What Is an Elder?

December 19th, 2013 | | No Comments
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This seems like a straightforward question—and one that may even have a straightforward answer. He is “above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Timothy 3:2-3, NIV). We’ve got that much. Beyond that things can get a bit shaky.

 

It is important that we use biblical language biblically. Constant use frequently transforms language in subtle ways. Nice used to mean foolish but now means polite; silly (seely at the time) used to mean blessed but now means foolish, ridiculous, stupid. What about elder? Would Peter and Paul still recognize how we use the term elder today?

 

Just like yesterday’s post, I want to offer a few suggestive comments. This is not meant to be an exhaustive discussion by any means.

 

  1. The New Testament uses elder interchangeably with a dizzying array of other terms. In Titus 1:6-7, Paul moves from elder to overseer[1] seamlessly. He writes, “An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless” (emphasis added). Paul doesn’t seem to be switching topics abruptly, so we might assume both terms refer to the same office. Peter, in offering his exhortation to the elders, writes, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care” (1 Peter 5:1-2). If his primary admonition for elders is to act as pastors (i.e., to shepherd), could we be forgiven for assuming they are the same office? Paul reaches the same conclusion from the opposite direction, as he lists “able to teach” as one of the qualifications for an elder—even though “teacher” seems to be related to the pastoral gift (cf. Ephesians 4:11, debates about the Granville Sharp rule notwithstanding). Hebrews 13:7 and 17 simply refer to leaders (Gk. êgoumenôn). Romans 12:8 mentions providers (Gk. proistamenos). 1 Thessalonians 5:12 describes those who are “over you” (proistamenos again) in the Lord. Should we find any difference in these categories? I suspect not. These are many ways to refer to the same group of people, each highlighting a different aspect of the work to which they have been called.
  2. There is no distinction between elders and pastors. It follows from the first point that the rigid distinction we make between elder and pastor is in fact a false dichotomy. Elders shepherd the flock and pastors function in the same role as elders. This entails some important practical implications. Here are two:
    1. First, some of the phrases we bandy about require thoughtful examination. For example, to say a church is “elder-led and staff-run” may be faithful to Scripture—depending on what we mean by it.[2] Is the phrase meant to imply that unpaid elders lead the church while the paid staff run it? That would seem to be a strange division. Or does the phrase simply mean that elders (including vocational elders, which we alone refer to as pastors, somewhat inexplicably) lead the church, while the staff (including vocational elders) handles the daily tasks necessary to keep the organization running smoothly? This scheme—a Venn diagram with vocational elders occupying the overlap—has more to commend it.
    2. Second, if indeed the terms refer to the same office, we should be wary of creating two distinct roles instead. What God has joined together, let no church constitution rend asunder. This has implications for both “pastors” and “elders” (as we use the terms today). A church simply cannot place someone in the role of pastor—asking them to shepherd the flock, minister the Word, and provide ongoing leadership—without also thinking of him as an elder. That would seem to be beyond the bounds biblically. Similarly, we cannot ask someone to serve as an elder without requiring them to shepherd the flock, minister the Word, etc. An elder cannot function simply as a board member—managing the “household,” viz., making sure finances are in order and attendance is up—and not as a pastor. Paul certainly acknowledges differences in gradation: some pastors—those particularly gifted or those who could do it vocationally—handle a greater share of the preaching and teaching load (cf. 1 Timothy 5:17); nevertheless, we cannot maintain a rigid distinction where Scripture acknowledges none. Which leads me to my next point.
  3. We need to take “able to teach” and “be shepherds” more seriously. It follows that if pastors and elders (leaders and providers) are the same category of people, they should perform the same tasks. (Someone should probably make a “Captain Obvious” joke at this point.) The qualifications for an elder focus on character, but elders need to do more than simply have exemplary character by the grace of God. They have been given specific responsibilities: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be” (1 Peter 5:2). Shepherding demands more than managing the affairs of the organization; it requires going, baptizing and teaching in order to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20); equipping God’s people for works of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-16); silencing false teaching and promoting pure doctrine (Titus 1:10-2:15); and especially prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:2). Every one of those tasks necessitates a thorough knowledge of Scripture—hence the qualification “able to teach.” How many elders today could explain the dangers of a popular book—take Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling as an example—when a congregant mentioned they were reading it? But that is precisely what Paul’s letters—to Timothy and Titus especially—ask of elders. The church needs to take this more seriously, offering more robust teaching and training.
  4. Our elder meetings should reflect our role as shepherds. If our elder meetings look suspiciously like board meetings, we should be concerned. Is prayer perfunctory or central? Do we spend more time on finances, buildings and grounds, and the like—or on a prayerful discussion of the spiritual needs of the flock and how we intend to meet them? Do our meetings burst with Paul’s pastoral burden: “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28)? For more on elder meetings, see these excellent discussions by Jim Elliff and Andrew Davies.


[1] Bishop in earlier translations.

[2] One danger in the phrase is the extrabiblical term staff, referring to those who serve vocationally at the church, whether pastors or not.



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