In a recent post and comment stream I mentioned the need for us to work through some of our finer points of theology as opposed to bashing each other over the head and taking sides. So let’s talk: elders.
Now with this I realize I’m out of the main stream of modern Baptist thought, though that was not always the case—reference the 1925 BF&M which mentions overseers and elders (as the same office) but not the term pastor. Mention “elders” in some circles and immediately crops up the notion of “reformed theology.” Mention it elsewhere and the response is, “That’s not Baptist,” as the mind drifts to thoughts of other denominations or even Mormons.
However, I first learned about this concept in the church I went to during my college years which had elders, yet they were very much Baptist, and very non-(in fact quite anti-) Calvinist (in other words they didn’t see themselves as anything near “reformed”). Combined with the fact that the same church had some of the best and deepest preaching and teaching I had ever heard up to that point in my young life, it got me interested in hearing and studying and this has been my conviction ever since.
So I want to briefly lay out why that is, what “elders” means, and how they function in the church and relate to congregational authority. And then (hopefully) we can discuss in a way to let iron sharpen iron.
The term elder refers to one of two offices in the church, the other being deacon, and is synonymous to overseer/bishop and pastor/shepherd. A form of presbuteros, the Greek term for elder appears 66 times in the New Testament. Of these, 17 clearly relate to an office of the church (or of a local church). For comparison, overseer/bishop appears 5 times in relation to the office, and pastor/shepherd once.
I believe the best explanation for the use of this term is that the early church did not see themselves as radically different from their Jewish faith, but a continuation of it through the fulfillment of Jesus as the Messiah-King. The “elders” were older and respected men among the Jews who represented their tribes and provided leadership and council. In the Gospels the elders are seen as a type of office or council along with the priests and scribes. Therefore in the church and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the apostles and others continued with the language of “elders” for their local assemblies.
In the New Testament, specifically 1 Peter 5:1-4 and Acts 20:17-32, “elders” is the term ascribed to appointed congregational leaders who carry out the tasks of oversight and shepherding/pastoring. In Titus 1:5-9 the elders are also referred to as overseers; and given the similarity between this passage and 1 Timothy 3:1-7 Paul readily interchanged the words in his mind.
Thus the terms elder, overseer, and pastor are interchangeable, though perhaps most technically correct the office is called elder (which by implication of the term and the descriptions of them, the office seems designed to mainly be occupied by older men with proven families) and it is their task to shepherd and oversee.
The elders served in the role of shepherds and overseers. Based on the texts listed above, as well as James 5, 1 Timothy 5, and drawing from the Apostles’ ministry in Acts 6 the elders had six main roles in the church:
- To shepherd (care for, protect, and feed—see John 10) the flock (1 Peter 5:1-4)
- To provide oversight (lead, direct, and give example and vision) (1 Peter 5:1-4)
- To “rule well” (1 Timothy 5:17), though “rule” does not fully capture the meaning of the word—it is to be the head of or to lead, but to lead in such a way that you care and give aid, thus similar in thought to “shepherd”
- To teach (1 Timothy 3:2, 5:17, Titus 1:9)
- To be alert and protect against false teachers/wolves (Acts 20:28-31)
- And to pray for church members (James 5:14 also see Acts 6:1-7).
Given these duties I think it is best that a church have a plurality of elders instead of just one (or one senior pastor with associates—I don’t find a senior/associate authority distinction in Scripture). Unless we are talking about a very small flock, it is difficult for a single elder/pastor to associate well enough with each member of his congregation to truly shepherd, protect, and pray for them. Like all people, elders have limited resources and time, and most have their families to care for as well. Thus the task is best shared among a team of godly, gifted, and able men.
Aside from this pragmatic aspect, while I agree the Bible does not specifically command that each church have multiple elders or a certain number of elders, a person is hard pressed to find a single example of a church only having one. And when churches were established, we read that elders (plural) were appointed in “every town” (Titus 1:5—with the assumption that most churches were recognized as city churches as opposed to multiple churches in a city); and that “they [Paul and Barnabas] had appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23).
Pragmatically and by descriptive example, I believe it is best for each church to have a plurality of elders. This does mean that each must be paid or “on staff” (though the church should make effort to supply for the needs of those who labor hard over the primary preaching/teaching duties—1 Timothy 5:17).
The head of the church is Jesus, under him the congregation is the final authority, but the elders have vested and entrusted authority from the church and God to lead the congregation. The ultimate authority in the church rest solely in Jesus, he is the head, the chief shepherd, Lord, and King.
Under Jesus, the church’s final authority rest with the congregation. They have the right to say who does and does not belong to their membership, to carry out discipline, to test and appoint deacons, to test and appoint elders, and to discipline or remove deacons and elders from office (Matthew 18:15-22, Acts 6:1-7, 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and 5:19-25).
In appointing elders, the church congregation invests men with particular authority to lead through shepherding and oversight as God directs. Since the elders are to be men of high reputation and proven character, the church is able to entrust them with such tasks. If the church believes the elders have committed a gross sin, or are leading the congregation in an unbiblical manner or abusing their authority, the church has the right and authority to discipline them through rebuke and dismissal if need be.
In conclusion… Of course, much more can (has been and will be) said about this, the topic and discussions around it is enough to fill dissertations and books. But based on the brief synopsis above I believe the best and most biblical model for pastoring a church is that of multiple elders.
Do you agree or disagree and why? (Biblical reasoning w/ references is strongly encouraged! 🙂 )