|The Barnabas Ministry
Eldership: A Noble Task
The eldership is described as a "noble task." It is one of the most important roles in the church, yet is also one of the least well understood. The intent of this paper is to examine the biblical evidence concerning this role and to consider how this might relate to the church today.
The basis of this study is the passages that discuss the eldership in the New Testament. Because of the relatively limited amount of information concerning the topic in the New Testament, we must try to understand this evidence and then and it to "paint a picture" of the eldership that is consistent with this evidence.
Three Names, One Job: The
Office of the Eldership
The New Testament uses three unique terms to describe those that comprise the eldership. They are "elder" (Greek presbuteros), "shepherd" (Greek poimeen), and "overseer" (Greek episkopos).
Other English terms can be related to these basic terms. "Presbyter" is a transliteration of the term for elder. The term for "shepherd" has been translated as "pastor." Similarly, the term translated "overseer" has been translated "bishop."
Importantly, these terms or their cognates are used interchangeably in Acts 20:17, 28 and 1 Peter 5:1-3. This shows that the three terms were used to describe one individual office or role in the early church. Recognizing the most commonly used term, this paper will use the term "elder" to refer to ones filling this office.
Whenever elders existed in the apostolic church, they served as a body in a plurality. This is seen in Jerusalem, Ephesus and Philippi. Also, elders were to be appointed in each town of Crete. The writer of 2 John and 3 John also refers to himself as an elder, but there is no internal evidence to indicate with which congregation he may have had an affiliation.
The Work and Duties of the
From the meaning of the words used to describe elders, there are three primary aspects of the work. The "elder" aspect of the office suggests maturity similar to the patriarchal leaders of the Jews. Elders would possess the experience, wisdom and maturity to guide the church. The "overseer" aspect of the office suggests management and supervision of the church. The "shepherd" aspect of the office suggests direct or "hands-on" personal care for the flock of the church. This involves gentle care for the flock as a whole as well as attention to the individual "sheep" (members of the church) as needed.
Being a position of leadership within the church, members of the eldership perform similar functions as other leaders within the church. Yet, because of the special role they serve, there are also some unique functions they perform. It is beneficial to consider these functions in this way.
Duties Shared with Other
In Ephesians 4:11, elders share the work of preparing the church for works of service and working towards the maturity of the church as a whole.
Older men in the church have a unique set of ministry needs and abilities. These are referred to in several passages:
Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance (Titus 2:2).
Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older (1 Peter 5:5).
The verb cognate of episkopos is episkopeo and it relates the work of oversight to the elders of the church:
One of the duties of the eldership is the resolution of difficult doctrinal situations. This is seen in Acts 15 in resolving the Gentile circumcision issue. From the text, we see that the apostles and elders arrived at their conclusions by a careful interpretation of Scripture, and then decided upon a course of action for the church based upon what the Scripture said. This is a case of leadership, not of revelatory doctrinal determination.
The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up: "Brothers, listen to me. Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
" `After this I will return and rebuild David's fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it,
that the remnant of men may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things'
that have been known for ages.
"It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath (Acts 15:6-21)."
Evangelists commonly encountered difficult situations that they were to address in the same manner:
In Accordance with Their
Like other leaders. elders discharge their duties in accordance with their abilities. This is a guideline for all leaders in the church, as can be seen in the following passages:
Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms (1 Peter 4:10).
In Acts 15:22-23, we see the elders and apostles from Jerusalem authoring a letter to predominantly Gentile churches after considering the question of circumcision and the Gentiles converts. This is an example of an eldership exercising oversight beyond its own local congregation. This is in accordance with the need of the other churches and the relationship of the Jerusalem church to those other churches.
While the elders perform some of their work as a group, individual elders will exercise their unique ministry skills in accordance with their abilities. Along these same lines, the elders, like those whose work is teaching and preaching, may be "full-time" workers entitled to compensation (1 Timothy 5:17-18, 1 Peter 5:2). Not all elders need serve in this capacity.
Unique Duties Exclusive to the
There are several passages that discuss specific tasks of the eldership. These indicate work that is done only by those in the eldership, and suggest that these are in fact the purpose of the eldership.
Stewardship of the Church
The elders are stewards of God’s work. The Greek term used here is oikonomos, which is a steward or a house-master.
Yet, in applying this term to the eldership, there is a suggestion here that the eldership is God’s ultimate plan for the care and custody of his church. God entrusts his church to the eldership, nowhere else is he said to entrust it to anyone else.
Accordingly, the parable of the servant put in charge of (Greek kathistemi) the master’s house appears to specifically apply to the eldership.
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers--not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3).
"`Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.
" `For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. (Ezekiel 34:1-16).
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep (John 10:11-13).
The Appointment and
Impeachment of the Eldership
It is not known when or how the earliest elders were appointed. The first mention of elders in any congregation is in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30). Later remarks suggest that Peter and James may have filled these roles, but it cannot be said with any certainty that they were the first or only two elders of the Jerusalem church.
Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the mission churches that they established. (Acts 14:23). Paul also instructed both Titus and Timothy in the appointment of elders (1 Timothy 3:1ff, Titus 1:5ff). These and the example from Acts 14 supports the idea that churches eventually "grew" their elderships from within as men became qualified for the position. The apparent lack of elderships in the young churches of Corinth, Thessalonica, Colosse and others lends support to this conclusion.
While there is no evidence of popular (democratic) election of elders in any of these cases, the qualifications of the eldership (to be discussed later) strongly suggest a more or less unanimous support of elders by the congregation in concert with existing leadership. Another way to view this is that there would be no significant or credible dissent from the positive opinion of the church.
The ultimate installation or appointment to the eldership appears to have been done by one in some other position of leadership, usually evangelists. This appointment appears to have been accompanied by a period of prayer and fasting (Acts 14:23). This may illustrate the basis of Paul’s view that appointment to the office was something done by the Holy Spirit himself (Acts 20:28).
Thus, the selection of men for the eldership involves not only the work of the congregation and existing leaders, but it is also the work of God through the Holy Spirit.
Impeachment of Elders
There is no evidence of individual elders being impeached in the New Testament era. Yet, there appears to be a provision for such a possibility. Paul himself warned that false teachings and dissentions in the eldership were a possibility in Acts 20:30. In 1 Timothy 5:19-20, Timothy was told not to entertain accusations against an elder unless it was brought by a plurality of witnesses, and elders who were found to be in sin were to be rebuked publicly. It follows by implication that if any elder failed to respond appropriately to any accusation, removal from the eldership would have taken place. The same could probably be said for any elder who became disqualified for the role once having been installed in it.
Qualifications for the
The qualifications for the eldership are enumerated in two particular places: 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. These should be viewed not as exhaustive lists any more than various "sin lists" (such as those in Galatians 5:19-21 or 2 Timothy 3:1-5) should be considered exhaustive lists of sin. In each of these cases, such lists serve to illustrate examples of the type of behavior under consideration. Accordingly, it is useful to categorize these to consider what areas of life are under consideration. These criteria may be assigned to one of the following categories:
Public and Spiritual Life
For the candidate, there are fourteen criteria that relate to his public and spiritual life. They are:
Criteria such as good reputation with outsiders and not pursuing dishonest gain may relate to the way that a candidate does business and relates to those outside of the church.
Hospitality may relate to both general entertainment of other disciples (as in Romans 16:23, 1 Peter 4:9, Philemon 1:22) or strangers in need (as in Matthew 25:44-45, Hebrews 13:2, but also see 3 John 1:5). This trait also commends a transparency of lifestyle for the candidate.
The criteria discussing the absence of an overbearing, quarrelsome and quick-tempered disposition seem to address the candidate’s ability to relate to people with gentleness and patience. These would especially be demonstrated during times of difficulty and duress.
The spiritual criteria are relatively self-explanatory. This candidate must be a solid disciple with a strong understanding of the doctrines of Christianity. He also must be competent to teach and persuade others, especially in the face of opposition, as the same term is used to encourage Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:24. (As was discussed previously, this type of teaching is in fact one of the works of the eldership.)
Home and Family Life
The candidate’s home and family life comprises nine more characteristics.
The wife of the candidate is not herself a candidate for the office, but her characteristics may disqualify her husband for the role. Though stated briefly, it is evident that her character is to be on a par with that of her spouse.
The candidate’s children are to be believers not open to the charges of wild and disobedient behavior. The terms for these sins show that these are not young children under consideration. Further, they are to obey the candidate with the proper respect.
Further, the candidate must have shown himself to have managed his family well. Thus, doing a good job of leading his family is a good indicator that the candidate can shepherd the church.
Finally, there are eight criteria that apply to the individual character of the candidate. These would be known mostly by those closest to the candidate, and most certainly by God himself.
The candidate loves what is good, without secret desires for money or worldliness. He is on the inside what he appears to be on the outside: the true desire of his heart is to serve God. And on top of all of that, the candidate truly desires the work of the eldership.
In discussing the role of the eldership, we have seen that there is some overlap between the work of the eldership and other ministry leaders. Yet, we have also identified the critical areas of responsibility that are solely entrusted to elders, namely those of stewardship and shepherding. We have seen that there is room in the eldership for the exercise of a wide range of individual gifts and talents in the discharge of this service.
We have also discussed how elders might be selected. While there is no Biblical evidence of a popular (democratic) election, there is nonetheless a strong indication that the candidates commend themselves to all in the church (and even those outside of it) with their virtue. By this virtually unanimous support, they qualify themselves for the role.
When an eldership is formed, the
church looks forward to the most perfect
form of leadership that is possible, because God has entrusted the
with the noble task of performing God’s work in the church.
All Scripture quotations taken from the New International Version
Copyright © 2004 John Engler. All rights reserved.