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Why Elders

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									                                             Why Elders?
                                  Elders, Deacons, and the Church, Part 1



Leadership Matters
General Stonewall Jackson was one of the most brilliant military tacticians this nation has ever known. He
is credited with, almost single-handedly, winning bloody battles for the American Confederacy, solely on
the strength of his brains and his boldness. In fact, despite all the modern advancements in warfare
technology, General Jackson‟s battle plans are still studied by military leaders and tacticians the world
over. Thus his importance, first in the United States Army, and then in the Confederacy, was incalculable.

On May 2, 1863, General Jackson was shot by friendly fire, resulting in the amputation of his left arm.
Eight days later, May 10, 1863, General Jackson died—and with him, according to many historians, died
the chances of Confederate victory. At his death, Confederate troops became demoralized. As he lay
dying, General Robert E. Lee reportedly said, “He has lost his left arm; I have lost my right.” Historians,
in fact, speculate that Stonewall Jackson‟s death may be the single most important human reason why the
Union, and not the Confederacy, won the battle of Gettysburg later that summer. These same historians
also point out that the battle of Gettysburg was the turning point of the Civil War.1

Summary? It is quite possible that, had Stonewall Jackson lived, we would be sitting, right now, only
eight miles north of the border of another country! That is an amazing possibility!

Now, even when we acknowledge the good hand of God governing the outcome of the Civil War, this story
still forces us to admit that leadership is extremely important. Nations rise and fall on the strength of
leadership. Christian speaker John Maxwell may be stretching it a bit when he claims that “everything
rises and falls with leadership”—but he is not completely off the mark. In the military, in the business
world, in the schoolhouse, and in the home leadership is of immeasurable importance. How much more in
the church of Jesus Christ—where the glory of God and the welfare of eternal souls are at stake!
Leadership can be the difference, humanly speaking, between heaven and hell for dozens, even hundreds
or thousands, of human beings in a local congregation. We‟ve all probably seen how poor leadership, or
no leadership at all, can cripple a church. And hopefully, we‟ve also seen how godly leadershi p is a
blessing to God‟s people!

Leadership in Christ‟s church is vital. And the Lord has not left us without specific instructions on the
matter. The Bible is very clear on who should lead, how they should lead, and how the rest of us should
follow. And for the next five Sundays, we are going to weave our way through the Bible, listening to what
God says and applying it to Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church. We‟ll begin this morning by pondering the
Bible‟s teaching on the leadership of elders in the local church.2 Let‟s start with a question that may
already be forming in your mind…



What is an Elder?
Many of you, like me, come from a church background where you never heard the term elder. So when I
mention it today, the first thought that comes to your mind may be the Mormon missionary, Elder Samuel,
who knocked on your door the other day. Others of you think of High School football—the Elder Panthers.
And most of you probably think of elderly people, and how your mother used to always tell you to „respect
your elders.‟ The Bible does sometimes use the word elder with that meaning. But in the New Testament,
the word elder came to refer, not necessarily to age, but to a distinct leadership office within the local
church. So the question is: who filled that leadership office? What is an elder? A two-part answer…

1. An elder is a recognized spiritual leader in the church
An elder is the person responsible for the care of souls, the ministry of the word, and the overall direction
of the local church. We see the definition begin to unfold when we read 1 Peter 5.1-4:
       1
        Therefore, I exhort the elders 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, 2shepherd the
       flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily,
       according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; 3nor yet as lording
       it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. 4And when
       the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

Notice in verse 1 that Peter addresses these men as “elders”. That is the common New Testament title for
the spiritual leaders in the church. But notice also in verse 2 that Peter describes their tasks as
shepherding (or pastoring) and oversight. Elders are people who shepherd and oversee the church. And
therefore you will find that, on occasion, the elders are referred to as overseers or pastors (the modern
English equivalent for “shepherd”). The three terms—elder, overseer (bishop in the KJV), and pastor—are
used interchangeably in the New Testament. And all three have significant meaning attached to them.

The term elder was taken from the custom of the Jewish synagogue. The spiritual leaders in the pre-
Christian synagogues were called elders. So the apostles, themselves Jews, simply transferred the term
over to refer to the spiritual leaders in the church. The term itself connotes maturity—specifically,
spiritual maturity. Elders are, as Peter says in verse 4, to be “examples to the flock.”

