What Is an Elder?

December 19th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | 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.

Words for Young Pastors

December 18th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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I am a young pastor. I graduated from seminary at age 24 and launched immediately into full-time ministry, which means I have no adult experience separate from my preparation for and participation in ministry. I was ordained by my sending church at age 26, so at least some would consider that I hold the office of pastor (if such a thing exists, if ordination has any place in the church, etc.). I am now 32, so I think I still qualify as a young pastor in the eyes of many in my congregation—and indeed in my own eyes.


There are some peculiar challenges facing young pastors though—challenges I have lived, which have left me feeling battered and bruised occasionally, and which at other times have left me battering and bruising others.


Foremost among them is the tension between age and calling. If the terms pastor and elder are interchangeable—as most scholars agree (cf. 1 Peter 5:1-5)—then what does it mean to be an “elder” (in terms of office) when one isn’t an “elder” (in terms of age)? The office gives authority that our age and inexperience doesn’t win in the hearts of many we are called to serve.


God foresaw these challenges, and, in his gracious providence, included three letters written to young pastors in his Word. How do we navigate these tempestuous waters? How do we demonstrate humility appropriate for our age and exercise authority appropriate for our office? How do we submit to and respect our elders and still command and correct as needed? Paul encourages his young charges in these very areas. Here are a few brief comments about his advice to Timothy and Titus; they are intended to be suggestive, not exhaustive.


  1. A young pastor has the responsibility to command and correct those who would lead the flock astray (1 Timothy 1:3-7; Titus 2:1-15). Paul encouraged Timothy to stay in Ephesus “so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer” (v 3, NIV, emphasis added). There is no discussion here of age or experience or influence. Part of what it means to shepherd a flock is protecting it from wolves; one cannot claim to be a pastor and not do whatever it takes to see the church safe from false teaching that would destroy it. Those whom God calls to pastoral ministry he equips for the work, which should include a profound understanding of the gospel and the Word of God. (If a pastor doesn’t have this, it begs the question if he was really called to the ministry.) For this reason especially even a young pastor needs to command and correct when it comes to false teaching. Those who are older may have strong opinions borne of experience, but if it is in contradiction to Scripture, it should be refuted: “They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm” (v 7, emphasis added). To give one example about which I have written recently, an older Christian may confidently affirm a pragmatic approach to ministry completely at odds with a scriptural approach. A young pastor should feel free to correct this error even though he is younger. Paul puts it in strong terms when addressing Titus: “Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you” (2:15).
  2. A young pastor should nevertheless correct humbly and gently (1 Timothy 5:1; 2 Timothy 2:25-26; 4:1-5). Some young pastors—those with my brash personality, for example—relish the opportunity to correct their “elders” (in terms of age), and may do so arrogantly. But God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble, and so I know to which group I would rather belong! Paul says, “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father” (1 Timothy 5:1, emphasis added). The man in my hypothetical example, espousing ministerial pragmatism, is not my enemy; he is a member of my family, for whom Christ’s blood was shed, and who is as much an heir of the gracious gift of life as I. That should color my response to him. My words would be seasoned with grace, to say the least—and if they are not, no matter my depth of knowledge and insight, I have sinned in treating him thus. As Paul reminds Timothy in another letter, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2, emphasis added). Some of us err on the side of correction and rebuke without patience and care; others on the side of patience and care without correction and rebuke. In God’s estimation, though, grace and truth are always wedded.
  3. A young pastor has much to command and teach people of every age and gender (1 Timothy 4:11-16; Titus 2:1-8). Paul encourages Titus to “teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). This includes teaching the older men (v 2) and older women (v 3) and young men (v 6). Those whom God has called and equipped should exercise their gifts faithfully for the sake of the congregation. Pointing out sound doctrine and practice is the mark of a “good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed” (1 Timothy 4:6). So Paul exhorts us, “Command and teach these things” (v 11). But Paul is no fool: he knows that some will refuse to listen because of our age and inexperience. So he continues, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (v 12).[1] Timothy had a hard time ministering in Ephesus, and was apparently dismissed and disparaged because of his age—an experience many young pastors, including myself, have shared. So Paul transfers his full authority to Timothy via this letter. Beyond that, though, he encourages Timothy to follow Jesus so single-mindedly that it becomes impossible to disparage him. Like Paul, we must be those in whom “Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life” (1:16). Everyone should be able to see our progress, our growth in grace (4:15). Of course, this comes not only through our righteous character, but through our teaching and preaching as well (vv 13-14). Mere scriptural knowledge does not a pastor make, but it is still a sine qua non of biblical leadership! 
  4. A young pastor, as a vocational minister, seems to have some authority over the elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7; 5:17-21; Titus 1:5-9). I tremble to write these words, and present them to you as the seeds of the beginnings of thoughts on the subject. I will write more tomorrow on the relationship between pastors and elders, but it does seem that those who have been given to the church as pastors (Ephesians 4:11) have a clear role to play in the selection of elders. Paul tells Titus specifically to “appoint elders in every town, as I directed you” (1:5), before listing the qualifications of an elder. The list of qualifications appears in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 too, raising the question of why Paul includes the qualifications in two letters to young pastors only. The answer, it seems, is that these young pastors selected or helped selected the elders. In addition, they probably helped train the men of the congregation, playing a significant role in their development as leaders (cf. 2 Timothy 2:1-2). Moreover, Paul encourages Timothy to give “double honor” to the elders directing the affairs of the church, “especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 3:17). How precisely should Timothy accomplish this? I haven’t the faintest idea, but it includes evaluation of their ministries at the very least. Finally, and most poignantly perhaps, Paul tells Timothy, “But those elders who are sinning you[2] are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning” (v 20). The ministry of evaluation extends to public rebuke as necessary. I will not press on whither angels fear to tread, but these verses challenge many of my cherished beliefs and practices. (If you have any thoughts or reflections, please comment below!)


“But you, man of God,” young pastor that you are,


pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen. (1 Timothy 6:11-16)

[1] In contrast to popular misconception, this verse is intended for young ministers, not kids in children’s or student ministry—though I’m sure we could extend the application!

[2] The word for “you” is singular in the Greek, referring to Timothy only.