What Is An Elder?

from Gospel Eldership by Bob Thune                 


Whether formal or informal, recognized or unrecognized, leadership is a given in any church. In fact, leadership is a given in any human society. When kids play football on the playground, someone picks the teams. When volunteers get together to clean up a neighborhood park, someone organizes the initiative. When friends get together for a book club, someone chooses the book and plans the discussion. Every human community has some form of leadership.

Right now you’re looking at a resource on church leadership. Based on that fact alone, I can deduce that you have some interest in church leadership, or at least, one of the elders in your church sees leadership potential in you. What I don’t know are your current convictions about church leadership, your past experiences with church leadership, or your present context. So let’s start with a basic observation we can all agree on:    

Every church has leaders.                    

Starting from that universal reality, the real question we need to ask is What kind of leaders should the church have? Did God intend his church to be led by just anyone? Or did he give some outline, some matrix, some set of instructions for church leadership?

As we answer this question, we repeatedly see in the Bible an emphasis on a group of leaders referred to as elders, bishops, or overseers. For instance,             

When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:21–23)                    

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. (1 Timothy 5:17)               

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you. (Titus 1:5)                    

Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. (James 5:14)                   

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach. . . . (1 Timothy 3:1–2)                    

God intends for his church to be led by godly leaders known as elders. So what is an elder?

An elder is a pastor. Many of us only apply the title of “pastor” to those in full-time vocational ministry. But in the Bible, the terms elder (presbuteros), pastor (poimen), and bishop (episkopos) are used interchangeably to refer to the same person or group of people. Two particular New Testament texts make this abundantly clear.   

From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders [presbuterous] of the church. And when they had come to him, he said to them . . . “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [episkopous], to shepherd [poimainein] the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” (Acts 20:17–18, 28, NASB)                    

Therefore, I exhort the elders [presbuterous] among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd [poimanate] the flock of God among you, exercising oversight [episkopountes] not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God (1 Peter 5:1–2, NASB).                    

In my household, I have the titles of husband (to my wife), father (to my children), and head of household (to the IRS). But those titles are all various aspects of one role or office: the leader of a family. The same is true in the Bible. One office—the office of local church elder—is referred to under three titles: elder, pastor, and overseer/bishop. Some elders may serve the church full time (those we usually call “pastors”), while other elders may serve as lay volunteers. But biblically speaking, elders are pastors and pastors are elders.                  

An elder is a pacesetter. The elders of the New Testament churches were not mere figureheads; they were leaders, pacesetters, and disciplemakers. Scripture sees elders as competent, committed, mature leaders who teach (1 Timothy 3:2), rebuke (Titus 1:9), rule (1 Timothy 5:17), guard sound doctrine (Titus 1:9), do evangelism (Titus 1:8), deal with difficult people (Titus 1:10–14), and raise up other leaders (2 Timothy 2:2).                   

An elder is not merely a faithful, reliable Christian who shows up to meetings and votes. Rather, an elder sets the pace for the rest of the church. Elders are leaders of strength, wisdom, and integrity, whose lives and character are worthy of being imitated and reproduced in every Christian.                   

An elder is a man. We live in a very egalitarian culture today, where any distinction in gender roles arouses suspicion. But the Bible unapologetically makes such distinctions. Is this because the Bible is a repressive, patriarchal text that needs to be updated and adapted to the modern sensibilities? Or is it because God actually made men and women differently, to fulfill distinct but complementary roles?

The Bible’s vision of the relationship between the sexes is one of rich interdependence (1 Corinthians 11:11–12). God designed men and women to complement one another as his image-bearers (Genesis 1:26–31; 2:15–25), and his design includes differing roles for men and women in the home and in the church (1 Timothy 2:11–3:5). Men are given the responsibility of headship in the home and in the church, which means that the office of elder-pastor is to be filled by men. This is not a matter of empowering men and restricting women, but rather of freeing both sexes to enjoy the beautiful, God-glorifying harmony of a robust interdependence. Complementarianism is the theological term for this viewpoint. Men and women are complementary in their God-given design and roles, with men bearing the responsibility for spiritual leadership in the home and church.                   

This [resource] is unapologetically complementarian in its approach. If you are still forming your convictions on this matter, I invite you to read this study with an open mind. And I urge you to ponder this question: If the men in your church looked like the men this resource envisions, would you have any reason not to trust, respect, and affirm their leadership? To further your theological formation on this important issue, consult the resources listed in the endnotes.                    

Elders, then, are the male leaders of the church who serve as pastors and pacesetters. But we must say more. If a church is to be healthy, its elders must be men who are grounded and rooted in the gospel. That is the crucial gap in many churches today, and that is the weakness that this book is designed to address.                   

Many resources on church leadership seem consumed with church management, church structures, and church governance—as though the most important thing elders do is hold meetings and vote. Almost nothing has been written about the quality of spiritual life an elder must have as an elder. Of course, there are many good books about spiritual formation, and many helpful resources designed to facilitate basic Christian discipleship. But few of these resources are targeted specifically at church leaders. Is it not true that leaders experience unique temptations, challenges, and struggles? And is it not true that for a church to go deep in the gospel, its leaders must be deep in the gospel? That’s the vision and the goal behind Gospel Eldership.                  

In my experience, it’s possible to be very old in the faith and yet tragically young in the gospel. If the gospel truly is “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16) and is constantly “bearing fruit and growing” within us (Colossians 1:6), then elders must be strong in the gospel. They must know their own heart idolatry and how the good news of the gospel applies to it. And they must have a sense of “gospel fluency” so that they can swiftly, effectively, and clearly apply the gospel to others. Those are the kind of leaders that we're seeking to develop.   


Check out other blog post: A Biblical Approach To Church Leadership