Guardians of Unity

After discussing the responsibilities and qualifications of elders, we now move on to the second office within the church: deacons. The ideas and traditions behind the roles and responsibilities of deacons are vast, diverse, and unfortunately often unbiblical. Much of this comes from the Bible’s implicit, rather than explicit, teaching on deacons; even so, the Scriptures remain clear about the deacons’ responsibilities.

COMMON, HISTORIC, BUT UNBIBLICAL BELIEFS

Before diving into the text, I think it would be helpful to briefly examine three of the most popular, yet unbiblical, roles of deacons both today and throughout church history. Like most things in life, these views on the deaconate lean toward extremes. Two of them diminish the office, while the third exalts it above the biblical presentation. We must fight extremes and walk down the narrow path to which the LORD has called us. We do an injustice to deacons and the entire church when we deviate from our biblical model.

Deacons: Elders in Training

This first false view of deacons is, to my knowledge, not as common today as it was during the early centuries of the church. Alexander Strauch gives a great history of this view in the endnotes of The New Testament Deacon. He says that “For over a thousand years the Roman Catholic Church relegated the position of deacon to an apprenticeship to the priesthood. The deaconate was an ordained position in the clerical hierarchy, but it was only a transitional step to the higher order of priesthood. Its significance was largely ceremonial” (160). Deacons, therefore, were often considered little more than elders in training. The great defender of Christ’s divinity, Athanasius, is one such example.

Deacons: Pastoral Assistants

Another prevalent view throughout history, that is still popular in some circles today, is the idea of deacons being assistants to the elders. This idea goes all the way back to Hippolytus, who wrote in the early 200s, “In the ordination of a deacon, the bishop alone shall lay on hands, because he is not being ordained to the priesthood, but to the service of the bishop, to do what is ordered by him. For he does not share in the counsel of the presbyterate but administers and informs the bishop of what is fitting” (13). Within this function, deacons both fell in authority and grew in it. In some places, the deacons were seen as almost more authoritative than even the elders because the deacons essentially functioned as their representatives. But in other places, the deacons were used for little more than serving the bread and wine during the Lord’s Supper.

Deacons: Ruling Executives

This appears to be the most prevalent view of deacons in the present day. Most often this is expressed in deacons who perform a mix of the functions between elders and deacons, both exercising oversight and serving. Unfortunately, there are also cases where “deacons have assumed the role of being supervisors of the staff and pastor” (Platt, 60-61). Platt’s assessment is that “this is not biblical” (61). Strauch agrees, “In many churches, deacons act more like corporation executives than ministering servants. In direct contradiction to the explicit teaching of the New Testament and the very meaning of the name deacon, which is “servant” (diakonos), deacons have been made the governing officials of the church” (9).

These roles are not biblical and, therefore, do not ultimately benefit the church. Having now glanced at incorrect views, let us dive into the Scripture that we might observe the correct view.

CHOOSING THE FIRST SEVEN DEACONS // ACTS 6:1-6

In studying these verses, we will first do an exegetical walk-through in order to get the overall message and intent of the passage. Then we will step back and create a biblical portrait of the responsibilities of deacons from what we see presented in these verses.

In verse 1, we find the setting of the scene for our text. In these days references back to everything that has been occurring in Acts thus far. These includes the receiving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (2:1-4), the salvation of three thousand people (2:41), public healings (3:1-10), persecution (4:1-22), signs and wonders that led to multitudes coming to the faith (5:12-17), and even more persecution (5:17-42). Indeed the disciples were increasing in number and doing so quite rapidly.

But with this rapid and supernatural growth also came conflict. Hellenistic Jews (that is, Jews that spoke Greek instead of Hebrew) began to complain that the Hebrews’ widows were being favored in the distribution of food, while their widows were being neglected. Thus, a crack begins to form in the newfound community, a crack that if not dealt with would destroy the early church’s unity. Unfortunately, this pattern is still true today. Most church conflicts and divisions are rarely doctrinal; they are ministerial and practical. We fail to serve people as they are meant to be served, and division is the result. How then are the apostles going to resolve the problem and keep the church united?

