, and wisdom. When prebyteros is used of a community leader, it is most commonly used in the plural form presbyteroi. This is because the elder structure of leadership is leadership by a council of elders” (Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership, p. 125).
2. Overseers (episkopos, επισκοπον) (Acts 20:28, bishops, Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5,7; I Timothy 3:1.
3. Shepherd (ποιμενας) pastor (I Peter 5:2; Ephesians 4:11)
Note: The three above terms are equally applicable to each leader.
Elder is the designation of the leader himself. Overseer and Pastor are functional designations.
The New Testament also refers to deacons (see: I Timothy 3:8-13). These men are not a spiritual governing body of leaders. They lead in areas of service designed to alleviate the elders to be devoted to spiritual oversight.
Plurality of leadership in NT regions:
- Provinces of Asia Minor (Acts 14:23; 20:17,28; I Tim.3:1ff; 5:17; Eph. 4:11; I Pet. 5:1-4)
- Achaia and Macedonia (Phil. 1:1; I Thess. 5:12,13), Corinth ( I Cor. 12:28 )
- Island of Crete (Ti. 1:5 ff)
- Communities addressed by James (Ja. 5:14)
- Communities addressed by Hebrews (Heb. 13:7,17)
- Lystra, Iconium, Antioch, (Ac. 14:23; Ac. 15:39)
- Rome (Rom. 12:6-8 )
Other references to plural leadership: Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2,4,5, 22,23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18;
I Cor. 12:28 – teachers, helps, administrators (#1 and #3 relate to elders. # 2 relates to deacons).
Answering questions about leadership
Q. Is there any basis for distinction among the elders?
Possible categories or distinctions among elders in I Tim. 5:17, 19-20
- Elders who rule well – exceptional, v. 17
- Elders who rule well in preaching and teaching. This group probably corresponds to the pastor/teachers of Ephesians 4:11-14.
- Elders who sin – this could relate to any of the above, vv. 19-20. (cf. Acts 21:18-25 – the relationship of James and the elders – some distinction is involved).
Q. How does a man become an elder? Who determines this? What procedure should be followed?
- The Holy Spirit, Acts 20:28
- Other elders appoint new elders, Acts 14:23 “appointed” Titus 1:5 (prayer and fasting); cf. Laying on of hands, I Tim. 5:17-22; I Tim. 4:14–meaning: “hand to stretch” or “To extend the hand” –not to vote but laying on of hands (cf. Acts 13:1-3).
Q. Should the congregation be involved?
The qualifications imply the need for congregational input in the process. Open communication is essential. Congregational vote is not based on any NT requirement.
Logical problem: A man who is a novice is disqualified for eldership (I Timothy 3:6). So (if the whole church votes on leaders) a Church would potentially be asking a novice to decide who will be his leader? God would not ask a new believer to make such an important decision. But if a Church follows congregational vote on leadership, it essentially hands this important decision to all members whether new believers or immature believers. This is simply unwise and wrong.
Doesn’t Acts 6:1-7 offer a model for congregational vote?
Some wrongly appeal to Acts 6:1-7 as a model for choosing Church leaders. Six considerations should help us avoid this error:
- These men are selected based on qualification and recognition by the congregation.
- The congregation chose certain men to meet the need at hand and recognizing the authority of the apostles brought the men to them for final approval.
- The men are not being chosen to be spiritual overseers or elders. The Apostles (and later elders) fulfilled this function.
- There is no evidence that these men represented an official board of deacons or any official ongoing committee.
- No such title (as deacon) is applied to them — even though one could argue that there is a parallel to the later New Testament position of deacon. We simply need to be careful not to stretch too much from Acts 6 in regard to the selection or appointment of overseers.
- The situation reflects the way the church in early stages delegated responsibilities in the face of major needs — not the way it appointed spiritual overseers.
Q. What is the role and function of Elders?
They are to be involved in the following:
- Training and appointing other leaders (II Tim. 2:2; Titus 1:5; Acts 14:23)
- Leadership and admonishment (I Thess. 5:12; Heb. 13:17)
- Ministering the Word (Titus 1:9; I Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7)
- Representation (Acts 20:17)
- Spiritual oversight (Heb. 13:17)
- Governing (I Tim. 5:17) (προεστωτες- rule, direct)
- Equipping (Eph. 4:11-12)
- Spiritual restoration (Gal. 6:1-2)
- Refuting false doctrine (Titus 1:9)
- Guarding the flock (Acts 20:17, 28-31)
* Qualifications for elders touch areas of character, conduct, and competence.
The NT teaches elder-rule with congregational involvement and input (e.g. Acts 6:1-4; 15:2-24; 22). Instructions regarding total church action (I Cor. 5:4; 7:13; Ii Cor. 8:16-19) must be understood in keeping with other Scripture dealing with leadership. A democratic congregational form of Church government is not God’s design for His Church. The church consists of people at all different levels of spiritual growth and maturity. God would not request Church governing decisions of all people equally. But the involvement of every part of the body is crucial to the growth, stability and unity of the body. There is no room for spectatorship in the church (Eph. 4:11-16). The priesthood of all believers implies every member ministry (I Peter 2:5; 9-10). (Yet multiplicity of ministry does not dissolve distinction within ministry (cf. I Peter 5:1-6– in the same book).