Part 5 of a 5 part Series…
Please refer to archived post for previous blogs. This is from a document written by a pastor from 4 years ago.
Who are Elders?
We need to understand that when the Bible teaches about the office of elder, it is not a question of younger people versus older people. The term of elder is referencing a spiritual maturity and not a biological age. The word from which “elder” is taken, occurs seventy-five times in the New Testament. Only nine times does it refer to the chronological advanced years. Twenty-nine times the word is used to refer to Jewish leaders in the Sanhedrin or the local synagogues. Twenty times it refers to elders in churches of various towns. So when we are seeking elders the question is not “are they young or old?” but are they spiritually mature? Are they seeking Christ-likeness?
So an elder is a spiritually mature man who is knowledgeable in the scriptures and able to teach them. He has been officially recognized by the local church for the purpose of oversight and shepherding God’s flock.
The definition and criteria of elders given in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 are challenging enough. We do need not to add criteria concerning a set age of an individual to the list. However, it would be unusual for an individual to be so trusted and known as a shepherding elder apart from experience.
The “elder” term is interchanged with “pastor” and “overseer.” In other words, we are talking about one group and not two or three different groups in a local church. As the pastor of Green Pines, I am also an elder and an overseer. Acts 20 makes this clear, when Paul meets with the “elders” of the church in Ephesus and tell s them to watch over themselves and the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made them “overseers” and to “be shepherds” of the church of God. In 1 Peter 5:1-2, Peter writes to the “elders among you,” and tells them to pastor God’s flock and to do so by “serving as overseers.”
Elders in a church may not necessarily be full-time vocational pastors. In fact, lay elders in a church would provide an important variable in church leadership. The New Testament seems to include or at least allow lay elders. Nor does an elder group exclude full-time vocational ministers. It would be apparent that the lead elder would be paid as he serves as the leader in teaching and vision for the church. This would be the person recognized as the lead or senior pastor and by definition of his task and qualification be considered an elder. The Bible has nothing to say about staff positions and associate pastors. Simple a person is either an elder or deacon or they are not. There are no hybrid positions with semi-authority. I would not recommend that current staff positions be assumed that they are elders. If a staff member is made an elder than they will go through the same process as a lay elder. Hopefully, if a person presently has the title “pastor” we know they already meet the scriptural guidelines for an elder. Members in our church should no longer bear the title “pastor” or “elder” unless they are recognized as such by our church.
The primary characteristic for elders would be a shepherding heart for the church. These individuals are driven by what is best for the church to be under Christ authority. A shepherding heart will also possess a compassion for the church.
The purpose of church voting?
As should always be the case in regards to church votes, the chief question is “What is God’s will?” The church is not lead by the will of the people, as might be a democratic government, but by Christ through his Word and Holy Spirit. As people filled with God’s Spirit, we are to surrender our desires and actions to the will of the Holy Spirit who indwells our lives as believers. There is a sense where God’s people can mutually sense God’s direction and it is made evident by the working of God that we see in each other. Therefore, the church vote is not to vote for someone or something, but to affirm or deny a course of action as God’s will. The idea of voting for a successful person or a popular person because they are willing to serve on the board does not regard God’s word or His Spirit.
What will Elders do?
It may be helpful to know that there are different models of Elder direction in a church. One model is called “elder rule” In this model, the elder body is the final authority under Christ in a church. This appears not to recognize the role of the Holy Spirit among the church nor practically allows the church to be the final authority. This model is not consistent with Baptist theology as a congregational church.
The second model is called “Elder leadership.” This model allows for the church to recognize and set aside their leaders for God-given roles. The church is the final authority as is consistent with Matthew 18.
The third model, I would advocate is really a variety of “elder leaderhip.” This is called “shepherding elders.” The authority roles are the same as “elder leadership,” but there is more emphasis on the type of heart and work of the elder.
The elders work together to provide oversight, teaching for the church and shepherd God’s flock. It is a picture of feeding God’s word by teaching, exhorting, and refuting when necessary. These jobs are not necessarily practiced among large groups but can include personal or small group opportunities. The elders pray for the physically ill (James 5:14) as they do for all the church (Acts 6:4). They are to disciple younger men and train some to be future leaders (2 Timothy 2:2). They are to gently exhort and encourage others by giving not only the gospel, but also their own lives (1 Thessalonians 2:7-12).
They are to work together for a spiritually healthy church. This may include guarding against spiritual or doctrinal error, determining church policies, overseeing church finances, ensuring pastoral care of members, giving guidance to ministry leaders, ascertaining the need for new ministries or to end past ministries, discipling potential leaders and ensuring a discipling culture, overseeing the corporate worship of our body, working to resolve conflicts among members when needed, and making decisions about the needs and direction of the church. Certain responsibilities such as finances or personal may be assigned to certain elders or committees to oversee and give a report.
The previous mentioned duties would require at least monthly meetings for elders to give a report and discuss each of these issues. These meetings should also involve group prayer for our church concerning these questions.