Verse 2 reveals the apostles’ plan. They gather together the full number of disciples, meaning every believer in Jesus as Christ was gathered to hear the plan of the Twelve. They begin by guarding their main responsibility: the preaching of the Word. Of course, overseeing the food distribution would not have kept them from preaching entirely, but it would have severely cut into their time to preach. Therefore, they knew from Jesus the danger of neglecting what is best in order to do what is good.

Verse 3 begins their solution to the problem. They tell the church to choose seven men to be appointed to this duty. There are many thoughts to point out in this verse.

First, the word duty is elsewhere used in the New Testament to mean a need or a necessity. The apostles, therefore, are not denying the necessity of having a food distribution plan. They just know that they cannot give their time to doing that work.

Second, they tell the church to pick seven men to meet this need. Because these men are the first deacons, we can conclude that deacons should be both chosen and approved by the congregation. Elders, on the other hand, were chosen by apostles and other elders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5) and then approved by the congregation.

Third, the men must be of good repute and full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will return to these two qualifications next week.

Verse 4 reestablishes the apostles’ priorities: prayer and the ministry of the Word. Just to reiterate, their commitment to these two tasks was not a belittlement of the food distribution ministry. The apostles simply understood the responsibilities given to them. Wiersbe sums up this thought well:

The Apostles studied the situation and concluded that they were to blame: they were so busy serving tables that they were neglecting prayer and the ministry of the Word of God. They had created their own problem because they were trying to do too much. Even today, some pastors are so busy with secondary tasks that they fail to spend adequate time in study and in prayer. This creates a “spiritual deficiency” in the church that makes it easy for problems to develop. (429)

Verses 5-6 tells us the seven men who were appointed to lead the food distribution needs of the church. Little is known about most of these men, but Acts 7 describes Stephen’s arrest, only recorded sermon, and martyrdom. Acts 8 also describes the missionary activities of Philip. They are chosen by the congregation, set before the apostles, prayed over, and laid hands upon, thus commissioning them into the ministry. The authoritative appointing was necessary because these seven men could not meet the needs alone. They were commissioned to lead and organize the distribution ministry, not simply do the work themselves.

Beyond the exploits of Stephen and Philip, we also know that these men came to be called the Seven in a similar manner to the apostles being called the Twelve (21:8). This is significant language because within this text we have the prototype for the two offices of the church. In Acts 6, the church had yet to spread beyond the walls of Jerusalem; therefore, the apostles acted as elders of the fledgling congregation. As the church spread from city to city, it became clear that the apostles could not directly lead every congregation, so they created the office of elders to continue the shepherding work of prayer and the ministry of the Word (14:23). Therefore, in a sense, elders are the successors to the apostles in responsibility but not authority. Today, the authority of the church comes from the Scriptures, which were written by the apostles, but the responsibility of the apostles to shepherd the church was transferred to elders even in their day. This transition is seen in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. In the meeting to decide whether Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised, we are told that “the apostles and elders were gathered together to consider this matter” (15:6). Furthermore, both Peter and John, although apostles, call themselves elders within their letters (1 Peter 5:1; 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1).

Since the apostles here are acting as the prototype for church elders, it also stands to reason that the Seven are the prototype for deacons. A few theologians (though I have not found many) argue that these men cannot be considered deacons because the title of deacon is not used. Yet the duty given to these men of serving tables is the verb form of deacon (diakoneo). Therefore, most theologians agree that these seven men were the first deacons appointed in the church.

THE BIBLICAL PORTRAIT

Since we have now walk-through the passage of Scripture before us and we know the historical appointing of the first deacons, let us now take a step back to ask the question: What are deacons responsible for the church? We know that elders are responsible for exercising oversight of the church, primarily through prayer and the ministry of the Word. But what about the deacons? What functions are they biblically supposed to play in the church? Below are insights that we can glean from our passage of study.

Deacons are servants.

This one should go without saying because the term deacon means servant. But clarification is required. Another word commonly translated as servant is doulos, which Paul is fond of calling himself at the beginning of his letters. Doulos, however, might better be translated as slave because it referred to servants who were the property of another person. Diakonos, on the other hand, is a servant for hire. Jesus’ statement that He came not to be served but to serve uses the verb of deacon (Mark 10:45). In John 12:26, Jesus uses the same word as both a noun and verb to describe following Him: “If any man serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” Jesus, therefore, came to deacon us, and now calls to be His deacons by following Him. All Christian, then, are deacons in a general sense, but what about those in the office of deacon.

