What is an Elder?

elders 1Leaders are very important; they can make or break any organisation, government or church.   Just as good leadership is vital to a country; so godly leadership is vital to the life, health and growth of the church.  The leaders in a church are called “elders”.  In our church it is the Elders that make up our Church Council.   Every two years, we as members nominate men who we believe will be godly elders; these men are screened by the existing church council; if accepted they must receive a majority vote at our Annual General Meeting to be on the Church Council.   We have adopted this model because we believe it’s wise and in accordance with the biblical model of church governance.

Elders are found throughout the Bible 

Almost all ancient societies and religious communities were guided in some way by elders i.e. by older, experienced, wise men.  According to Genesis 50:7 there were “elders of Egypt” and “elders of Moab and Midian” are found in Numbers 22:7.  There is nothing unique or unusual about having elders in positions of authority.  In the Israelite community, the “elders of Israel” were commonly referred to in the Old Testament.  The Elders were older men of the community who, because of their wisdom, became the official administrators and overseers.    In Jesus’ day the elders of Israel were still very much part of life.  The most frequent use of the word “elder” in the New Testament refers to the Jewish elders who often opposed Jesus.

The early church

The early church was established with a Jewish background, its first members being Jewish converts.  The church also saw itself as the fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament.  It is understandable that the church would in some ways pattern its life and structures on the OT.   Church leaders were also called Elders; they too were to be godly, (spiritually) mature men.  Yet the Church was different to OT Israel and God gave new criteria for these new Elders.

Simply “elders”

Notice that church leaders are not called prophets, priests, kings or apostles, but simply elders.  Priests mediate between man and God.  Jesus is our great High Priest and we can approach God directly without any human mediation.  Kings ruled on God’s behalf, their word was law; Jesus is our king as we all submit to his leadership.  Prophets spoke God’s very word to God’s people.  We now have God’s final, sufficient Word to us in the Bible and there are no more prophets.   Apostles were men who had seen and been commissioned by the resurrected Christ; they spoke with the authority of Christ.  The church is built on foundation of Apostles and we don’t have them today.  (Ephesians 2:19-20)

Elders are to be godly, spiritually mature men who are able to teach 

John MacArthur writes, “Elders are not chosen on the basis of their knowledge of the business world, their financial ability, their prominence, or even their innate ability to be leaders.  They are chosen because God has called and prepared them for leadership in the church.  The men who God selects will meet [the following] qualifications.

In 1 Timothy 3:1-7 we find the biblical qualifications for elders.  Interestingly, all the stipulations refer to character, rather than ability – all except one.

V2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach…

Being above reproach is the general, all-encompassing requirement that umbrellas the other requirements and qualifications for an overseer (or elder; terms used interchangeably).  This does not mean sinless perfection, as then no-one would qualify!   It does mean he must be of blameless reputation; there must be nothing in his life that would cause a scandal; no blot on his life that others can point to.   A good question to ask yourself is, “If our church’s news letter printed what I’m doing, would it cause a scandal in the church?”

The first area of qualification is moral character

v2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.

“The husband of one wife”

We understand the role of elder is limited to appropriately qualified men.  We must be quick to say that this is not because women can’t do the job, but because God has given men and woman different roles and functions in the family and in the church.  Just as husbands are called to be head of the home, so men are called to take the pastoral and spiritual oversight of the church.

When the Bible says, “husband of one wife”, the original phrase is literally, “a one woman man”.  The best way to understand this is a man who (if married) is faithful to his wife.  He is faithful sexually, emotionally, socially, financially and practically.  The whole church knows that he is not flirtatious but devoted to his wife.  If he is single, he does not “chat up” women or known for his many girlfriends.

“Sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable”

This refers to his self-mastery.  He must be clear-headed, disciplined, and in control of himself.  How can he oversee others if he can’t oversee himself?

“Hospitable”

In the first century there were no Protea Hotels; only dodgy, dangerous roadside inns.   Christian travellers and missionaries needed to be accommodated by the church.  Leaders are called to model openness by opening their homes and lives.