The title of overseer was borrowed from the Greek world. Overseers (or bishops) in the Greek world were
political or religious superintendents. And it seems, as they carried the good news into the Greek world,
the apostles borrowed this term, too, and used it interchangeably with elder. But the word overseer itself
is also helpful. It literally means „to look over.‟ The elder/overseer was to look over—to manage, guide,
direct, and maintain order in the church. He was to “exercise oversight” according to verse 2.

The third term for elders was the word shepherd, which we translate in English as pastor. This term
comes, obviously, from the world of agriculture and describes the elder/pastor‟s concern over his
individual sheep, his feeding of the sheep with the Word, and his protection of the sheep from savage
wolves that creep into the church.

So the elder/overseer/pastor is a man who is charged with setting an example of spiritual maturity; with
ordering and leading the overall direction of the church; and with feeding and caring for the sheep—and
all of this “with eagerness” and “not lording it over the flock.” Note also that the fact that these men were
given titles indicates that they were set apart by the church for the task of leadership—ordained, if you
will. So when we refer to New Testament elders, we are not simply referring to all the mature Christians
in the church, but to the men specifically set apart to the tasks of oversight and servant leadership.

So far, we probably haven‟t said anything that seems all that unusual. You may even be thinking: „Of
course. You‟re giving your own job description.‟ And you are correct. But I want you to see something
else that you may not have thought of…

2. An elder is always a member of a larger group of elders
God never intended pastors/elders to do their work alone. He never intended that his local churches be
led by one elder, but by a plurality of them. Let me show you that in three passages. First, Acts 15.1-6:
       1
        Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, "Unless you are
       circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." 2And 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. 3Therefore, 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. 4When 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. 5But 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." 6The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter.

Did you catch what was happening? Paul and Barnabas were on their way to visit the church (singular) at
Jerusalem. But that church (vss. 2, 4, 6) had plural elders. We see the same thing in Acts 20.15-17:
       15
         Sailing from there, we arrived the following day opposite Chios; and the next day we
       crossed over to Samos; and the day following we came to Miletus. 16For Paul had decided
       to sail past Ephesus so that he would not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to
       be in Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost. 17From Miletus he sent to Ephesus
       and called to him the elders of the church.

There it was again in verse 17: The Ephesian church (singular) had elders (plural)!           Notice it again in
James 5.14:
       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;

Here is a third example of plural elders within an individual local church. This was always the New
Testament pattern. In fact, if you do a word study of the terms elder, overseer, and pastor, you will find
that these words are almost always in the plural. The only times when they are singular is when a
particular elder is speaking of himself, or when spiritual qualifications are laid down for individual elders,
to decide which individuals should be included in the group! The Bible never envisions a pastor/elder
working alone. And while it never specifies how many elders are enough, the answer is always: More than
one! Circumstances may sometimes force a church to have only one elder, a solo pastor/elder is never
the New Testament ideal.

Now some of you may be thinking: „O, I get it. You‟re saying every church should have multiple church
staff.‟ Well, not exactly. Church staffs did not really come into being until recent decades. So when the
Bible speaks of a plurality of elders, it is not referring to a paid staff that is hired from the outside, but to
spiritual leaders who are recognized and appointed from the inside. Some of them may be paid staff, just
as some of the pastor/elders in the New Testament were paid (see 1 Timothy 5.17). But most of the
elders in the New Testament were simply godly laymen who kept secular employment, but who worked
alongside any paid pastors at the spiritual oversight of the church.

Every church ought to be looking around for those kinds of men to rise, like cream, to the top and join the
paid pastor in shepherding the church. Every church ought to have officially recognized co-shepherds who
work with the paid pastor. We will talk more in coming weeks about what that might mean and who those
men might be. But for now, let‟s simply say that any church will be much healthier and much more
biblical if leadership and spiritual authority is placed in the hands of a group, rather than on the shoulders
of one individual pastor. That is what we are working toward in this message series, and in the revised
Constitution that the deacons and I will present to you later this year.

Now let me try and anticipate another question that may be forming in your mind…



Why do we need Elders?
Am I saying that we are not as healthy as we could be? Yes. Am I saying that one pastor—namely
myself—cannot do it all? Yes. I am saying that Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church needs plural elders. And in
saying that, I realize that there are a whole host of questions and/or objections that you might raise if this
were a question and answer session. One person might protest: „Don‟t feel inadequate, pastor. I think
you‟re doing a fine job on your own.‟ Another might say: „Elders? We‟ve never done it that way before.‟
A more pragmatic person might wonder: „Aren‟t our deacons already doing just what you‟ve just
described?‟ And someone else might secretly wonder: „I know Presbyterians have elders, but we‟re
Baptists!‟ Those are all legitimate concerns and questions.

