Often, especially in small churches, men come to positions of being elected elder and then have no idea what the responsibilities of an elder are. Some seem to think that it’s being part of a pastoral oversight committee, and attempt to micromanage the ministry of a pastor. Others seem to think that eldership is an opportunity to talk big, boss other believers in the church around, interfere in the lives of others, and promote the people they like and denigrate others that they do not like. The scriptural qualifications are primarily character qualifications, and someone who fulfills the scriptural qualifications will avoid those previously mentioned aberrations. But they might still be at a loss as to what eldership means. There are several indications in scripture.
Eldership means oversight of the church before God.
I Timothy 3:5, 5:17, and I Peter 5:2-4 all talk about the elders having authority to oversee and guide the church; the I Peter passage is especially pointed as to the manner that this leadership is to take, in Christlike servanthood and not in self serving tyranny, exploitation and hypocrisy.
In most congregations, this will mean serving on the Governing Board of a church. The Governing Board is also the legal board of directors for a church as a non profit religious corporation in many areas of the world, but its legal status is secondary, since the church board is not so much a body to make business decisions but to guide the church in a spiritual manner. This will, though, mean making business decisions according to Biblical wisdom and according to legal and ethical guidelines many times.
Serving on the board with integrity will mean:
- Reading the reports where given and preparing the reports where assigned.
- Taking the time to pray and study the Bible about the direction of the church.
- Praying personally and with others about the direction of the church.
- Acting in accordance with the guidance of the scriptures and the prayers that were offered.
- Giving financial oversight to the church treasurer (rather than the other way around).
- Making sure that business decisions are according to secular law and at least ethical according to the secular culture.
- Offering well considered opinions in meetings in the spirit of love and scriptural wisdom – and in accord with Robert’s Rules of Order if these are legislated in the church’s constitution or bylaws as the rules of deliberation.
- Giving feedback with courage if it’s felt that the feedback may not be readily accepted, even though it is in line with carefully considered scripture.
Eldership means watching for and contradicting false doctrine and hidden but scandalous sins.
This responsibility comes from Titus 1:9, and it means being deep enough in orthodox Christian doctrine to be able to spot heresy and false teaching. It will mean being able to spot and deal scripturally with hidden and scandalous sins. It will mean having scriptural convictions and scriptural courage, since many times what the church needs to confront will be what is tolerated or even celebrated in the surrounding culture.
It’s reasonable for elders to understand and adhere to the doctrinal statement of faith of the church and the denomination. It’s also essential for them to have an understanding of and adherence what constitutes Biblical saving truth about the nature of God, of Christ and of salvation, so as to be able to recognize and refute false doctrine. It’s reasonable to see how many from evangelical churches fall into doctrinal error, following cults and occult teachings, when church elders do not provide suitable counsel and instruction about sound Biblical teaching.
Eldership means participating in teaching ministries of the church.
Many elders never or rarely participate in the teaching ministries of the church. Yet the Bible says that elders must be ‘apt to teach’ (I Timothy 3:2).
It’s reasonable for elders to teach a Sunday School class once every year or two, or to have an ongoing ministry as part of the Sunday School. Even more, it’s possible to take the ‘apt to teach’ qualification alongside the ‘hospitable’ (also in I Timothy 3:2) qualification, and to see an elder hosting and leading a small group discipleship or growth group in his home. Another good application of this qualification a contemporary church structure is to have one or more elders involved with the Sunday School as a Governing Board liaison, or as the Sunday School Superintendent or Assistant Superintendent. For an elder (or pastor, in a multiple staff church) to oversee Christian education and discipleship groups is a very reasonable application of these scriptural qualifications.
Eldership means praying for the sick with the anointing of oil.
Some churches and denominations do not believe in the continuing healing power of God in the church since the time of the apostles, and this point is not addressed to them. In many churches, though, praying for the sick is a kind of a routine and a tradition at prayer meetings, and some people make a great point of bringing up every ailment that they can think of for prayer. This hoary routine is sometimes pursued in ignorance of the scriptural pattern.
In the scripture, rather, the apostles prayed for and anointed the sick with oil as part of the authority given to them by Jesus for outreach (Mark 6:13). James the brother of Jesus extended this authority to the church elders in James 5:15-16. Here’s how this needs to be exercised:
- With gentle inquiry about possible sins and God’s discipline through sickness – though sickness and injury are not necessarily the result of sins that have been committed – and with an opportunity for confession and restitution.