“Able to teach”

This is the only non-character requirement.   He must have the ability to impart God’s truth so that others can understand it and apply it to their lives.  Why is the ability to teach so important?  The main role of leader in the church of God is to teach the Bible; to feed the flock of God on the word of God.  This does not necessarily mean he must be able to preach, he could teach a small group or disciple other men one-to-one.  Ideally in our church the Elders are chosen from among the small group Bible study leaders.

“Not a drunkard”

Alcohol blunts and blurs ones judgment and leads to lack of self-control.  Leaders in the church, and this is true for all Christians, should not be excessive drinkers.  Of course the Bible does not say that Christians should not drink at all, but Christians are not to overindulge.  Elders are to have no hint of inappropriate behaviour, always being in control of themselves at all times.

“Not violent but gentle”

Christian leaders are to be known for their gentleness, always speaking the truth, but in love.  This is important as being an Elder involves lots of meetings!

“Not a lover of money”

Jesus said that one could either serve God or money, but not both.  As soon as money becomes too important to you there is a problem because your priorities, decisions and commitments are based around money and not the Kingdom of God.

The second area of qualification is home life

v4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?

The married elder is called to leadership in two families: his family and God’s family.  His family is the training ground for leadership in God’s family – the church.    If he cannot lead his family, how can he lead the family of God?  How do you know if he leads his family well?  V4 is the test.  Do his children respect and submit to him?  If your children respect you that’s proof you have been a godly father.  You’ve been kind, loving, fair, exercised appropriate discipline, shown forgiveness and set boundaries, as a result, even though your children don’t always agree with you, they respect you and submit to you.

The third area of qualification is spiritual maturity

v6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.

You cannot be spiritually mature if you are unconverted and its scary how many unconverted people are in leadership positions in churches.   Not only must you be converted, but you must be spiritually mature and not a recent convert.   You need to be mature enough to handle the responsibilities of leadership and to remain humble at the same time.  If you’re given too much responsibility as a new Christian you may start thinking you’re God’s gift to the church and be filled with pride just like Satan who lost his position of leadership in heaven.

The fourth area of qualification is public reputation

v7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

“Outsiders” refers to the non-Christians we meet and interact with every day.  People watch Christians, especially Christian leaders, and we are to be wise in our behaviour towards outsiders, seeking to win their respect.   Non-Christians may not agree with the Elder but they should respect him.

According to Don Carson, what is extraordinary about these requirements is that they are very ordinary.  All these requirements, except being able to teach, are required of all Christians.   Thus more than anything else, an Elder should be a faithful Christian.

The Elder’s role is to care for the flock of God

1 Peter 5:2 says the Elders should “shepherd the flock of God that is among you”.  Shepherding involves:

Leading: A shepherd leads the flock to good pasture and water, away from danger and to shelter at night.  Elders are called to practice godly oversight of the church, leading wisely and making sound decisions.

Feeding: A shepherd makes sure the flock are well fed.   Elders make sure the church is well nourished on the Word of God.   Preaching, teaching and discipling must be the priorities of Elders, sadly in most churches they are not.

Modelling: The flock always follows the shepherd.  Elders lead by personal example.  Mark Dever writes,  “The example set by the Elders will be significant in helping shape the church’s ideas of what spiritual maturity looks like…a church seldom grow past the spiritual maturity of their elders.”

Defending: A shepherd protects the flock against wolves and foxes.  Elders devote themselves to the study of the God’s word, doctrine and theology, so that they are well-grounded in the truth and can refute the foxes of false teaching.

Disciplining: The shepherd corrects, rebukes and rescues wandering sheep.  Elders are willing to correct, rebuke and lovingly reprimand straying church members of the church for their own good.

Praying:  I’m not sure if shepherds pray for their sheep, but Elders pray for the church they serve in.  They ask the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4) to guide, protect, grow, comfort, heal and provide.

Churches must hold their Elders accountable to lead, feed, model, defend, discipline and pray.  But more than that, Elders are accountable to God for doing these things.

Hebrews 13: 17 says to the church, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account [to God]. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

You can fill your church Elders with joy by praying much for them, by submitting to their leadership, by growing in your faith and by serving in your church.