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):
- 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…”
- 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:
- 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).
- 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).
- 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).
- 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).