How we build the church is based on how we view the New Testament. Nowhere is this clearer than the realm of elders. Some emphasize Paul’s epistles and get a seasoned, often stationary church. Others emphasize the book of Acts and it’s emphasis on minimalist structure and get a church that disappears quickly under pressure. The truth is neither of these views is correct apart from the other. But often we chose one perspective over the other, instead of seeing how both work together to accomplish what God wants.
Let’s look at some thoughts about elders from the book of Acts:
- Paul would plant churches and leave without appointing elders, but would often times do that later (see Acts 14:23). This is interesting to me, because many today stress the fact that a church without a pastor or elders is not a church at all. But Paul started a number of churches where he either didn’t appoint them on purpose or he got chased out of town before he could. My personal opinion is Paul often wanted to let new believers mature before appointing them as examples for the church to follow. But make no mistake–churches existed where elders didn’t.
- Elders were shepherds (Acts 20:28). Whoever eventually became an elder had the task of feeding and caring for the church the way a shepherd feeds and cares for a flock of sheep. This verse and another like it in 1 Peter 5 are the primary reasons I believe the gifting of shepherds and the role of elders overlap considerably. Often these are the people ingrained in the believing community and caring for those in their relational sphere.
- Elders were given the task of overseeing (Acts 20:28). Paul tells the Ephesian elders that the Holy Spirit has appointed them as “overseers.” An overseer is not a leader, a public speaker, or a visionary person. An overseer literally watches over what is going on in any given circumstance. Note that the overseer is never told to give orders, tell everyone what to do, or to monopolize the teaching or instruction of the church. Their task is to watch over what is being done. One of the great needs of the church in this hour is more overseers who can provide a safe place for new believers to grow and test out their spiritual muscles that are beginning to develop.
Now, let’s look at some thoughts from Paul to Timothy and Titus:
- It’s a noble thing to aspire to be an overseer (1 Timothy 3:1).
Part of the reason for this is that these were the believers first threatened with death when persecution came. This wasn’t a position of privilege that you needed to die to yourself before you decided to take. It could be a death sentence. And while some (especially in the house church movement) believe that it’s not good to be a leader, Paul encourages believers who desire to be godly overseers.
- There is a list of character requirements for elders (1 Timothy 3:2-7, Titus 1:6-9).
Character was the primary qualifying factor for elders of the New Testament. They couldn’t be a new believer and they had to be able to teach, but the overwhelming majority of qualifications were centered on how much Christ had transformed their character. Central to the idea of elders was that they were a mature follower of Jesus that new believers could look to and pattern their lives after.* **
- Elders were appointed (Titus 1:6). Paul makes it clear these guys were appointed and we saw that both in Acts and in these apostolic instruction manuals for Timothy and Titus. It was an apostolic function to appoint elders. Often they weren’t appointed until after an apostle left, but the church knew who they were because of this appointment. This is different, however, than a hierarchy where believers lord position over other believers.
When we look at the New Testament, there is a distinct pattern that emerges. Churches were spreading rapidly in the book of Acts through the ministry of men like Paul. Young churches would spring up and these churches wouldn’t have mature elders in place initially. Elders weren’t crucial to a church being established, you could have churches without elders.
But elders were necessary for the long term good of the churches that were established. These individuals were examples to the flock through their godly lifestyles but did not control every aspect of church life. They simply oversaw the life of the church and were helpful in the discerning of complicated issues that would arise. As overseers, they were to warn and admonish the body when particularly dangerous individuals were troubling the church.
I see elders as essential to the movement of the Gospel. I consider them localized replicators of the DNA God inserts into his church. Our failure to have them will eventually impair the movement of the Gospel God is raising up. But the elevation of elders to the supreme place of importance, over and above the rest of the saints as the only leaders impairs the movement of the Gospel as well. But when elders can be raised up that function as spiritual parents, allowing their children to grow and mature beyond them, beautiful movments of the Gospel can take place.
And that, my friends, is what we’re hungering for….
Photo Credit: Lost in Thoughts by Kate Russell
* 1 Peter 5:3 emphasizes the role of elders being a godly example. We haven’t looked at 1 Peter 5, but more and more, it is becoming my central text when understanding eldership in organic churches. More on that soon.
** The New Testament has a distinct pattern of calling believers to pattern their lives after other believers who live godly lives, not just Jesus. More on this in another post.
Perhaps elders served a more vital role in that day and age and culture; but we don’t live in that society and advice given to them doesn’t necessarily apply to us here and now – unless you want to take Paul’s instruction to Timothy literally and have everyone who is sick drink wine – because it worked for him and it might work for us? The last several churches I’ve been to have had so few youth that the elders were usually the largest age group and most well represented. It seems to me that most of the churches suffer from nostalgia so much so that they’re frozen in time and incapable of making decisions. I really liked that one time and old woman looked around at an empty sanctuary and recounted for me how it seems like it was just yesterday (actually, thirty years ago and before my time) when the room was full of children and parents; now the only noise that haunts the hall is the echo of walkers and canes slowly tapping up through the halls. If elders want churches their way, they can have them. It’s not a church that’s for me and so I no longer attend.
I considered making this a talking point but didn’t. Please don’t misunderstand. The phrase elder here only represents someone spiritually mature, not someone who is old. I’m very much in favor of young believers and am well aware that young adults are important to the movement. Age itself is not a prerequisite for eldership, spiritual experience is. So while the picture and the text refer to elders, I know of elders who are younger than 30. The only virtue that comes with age is Godly experience, and those must be the ones we seek out when we’re looking for elders.
Sounds strange – to have a younger elder than other older elders. I know of one faith that calls all it’s eighteen year olds “elders” but that doesn’t confer upon them the wisdom that comes with age or experience. At any rate, so long as the older elders run things as they are, younger elders have little reason to stick around to take up the mantle of being an elder.
Ditto with us, although I’m not sure whether apostles appointing elders was descriptive rather than prescriptive in the New Testament, or maybe just priming the pump until the local church became self sustaining with elders emerging as needed.
Regardless, so long as we have those who function properly in an apostolic mode, as opposed to much of the “apostolic” phony that’s plagued simple churches in the recent past with a distain for elders, things likely will work out OK either way. The truly apostolic will not violate the ability of functional elders to emerge and be acknowledged by their own fellowship. In fact, I suspect that’s all that was happening with the initial apostolic confirmation of elders who they allowed to first emerge.
Regardless, great blog and very much in line with how we’ve developed among the network of fellowships here in Virginia.
Thanks for the feedback. I hear you on established elders appointing elders. That makes sense. I’m always thinking of church planting and so this post probably exposes a bit of my emphasis.
Also, I agree with you about apostles releasing the church after appointing elders. It’s critical to church health.
Glad to hear that someone else is doing some similar things.
Travis, would you say that the Elders of the church watched over the spiritual growth of the Church, and saw to it that each person was discipled? They made sure that everyone was growing in Christ?
Yes and no.
Yes, they had an eye toward discipleship, so naturally the elders would have been discipling those in their midst and helping them grow. In our particular setting, I’m committed to not having elders who have never made disciples.
But I believe they worked with the willing. Meaning, I know people who serve the church in this capacity but feel like its their responsibility for every person in the church they are a part of to grow whether people are willing or not. And this can turn into ugly spirituality where elders believe they have to “make” people grow.
Again, the most helpful way I believe elders can help their churches is to do what Peter says: oversee and be an example. Beyond that I think that making disciples and contributing to the church are critical. But having some kind of plan to spur everyone on no matter whether they want it or not is beyond the scope of what I feel like elders are called to.
Does that make sense?