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What Are Church Elders?

what are church elders

This post is part of a series looking at Building A Healthy Church Leadership Structure and will look at what church elders are, as well as their role, responsibilities and qualifications. You can find links to other parts of the series at the end of this post.

Rather than map out what a church leadership structure should like, the New Testament talks more about the roles of people – specifically, elders and deacons. Because elders are mentioned in the Bible, a Church should have them. But what are church elders? What do they do? Are the elders in many churches the same as elders in the New Testament?

Some key questions I’ll cover in this post:

  1. Biblically, what are church elders?
  2. What is a church elders overall role?
  3. What would be considered church elders responsibilities?
  4. What are church elders qualifications?

Biblically, what are church elders?

Reading through the Old Testament, we can see that elders often seemed to be ruling figures in towns and cities, for example, Ruth 4:2. These elders were men of repute, integrity, proven character, wisdom and life experience. They performed the role of magistrates, mediating and deciding commercial and perhaps legal cases. This is important foundational knowledge to ensure our understanding of New Testament eldership is sound.

With the Exile, the Jews were no longer able to worship and sacrifice at the Temple because they were no longer in proximity to it. Even if they had been, the Babylonians had destroyed it. The synagogue came about during this time. Jews would gather to study the scriptures and pray. This practice seems to have continued historically and now forms the bedrock of many of our typical Sunday morning services.

Dr William H Marty, in ‘The World of Jesus‘, explains that the common practice was that any community with ten Jewish males could organise a synagogue. Each synagogue was governed by a council of elders, and would also have a ‘head elder’. It served as the spiritual, cultural, social and educational hub of the community, so the elders were the guardians and overseers of the traditions and spiritual health of the community.

When Paul is writing about elders in the New Testament, this is the role and people he has in mind in passages such as 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, which we will look at later.

What is a church elders overall role?

There are two Greek words used in the NT to describe a church elder role – ‘episkopos’ and ‘presbyteros’.

Episkopos is translated overseer or bishop in some translations. Five ‘episkopos’ occurrences in the NT. They are:

  1. Acts 20:28 which describes those called by God to be shepherds of the church.
  2. In Philippians 1:1, there is a clear distinction made between overseers, deacons and the saints in the church. Paul expects there to be leaders. The concept of a saint not connected to an overseer is alien.
  3. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 identifies character requirements.
  4. Titus 1:5-9 also details the maturity required for the role.
  5. 1 Peter 2:25 in which Jesus is called the ‘overseer of our souls’. In the same way, we are to shepherd churches in the way he shepherds us. We are under-shepherds. Jesus trusts his sheep to under-shepherds

Presbyteros is much more commonly used in the NT. In the gospels, it can mean spiritual forefathers; Jewish spiritual leaders (most commonly in the Synoptic Gospels); or an older person. In Acts, it refers to older, Jewish spiritual leaders, and Christian spiritual leaders

Acts 14:23 describes elders plurally to describe a group or team of elders. This suggests that the idea of church government and leadership being down to one individual – a senior leader or senior pastor – isn’t biblical. It also intimates that elders are the ones responsible for the spiritual government, direction and overall leadership of a congregation – they were not subject to any kind of council, board or another body within the church. Perhaps, sometimes, our church structure is shaped more by the corporate world than the scriptures. We have a Pastor/CEO, and a management team of church staff. Something for us to think about.

Scripturally, elders were appointed by apostles (in this case Paul & Barnabas) and this was a prayerfully considered decision.

Acts 16:4 shows that elders made governmental decisions considering the interpretation and outworking of apostolic wisdom and doctrine. The role of a church elder is one of spiritual governance and not just administrative. 1 Timothy and Titus show us that an elder is an older, mature person who functions as a spiritual leader in a Christian community. ‘Older’ does not instantly rule out people in younger decades, because someone who is young to one is old to another! But there is the sense of having life-experience and understanding that only comes through being weathered by the storms of life. A maturity that comes through experience is the key here – elders should not be ‘wet behind the ears’ or naive due to a lack of life lessons and exposure.

1 Timothy 5:17 shows us that elders rule. Some, but not all, teach and preach. There is, again, this sense of authoritative leadership and leading people into the things of God.

Hebrews describes elders as spiritual forefathers who set the example for others in their faith and conduct.

