What Elders Do
I. The Importance of This Subject
A. Many People Have a Wrong Concept of Eldership. Some people fear having elders because, to them, the word suggests authoritarian, anti-democratic rule. Others wrongly perceive elders as being super-spiritual leaders. Still others think of elders as nothing more than a regular church board. A study of the New Testament reveals that all of these concepts are incorrect.
B. The Bible is Filled with Teaching on Elders—Who They Are and What They Do. A full study of eldership would begin in the Old Testament with the men who served as elders over the nation of Israel. In fact, elders are mentioned over 100 times in the Old Testament. A survey of the book of Acts shows that the concept of elders serving in Christian churches sprang up very early (cf. Acts 11:27-30; 15:22,23; 20:17-30). Both Paul and Peter develop the concept of elders in some detail in their letters (cf. I Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; I Peter 5:1-4).
II. The Two-Tiered Approach to Leadership
Acts 6:1-7 reveals the basic principle of church organization. Each local church needs two well-defined layers of leadership—one group of godly men who assume primary responsibility for the spiritual well-being of the congregation (the elders), and a second group of godly men and women who direct various ministry areas (the deacons and deaconesses).
The distinction is important. By definition, elders are those godly men who are elected by the congregation and given the primary responsibility for the church’s well-being. The deacons serve at their direction, serving in various ministry areas. Being an elder involves caring for the entire church; being a deacon involves serving in a specific ministry area. Both are leadership positions but being an elder involves a broader view, more responsibility and more authority.
III. Key New Testament Words
The New Testament uses four key words to describe the godly men who lead the church. Each word adds an important element to the overall picture.
1. Elder — (Greek = presbuteros )— “An older man,” “One mature in judgment and worthy of an authoritative position.” Acts 20:17; I Tim 5:17; I Peter 5:1
2. Overseer — (Greek =episkopos )— “To oversee, care for.” Acts 20:28; I Tim 3:1; Titus 1:7; Phil 1:1; I Peter 5:2
3. Pastor — (Greek = poimen )— “To shepherd,” “One who cares for the needs of others in a comprehensive way.” Acts 20:28; Eph 4:13; I Peter 5:2
4. Ruler — (Greek = hegeomai )— “ To Rule or govern.” Acts 15:22; Heb 13:17.
Note that the New Testament writers seem to use these words interchangeably, especially “elder” and “overseer.” “If there is a difference, “elder” seems to stress the high qualifications while “overseer” stresses the responsibilities of the one holding the position. In Acts 20 and I Peter 5, “elder,” “overseer” and “pastor” are used in various forms to describe the same function of caring for the Lord’s people. In Titus 1:5-9 Paul switches from “elder” to “overseer” in the middle of a list of qualifications.
IV. The Qualifications For Eldership
The two key passages are I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. It is impossible to overstate the importance of these verses when considering which men should fill the office of elder in the local church. Untold harm has come because churches have elected men on some other basis than this divinely-inspired statement of qualifications.And great blessing has come to those churches that have made a sincere effort to find men who meet these high standards.
1. The Indispensable Ingredient
The most important qualification is the one that is most often overlooked, although Paul states it plainly in I Timothy 3:1, “If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task.” The NASB says, “It is a fine work he desires to do.” What is the first qualification for being an elder? A man must want the job. There should be a God-given desire in his heart to help lead the Lord’s people. Conversely, if you have to talk him into it, you’ve probably got the wrong man. Being an elder is such an awesome responsibility that no man will succeed who enters his work half-heartedly or against his own will.
There are several side implications of this truth:
A. Any church that wants elders should actively encourage its men to consider serving Christ in this way. Being an elder should be publicly held up as a fine and noble calling from God.
B. Those men being considered for eldership should be encouraged to count that work as their major contribution to the life of the church.
C. Some men who are otherwise qualified will not be able to serve because of legitimate time commitments in other areas.
2. Character Traits
Listed below are all of the character qualities Paul mentions in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1. For the sake of convenience, I have arranged them in four categories (The arrangement and the definitions were suggested by Ed Glasscock, “The Biblical Concept of Elder,” Bibliotheca Sacra, Jan-Mar, 1987, pp. 73-74).
Temperate — Even-tempered. Not erratic or unstable.
Prudent — Showing good judgment; common sense.
Not addicted to wine — Not a heavy drinker.
Not pugnacious — Does not lose his temper. Not a violent man.
Gentle — Patient; considerate; kind.
Uncontentious — Peaceful; willing to listen; not argumentative.
