A Display of God's Glory/Elders

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By Mark Dever About Church Government
Chapter 3 of the book A Display of God's Glory


As important as the deacons are, even more fundamental to our lives together as Christians is the ministry of another group to which we now turn—the elders.

I. Plurality of elders

The first thing we should note about the elders of a local church is that they are elders plural. Though a specific number of elders for a particular congregation is never mentioned, the New Testament regularly refers to “elders” in the plural (e.g., Acts 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; Titus 1:5; James 5:14). The elders of Israel that we see referred to throughout the Gospels and Acts are plural. The elders in Heaven are plural (Rev.5:14;11:16;19:4). In Acts 11:30, elders are plural. In Acts 14:21-23 we read, “They preached the good news in that city (Derbe) and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith…. Paul and Barnabas appointed [or had elected] elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord in whom they had put their trust.” If you look through Acts 15, you find in verses 2, 4, 6, 22 and 23 that there are plural elders. In Acts 16:4, the word for elder occurs in the plural. In Acts 20:17, we read that Paul called to himself the elders of the church in Ephesus. So too, in Acts 21:28, and in I Timothy 4:14 and 5:17. In Titus 1:5, Paul says, “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town…. ” James in James 5:14 envisions the elders (plural) of the church local (singular) coming to pray with one who is sick. In I Peter 5:1, Peter appeals to the elders among these Christians. In fact, the only exceptions are in II and III John, where the writer simply refers to himself as “the elder,” and in I Timothy 5, where there is a bit of church case law about what we should do if there is an accusation against an elder. But basically, the picture in the New Testament is that there is normally within the local church a body of elders, not simply one elder.

II. Qualifications for Elders

Women are not to be Elders

Who should be an elder? What should their qualifications be? The qualifications for an elder are laid out clearly in the Bible in I Timothy 3 and in Titus 1.

Before we turn to I Timothy 3, though, we need to take note of an important issue raised in I Timothy 2—that it is not God’s will for women to serve as elders. While many questions have been raised about an obscure phrase in I Timothy 2, it is always safer to begin with the clear parts of Scripture and pray that God will shed light on the more obscure parts, rather than doubting the clear parts because of the presence of obscure parts. What is clear in I Timothy 2 is that a woman should not teach or have authority over a man. Whatever the exact authority Paul intended to speak of here as inappropriate, it clearly involves the woman teaching. The practice of the early church was to have the creation order of the authority of the husband over the wife reflected in the practice of the church. Galatians 3:28 is clear that in Christ there is neither male nor female, but this is meant not to eliminate all distinctions between the genders, but rather is simply an affirmation of the wonderfully impartial grace of God in salvation.

I Timothy 3

Given that, let’s look at the list in I Timothy 3. Take a few minutes to read I Timothy 3:1-7. D.A. Carson (professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) noted once that this list of characteristics is most notable for being not very notable at all. What he meant is that all of these characteristics are elsewhere in the Bible enjoined on all Christians—all of them, that is, except for the ability to teach (I Tim. 3:2). While the Scriptures are sufficient to teach us here about the character of an elder, I do not think that Paul would claim that this particular list is exhaustive. Rather, his purpose was to list characteristics which would generally have been recognized as virtuous even by the surrounding culture of the time.

The Point of Leadership in the Church

The point of leadership in the church is to bring glory to God by commending the truth to outsiders. This is why Paul was so incensed at the Corinthians for going to secular court against each other and for allowing those living flagrantly ungodly lives to be associated with the church. Both of these things would undermine the witness of the gospel. So in Paul’s first letter to Timothy, the evident ungodliness of some of the false teachers in the Ephesian church was jeopardizing the whole way that God would be glorified through the church—the proclamation of the gospel of forgiveness and hope, and the conversion of sinners!The list of virtues which Paul gave in I Timothy 3 (or Titus 1, for that matter) are not all of the virtues which a Christian should exhibit. They are virtues which would have commended the gospel to those who were watching the church’s leaders. Regular Bible reading is good, and prayer is necessary, but Paul mentions neither here. Nevertheless, I want both of these virtues in my elders! I am taught elsewhere in the Bible that they are to characterize all Christians, but I think for Paul’s purposes here, he wanted to emphasize things like paying bills on time, being cheerful, humble and helpful—things that even most pagans recognize as good.

