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The Role of the Elder

Old Testament

The term “elder” has its origins in the Old Testament, and was used primarily to identify men who were called by God to lead his people (Num 11:16; Deut 27:1). These men were responsible for applying biblical wisdom to the people’s lives through giving direction, resolving conflict, and providing general oversight of an orderly society. God’s original intention was for this role to be occupied by God-fearing men who have integrity (Ex 18:20-21), are full of the Holy Spirit (Num 11:16-17), and have wisdom, discernment, and experience. Furthermore, elders were to be impartial, courageous (in defending the truth and purity of God’s word), and committed to judging fairly (Deut 11:13-17).

New Testament

In the New Testament, the term “elder” is most frequently used to designate leadership. The New Testament frequently interchanges the terms “bishop” (overseer or guardian) and “pastor” (shepherd) with elder (spiritual leader and/or aged one), indicating the elder’s role is multi-faceted. Regardless of which term is used, the New Testament clearly defines both the character of an elder (i.e., who he is) and his role in the local church (i.e., what he does)

His Character

The qualities of character and personality are of utmost importance in the life and ministry of the Elder.  They define who the Elder really is, and if he is qualified to serve in this vital ministry of leadership.  Here are the character qualities of an Elder as defined by Scripture:

An Elder is to be…

  • “Above reproach” (1 Tim 3:2): his life is free from charges of questionable living; has godly character; someone people can look to as an example worth following
  • “Husband of one wife” (1 Tim 3:2): i.e., he is to be a one-woman man; if he is married, he is to be solely devoted to his wife
  • “Temperate” (1 Tim 3:2): patient with a balanced mindset
  • “Self-controlled” (1 Tim 3:2): the ability, as led by the Holy Spirit, to restrain from activities that are considered by God’s word to be sin
  • “Respectable” (1 Tim 3:2): someone people look up to; not someone who will take unfair advantage of his position
  • “Hospitable” (1 Tim 3:2): willing and able to show kindness
  • “Able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2): possesses the gift and ability to teach other believers the truth of God’s word as he lives it himself
  • “Not given to drunkenness” (1 Tim 3:3): done in obedience to other NT commands so he is able to make sound judgment on all matters concerning the church
  • “Not violent but gentle” (1 Tim 3:3): has proven in the past and present that he responds with godly character in all situations
  • “Not quarrelsome” (1 Tim 3:3): willing to discuss issues, questions, decisions, etc., with a gentle and patient spirit
  • “Not a lover of money” (1 Tim 3:3): not willing to let money or anything else distract him from his personal obedience to God or from accomplishing God’s work through the church; he trusts in God at all times for all things
  • “Must manage his own family well” (1 Tim 3:4): should show clear evidence that he is leading his own family—not just in day-to-day responsibilities, but also spiritually—and that his children show him proper respect
  • “Not a recent convert” (1 Tim 3:6): must be a spiritually mature man who has extensive experience in the Scriptures and whose life has been clearly transformed by the Holy Spirit; his desire should be for the wisdom of God in all things
  • “Have a good reputation with outsiders” (1 Tim 3:7): his relationships with those outside the church are above reproach

In Titus 1:6-9, Paul echoes many of the same characteristics that are required of men who become elders in the church. Those characteristics include being “blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient . . . he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”

His Role

Along with the integrity of an Elder’s character, he must exhibit an established ability to lead those that are placed under his sphere of ministry and direction.  Since his role is vital to the health, protection and direction of the church, an Elder must be able to consistently fulfill these responsibilities as outlined in Scripture:

An Elder must be able to…

  • To take care of the church (1 Tim 3:5)
  • To rule, preach, and teach (1 Tim 5:17; Titus 1:9)
  • To clarify doctrine and refute false teaching (Acts 15:1-21)
  • To proclaim truth to the congregation (2 Tim 4:1-2; Titus 2:1)
  • To pray for and with the congregation (James 5:14)
  • To shepherd the congregation by feeding, protecting, caring for, and providing oversight to them (Acts 20:28-35; 1 Pet 5:1-2)
  • To give instruction in sound doctrine and to refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9; 2:1ff; cf., Acts 20:28-31) (NOTE: the implication here, as in the Acts 15 passage cited above, is that in doctrinal matters, an elder knows the word of God well enough to teach what is right but also to refute that which is wrong.)
  • To discipline sin and admonish improper behavior and attitudes (1 These 5:12)
  • To oversee the affairs of the local church (1 Tim 5:17)

As noted above, the role of the Elder embodies the qualities of character that represent Christ-likeness and the fruit of the Spirit.  It also embodies the essential devotion to Christ and His people that a leader needs in order to care for Christ’s flock.

To summarize the role of the Elder, they are to shepherd the flock of God.  This means they are to:

  • Lead the flock: by wisdom, guidance, confidence, compassion and example…just like Christ.
  • Feed the flock: by knowing, growing in, showing and sharing the Word of God with God’s people.