In general, the deacons are examples and leaders in serving to the congregation. They are appointed to lead and meet the physical needs of the church, allowing elders to focus on spiritual needs. Alexander Strauch fittingly calls deacons “ministers of mercy.” Elders are called to ensure that sound doctrine is fed to the church, while deacons are called to ensure that church members do not go hungry for lack of food. Strauch has this to say about the importance of deacons as servants:

The laying on of hands, along with the early appearance of this account in Acts, indicates the significance and necessity of the Seven’s task. Some people might find it hard to believe that appointing men to care for poor widows and handle money would require the laying on of the apostles’ hands. Those who don’t understand why the apostles took this matter so seriously don’t understand how important the care of the poor is in God’s eyes. (40)

Deacons are ministers.

Minister is a common title for pastors. In fact, when doing my taxes, I find much “ministerial” language being used. While the title is not incorrect since elders are ministers of the Word, minister as an official title is better placed upon deacons, especially since the word is often translated as minister.

From these verses, we see that deacons are given leadership authority within the church. However, unlike elders, deacons have ministry-specific authority, not church-wide authority. Deacons are church officers, but they are not elders. Therefore, they should not function as elders. They must function as deacons, ministers who are tasked with areas of focus and responsibility. Gregg Allison provides a small list of these areas of ministry:

Practically speaking, deacons and deaconesses engage in men’s ministries, women’s ministries, youth ministries, children’s ministries, worship ministries, evangelism and missions, bereavement ministries, seniors ministries, singles ministries, sports ministries, fine arts ministries, mercy ministries (e.g., food, clothing, tutoring, medical aid), and the like. Because these ministries flow out of the office of deacon, those who serve in that office as deacons and deaconesses must possess and exercise the requisite authority to carry out their ministries. (247)

This authority to lead and organize ministries also makes deacons key disciple-makers within the church. As noted earlier, the seven original deacons could not meet the needs of the food distribution ministry alone. By necessity, they must have led others to serve the widows and orphans of the church. Likewise, deacons need not, and should not, fulfill their responsibilities alone; rather, they should train and disciple others to do the work as well. The work of discipleship is for every Christian, but elders and deacons as leaders must lead in discipleship. 1 Peter 4:10-11 tells us that we should use our varied gifts to the glory of God, speaking the oracles of God and serving by God’s strength. Elders are charged to disciple how to speak the oracles of God, and deacons are charged to disciple how to serve “by the strength that God supplies.”

Deacons are guardians of church unity.

This is an overlooked aspect of the deaconate, but the preservation of church unity was the very reason that these first seven deacons were chosen. Physical need led to cracks in the church’s unity, and the deacons were appointed to mend those needs. Anyabwile says that “Deacons were the early church’s “shock absorbers.” They absorbed complaints and concerns, resolved them in godliness, and so preserved the unity and witness of the saints” (21). Just as elders are guardians of the church’s doctrine, deacons are guardians of the church’s unity, which Paul describes as a primary characteristic of being the church (Ephesians 4).

What are the responsibilities and functions of deacons then?

Deacons are servants, modeling for the entire congregation how we all should serve one another.

Deacons are ministers, leading and guiding certain ministries within the church and discipling others in the process.

Deacons are also guardians of church unity, cutting off potential divisions at the source.

THE FRUIT OF BIBLICAL POLITY // ACTS 6:7

To close, we return to the final verse of our text, which reveals the outcome of the situation: God’s Word continued to increase, the disciples multiplied, and even the Jewish priests began to follow Christ. These descriptions are the opposite of the initial problem. An argument had threatened the foundation of the church, but the apostles’ Spirit-led structuring of the church resolved the disagreement. That is the fruit of biblical polity, a church structure where elders and deacons lead and serve together. While deacons may not be directly responsible for the ministry of the Word, their service to the congregation’s physical needs sowed the ground for the Word to flourish. Their lives display the Word proclaimed by the elders.

