In the first chapter in this series on elders, deacons, preachers and saints we examined the differences between these roles in the church. These are the only specific roles that the New Testament mentions (Ephesians 4:10-12), and their purpose was to build up the church by training it to serve itself and the world.
Those who have been given these roles have a specific function in the church based on their:
- Responsibilities: each role has a specific task.
- Aptitudes: the persons who function in these roles do so because they are qualified in specific ways.
- Appointment: the Bible demonstrates that the men who serve as elders, preachers and deacons are always appointed to their task by the church.
In this chapter we will look at the role of elders.
Leadership in the world takes on many forms and exercises authority in many ways. Some leadership is cruel and cunning with leaders who will sacrifice their own people to retain personal power. Others are self-serving and proud. Still others are demonic (Manson) or benevolent (Gandhi). Regardless of the style, so long as there is some form of leadership there is a measure of order and growth.
The church, as an organization, is no different. It also has leadership, and without it the church cannot function and grow very well. The leadership structure and style for the church is found in the New Testament and basically is as follows:
The head or leader is Jesus Christ
He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.
- Colossians 1:18
He is the only head of the church and shares leadership with no one else in heaven or on earth.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling;
- Ephesians 4:4
He has all authority.
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.
- Matthew 28:18
He exercises leadership in two ways:
1. His word: it is final and the basis for judgment.
He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day.
- John 12:48
It is effective to teach, correct and rebuke us.
15 and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;
- II Timothy 3:15-16
His word is able to save and help us grow.
2. His spirit: it is when we receive the Holy Spirit at baptism that we become His disciples.
Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
- Acts 2:38
Among other things, Christ's Holy Spirit leads our ministries,
They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia;
- Acts 16:6
In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words;
- Romans 8:26
and our resurrection.
10 If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.
- Romans 8:10-11
The Holy Spirit works all things in the world and in our personal lives for the good of the church of which Christ is the only head. Through the Word and the Spirit, Jesus exercises leadership in the church.
The responsibility to exercise the leadership of the Lord in the local assembly belongs to the elders.
On his first missionary journey Paul established churches in Lystra and Iconium. Upon his return to these places he appointed elders in each church. Luke writes that:
When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
- Acts 14:23
The word "commended" means to "place along side." These men were placed along side of Jesus in order to exercise the leadership that He expresses in the New Testament.
This procedure is repeated in Titus 1:15 where Paul instructs the evangelist to appoint elders in the churches in Crete.
For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you,
Even the words used to describe this role in the New Testament suggest the exercising of leadership:
- Pastor/Shepherd (Acts 20:25) – The shepherd leads and is responsible for the flock.
- Bishop/Overseer (Acts 20:28) – The word originally meant to overshadow in reference to the bright cloud at transfiguration.
- Elder/Presbyter (Acts 20:17) – Meant older, wise, and referred to the patriarchs in the Old Testament, leaders in the Sanhedrin (Matthew 16:21).
The Holy Spirit says that the church must appreciate and know them,
12 But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, 13 and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another.
- I Thessalonians 5:12-13
and obey them.
17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.
- Hebrews 13:17
Suffice to say that the New Testament teaches us that Jesus is the leader and authority in the church, and His leadership is embodied in the word and the Holy Spirit, but it is expressed in human form through the eldership.
Emphasis on leadership
The Bible itself teaches that the responsibility of leadership in the church rests with the elders. All the scriptures that relate to them, whether it is describing their work qualifications or simply referring to them in a narrative, always puts them in the leadership role.
1Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." 2 And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. 3 Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren. 4 When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, "It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses." 6 The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter.
- Acts 15:1-6
The debate over circumcision saw the Apostles and the elders discussing what needed to be done. Note the conclusion in verse 22:
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas—Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren,
It is important to understand that God's word establishes the elders as the leaders in the local assembly (this is not tradition or self-service).
Another reason to emphasize the elders' leadership role is to guard against the errors of denominationalism. Paul warned the elders from Ephesus that there would be division and apostasy (Acts 20). The New Testament church has had to battle against man-made ideas concerning its doctrine and its organization from the beginning.
One such organizational change has been the shift from an elder-centered church to a preacher-centered church. Originally, the elders led through teaching, example, devotion and ministry to the unfaithful and the ill.
14 Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; 15 and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.
- James 5:14-15
In most denominations, and unfortunately even in some Churches of Christ, we have left this model for one that sees the preacher as the main teacher, leader, minister, and the elders as a governing board of decision makers. The most often used phrase is, "We'll have to run it by the elders."
The church can grow using man-made methods (instruments, gimmicks, charismatic preacher centered church) but our call is not to be a big church. Our mission is to be the church of the Bible. God is more pleased with purity than numbers.
The church of the Bible has elders as the focal point of leadership, ministry, teaching, nurturing and counseling, not the pulpit minister, not the youth minister, not the deacons or any committee.
More specifically the leadership aspect of the elders because it will challenge three groups:
- Elders themselves will recognize more emphatically the importance and scope of their role.
- Congregations will realize who God has put in place to lead, and when there is rebelling or murmuring against elders, it is done against God's will.
- Those who need to consider serving as elders. It is important to identify and cultivate men to serve as elders now and into the future. According to church studies there should be one elder for every forty adults. Elders do not last forever, churches need to be ready to replace the ones who will eventually retire.
Hopefully some will hear God's call to surrender their lives to Him in service through the eldership, knowing none are worthy but some may be willing to serve. You do not have to feel worthy, just be willing.