1 Elders in the Bible Words with the πρεσβ´υτ (presbut) root, from which “elder” is taken, occur seventy-five times in the New Testament. Nine occurrences refer to people of chronologically more-advanced age. (Luke 1:18; 15:25; John 8:9; Acts 2:17; Phlm. 9; 1 Tim. 5:1,2; Titus 2:2,3.) Four times words with this root refer to ancestors of the Hebrew nation. (Matt. 15:2; Mark 7:3,5; Heb. 11:2.) John uses such words twelve times in Revelation to refer to the heavenly elders, or rulers. (Rev. 4:4, 10; 5:5,6,8,11,14; 7:11,13; 11:16; 14:3; 19:4.) Twenty-nine times (all in the Gospels and Acts) the word is used to refer to the Jewish non- priestly leaders either in the Sanhedrin or in local synagogues. The remaining twenty uses refer to elders in churches: in the Jerusalem church; (Acts 11:30; 15:2,4,6,22,23; 16:4; 21:18.) in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch; (Acts 14:21,25.) in Ephesus (Acts 20:17); in the towns of Crete (Titus 1:5); and other general references. (1 Tim. 4:4; 5:17,19; James 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1, 5.) John also refers to himself twice as “the elder,”(2 John 1; 3 John 1.) though whether he is referring to an office he holds or to some other type of designation that was attached to him personally, we cannot say. I) Biblical Evidence for plural Elders. 1. With the 20 references to Christian elders in churches, the evidence would tend to say that the normal pattern in the New Testament is for there to be more than one elder in each congregation. A. James, in James 5:14, instructs the Christians he writes to “call the elders [plural] of the church [singular] to pray over him.” B. Peter, in the verses in chapter 5 already mentioned, writes as an elder to the “elders [plural] among you.” If I Peter 5:5 should be translated “elder” instead of “older men” then it seems that Peter would be assuming that there would be plural elders in a single congregation. It certainly wouldn’t be ruled out. C. Paul greets the bishops/elders [plural] in the church [singular] at Philippi when writing to them (Phil. 1:1). 2 D. Paul exhorts the elders of the church at Ephesus in Acts 20:28 to be “bishops” [plural] to the flock [singular] which God had called them. E. Paul mentions elders in writing to Timothy and Titus. To Timothy he reminds him of the body of elders (in I Tim. 4:14) that had laid their hands on him. F. Paul, in I Tim. 5:17, refers again to the elders [plural] who direct the affairs of the church [singular]. Two verses later, he refers to accusations not against THE elder, but against “an elder” presbuterou used without an article. This would be consistent with Paul assuming that Timothy would have multiple elders in one congregation. G. In Titus 1:5, Paul exhorts Titus to “appoint elders [plural] in every town [kata polin, that’s distributive, in each town] as I directed you.” So certainly the churches established in Crete at least were to have a plurality of elders in each local congregation. H. We see from Luke’s account in Acts 20:17, noted above, that the church [singular] in Ephesus had elders [plural]. a Acts 20:17 (ESV) 17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. I. If we look at the end of Paul’s first missionary journey in Acts 14, it seems in 14:23 that Paul and Barnabas “had elders [plural] elected for them in each church [singular].” J. Repeatedly in the book of Acts, the church in Jerusalem is represented as having a plurality of elders. No multiple congregations are referenced, no house churches. The reference to meeting together is found in Acts 2:42, and there it is all together in the Temple courts. Never are “churches” in Jerusalem referred to; only the congregation [singular]. On the other hand, the elders are referred to— always in the plural—in Acts 11:30, throughout chapter 15 in the account of the Jerusalem council (15:2, 4, 6, 22-23), 16:4 and in 21:18. Therefore, any Baptist making an argument for one group of elders leading many house congregations is making a good argument for Presbyterianism, but not for historic Baptist congregationalism. Should that argument be sharpened to one individual leading all of those house churches, then it is more an argument for divine-right 3 episcopalianism, and even the Episcopalians don’t make that argument. II) Questions about Elders 1. What biblical support is there for a single elder model? A. Some men in the New Testament, like Timothy and Titus, moved from place to place and served as elders. B. There is New Testament evidence that some men were financially supported for full-time work with the flock. (Phil. 4:15-18; 1 Timothy 5:17-18) C. Paul wrote not to the elders of the church in Ephesus, but to Timothy alone. D. The Lord Jesus addressed His letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 to the “angel” or “messenger” [singular] of each church. There is great division as to John’s specific meaning here. 2. What are the Biblical roles of elders? A. In addition to the qualifications of an elder, the Bible also provides the duties of elders-pastors: a Prayer and Scripture study (Acts 6:4) b Leading the