May God give us grace to obey the Scriptures, that the Word of God would continue to increase and the number of our disciples be multiplied!

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Guardians of Doctrine

In the previous study, we observed the biblical precedent and imperative for churches being led by a plurality of elders. We briefly addressed the three titles given to a pastor in the New Testament: shepherd, elder, and overseer, which over time have formally become pastor, presbyter, and bishop. Ultimately, each of the title refers to the same office, but they each represent different aspects of the elder’s roles and responsibilities. Those functions will be the focus of our study today.

THREE COMMANDS // 1 PETER 5:1-5

In his magnificent book, Sojourners and Strangers, Gregg Allison argues that there are four biblical responsibilities for church elders: leading, teaching, praying, and shepherding. While I do agree with his assessment, I would like to structure it differently. Instead of saying that an elder has the four responsibilities above, it seems better to say that an elder has one responsibility (lead) that is displayed in three primary ways (shepherd, oversee, and model), which then practically functions within two primary tasks (teach and pray). Leading is, I believe, the one overall responsibility to which every elder is called, and I will argue that shepherding and leading are two sides of the same coin. Following the example of Jesus, a Christian leader is called to be a servant and a shepherd. Pastors lead by shepherding, and they shepherd by leading. You cannot divorce the two concepts from one another.

Pastor: Shepherd the Flock of God

Within the fifth chapter of 1 Peter, the apostle begins an exhortation to church elders. He writes to them as a fellow elder and gives them one big command that he explains and qualifies in verses two and three: shepherd the flock of God. Of course, pastor is one of the three titles used for elders within the Bible, and it means a shepherd. A pastor is a shepherd, so the primary command to a pastor is to shepherd the flock, the congregation. But notice the wording of that phrase: shepherd the flock of God. A pastor’s congregation is not his congregation but God’s. The church is God’s flock, His people.

But what does it mean then to shepherd?

Psalm 23 is likely the passage that first springs to mind.

Psalm 23:1-4 | The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

The same imagery being used by David in Psalm 23 is the imagery being used by Peter here. A shepherd takes care of sheep. A shepherd guards and protects sheep. David is the archetypal shepherd in the Bible, who slew bears and lions to defend his flock. Pastors likewise must defend, care for, and nourish God’s people.

In order to shepherd well, a pastor must possess two qualities: a love for God and a love for God’s people. That may sound incredibly simple, but do we truly live that way? Because the congregation is God’s flock, a pastor cannot properly love them without first having a love of God. He cannot love what is God’s without first loving God. Of course, these qualities are not exclusive to elders; rather, the pastor is intended to model them before the congregation. After all, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). Each Christian is called to love God and love people. Pastors, therefore, are called to model loving God and loving people.

In an article titled Two Indispensable Requirements for Pastoral Ministry, Kevin DeYoung takes those two qualities one step further. He says that a pastor must like to study the Bible and must like his people. He uses the word like with purpose. A pastor must not only love God, but he must like studying His Word. Why? God reveals Himself through His Word. How can anyone truly love God but not enjoy studying His Word! And a pastor should not just love God’s people, he should like them. Shepherds like being around sheep, and a pastor should like being around God’s flock.

Overseer: Exercising Oversight

If shepherding the flock of God is the big overall command, the next phrase is a further explanation of that command: exercising oversight. A pastor, as an overseer, must exercise oversight over the church. Just as a pastor and an overseer are different titles for the same office, so exercising oversight is, at its core, the same command as shepherding the flock of God. They are each the same responsibility of leading God’s people, but they emphasize a different aspect of that leadership. A shepherd’s duty is to care and provide for the flock, while an overseer manages and guides God’s people.

What does this oversight look like?

First, exercising oversight means watching over souls. Hebrews 13:17 commands: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” While this verse very purposely does not target pastors specifically (instead applying to everyone is a position of leadership), it should bear tremendous weight upon the heart of all pastors. He must view this verse with joyful fear because every pastor will give an account to God for the congregation they shepherd.

