Stress-testing the
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Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


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The role of elders according to Scripture

What are they supposed to do, and what kind of people should they be?

Elders originate in the Old Testament with the judges of Israel (Num 11:16)—men charged with teaching and guiding the people. They had to be God-fearing and trustworthy, discerning and impartial, able to judge righteously without being intimidated (Ex 18:20–21; Deut 1:13–17; 27:1).

This concept developed into the ruling councils of Jesus’ time, and finally into the church model, where several elders shared authority in each church (eg Acts 14:23; 20:17; 1 Tim 5:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Pet 5:5). The New Testament commonly uses two different words to describe the one office (cf Titus 1:5, 7):

  1. Elder (eg Acts 20:17), referring usually to a man of mature years with recognized authority in a community. This is echoed in the first part of Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them…”
  2. Overseer/guardian/bishop (eg 1 Tim 3:2), referring to someone charged with guiding and protecting. This is echoed in the second part of Hebrews 13:17: “…for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.”

An elder’s role is typically described in terms of a shepherd/pastor. This goes back to Jesus himself—eg John 21:15–17 (cf 1 Peter 5:1–2). Paul also uses this metaphor: in his final address to the elders of the Ephesian church, he recalls how he has taught them the full counsel of God (Acts 20:27)—equipping them with a comprehensive knowledge of the Scriptures, so they can in turn teach others. He then commands them to be on their guard, to protect the flock against the “fierce wolves” who will try to draw people away with false doctrine (vv 28-32).

He makes a similar point in Titus 1:9: that an elder must be “holding fast to the faithful message…in order that he may be able both to exhort with sound instruction, and to reprove those who speak against it.” In other words, an elder must be knowledgeable in doctrine, able to instruct others in it, and able to rebuke or even to “silence” (v 11) “rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers” (v 10).

This is especially clear in 1 Timothy 3–4. In chapter 3, Paul lays out what kind of person an elder must be: he must have the irreproachable character of a deacon, plus be “skillful in teaching” (1 Tim 3:2). Then, in chapter 4, he describes what an elder must do—what his job looks like. In Timothy’s case, he must protect the congregation from error by rejecting worthless myths (4:7), by commanding and teaching everything Paul has instructed (4:11), and by devoting himself to public reading and teaching (ie of Scripture; 4:13).

If we were to summarize the Bible’s teaching on the major qualities of an elder, then, he must be:

  1. A godly person: not adulterous or addicted, not frivolous or undignified, nor cold, nor unruly, nor incompetent, weak-willed, or domineering (1 Tim 3:2–4; Titus 1:5–8; 1 Pet 5:2–3).
  2. A capable theologian: rightly handling the word, being skilled at exegesis and interpretation, and having a well-developed knowledge of what the Bible teaches (Acts 20:27; 1 Tim 4:6–7, 16; 2 Tim 2:15; 3:16–17).
  3. An effective teacher: able to explain the Scriptures to others in a way that builds them up into a mature faith (1 Tim 4:11–16; 2 Tim 2:24–25; 4:2; Titus 2:1–8, 15; Heb 2:14).
  4. A steady guardian: authoritative but not authoritarian: he is wise in guiding, encouraging, correcting and even rebuking—and he is firm in silencing or removing goats and wolves (John 21:15–17; Acts 20:28–32; 1 Tim 5:17, 20–21; 2 Tim 1:13–15; Titus 1:11–13; 2:15).

7 comments

  1. June Whittle

    Thanks for this clear explanation of who an elder is supposed to be.

    A lot of churches elect elders but from my experience, most of them don’t have the characteristics outlined in scriptures. It makes me wonder how serious men and women of God take the word of God.

    Have a good weekend. :-)

  2. Michael White

    Then there is the question, should elders rule the church or should a church be elder led, congregational ruled?
    Another question is, should there be a plurality elders, or just one [like a single pastor].

  3. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    The first issue is outside the purview of my article, though of course it is directly relevant. I am writing in the context of a church that is led by elders with congregational consent.

    The second issue I did briefly summarize at the beginning.

  4. Mark Axamit

    The topic of gifts was not mentioned here and probably should be, when discussing authority structures. While the Scriptures clearly speak of elders, nothing was mentioned about the gifting of the saints. With that being stated let me ask the loaded question. Is the term Pastor defining a gift, office or both? Secondly, what is the purpose of the gifts if the same gift speaks every week? Does is not at some level nullify the edification process? When the topic of the reformation is examined, we as non Catholics still at some level embrace the doctrine of Constantine, or in other words Sola Pastora.

  5. Chris

    Hi,
    just read your ‘elder’ article which I thought was very good as it was easy to understand . Just one thought came to mind though is what if the elders of your church are introducing ‘dodgy’ teachings and when questioned about their conduct then criticise you for bring the issue up? In this case, the issue concerned the teachings of Dr. Rick Warren being introduced as the way to go in a ‘reformed’ church. After carefully reading his book ‘The Purpose Driven Church’, I came to the conclusion he was not a reliable guide and as such, many of his assertions should be rejected. The elders refused to consider that his teachings were deficient in anyway , so I sought and found a fellowship elsewhere as I did not want to be seen as a ‘trouble- maker’ and so left quietly. To my disappointment , it was brought to my notice by a third party that I had been in fact named in their church magazine as such. I have been shunned ever since. Any thought please?

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Chris, I’m sorry to hear about your situation. To be honest, it sounds like you dodged a bullet leaving that church, since the elders seem neither to be godly people nor capable theologians.

    What to do in a situation like that will vary depending on the polity and makeup of the church. For instance, if the elders are elected by the congregation, and enough people in the congregation have a problem with what they are doing, then you have more recourse. The congregation can push much more forcefully than an individual for scriptural justification re a new teaching. And if the elders respond poorly, they can even be voted out of office (although that has its issues as well if there is no one to take their place, and you always have to weigh the cost of collateral damage).

    But if elders are appointed by other elders, or if you have a congregation that doesn’t see the issue, then you’re pretty stuck.

    I think how you dealt with your situation was wise. And I think how the elders dealt with it was petty and vainglorious. I hope you get better shepherding from your new assembly.

  7. Mark Axamit

    The primary still to this day is the definition of the word “elder” as opposed to “pastor”. One is a gift as mentioned in Ephesians 4:11, the other is an office mentioned several times in Paul’s writings, I.E. 1 Timothy 3. The inability to discern or to correctly define these terms, as well as their outworking lead to the creation of the roman catholic system. The reformation did much to change the scope and nature of the believers role in the assembly. However, much of the errant doctrine made its way through Luther’s attempt to reform the man made hierarchical system that existed prior to the sixteenth century. one of the apostle Paul’s writings were ever addressed to a pastor or group of pastors. No, these writings had two recipients that being, the saints (aka) ekklesia, and elders (aka) overseers, presbuteros. The term pastor/teacher refers to a gifting that functions within the church Eph 4:11 (God gave gifts). In our current day Christianity this gifting is now determinantive by attending another man created institution known as the seminary. This is how skewed the man lead church has become. Men, by design, love power and prestige, his heart is unclean from his conception. Please, please, I need to very careful here! I am not stating that the gift of pastor does not exist in the assembly, it may! I am stating that it is NOT what modern day Christianity has fashioned it to mean or do. My opinion is called for here. Until Christ is given His rightful place in the assembly we can expect more dysfunction from the failing church. May he receive ALL the glory!
    Humbly, Mark

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