Free from the love of money — Not greedy for personal gain.
Not self-willed — Willing to yield to others. Not trying to get his own way.
Not a novice — Not recently saved. Evidence of spiritual maturity.
Not quick-tempered — Not easily angered.
Loving what is good — Loyal to the highest moral and ethical values.
Just — Fair and honest.
Devout —Devoted to God in his personal life.
Self-controlled — Able to control himself under pressure.
Above reproach — No questionable conduct; no grounds for accusations.
Hospitable — Receptive and open to people.
Good reputation with outsiders — Admired by non-Christians.
Husband of one wife — A “one-woman” man. Faithful to his wife.
Manages own household well — Spiritual leader at home.
Children under control — Children who respect him.
Children who believe — Children who display faith.
Able to teach — Knows and communicates biblical truth.
Holding fast the word of truth — Firm in the truth. Not a compromiser.
Exhort with sound doctrine — Encourages others with biblical truth.
Refute those who contradict — Spots and refutes false teaching.
(For those desiring further insight into these character qualities and how they apply in the 20th century, see my book Man of Honor.
3. Special Note on “The Husband of One Wife”
This little phrase (only three words in Greek—mias gunaikos andra) has occasioned much discussion across the centuries. The problem is not with the words themselves. They literally read “a one-woman man.” But what did Paul mean by that cryptic phrase? Four interpretations have become prominent: 1. No polygamy 2. No divorce or remarriage for an elder 3. No second marriage for an elder 4. Faithful to his wife. Not flirtatious. Everyone agrees that “husband of one wife” at least prohibits polygamy. By inference everyone also agrees that # 4 is also correct. Most people reject # 3 as being overly-ascetic. Some have argued that for an elder to remarry after the death of his wife is to somehow show weakness. But if the second marriage is somehow a sign of weakness, what does that say about his first marriage? The real debate concerns # 2. My own feeling is that “husband of one wife” does not necessarily prohibit divorced or remarried men from serving as elders. I view this phrase as a moral qualification, not a marital qualification. Some men who have never been divorced nevertheless fail the test of being “one-woman men” because of their flirtatious ways. To be a “one-woman man” means to have your wife at the center of your affections. It’s a statement about the quality of the marriage, not about the legal state of the marriage. In that sense, I regard it as a much higher standard than simply asking, “Have you ever been divorced?”
4. Conclusions From the Qualifications
A. These qualifications are comprehensive, covering all of life.
B. While this list is meant to impress us, it is not meant to depress us. No man should read this list and say, “That’s impossible.” He should say, “By the grace of God, that’s the kind of man I want to be.”
C. Seen in that light, these qualifications describe not perfection, but a mature Christian life.
D. The qualities on this list will only be seen over a period of time, which is why a novice (or new believer) should not be made an elder. That’s also why a new member of the congregation should be observed for a period of time before he is elevated to leadership—even though he may have served as an elder in some other church.
E. Not all elders will be equally strong in each area. Some will be strong in teaching (for instance), while another will be unusually devout. Again, we’re not looking for perfection or full development in each area, but we are looking for some evidence of each quality in a man’s life. And if a man truly does not display some particular quality, we should not say, “Well, he may not be gentle, but that’s okay because he’s got a good reputation with outsiders.” It’s not okay. No trade-offs!
V. What Elders Actually Do
One topic remains to be discussed. What actually do elders do? Taking all the major passages together, we can clearly see five major areas of responsibility.
1. Shepherd the Flock
Guide and Protect
2. Lead Through Example
—I Peter 3:3
3. Teach and Exhort
Know and Defend
4. Oversee the Church of God
—I Tim 3:5
Setting the Direction
5. Pray For the Sick
VI. Implications, Cautions and Conclusions
1. The New Testament puts a high stress on elder qualifications. I would go so far as to say that the Bible says much more about what kind of men the elders must be than it does about what kind of work they should do. The work itself will necessarily change from church to church, time to time, and culture to culture. But the qualifications are trans-cultural. These are the qualifications that must always be met by the men who serve as elders.
Ed Glasscock offers some challenging words in this regard:
In many churches today men are placed into positions of pastor or elder based on education, personality, or professional achievement. However, the Bible does not consider any of these. In the Scriptures an elder was an older, mature adult who was recognized for this wisdom and experience. He was to be looked up to for advice and guidance. His character, not his achievements, was important. ("The Biblical Concept of Elder,” Bibliotheca Sacra, Jan-Mar, 1987, p. 70)2. Any church that truly wants elders should earnestly pray for God to raise up qualified men. If you truly want men who have the qualifications Paul laid down, you’ve got to do a lot more than just write it into your constitution. The entire church must become convinced that it needs godly men who can function as elders. Writing it down on paper won’t change anything; prayer must be the foundation. So if you want elders, pray and ask God to give you some.