This is also why a proper understanding of membership is important. Pastors must know who they are watching over, which people they are responsible for overseeing, because they will answer to God on behalf of each soul. James 3:1 is sage advice: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” As an elder, I will not merely give an account of my own soul to God (which is burdensome task indeed!), but I will answer to God on behalf of each soul within my congregation.

Second, exercising oversight means equipping the saints for the work of ministry. Ephesians 4:11-14 teaches us this principle:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

An overseer must equip the saints for the work of ministry. As a pastor, I am not a minister who has been called into the ministry. Instead, I was called into the ministry as a Christian, just as every Christian is called into the ministry as well. We all have ministries, areas of life where we are called by God to serve one another.

To discover those areas of ministry, we only need to ask a few questions. Are you a spouse? If yes, that’s an area of ministry for you. Are you a parent? Another ministry. Are you child? Are you employed? We have been placed in each realm of life by God for a purpose. And the role of an overseer is to equip the congregation for their ministries. We do not hire a pastor to do the ministry for us, but to lead us in how to minister throughout our lives.

Elder: Being an Example to the Flock

The third command that Peter gives is to be an example to the flock. Once more, this is not an independent command. Just as shepherding and overseeing are the same command viewed from different angles, so is being an example to the flock. Modeling maturity and godliness is the task of an elder, just as shepherding is for a pastor and overseeing is for an overseer.

When considering maturity, we should note that age is not the primary factor for being an elder; spiritual maturity is. Paul gave this famous instruction to his young disciple, Timothy: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). The first half of that verse is too often cited without the latter portion. Young pastors, because of their youth, have all the more reason to set an example for the flock in their speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity. In short, an elder must model godliness to the congregation. He must give an example of a life that is fully surrendered over to God’s will.

But elders must also model repentance for the congregation. No pastor is perfect and without sin; therefore, pastors will always have sin to repent of. Yes, they are shepherding God’s people, but they are also a part of God’s people, being shepherded by the chief Shepherd. Like all Christians, elders will fail and fall into sin. But the mark of a Christian is not sinless perfection; it is repentance. Christians are a people who repeatedly cling to the hope of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Elders, therefore, must model that hope via repentance.

TWO TASKS // ACTS 6:4

In 1 Peter 5:2-3, pastors are given three commands which correspond to the three titles: shepherd the flock, exercise oversight, and be an example to the flock. Each command is a different aspect of leading God’s people. Pastors lead by shepherding, overseers lead by overseeing, and elders lead by modeling. These are great overall ideas, but how does that look in the everyday? What are the primarily tasks by which a pastor shepherds, an elder models, and an overseer oversees? Acts 6:4 gives us the two most important tasks required of a pastor: prayer and the ministry of the Word.

As we will see when we study the responsibility of deacons, the apostles within Acts 6 are acting as prototype elders of the church in Jerusalem, and within that text, they also establish the first seven prototype deacons. Therefore, the apostles’ resolve to commit themselves primarily to prayer and the ministry of the Word must also be the heart of every pastor. The entire purpose behind establishing deacons was to defend pastors’ ability to focus upon praying and ministering the Word.

Above all things, pastors must devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. That’s not to say that an elder does not have other tasks that must be done, but being devoted means giving unremitted attention to these two things. If he can do only two things, they are prayer and the ministry of the Word. People often have a multitude of expectations for what a pastor ought to do, but the Bible is clear that these two tasks must be above everything else.

The Ministry of the Word

A pastor must be rooted in God’s Word. As an overseer, he oversees through the Word of God. As a pastor, he shepherds with the Word of God. As an elder, he models submission to the Word of God. As intimidating as being a young pastor can be, it also forces me to depend only upon the Scripture. I simply do not have the life experience or the time-hardened wisdom to say many things that must be said. Fortunately, I have God’s Word, which is the only authority worth asserting.

For the importance of ministering the Word to others, we only need to turn to the life of Jesus. The primary focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry was preaching the gospel. This, of course, runs against what we tend to assume. Our minds first go to Jesus’ miracles, but He performed those miracles in order to demonstrate the authority of His preaching. Mark 1:35-39 tells of Jesus’ disciples informing Him of people in need of healing, but He says to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out” (v. 38).