We can see from this that the New Testament understanding of church leadership structure is less about ‘what’ and more about ‘who’. This suggests that the ‘what’ is primarily shaped by the ‘who’, which is exactly how culture is generated and sustained. This aspect of creating culture summarises the duties and role of a church elder.

What are church elders responsibilities?

Simply put, church elders responsibilities fall into three categories: they guide, guard and govern the church.

Elders responsibilities include guiding the church by:

Their responsibilities also include guarding the church by:

Their responsibilities also include governing the church by:

Key elements of church elders responsibilities, then, is to:

With these things in mind, it leads us to the observation that in some churches, they do have a church leadership structure already with elders. But these elders do not describe the same role as the role in the New Testament, and may, for example, refer to the Church Board. This causes confusion and undermines what elders are actually intended to be and do. Perhaps in some of our churches, it is time for a name change!

What are church elders qualifications?

Listed here are the qualifications for church elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Episkopos and Presbyteros are used interchangeably in these passages. As we’ve seen, both words are describing the same role. 

Elders must be:

1 Timothy Titus 
3:2above reproach1:6, 7above reproach
3:2husband of one wife (this is talking of marital faithfulness, as opposed to gender)1:6husband of one wife (this is talking of marital faithfulness, as opposed to gender)
3:2sober-minded1:8disciplined
3:2self-controlled1:8self-controlled
3:2respectable 
3:2hospitable1:8hospitable
3:2able to teach1:9able to give instruction
3:3not a drunkard1:7not … a drunkard
3:3not violent but gentle1:7not … violent
3:3not quarrelsome1:7not be arrogant or quick-tempered
3:3not a lover of money1:7not … greedy for gain
3:4–5manage his own household and family well, care for God’s church1:7God’s steward
3:4keeping his children submissive, meaning, not rebellious, wild or unruly1:6children are believers (or “faithful”), not insubordinate
3:6not a recent convert 
3:7well thought of by outsiders 
 1:8a lover of good; upright, holy

Paul wrote to both Timothy and Titus and gave them remarkably similar person qualifications for this role. He was clearly convinced in his thinking what a church with mature elders with the right qualifications looked like – and didn’t look like!

We can see that potential church elders show such qualifications as:

The primary qualification for a church elder is Christlike character –  not gifting, anointing or knowledge. None of these indicates the spiritual maturity essential for this key role.

Some believe that God intends that only men should serve as elders. Others believe that eldership is a role open to both men and women. Both sides present scriptural arguments. As a church, you will need to work out your theological position on gender when it comes to eldership and understand that there will be many who disagree – even in your own church!

What disqualifies someone from Eldership?

Here are some practical tips to bear in mind when considering whether or not to appoint someone into eldership as a key part of your leadership structure.

When considering elders, go slow! Do not rush, and take time to appoint someone into the role. Here are some ‘red flags’ that warrant someone not being considered for eldership at this point in time. If these are resolved, and time shows they have genuinely been resolved, then consideration could be given.

In a similar way, people should be removed from eldership if they fall into gross moral sin in any of these areas.

These are the inverse of the biblical qualifications for church elders I outlined earlier. Red flag areas include:

Summary

The New Testament uses two Greek words that are most commonly translated ‘elder’ in most Bible translations. Presbyteros literally means one who is an elder, a senior, who is older, or more advanced in years. It was figuratively used about council members – in effect, mature, wise members of a ruling council or governing body. Episkopos literally means overseer. It refers to one who watches over, like an inspector, overseer, watcher or guardian. Church elders responsibilities can be summed up by them being those who guide, guard and govern the church. The primary qualification for a church elder is Christlike character –  not gifting, anointing, skill, expertise or knowledge. None of these indicates the spiritual maturity essential for this key role. Elders do not need to be employed by the church as staff. There is actually value in them not!

You can read other posts in this series here:

  1. The theology of healthy church structure
  2. What are church elders?
  3. What are deacons?
  4. Building A Healthy Church Leadership Team
  5. Fivefold ministry and church government
  6. The importance of organic church structure

I work with a number of churches helping them clarify their church leadership structure in terms of both the ‘who’ they have and ‘what’ they do. An organic structure is key to church health. Get in touch today if you’d like to find out more about how I can help your church.