God gives leaders to his church. These leaders are called ‘elders’ (E.g. Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5, 1 Peter 5:1) or ‘overseers’ (Acts 20:28, 1 Timothy 3:1). For the church to function according to God’s will, it is important that the elders lead in the way God wants them to. The Bible tells us a lot about what elders should do.
Every church should have elders
A church can exist without leaders, but then it is lacking something. Paul asked Titus to “put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5). So a church needs leaders.
In many churches, the main leader is a pastor. However, this word is never mentioned in the New Testament (except in Ephesians 4:11 in some translations). What we call pastor, in the New Testament is called elder (or overseer). In one instance a special kind of elder is mentioned. He spends a lot of time in teaching and preaching, and is supported by the church (1 Timothy 5:17). This description is closest to what we call a pastor. But you should realise the New Testament always speaks about more than one elder in a church. So a pastor doing all the work alone, and making all the decisions alone, is not biblical.
Every church should have more than one leader. There are many ways to organise a church, and different churches use different names for the leaders of the church. But using the biblical term ‘elder’ helps to realise what the most important responsibilities are for church leaders. For the Bible tells us what elders should be doing.
What should elders do?
1. An elder should be an example to the church
‘Leading by example’ is a popular modern management principle, but it is also a biblical command: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you […] not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3). This is an important reason why the main qualification for being an elder is not that he is bright, or well-educated, or that he has many spiritual gifts. The main qualification for being an elder is to be a family man of good character who leads a consistent Christian life (1 Timothy 3:1-7).
2. An elder should lead the church
He should be ‘exercising oversight’ (1 Peter 5:2) or ‘rule’ (1 Timothy 5:17). One example of this is that when there was difference of opinion in the new churches Paul planted, they asked the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to decide (Acts 15:1-2). Of course, when elders rule, the church members should be willing to be ruled. Therefore we read in Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls.”
3. An elder should teach
The Bible lists two times what kind of men should be elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:6-9). The focus is on character, and both times only one ability is mentioned: the ability to teach. Some elders might be called to teach the whole church, and others only to teach small groups, but all elders should teach. This emphasizes the importance of truth in the Christian faith. An elder should know what is according to the Gospel and what is not. He should be able to explain that to others.
4. An elder should give pastoral care
Peter tells elders: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them” (1 Peter 5:2). People go through all kinds of difficulties in life, and face all kinds of life questions. Elders should help church members to handle these issues in a way that honours God. In the Bible, this is often compared to the work of a shepherd who gently leads the sheep in his care. How the elder approaches each person is dependent on who they are (1 Timothy 5:1-2).
5. An elder should pray for church members
When the apostles (and the apostle Peter called himself an elder as well – 1 Peter 5:1) were getting too busy with everyday concerns, they appointed deacons so they could devote themselves to teaching and to prayer (Acts 6:2-4). Elders are especially called to pray for the sick in church (James 5:14). This emphasis on prayer as one of the tasks of elders is to remind us that the church is not dependent on the effort of man. We expect God to work, even when He uses elders to build his church.
What is the role of an elder in church?
An elder is an example to church members, he leads the church, he teaches, he gives pastoral care, and he prays for the church members. In doing this, he is both Christ’s authority in the church and under the authority of Christ. For while elders are shepherds, Jesus Christ is the ‘chief shepherd’ (1 Peter 5:4). Elders are Christ’s gift to the church. As they take care of you, you should respect them and pray for them.