Furthermore in Mark 6 we find the account of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Verse 34 gives provides the background to that miracle: “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep with a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.” It is tempting to link Jesus’ compassion upon the crowd immediately to His feeding them; however, Jesus’ love for them was first displayed in His teaching them. They were lost sheep, so He shepherded them by teaching them the good news of the kingdom. Jesus, therefore, saw teaching as shepherding. This is even further enforced by Jesus command for Peter to feed His sheep in John 21:15-19.

The mark of teaching God’s Word is so important for a pastor that it is listed in the office’s qualifications (1 Timothy 3:2). Although there will almost always be teachers in the church who are not elders, the ability to teach God’s Word is a requirement for elders. Not all teachers are elders, but all elders are teachers.

Titus 1:9 reiterates this necessity while providing a twofold look at its practice: “He [an overseer] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Three points must be made from this verse. First, the ministry of the Word means holding firm to the Word as trustworthy. Second, he must be able to give instruction in sound doctrine. Third, he must be able to refute those who contradict it. Instructing and refuting are the two arms of ministering the Word. In shepherding terms, instruction is feeding the sheep, while refutation is protecting them. All pastors must feed the sheep by teaching the Scripture and drive away the wolves by rebuking false doctrine.

Prayer

The second task of an elder is prayer. Why is prayer a job requirement for an elder? Aren’t all Christians supposed to pray? The quick answer is yes. All Christians are certainly called to pray. Remember, elders are models of Christian maturity; therefore, a pastor should desire for all those in his church to pray like him. If this does not humble a pastor, he should probably examine his heart. Few Christians, pastors included, are strong enough in their prayer to confidently tell a new Christian to pray like they pray. Elders, nevertheless, must model prayer.

This does not mean, however, that elders are the only models of prayer in a church. Specific ministries of intercession are sorely missing in most churches today. In fact, I would urge each Christian to grow in intercessory prayer throughout their life. Too many older believers become disheartened in their old age that they cannot do the ministries they once did due to physical constraints. Aging, of course, cannot be stopped; therefore, we should prepare for becoming warriors of intercessory prayer in the years where our bodies can no longer perform many of their former tasks.

Elders, though, should not only model prayer for the congregation; they should also pray for the flock of God. Personally, I use either physical notecards or the app, PrayerMate, to pray for every member of the church. Placing each family unit on a card, I pray for three to five cards each morning. While that system is not required of each elder, it does ensure that each member is being prayed for by his or her pastor on a regular basis. Without this system, I tend to only pray for those who I know are in present need of prayer, but as a follower of Christ, I do not want people to only pray for me whenever I am in visible need. I want to be prayed for at all times because I need prayer at all times! How then can I not do the same for the congregation?

The danger of prayer is that it is so easy to neglect. Since most prayer happens behind the scenes, a pastor can be readily convinced of the need to focus on more “important” or showy things.

In terms of importance, seemingly random needs will always come to the surface at the moment of prayer. Unfulfilled to-do lists come to mind with a renewed resolved to see them accomplished whenever one becomes ready to pray. But there is no work more important than prayer.

As for showy things, it is all to easy, as a pastor, for me to neglect prayer in favor of doing things that will be seen by others. For me at least, it’s rarely a means of boasting; instead, I often fear that I will be seen as lazy. Time spent in prayer, after all, is time not spent elsewhere. By working prayer into my schedule, I must set aside more “productive” tasks. The heart is ultimately at stake here. I prefer the hands-on work because it can be recognized and affirmed by others; prayer, however, is between God and I. Prayer is work, but it is work without recognition and affirmation of others. Since pastors live before the watching eyes of the congregation, God was certainly wise in pairing the public work of teaching with the private work of prayer. When I teach well, I risk taking the glory for myself, but knelt in true prayer, I can do nothing but give glory to God.

Prayer forces a pastor to remember that only the Holy Spirit can change hearts. Pastors need to always be reminded that God shepherds His people through them. They cannot do the work of shepherding alone; they need the empowerment of the Spirit.

ONE PURPOSE // TITUS 1:7

To conclude our study on the responsibilities of an elder, I would like to journey into Titus 1:7 where we will confront the ultimate purpose of a pastor that has been undergirding the other two passages: “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.” Notice how the overseer is described as being God’s steward. A pastor must lead by shepherding, overseeing, and modeling through prayer and the ministry of the Word; however, he is called to do these things as a steward of God.