Finding Godly Leaders in Our Churches

How do we find such leaders in our churches? We pray for God’s wisdom. We study His Word, particularly those passages in I Timothy and Titus that teach clearly about the qualifications for such responsibility. We should not follow the world’s standards in picking our leaders. We should not imitate those churches that simply find the community leaders in the church, and then make them the leaders in the congregation. Os Guiness in his book Dining with the Devil recounts the comment of a Japanese businessman to a visiting Australian: “Whenever I meet a Buddhist leader, I meet a holy man. Whenever I meet a Christian leader, I meet a manager,” (p.49). Instead of this, we are to search for those men of the character, reputation, ability to handle the Word, and fruitfulness which marks a good leader in the church. The character of these church leaders is to be built not for themselves, but for others. Thus, they are not to be lovers of money, but lovers of strangers—that’s what “hospitable” literally means. True church leaders will be other-centered.

III.Historical Overview

Original Words for “Elder”

All churches have had individuals who performed the functions of elders, even if they called them by other names. The two most common New Testament names for this office were episcopos (overseer) and presbuteros (elder).

Presbyterians and Elders

When evangelicals today hear the word “elder,” many immediately think “Presbyterian.” However, the first Congregationalists back in the sixteenth century taught that eldership was an office in a New Testament church. While it is historically accurate to associate elders with Presbyterians, it is not accurate to associate them exclusively with Presbyterians; nor is it true to think that the term is foreign to Baptists.

Baptists and Elders

Elders could be found in Baptist churches in America throughout the 18th century and into the 19th century, (e.g.,Robertson’s Life of Broadus,p. 34;O. L.Hailey, J. R.Graves, p. 40). W. B. Johnson, the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote a book on church life in which he strongly advocated the idea of a plurality of elders in one local church. Whether through inattention to Scripture, or the pressure of life on the frontier (where churches were springing up at an amazing rate!), the practice of cultivating such textured leadership declined. But Baptist papers’ discussion of reviving this biblical office continued. As late as the early twentieth century, Baptist publications were referring to leaders by the title of “elder.” Though this practice is unusual among Baptist churches today, there is now a growing trend back to it—and for good reason. It was needed in New Testament churches, and it is needed now.

Let me help define for you what we mean by elder here by distinguishing the elders first from the church staff, then from the deacons, and then by asking about the relationship of the pastor to the other elders.

IV. Relationship of Elders and Church Staff

Many modern churches have tended to confuse elders with the church staff. The staff are the people that the church has set aside full-time to work for the church. They are often the people most directly familiar with what is going on day to day. They often have seminary training. They must have a certain degree of godliness and maturity or they would never have been hired in the first place. Certainly members of the church staff may be elders. In fact, our church’s constitution requires us to call no one as the pastor here who we would not also immediately recognize as an elder. That, I think, is a wise provision. However, our constitution also requires that the majority of our elders not be in the pay of the church. For example, our pastoral assistants (young men, useful in ministry, likely heading off to seminary soon) are not generally recognized as elders, though they provide wonderful care for us in everything from teaching to visiting. The reason we included this provision in our constitution is precisely because we desire to make sure that we as a congregation feel the weight of the responsibility not simply to hire elders, but to try to be the kind of spiritually fruitful church that sees them raised up among us. Of the five elders currently recognized in our church, three have secular jobs and only two, myself as pastor and our church administrator, are in the paid employ of the church.

V. Relationship of Elders and Deacons

In practice, if not in doctrine, many churches have confused the New Testament roles of deacon and elder. The concerns of the deacons, as we have seen, are the practical details of church life: administration, maintenance, and the care of church members with physical needs—all in order to promote the unity of the church and the ministry of the Word.

Similarities in Qualifications

In I Timothy 3, what is most noticeable in comparing the lists of qualifications for elder and then for deacons is not their differences, but their similarities. Both overseers (elders) and deacons need to be reputable, blameless, trusted, monogamous, sober, temperate, generous individuals. Indeed, so similar are these two lists of traits, that the striking thing is that with such similar qualifications, Paul and these early Christians should so clearly recognizetwo separate bodies of leaders.

The Root of the Distinction

In Acts 6, we have seen something of the root of the distinction in the roles and responsibilities of the deacons and the elders. In Acts 6:2, after the complaining in the church at Jerusalem had begun, we read, “So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the Word of God in order to wait on tables.’” From this, we could say that the ministry of the Word of God is central to the responsibility of the elders. Not only that, but it is absolutely central to the church. When it is characterized again in 6:4, we find them resolving, “We will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word.” They would be, literally, deacons of the Word. This fits with what we see later in Acts 15, and again in Acts 20, and in the qualification that elders must be able to teach. It seems that the role of the elders is fundamentally to lead God’s people by teaching God’s Word. This teaching must be by the public handling of God’s Word and also by the exemplary lives they lead.