3. Younger men should be encouraged to aspire to eldership. In some churches the elders are placed on such a pedestal that mere mortals feel like they can never qualify. Or younger men are made to feel that they will be considered when they turn 60—and then only if they have gray hair. This is not to say that young men should become elders (the Bible specifies no age, but the word itself means “an older man"), only that eldership should be held up as a worthy goal to shoot for.
4. The biblical standards should be applied in a spirit of love—not legalism. The point is simple—Hold to the standards, but use them as a worthy goal, not as a club to hold over the head of men who aren’t quite ready to be elders.
5. Any church with a 77-year history of faithfulness to God should have an abundance of men worthy of consideration as elders. Some people have said, “If we go to a system of elders, I don’t know if we have anyone who can qualify.” That’s not my attitude at all. Any good Bible-believing church should have many men who deserve serious consideration. In a church like Calvary, with its long history of biblical fidelity, there ought to be scores of men who qualify. As I look out over the congregation, I can think of at least 50 men (both young and old) who deserve very serious consideration.
A generation ago this church had elders. In fact, we had elders from 1915-1976. When our church was much smaller than it is now, God always raised up qualified men. One of those men was R.E. Nicholas. During the 40s, 50s and 60s, Mr. Nicholas was as an elder of this church and at the same time also served as a trustee for Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. Those who knew him at Calvary speak of him in the hushed tones reserved only for truly godly men. Although he was wealthy, he is remembered not for his wealth, but for his selfless zeal for the cause of Christ. To this day his influence lives on in the lives of the men and women who grew up in this church. It is no exaggeration to say that a large part of our current prosperity is due to the faithfulness of R.E. Nicholas and men like him who guided this church for many years.
Is that day gone forever? Are there no men like R.E. Nicholas left in our congregation? Are we so much poorer spiritually that we cannot find men like him to lead this church in the years ahead? With all my heart, I believe the answer is No. I think there are many men at Calvary who can do for us what R.E. Nicholas once did. May God raise up men of like spirit in our own day.
A Personal Postscript
After I finished teaching this lesson, John Sergey reminded me that in Russia all the elders and deacons sit together in the front of the church. At the Temple of the Gospel in St. Petersburg, they gather in the pastor’s office to pray before the service and then sit together either in the choir loft or in the front few rows of the congregation.
And that reminded me of the time I preached a youth revival at the Central Baptist Church in Decatur, Alabama. I remember how moved I was when 30-40 men met in the pastor’s office to pray for God’s blessing on the services. There is an incredible sense of power and strength that comes from godly men praying together and then marching into the sanctuary together.
I long to see that kind of power come to Calvary Memorial Church.
It has been my observation across the years—starting with little country Baptist churches in Alabama and going to some of the largest churches in America—that women make up the heart and soul of most churches. They do most of the work, they carry the prayer burden, they teach the children, they sing in the choir, they staff the committees, they serve in a thousand ways both seen and unseen. God bless the faithful and committed women of the churches of America. Without them, no church could survive.
If the women are the heart of the church, the men are the strength of the church. When the men are strong, the church is strong. Strong in this sense does not mean domineering; it means sacrificing. It doesn’t mean building an empire; it means laying down your life. To me it is a simple truth: No church can rise above what its men have determined to be. Men can do things for the church that the women cannot do and the women can do things for the church that the men cannot do. Neither can take the other’s place. There are certain things the godly men must do if the church is to rise up and be strong for the glory of God. They must lay down their lives for the sake of the gospel, they must put aside lesser concerns for the kingdom of God, and they must pick up the yoke of leadership God has laid upon them.
In the past few weeks I have been moving to raise up a few godly men to join me as prayer partners. It isn’t enough, but at least it is a beginning. As I said earlier, revising a constitution means very little unless the men are willing to become all that God wants them to be.
I can hardly blame women for complaining when they see men who refuse to be spiritual leaders at home, at church or on the job. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
The vision is not for men alone, or for women alone, but for the men to rise up as the strength of the church and for the women to rise up as the heart of the church. When that happens—with men and women serving together, not in competition but in cooperation—the church will begin to fulfill its destiny and become a force for good in the midst of an evil world.
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