So if any of those thoughts have been running through your mind, l et me give some answers. Why does
Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church need plural elders? Let me give you four good reasons:

1. Because plural elders are biblical
We‟ve just finished looking over four separate passages that all teach the pattern of plural elders within a
single church (1 Peter 5.1-4, Acts 15.1-6, Acts 20.15-17, and James 5.14). Let me give you six more
texts on elders that you might look up in your own study: Acts 21.15-18, Acts 24.1, Philippians 1.1, 1
Timothy 3.1-7, 1 Timothy 5.17-20, and Titus 1.5-9. That is no less than ten New Testament passages
that teach the concept of elders. We‟ll look at most of them in the next two weeks. But for now, let‟s just
examine one more verse—Titus 1.5, in which Paul says to Titus:
       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.

God is concerned that His church be “set in order” and thus He orders that “elders” (plural) be appointed
in “every city” singular! Now don‟t be confused. The gospel was brand new in places like Crete. Each city
would have only had one church. So when Paul says “appoint elders in every city”, he means, „appoint a
group of elders in every church‟! Every church should have a group of elders. There it is, in black and
white, in the pages of Holy Scripture. That is reason enough to adopt this practice. But I‟ll continue…

2. Because plural elders are strategically beneficial
The reason God designed His church to function this way is because it works! Having a team of elders, as
opposed to an individual pastor, is actually better for the church. Let me quote Mark Dever, senior pastor
of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, on why this is so:

       Probably the single most helpful thing to my pastoral ministry among my church has been
       the recognition of the other elders. The service of the other elders along with me has had
       immense benefits. A plurality of elders should aid a church by rounding out the pastor‟s
       gifts, making up for some of his defects, supplementing his judgment, and creating support
       in the congregation for decisions, leaving leaders less exposed to unjust criticism. Such a
       plurality also makes leadership more rooted and permanent, and allows for more continuity.
       It encourages the church to take more responsibility for the spiritual growth of its own
       members and helps make the church less dependant on its employees. Our own church in
       Washington has enjoyed these benefits and more because of God‟s gift to us of elders. 3

Do you hear what he is saying? No pastor can do it all. He needs elders to round out his gifts, make up
for his defects, and supplement his judgment. Neither will any pastor will live forever. Some day he will
move or die, and when he does the whole vision of the church can fade in just a year or two—unless there
are other elders to guard it! So the church needs to constantly be recognizing and training spiritual
laymen to work alongside the pastor, to strengthen his ministry, and to bridge the gap when he is gone.

3. Because elders are different from deacons
This becomes crystal clear when we read Acts 6.1-6:
       1
        Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the
       part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being
       overlooked in the daily serving of food. 2So the twelve summoned the congregation of the
       disciples and said, "It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve
       tables. 3"Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of
       the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. 4"But we will devote
       ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5The statement found approval with
       the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,
       and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch.
       6
        And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on
       them.

This episode in the life of the early church teaches us that there are two separate kinds of leadership in
the church of Jesus Christ. There is spiritual oversight, namely “prayer and the ministry of the word.”
And there is also temporal oversight, namely “to serve tables.” And though the passage doesn‟t name
either office, these two tasks fall, respectively, to the offices of elder and deacon. Elders exercise spiritual
oversight. Deacons exercise temporal oversight.

Deacons are called upon to oversee nitty-gritty things like benevolence, building maintenance, budget
concerns, and so on. They do these things, first of all, because they need to be done. And they do them
so that the elders are freed up to study, to pray, to teach, to counsel, and to guide the spiritual direction
of the church. Unfortunately, most churches do not distinguish these roles very well. What happens in
many churches is that either the deacons or the pastor are called upon to do both tasks. Some of them
have pastors who are expected to stock the food pantry, fix the leaky faucet, cut the grass, and preach on
Sunday! Other churches have deacons who are expected to visit the members, teach Sunday School, and
also make sure the bathroom floors are clean and the sound system is running. And it just doesn‟t work!

Now we have a group of men who have, by necessity, functioned as deacon-elder hybrids. And they have
done an admirable job. But nobody can do it all! That is why God has appointed two separate groups of
leaders—elders who lead and deacons who serve. And when we line those men up in their proper rolls,
the church can run like a well-oiled machine.