The Ministry of the Elders

Biblical truth has been entrusted to the leadership of every body of believers.  They must know, teach, and maintain biblical truth within the church, and in proclamation to the world…at all costs!  The depth and breadth of biblical knowledge, and the embodiment of it in the local body of believers, is the primary responsibility the Elders. This requires a deep conviction for, and devotion to, the ministry of the Word of God in their personal lives, their families, and the church.  These dynamics must characterize each individual Elder, and the Elder Team as a whole.

Three Major Responsibilities of Eldership

How well then should Elders know the Word?  And what should consistently be a major effort on the part of the Elders?  Paul addresses these questions and clearly answers them in Titus 1:9-11. He states that Elders…’must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.’  Three responsibilities are clearly taught here regarding an Elder, they are:

  • He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught. Elders must work on having an ongoing, unshakable grip on the solid, sound or trustworthy teaching of the Word…as it really is…and never let go of it! 
So that  = especially for this purpose as an Elder, and for the flock of God…
  • He may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine. Elders must teach what is right, and have such a firm grasp on sound doctrine and scriptural teaching that they will be able to effectively communicate it, and its applications, to the flock under their care. 
A firm grasp of Scripture will also carry with it the ability and confidence to…
  • To rebuke those who contradict it. Elders must expose and prevent what is wrong, with solid biblical teaching and explanation.  They must know what is right teaching, and know what is wrong…and what should be done about it! 
These duties are to be done in the character and spirit of the qualities Paul listed in Titus 1:6-8.

The Importance of These Responsibilities for Eldership

Paul gives three reasons for the importance of Elders fulfilling these responsibilities in the church in Titus 1:10-16.  They are:

  • False Teachers (1:10,14)
  • False Teaching (1:11,14)
  • False Ministry (1:15,16)

Paul says there are, and will be, false teachers who let go of the faithful word, sound doctrine, and the proper teaching of Scripture.  These false teachers will replace it with what distorts or contradicts the sound doctrine of the Word of God.  In doing so, they will deceive and disrupt the church by their false teaching.

As a result, they, and those who follow them, will depart from the true faith and practice of the church and pursue what amounts to false living and ministry.  He concludes that they will be useless for true ministry and service for Christ.

The Elders of the church must be ready, willing and able to protect the church from these threats to its health and ministry as noted above.

Two Dangers Elders Must Avoid

Elders cannot allow these 2 dangers to characterize their leadership of the church under their care …

  • Starving the Flock…by lack of solid biblical teaching and instruction…causing ignorance of the Word of God & sound doctrine.
  • Endangering the Flock…by remaining unaware of, ignoring, or leaving unchallenged false and dangerous teaching and practices that will harm believers, and the body of Christ.

Pay Attention / Be Alert

Paul made sure the Ephesian Elders understood the importance of these concerns, and the dangers of neglecting them when he said:

‘Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.’  Therefore be alert!  (Acts 20:28,31 ESV)

The Response of the Church

Not only must Elders take these things to heart and devote themselves to biblically sound ministry and service, so must we as the local body of believers under their care.  We as members of a local church must be supportive and responsive to our Elders as representatives of Christ and His leadership of His Church.  Every believer in a local church is responsible to the leadership of the church in the pattern that Christ and the Apostles have left us to follow (Eph. 4:11,12; Acts 14:19-23)

The church is to also be obediently submissive to their Elders as they faithfully exhibit Christ-likeness and biblical leadership in the decisions and directions they may make for the good of the body (Hebrews 13:17)

Because of the scope and importance of the leadership Elders must give to the church, the church must protect them from inappropriate criticism and accusation (1 Ti. 5:19).  If an Elder is guilty of an accusation of a pattern of ongoing sin and failure, they are to be rebuked as an example to the church regarding the seriousness of sin and its consequences for the church (1 Tim. 5:20)

Those Elders that serve Christ and the church faithfully are worthy of our respect, honor and appreciation (1 Tim. 5:17,18; Hebrews 13:7)

We Must Pray!

Finally, we must all pray for one another as we serve the Lord together in the Body of Christ in our local church!  We must pray continually and fervently for our leaders, for ourselves, and for our ministry (Eph. 6:18; 1 Thess. 5:17,18)

Here’s what we can pray for…

  • Pray that our Chief Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, will lead us to faithfully follow Him, obey Him, and serve Him, as He builds His Church among us.
  • Pray that we will be responsive to the empowering presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit in our lives and ministry together.
  • Pray that we will grow in our knowledge of God’s very Word, in order that we might be more and more rooted in His truth, and unshakeable in our stand upon the true teaching of the His Word.
  • Pray for our church, our leaders, workers, people and ministry, in the church, and throughout the world; that we will remain true to Christ, His Word and work, and His people.
  • And pray for our Elders as they seek by God’s grace, to pay attention to their own lives, and to faithfully minister to the Body of Christ here!

Pray without ceasing!


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