Teaching and Authority

To sum up this point, the elder’s authority is directly related to his task of teaching. He is to be a pastor/shepherd. We who are elders are to serve as overseers. In Acts 6 we see the elders proposing something to the assembly. Paul in I Timothy 5 refers to the elders as “directing the affairs of the church” and “preaching and teaching.” But chiefly, it seems that the elder’s role is one of leading by patiently and carefully teaching.

It would be to the great benefit of many churches to again distinguish the role of elder from that of deacon.

VI. Relationship of the Elders and “The” Pastor

If you ask the question, “Does the Bible teach that there is to be a Senior Pastor-figure alongside, or inside the eldership?” I think the answer to that question is “No, not directly.” Having said that, I do think that we can discern a distinct role among the elders for the one who is the primary public teacher of the church.

“Pastor” in the New Testament

“Pastor” only appears in the New International Version of the New Testament in Ephesians 4:11 in the list of God’s gifts to his church (paired with teachers). Behind the English word “pastor” is the Greek word poimenas which is related to “shepherd.” The related word for shepherd appears a few times (e.g., I Peter 5:2, Acts 20:28), but in none of these examples does a separate position from elder seem to be indicated. Indeed in Acts 20:17, 28 it is clear that “elder,” “overseer [Bishop],” and “shepherd [pastor]” are all used interchangeably of the same group of people.

Glimpses of the Pastoral Role

That said, let me give you four glimpses of this kind of role that I think we see in the New Testament.

1) Even in the New Testament, there were some men who moved from place to place (like Timothy or Titus) who served as elders, and some who didn’t (presumably like those that Titus [in Titus 1:5] appointed in every town). So, while Timothy came from outside, others were appointed from within the local congregation.
2) There were some who were supported full-time by the flock (cf. I Tim. 5:17-18; Philippians 4:15-18), and others who worked at another job (as Paul often did when he was first establishing the gospel in an area). One would think that not all the elders Titus made sure were appointed on Crete would have been paid full time.
3) It is interesting to note that Paul wrote to Timothy alone with instructions for the church there, even though we know from Acts that there were other elders in the Ephesian church. Timothy, though, seems in some sense to have had a unique function among them.
4) Finally, the letters of Jesus to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 are addressed to the messenger (singular) of each of these churches.

None of these, of course, are air-tight commands, but they are descriptions that are consistent with our practice of setting aside at least one (perhaps more) from among the elders who is not necessarily from our own community, supporting that one, and giving him the primary teaching responsibility in the church.

The Pastor as Elder

We must, however, remember that the preacher, or pastor, is also fundamentally one of the elders of his congregation. Probably the single most helpful thing to my pastoral ministry among my church has been the recognition of the other elders. The service of the other elders along with me has had immense benefits. A plurality of elders should aid a church by rounding out the pastor’s gifts, making up for some of his defects, supplementing his judgment, and creating support in the congregation for decisions, leaving leaders less exposed to unjust criticism. Such a plurality also makes leadership more rooted and permanent, and allows for more mature continuity. It encourages the church to take more responsibility for the spiritual growth of its own members and helps make the church less dependent on its employees. Our own church in Washington has enjoyed these benefits and more because of God’s gift to us of elders.

VII. Relationship of the Elders and the Church

Five Characteristics of the Relationship

We’ll deal with this more specifically later when we consider what we mean by congregationalism, but in general, the relationship between the elders and the local congregation they serve should be marked by many evidences of godly character and mutual dependence on God. Let me mention five characteristics of this relationship—recognition, trust, godliness, carefulness and results. 