A steward is one who enacts authority on someone else’s behalf, to be a manager. Although a manager might have near total control of a store, he or she is ultimately acting in place of the owner. Thus, in calling the overseer God’s steward, Paul is establishing the pastors as the managers of His church. This ought to be a weighty statement. It is a reminder that pastors are watching over the souls of the congregation, “as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17). This burden is too great for one man alone to bear, which is why elder plurality is so crucial.

Though the nature of being a steward is heavy for the pastors, there is also a responsibility for the church to submit to their leadership. Within many churches where all decisions are finalized via congregational vote, the tendency is to provide the leadership with a set of boundaries and guidelines rather than obeying and submitting as Hebrews 13:17 commands (for proper usage of voting, read Members’ Responsibilities). In general, this seems to stem from the importation of the democratic ideology into the church. While in theory democracy looks just as helpful for the church as the government, the reality is that church and state are entirely different beasts. Democracy means “people-ruled,” and this idea works well for governments where people of various ideologies must work cohesively together.

The church, however, was always meant to be a theocracy (God-ruled). God, not people, must govern, rule, and lead the church. Democracy often leads to a people-centered mind, but the church must be God-centered. This causes many churches, under the best of intentions, to attempt to market themselves primarily toward reaching people, which is done out of love for others. However, the most loving action we can ever do is point people to God. Making churches that center around people in the end fails to love those people fully. Instead, let us attend and organize our churches for God, and as we point people to Him, they will behold the deepest spring of love. And it is the pastor’s role as God’s steward, therefore, is to turn the congregation’s gaze toward God, leading them under the sole authority of God’s Word.

Above Reproach

In the previous study, we observed the responsibilities of elders, namely, that they are commanded to lead (shepherd, oversee, and model) by devoting themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. Biblically, prayer and teaching are the two tasks from which elders cannot deviate. We know now what elders do, but how do we identify them? Within these seven verses of 1 Timothy, Paul provides for us the qualifications necessary for becoming a church elder.

BE MALE // 1 TIMOTHY 2:12

Before launching into Paul’s list of qualifications we must cover one that is implied here, elders must be male. While the implication is found in these verses, the justification is found in the previous chapter, 1 Timothy 2:12-14, which read, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”

In this text, Paul lists two prohibitions for women: teaching and exercising authority over a man. Far more debate has gone into these verses than we will have time to cover here, and I will not even approach the debate over to what extent women are able to teach in church. Instead, let us focus on the issue of authority. Clearly, the point of these verses is that Paul is forbidding women from exercising authority over men, particularly through teaching. It stands to reason that if elders’ are responsible for leading (aka exercising authority) primarily through teaching and if women are prohibited from doing just that, then women are not eligible to be elders.

This thought obviously runs directly against the mindset of our present societal circumstances, but Scripture is our authority, not society. Furthermore, God through His Word always desires for women to flourish. The same cannot be said of society. We must, therefore, resist the impulse to believe that God desires to keep women in subjugation. This prohibition is not a matter of subjugation but of structure. The same God to who ordered the act of creation by days is the same God who established His church with two offices of leadership: elders and deacons. And that same God ordered Christ as the head of His church and placed husbands as the head of their household. This God-designed structure is the reasoning Paul appeals to in verses 13-14, by saying that Adam was created first and Eve was deceived first. Because elders are the spiritual fathers of the congregation, women are excluded from this office.

ASPIRE TO THE OFFICE // VERSE 1

Paul opens up his discussion of the qualifications for overseers by stating that it is noble to desire that office of leadership. We have already discussed the significance of the office of an overseer, or elder; therefore, let us address three other words here are crucial to understand: aspires, noble, and task. First, the words noble and task are placed together. Task, of course, is a duty or a job. It is a work that needs to be done. Tasks tend to feel quite menial and boring, if not difficult and laborious. Few people enjoy receiving tasks and managing to-do lists, but Paul says that this task is noble. It is beautiful, honorable, and good task, a work that is beautiful to God. Aspiring pastors, then, should note that the office of overseer is both glorious and arduous, wonderful and backbreaking.