church (1 Timothy 5:17) c Managing the church (1 Timothy 3:4-5) d Caring for people in the church (1 Peter 5:2-5) e Giving account to God for the church (Hebrews 13:17) f Living exemplary lives (Hebrews 13:7) g Rightly using the authority God has given them (Acts 20:28) h Teaching the Bible correctly (Eph. 4:11; 1 Timothy 3:2) i Preaching (1 Timothy 5:17) j Praying for the sick (James 5:13-15) k Teaching sound doctrine, refuting false teachings(Titus 1:9) l Working hard (1 Thessalonians 5:12) m Rightly using money and power (1 Peter 5:1-3) n Protecting the church from false teachers (Acts 20:17-31) o Disciplining unrepentant Christians (Matthew 18:15-17) 4 B. Danny Akin identifies eight functions of an Elder in the New Testament: a The elders have overall responsibility for the oversight and direction of the church (Hebrews 13:17) b The elders are responsible to seek in all matters the mind of Christ (who is the head of the church) through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. (Ephesians 1:22; Colossians 1:18; 1 Peter 5:2) c The elders must be apt to teach, able to exhort the church in sound doctrine and be ready to refute those who contradict the truth. (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9) d The elders shall provide instruction for the maintenance of healthy relationships within the church. (Galatians 6:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15) e The elders should exercise at least general oversight of the financial matters of the church. (Acts 11:30) f The elders should lead (with appropriate congregational input) in the appointing of deacons as necessary to accomplish the mission of the church. (Acts 6:1-6) g The elders are to lead by example. (Hebrews 13:7; 1 Peter 5:2-3) h The elders are to lead in the exercise of church discipline (Galatians 6:1) but not to the exclusion of the entire body when warranted. (Matthew 18; 1 Cor 5; 2 Cor. 2) 3. Are all of the elders to be outside staff? A. The Bible supports the concept of honoring an elder who labors primarily in preaching and teaching. Baptist’s correctly interpret this passage to mean that among the same group of elders, the one who labors primarily in preaching and teaching is to be worthy of honor. a 1 Timothy 5:17 (ESV) 17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. B. The Bible also supports local, indigenous elders to assist the teaching/preaching pastor/elder in the work of the ministry. 5 a Titus 1:5 (ESV) 5 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— b Acts 14:23 (ESV) 23 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. c 2 Timothy 2:2 (ESV) 2 and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. 4. Based on the passages we have seen, what are some pro’s and con’s of incorporating Elder’s into a church? A. Pros a It balances pastoral weakness. No pastor is broadly gifted enough to do all the work of the ministry equally well by himself. There are weaknesses in every pastor’s game. We all need other people to balance out our all- too-human deficiencies. When you surround yourself with godly men whose gifts, passions, and abilities balance yours, you provide more well-rounded leadership for people to follow. b It diffuses congregational criticism. Under the single pastor/multiple deacon model, the pastor often takes the brunt of the criticism alone. Tough decisions can be misperceived, motives can be misconstrued, and before too long the pastor becomes the target of all the critical remarks because he is the one who is perceived to be making all the decisions and casting all the final votes— and under this model, he often is. Within a plurality of elders, however, leadership is shared with a body of non- staff elders who have been recognized and affirmed by the congregation. This provision alleviates the pastor from bearing all the criticism, because now leadership and decision making responsibility are shared among the group. Other men can now stand in the gap with the pastor, and they can take both responsibility and criticism together. Also, the congregation likely will be more willing 6 to follow the tough decisions of a group of both staff and non-staff elders than to follow those made alone by a paid pastor. So some criticism may be avoided simply by the increased trust that a plurality of congregationally recognized non-staff elders engenders among church members. c It adds pastoral wisdom. Sharing leadership with a group of godly, able non-staff elders will almost invariably keep pastors (especially young ones) from saying or doing dumb things, or from saying or doing the right things in unhelpful ways. None of us is omniscient. We all need to humble ourselves, share leadership, and ask advice. In fact, many of us are impatient when it comes to implementing a vision for godly change. Godly elders can help us select a pace for change that the congregation can keep up with. They can also help us formulate plans, articulate goals, and handle sensitive situations better than we may do if left to ourselves. d It indigenizes leadership. That is, it roots leadership in non-staff members. This is important