4. Because having plural elders is a very Baptist thing to do
Today, most Baptist churches do not have a body of elders. They are either led by a solo pastor, or by a
staff of pastors. Very few are imitating the biblical model. But this was not always the case. Consider
the following quotations from some early Baptist documents:

       The Philadelphia Confession of Faith (the earliest American Baptist Confession): “The officers
       appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the Church…are bishops or elders, and deacons”
       (Article 27.8).4

       The Baptist Faith and Message, 1925 (the first official Southern Baptist Confession): “Its [i.e
       the church‟s] Scriptural officers are bishops or elders and deacons” (Article 12).5

Also, listen to W.B. Johnson, the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention on this issue: “A
plurality of elders is required for each church.”6 That is about as clear as it gets! Though not all early
Baptists practiced a plurality of elders, a large and influential number did. So having elders is,
wonderfully, Baptist!



Elders, for Jesus’ Sake
Now, some you may be thinking: „If we have this history, and we have these clear teachings in our Bibles,
what gives? Why have I never heard this? And why do most Baptist churches today not practice it?‟
There are a couple of answers to that question. One is that we don‟t always pay as close attention to our
Bibles as we should. Open with me to the book of Philemon…

No, there is nothing about elders in Philemon. I just wanted to help you gauge how familiar you are with
your Bible! The reason why many churches don‟t practice what the Bible teaches about elders is because
pastors and congregations don‟t really know their Bibles!

But there is another probable reason why many Baptists have forgotten about elders. Namely that the
Baptist branch of Christianity in America spread most rapidly in the frontier regions, among pioneer
settlers. Often these small and rugged churches did not have enough qualified men to serve as elders, so
they settled for the next best thing—a solo pastor. Sometimes one pastor would even serve several
churches as a circuit-riding preacher. And we should bless God for these men who did all they could for
the sake of the gospel! But this less-than-ideal situation gradually led people to think of the solo pastor
as the norm. They put all the weight of ministry on his shoulders. So even when the churches grew and
had qualified men to serve as elders, they simply kept the solo pastor model. It was all they knew.7

But by God‟s grace, we still have our Bibles to go back to. By God‟s grace, we have an opportunity to go
back two thousand years and discover God‟s ideal for His church. And thank God for the growing number
of Baptist churches who are doing just that! We have a chance to ride that wave!

We have a chance to be a part of this back-to-the-Bible movement. It is going to take adjustment. It is
going to mean hard work, and earnest prayer, and serious thought. We are going to have to become
intentional about training men for the roles of elder and deacon. But aren‟t Christ and His bride, the
church, worth the hassle? I believe they are. The song we‟re about to sing reminds us why:

       The church‟s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.
       She is His new creation by water and the Word.
       From heav‟n He came and sought her to be His holy Bride.
       With His own blood He bought her, and for her life He died!
Isn‟t the church, which Jesus bought with His own precious blood, worth the effort? And shouldn‟t that
blood-bought church strive to be every bit the beautiful bride Christ has called her to be? If she would,
she will have to take seriously the Bible‟s teaching about elders. I hope that you have joined with me in
doing that today. And I encourage you to join with me in the coming weeks as we dig deeper into the
Bible‟s teachings on the church and her leaders. Amen.


1
  My information on General Jackson comes from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stonewall_Jackson, accessed August 3, 2006.
2
  See Phil Newton. Elders in Congregational Life. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005. Although I do not directly quote the book, Newton
has been incredibly helpful on all the issues covered in His sermons—especially the Baptist history section at the end. It is probably
the best, most comprehensive book I have seen on this particular subject.
3
  Mark Dever. A Display of God’s Glory. Washington, DC: Nine Marks Ministries, 2001. Page 24.
4
  Quoted in Denise and Timothy George, editors. Baptist Confessions, Covenants, and Catechisms. Nashville: Broadman and
Holman, 1996. Page 86.
5
  The BF and M, 1925 is available at http://www.reformedreader.org/ccc/1925bfam.htm.
6
  W.B. Johnson. The Gospel Developed. Quoted in Mark Dever, editor. Polity. Washington, DC: Center for Church Reform, 2001.
Page 194.
7
  Phil Newton (Elders in Congregational Life, 96) and Mark Dever, (Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. Wheaton: Crossway, 2000, 20)
both make this point well.

								
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