- Without any show or flamboyance, since prayer for healing and recovery is to be made with faith in God for healing. Someone who acts as if he is trying to prove something about himself in the way that he prays should rather be concerned about the will and the glory of God.
- Privately and confidentially if the sickness or injury which is being prayed about is sensitive or embarrassing in any way.
Eldership means exercising authority over the powers of darkness with the authority of the name of Jesus.
Churches and church leaders do at times need to deal with the powers of darkness as they manifest themselves. Sometimes even people with multiple possessions come to churches and demonic manifestations occur with harsh blasphemies and profanity. At other times the manifestation are not as blatant but still may be just as real.
In Luke 10:19 Jesus gave authority to the seventy that he had sent out over demons. This verse can be applied both to the average believer and to the elders of the church, since it looks like Jesus chose the number seventy as being symbolic of the elders of Israel (Numbers 11:16). Certainly elders need to be able to step forward, to be able to pray, fast and exercise the authority over the demonic delegated by the Lord Jesus Christ when churches are faced with outright spiritual warfare.
It’s usually a good idea for men new to the office of elder or in preparation for the office of elder to be given much more training and guidance than they are usually given. One more resource I would suggest is Servants in Charge with Study Guide: A Training Manual for Elders and Deacons by Keith Bailey. This would also work well for someone who has been serving as elder as an on the job training refresher. I would advise not simply handing the book to a prospective, new or used elder, but going over the book one on one or in a small group. The goal is to put the lessons into practice rather than get some new ideas. A small group Bible study with elders and prospective leaders on I and II Timothy and Titus will also do much to give them a scriptural understanding of eldership and ministry.
I believe that the pastor of a church needs to give much more attention to guiding, training and supporting the elders in his church than many do. An elder who is either at a loss as to how to fulfill his responsibilities, or, worse, abusing his office in his conduct of his office, is an indicator that the pastor has been inattentive to the needs of the elders for guidance, training and support.
A question comes up on what churches should do about men who come to eldership who do not fulfill the scriptural requirements for elders. Here are some ideas.
- Nominating committees need to consider the scriptural requirements for elder when considering those eligible for the office. It’s a good idea to print out the relevant scriptures, and look at them beside each name. There needs to be sensitivity if someone feels that someone is not qualified. Expression of doubts could be held confidential and specifics avoided in the meeting minutes.
- An elder can experience deterioration in his walk with Christ and in his manner of dealing with others. This can be addressed through a policy of church discipline. Removal from office should be on the basis of two witnesses.
- Elders need to be especially sensitive to personal reproof and correction. A mark of godliness is that if a person tells the elder that he is overstepping his bounds beyond scriptural authority or offers correction to his conduct, the elder apologizes and does not repeat the matter. Denial, minimizing and outright dismissal and defiance of scripturally administered correction should be sufficient evidence for an elder not to be re-elected to office, or, if it becomes a recurring pattern, referral to counseling or removal from office.
Elders are often not involved in evangelistic ministries of the church, and sometimes even oppose these same ministries. I can remember hearing how a prominent evangelical church had two elders leave the Governing Board after a majority of the Board voted that they all should undergo Evangelism Explosion training. Their refusal to participate revealed on later experience their motives were more to wield power in the church. It’s reasonable that an elder should be able to share the gospel with others, and be able to minister to many problems one on one with other believers. In many churches where invitations are given regularly at the conclusion of a sermon, the elders are usually expected to be among those who offer scriptural encouragement, counsel and prayer to those who come forward.
One last thought: historically, and especially in Reformed churches, the role of the pastor has been defined as a ‘teaching elder.’ This is one reason why pastors are given financial compensation (one meaning of honor in I Timothy 5:17). It should go without saying that a pastor should fulfill both the character qualifications for elder and the scriptural responsibilities. Yet it’s often sad to see how much a subjective experience of a call to be a pastor (often based on what I have come to believe is an unwarranted application of the scriptural narrative call of an Old Testament prophet such as Jeremiah to a New Testament pastor) and fitting a cultural or subjective image of what a pastor should be takes precedence over what scripture says about being a teaching elder.