because the congregation needs to be able to function and continue to grow even if something awful happens to the paid pastor. The last thing we want to do as vocational pastors is to make the congregation so dependent on us that the church would fall apart if we died, got called somewhere else, or (God forbid) fell into some disqualifying sin. We want our work to continue to bear fruit long after we’re gone! But that means leadership must be rooted in non- staff members. The best, most biblical way to do that is to incorporate a structure of leadership based on a plurality of elders in which the non-staff elders outnumber the staff elders. e It better enables corrective discipline. Without corrective discipline, the church has no way to protect the purity of her public corporate witness from the hypocrisy of members involved in scandalous sin. Yet the discharge of corrective church discipline is far more difficult without a plurality of elders. Performing corrective church discipline requires a leadership structure that won’t buckle under the spiritual and relational pressures of the 7 process. By adding wisdom, diffusing criticism, balancing pastoral weaknesses, and indigenizing leadership, plural eldership helps transfer the load of corrective discipline across the multiple pillars. Plural eldership, then, is critical for the discharge of corrective discipline and therefore is critical for maintaining the corporate witness of the local church in the eyes of the unbelieving community as well. f It defuses “us vs. him.” When disagreements happen between a pastor and the congregation regarding the direction of the church or a difficult decision that affects the whole congregation, an unhealthy “us vs. him” mentality can crop up. This can make the pastor feel extremely isolated and can often breed adversarial attitudes underneath a surface of congenial pastor/congregation relationships. Granted, a plurality of elders may simply shift the relationship into the “us vs. them” gear. However, it relieves the isolation of the pastor, and it may prevent such antipathies from ever arising if the pastor is wise enough to receive godly counsel. Again, by adding wisdom, diffusing criticism, balancing pastoral weaknesses, and indigenizing leadership, a plurality of elders can go a long way toward defusing the “us vs. him” bomb. g It better guards against an authoritarian pastor. There has been incredible damage done to many churches that have had an authoritarian pastor. Plural elders keep such personalities in check, and help to balance the rough tendencies of these individuals. h It better handles transitions between pastors. SBC churches see a turnover of pastors an average of every six years. Such a turnover leads to a frustrating continuity of the vision and can hinder a church’s long-term goals. Plural elders are better able to develop and implement long-term vision in a local church, and help the church to seek a leader who fits that vision when a pastor leaves. B. Cons a Plural Elders can experience an “us” vs. “them” mentality. As Elders will be trusted to handle some delicate situations in the church and help set the vision for the church, some will not agree with their directions. Such 8 a felling can lead to a division within the church and lead to an “us” vs. “them” problem. b Plural Elders have a temptation to become prideful. Sometimes the Elders can carry an air of arrogance about them where they see themselves as more important than others in the church. The Baptist stance on Priesthood of the Believer as well as the Biblical mandates for humble service should be enough to dismantle the arrogance any elders who become prideful. c Plural Elders can abuse their church appointed roles. There is the tendency and temptation for elders to become more powerful than what the Bible limits their roles to be. This can become a dangerous situation in churches that do not have a healthy understanding of congregational authority. If this abuse happens it can be difficult to address. d The appointment of plural Elders can turn into a popularity contest. Some churches that have transitioned to plural elders have placed unqualified men into the position of elder based solely on their popularity within the church. e Plural Elders can slow or even derail the God directed vision of a Senior Pastor. There have been some documented cases where a gifted Senior Pastor had developed a solid vision for a church and some of the other elders did not agree with it. f A board of plural Elders can experience deep personality conflicts. With more people involved in leading come more possibilities for personalities to conflict. Summary Points 1) The Bible overwhelmingly supports a plurality of elders. 2) The Bible also supports elders as both indigenous (local) and coming from the outside, with the ones who labor in preaching and teaching to be honored. 3) There are some incredible benefits to implementing elders into a church. 4) There are some possible difficulties with implementing plural elders within a church.
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