1) Clear Recognition. Elders are to be recognized by the church as gifts from God for the good of the church. The church should therefore delegate to them the duties of teaching and leading the church. Those duties are only to be revoked when it is clear that the elders are acting in a way that is contrary to the Scriptures. And for their part, the elders must recognize the God-given authority of the congregation (e.g.,Matthew 18; I Cor. 5; II Cor. 2)
2) Heart-felt Trust. The church should trust, protect, respect and honor its elders. Thus Paul writes in 1 Timothy 5:17, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” The elders should direct the affairs of the church, and the church should submit to their leadership. So the writer to the Hebrews wrote in 13:17,“Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
3)Evident Godliness. We have seen the emphasis in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus on the elders being “blameless.” (In Titus 1:6 Paul wrote,“An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient.”) The elder, then, must be willing to have a life that is open to inspection and even a home that is actively open to outsiders, giving hospitality and enfolding others into their lives.
4) Sincere Carefulness. The elders should be marked by a use of their authority which shows that they understand that the church belongs not to them, but to Christ. Christ has purchased the church with His own blood, and therefore it should be cherished, treated carefully and gently, led faithfully and purely, for the glory of God in the good of the church. The elders will give an account to Christ for their stewardship.
5) Beneficial Results. As in a home, or in our own relationship with God, a humble recognition of rightful authority brings benefits. In a church, when authority is used with the consent of the congregation for the good of the congregation, the congregation will benefit as God builds His church through the teachers He gives to His church. Satan’s lie—that authority is never to be trusted because it is always tyrannical and oppressive—will be subverted by the benevolent practice of and recognition of the elders’ authority in the context of the congregation.
Regard for Pastors

When Edward Griffin (1770-1837) was retiring from the church he had served so well for many years, he exhorted the congregation with some words that instruct us well on how to regard not just the pastor (as Griffin then intended) but in fact all of those whom God has given us as elders:

For your own sake, and your children’s sake, cherish and revere him whom you have chosen to be your pastor. Already he loves you; and he will soon love you as ‘bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh.’ It will be equally your duty and your interest to make his labors as pleasant to him as possible. Do not demand too much. Do not require visits too frequent. Should he spend, in this way, half of the time which some demand, he must wholly neglect his studies, if not sink early under the burden. Do not report to him all the unkind things which may be said said against him; nor frequently, in his presence, allude to opposition, if opposition should arise. Though he is a minister of Christ, consider that he has the feelings of a man,” (Edward Griffin, “A Tearful Farewell from a Faithful Pastor” [1809]).

VIII. On the Gift of Authority

I hope that you see in all this that it is a great privilege to serve in leadership, one that should not be missed. Some people may feel too busy, or think that such work is just not worth it. I’m reminded of the actor Gary Cooper’s statement: “I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper.” That’s what Cooper is reported to have said on rejecting the leading role in “Gone With The Wind.” What we’ve been thinking about is so much more important than anything that would bring worldly fame or wealth. Paul says that being an elder is a “noble task” and that he who desires it desires a good thing!

One of the times that I have been most chilled in a conversation was when I was talking with someone who taught at Cambridge University. We were out at a meal, and he was expressing his anger over a recent decision of the city council. As he went on and on, I recalled how typical this was of my friend to show such anger about authority. And so at one point I asked him a simple, direct, unqualified question: “Do you think authority is bad?” Normally, such a question would earn only a puzzled look, a condescending sniffle that one would ask such a naïve question, and a meandering answer shackled by a thousand qualifications. This time, though, I was shocked by his un-nuanced, simple, direct, unqualified answer—“Yes.”

A recognition of the fallen nature of authority and the possibility of its abuse is good and healthy. Power apart from God’s purposes is always demonic. But a suspicion of all authority or an innate distrust of it is very bad. Really, it reveals more of the person questioning than of the authority. Moreover, it shows a cancerous degeneration in our capacity to operate as those made in God’s image. To live as He meant us to live, we have to be able to trust Him, and even—to no small extent—to trust those made in His image. Everyone in the Bible from Adam and Eve to the rogue rulers in the book of Revelation show their evil fundamentally by denying God’s authority, and usurping it as their own.

It is a great privilege to be served by godly leaders! To have godly authority modeled and practiced for our benefit is a great gift! To reject authority, as so many in our day do, is short-sighted and self-destructive. A world without authority would be like desires with no restraints, a car with no controls, an intersection with no traffic lights, a game with no rules, a home with no parents, a world without God. It could go on for a little while, but before long it would seem pointless, then cruel, and finally unutterably tragic.

Despite our tendency to ignore it, godly and biblical leadership is crucial to the building of a church that glorifies God. Our exercise of leadership in the church relates to God’s nature and character. When we exercise proper authority through the law, around the family table, in our jobs, in the scout troop, in our homes, and especially in the church, we are helping to display God’s image to His creation. This is our call. This is our privilege.

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