The role of the senior pastor among this group of elders is to take responsibility as the primary teacher as well as giving overall vision to the church. The other elders are to recognize the unique calling of one elder among the group of elders to perform these task. The senior pastor only has one vote as do all the elders so he is equal with them as brothers under Christ. The pastor is in a sense subordinate to the elders as they oversee the employee aspects of the church. In another sense, the senior pastor is the leader among the equals and the first among equals concerning the vision and teaching of the Word. There is a mutual submission among this group in these different areas.
These responsibilities will involve making decisions for the church that will demand spiritual insight. These men are not so much looking into the interests of the people as the dominant factor for decisions, but they are considering the interests of God to determine decisions. God has given the Holy Spirit to guide the church into the truth for decisions. In consequence, decisions of this group should be of unanimous consensus in most cases to demonstrate the submission to the Holy Spirit. If there is a differing viewpoint, the dissenter should be able to explain the spiritual reasons for the difference. The intent of the explanation will be for the other elders to understand, think through, and pray over the reason.
There may be some decisions that the elder group will recognize the need to present matters to the entire church for consideration. This seems to be understanding in regards to extreme church discipline cases as taught by Jesus in Matthew 18:18-20. Guiding principles for when this option is taken should be based on the harmony of the church and the particular matter at hand. For example, the approval of the budget is a matter that should include the entire body as it is a way to approve of a vision and doctrine that is the basis of the church’s identity.
How will Elders relate with the congregation?
Shepherding Elder model recognizes that the operating authority was given to them by Christ through the work of the Spirit in the congregation. All of the duties the elders possess are given by the congregation. An elder is installed and removed by the congregation. The congregational model is not perfect for we are in this fallen world and will be as good as the congregation submits to the Holy Spirit. Yet, the word of God in Hebrews 13:17 commands the church to obey their leaders. This command does not imply that leaders will be perfect and always lead right and wise. However, elders will give an account to God.
Once elders are recognized and chosen by the church, the congregation is to obey those leaders as an extension of obeying Christ. When a person has problems with authority they are also having problems with God’s authority. The mandate and enforcement of obedience is done by the Spirit of God and not the leader. Ultimately, the elders can lead only by teaching and persuading the congregation.
How will Elders relate to the staff?
There are varieties of relationships between the elders and staff among elder-led churches. However, in a model where the elder group is consistent of paid pastors and lay elders, the staff serves to follow the directives given by the elder group. The title “staff” is not coincidental for it relates to the shepherd function of elders. This paid group serves the shepherds in the overseeing task for the church. This paid group serves as the “shepherd’s staff” as the elders are ministering to the church by leading. The elder group may assign the overseeing responsibility over the staff to the senior pastor or to another elder at their decision.
How will Elders relate to the deacons?
Presently, our deacon body serves as a hybrid model of both a plural, non-staff elder leadership and as a group of leading servants working to preserve the unity of the church. Though this model has been a help to me the last few years it still has problems. For one, we need two groups dedicated to two different purposes. The deacons are a group of leading servants who are working at the practical needs of our body to ensure the unity of our church. These needs include building needs, shut-in ministry, technical needs of our body, pulling the budget together, preparing for baptisms and communion, benevolence, and a multitude of other needs. In many ways, the deacons are helping to communicate needs of unity to the elders and the elders communicating to the deacons. Deacons care for the physical and fiscal needs of the church, help create unity in the body, and support the work of the pastors and elders. In general, the deacons serve as helpers to the elders.
The elders are servant leaders who serve our church by humbly leading and overseeing our church. One of our church members gave the illustration of a restaurant manager and a waiter. Could a person be both a manager and a waiter? Yes, but they would tend toward only one of the functions. Chances are that a person doing both would not be great at both. So could a person be a deacon and elder at the same time? If they are qualified, yes, but both areas will suffer and that person will burn out faster. It is most likely that future elders will come from the present pool of deacons since they have already been recognized for their spiritual maturity. However, once a deacon is recognized as an elder they will depend on other deacons to perform serving tasks as their new responsibilities demands their time.
Another important detail is that the scriptural qualification is different concerning elders. The primary difference is found in the familiarity with scripture and the ability to communicate God’s word. Scripture knowledgeable brothers are the ones we should most naturally acknowledge and trust as leaders in the church. So as we are now operating, we are surviving, but it comes at a cost of deacons not giving full attention to serving. Another cost comes in the form of deacons being asked to oversee and lead, while not qualified for the task.
These are details for our consideration, discussion, and prayer. This document should not replace your own search in scripture for these questions, but to aid you. Deciding in favor of shepherding elders will not change our denomination, or make us more conservative. It does provide a helpful level of accountability and counsel for the church leadership. It does not answer all the problems that exist or may come in our church. Yet, it does establish clear authority for our church. It will not guarantee Holy Spirit leadership in our church. However, it goes in the right step of faithfulness and obedience to God’s word and a more likely model of Holy Spirit leadership.
Green Pines, I love you (even through my frailty and sinfulness). Thank you for your love as we pursue Christ together. May we be as holy as saved sinners can be.