What About Those Elders?
In ministries across the land a variety of terms are used to describe the spiritual leaders of congregations. In my journey, I have always served with “elders” who were the primary spiritual overseers of the church. Most of us see the names of our congregational leaders in the Sunday bulletin or on the church website but we seldom think of the profound effect they have on the life of the church (and our own spiritual journey) through their function and focus.
Screaming for Definition
In my travels, I have found that local church “elders” serve in a variety of roles. In some places they do all the preaching on a volunteer basis. In other churches, they are business advisors for the staff, selected for their financial acumen or corporate success, functioning more like trustees than spiritual leaders. Sometimes they are just a group of supporters for the pastor and his plans, with no real spiritual authority. It seems the term cries out for definition in many churches.
Who and What are “Elders”?
The title of “elder” comes from the New Testament Greek word presbuterous, which refers to the spiritual maturity required of those who lead the church. The New Testament always refers to elders in the plural, indicating a team of godly leaders. They are required to live exemplary lives (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9), teach God’s word (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9-11, 2:1, 2:7-8) and give spiritual leadership to the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 5:17-18). They are held to a higher standard and are accountable to God for the well-being of the congregation (James 3:1; 1 Timothy 5:19; Hebrews 13:17). Effective elders are worthy of honor. Some are worthy of “double honor”, implying that some are paid by the church based on their responsibilities while others serve voluntarily (1 Timothy 5:17-18).
Elder, Pastor, or Bishop?
Many believers wonder about the difference in the various terms churches use to describe their leaders. The most definitive passage is found in Acts 20:17-38, where Paul addressed the leaders he had developed at the church of Ephesus in the span of his three-year ministry there. He used three different titles in speaking to these men. First, he called them elders (presbuterous) in verse 17. He then called them overseers (episkopos). This is the term that we use for “bishop.” Finally, he described them as shepherds (poimen). This is the term used for pastor. So, these were not three separate roles, but different descriptions of the same group of leaders. The term elder refers to their spiritual maturity. Bishop describes their spiritual authority. Pastor is the description for their spiritual function.
Elders vs. Apostles?
The church started in Acts with apostles in the primary leadership role. The Book of Acts concludes, and the other New Testament letters are written, with the elders in the leadership role. When did this transition occur? In Acts 15, we see the church in Jerusalem dealing with the difficult issues of Old Testament law and their ramifications on the message of the grace of the Gospel. In this deliberation, we see the apostles (personally chosen by Christ, personal witnesses of His resurrection, and commissioned to lay the foundation of the church through their teachings) working in concert with “elders” (Acts 15:2, 4, 22 & 23). After this, the focus of spiritual leadership shifts to the elders (bishops and pastors) as the leadership team of the churches across the region.
We have already seen that elders lead and feed the church with the truth while meeting the qualifications outlined in the New Testament. However, what priorities must they embrace to lead effectively? In tracing the actual function of the spiritual leaders of the church, it is important to go just a bit earlier into the Acts account. This brings us to Acts 6:1-7, where the apostles were coping with an operational breakdown in the all-important widow-feeding effort. Rather than becoming absorbed in managing this crisis, they appointed seven other godly, wise, Spirit-filled men to completely handle this task. (This group was the first example of what would eventually emerge as the “deacon” function.)
The clear, uncompromised priorities of these apostles were “prayer and the ministry of the word.” Through these primary priorities they kept the spiritual integrity of the leadership intact as they collectively received direction from the Spirit while guiding the church in biblical truth. The result was the blessing of God in supernatural power and Gospel expansion (see Acts 6:7). This focus also forced them to empower other leaders to direct vital ministries. This forms an important model for modern-day elders, pastors, and bishops rooted in the indisputable function of the apostles.
Why does the focus and function of elders matter so much? Simply put, a diluted focus among the leaders results in diminished spiritual vitality and derailed impact throughout the church. Secular models, biblical confusion, the demands of people, and the “distraction tactics” of the devil all converge to get elders off task. The church falters and the mission is weakened. I believe it is imperative that modern-day elders maintain a relentless commitment to “prayer and the ministry of the word” while empowering others to handle the many operational, financial, and programmatic functions of the church (whether through paid staff or trained volunteers). The supernatural advancement of the mission of Christ depends on it.
Five Practical Applications
So, in the practical reality of today’s congregational life, what can the elders do? In my years as a Sr. Pastor our leadership team embraced five key priorities:
1. Dependence – A collective commitment to seek the Lord through extraordinary prayer and to lead the church to become a house of prayer through our example.
2. Doctrine – A collective resolve to study God’s word and engage in individual teaching of the word to insure doctrinal purity and practical equipping.
3. Direction – A collective responsibility to discern the direction of the Holy Spirit and guide the church toward His plans for the ministry.
4. Discipline – A willingness to become engaged in the final stages of the process of spiritual restoration of believers caught in sin (outlined in Matthew 18:15-20).
5. Deployment – A commitment to constantly “equip the saints” to do the work of the ministry of the church for the building up of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11 & 12).
Praying for Clarity and Conviction
I hope you will join me in faithful prayer for church leaders to have New Testament clarity about their roles and Spirit-empowered conviction to embrace a focus that will facilitate spiritual empowerment and ministry effectiveness. Much is at stake in these practical choices. Our prayers, loving support, and willingness to serve will make a difference as we seek to honor Christ and advance His mission.
Copyright © 2015 Daniel Henderson. All rights reserved.