The beautiful nobility of this task should also keep at a distance anyone who thinks little or lightly of it. Anyone who thinks eldership is no big deal is like someone who says that maintaining a healthy marriage or being a good parent is no big deal. Those who are married would respond with something like, “Then you’ve obviously never had a fight with your spouse over whether to watch Shrek in English or Spanish!” And parents might response with, “And you’ve certainly never tried putting pajamas on a sick 7-month-old who thinks that the clothing is killing her!” Like the weight of two sinners joining their lives together or those same sinners being responsible for shepherding the most immature yet formative years of their children’s lives, being an elder is filled with challenge and danger. As guardians of doctrine within the church, they will have to give account before God for both their teaching and the teaching that occurs under their watch. If that isn’t scary enough, keep in mind that the New Testament’s harshest words are reserved for those who promote false teaching.

If the work is difficult but noble, what does it mean to aspire for the office of a church elder? Phil Newton answers this question well:

With our legitimate concern about egotism and pride, it is easy to shrink from the idea of someone aspiring to the office of overseer. Yet Paul’s word for aspiring points to the idea of someone stretching out their hand to the office with a genuine desire to serve the people of God. Lest someone aspire to the office for the sake of a title, a quick look at the character qualifications should squash impure motives. (114)

But how should an aspiring elder seek eldership? What characteristics should he be striving for in desiring the office of overseer? Thabitit Anyabwile suggests four traits to look for in potential elders: 1) Men who are regularly attending the church’s services. 2) Men who already appear to be shepherding members of the church even though they don’t have the title “elder” or “pastor.” 3) Men who show respect and trust in existing leadership. 4) Men who show a desire over time.

HAVE GODLY CHARACTER // VERSE 2-3

Next, Paul introduces a number of qualities that we will tie together with the term godly character. Each of these characteristics is meant to identify the elder as a man who is walking in God’s holiness. It is also important to note that these are qualities that every Christian is striving to attain, but elders are called particularly, and imperfectly, to model them for the congregation.

First, elders must be above reproach. Literally, this means that he is not open to blame and is above criticism. The Greek word here is different than the one used in verses 6 and 7 of Titus’ first chapter, but the meaning is essentially the same: blamelessness. But can elders truly be without blame, with no reason for reproach? Obviously, this cannot be fulfilled entirely in this life because Christ alone is one who makes us blameless and above reproach (Colossians 1:22). Elders, therefore, should model growth in sanctification, leaving behind sin, but when they sin, elders still model being above reproach by exemplifying repentance for the congregation. Elders above all must model what it means to cling to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Elders must also be sober-minded, which means that he is watchful and restrained. Anyabwile says that they “are free from the excessive influence of passion, lust, or emotion. The Lord calls his under-shepherds to be sober in their desires, feelings, and attitudes” (67-68).

Similarly, elders are self-controlled. Pastors must be able to moderate themselves, not giving free-reign to their desires and wants. They should model self-control because it is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23). Rinne sums this thought well: “In short, a Spirit-filled man is a self-controlled man” (21).

Elders must also be respectable, which means being appropriate, modest, and proper. Respectable is also used in 1 Timothy 2:9 to describe how women should dress. Just as clothing should be appropriate and modest, so should the elder’s words and actions.

Elders are also commanded not to be drunkards. This characteristic ties directly into being sober-minded, but by rebuking drunkenness, Paul is particularly emphasizing the need for elders to be sober from alcohol. Drunkenness is explicitly condemned for elders (and all Christians) because it leads to violence, quarreling, and a lack of self-control. Of course, we should also be careful not to draw lines that Scripture has not drawn. Paul is not forbidding elders from drinking alcohol completely, only from being intoxicated by alcohol.

Elder must not be violent, but gentle. Violent could also easily be translated as being a bully, a person who hurts others in order to have his own way. Gentleness is presented as the opposite of violence. A gentle person is kind, considerate, and reasonable. He does not bully others to get his way; rather, he is ready to graciously hear what others have to say.

Elders must not be quarrelsome. Pastors should not walk around looking for conflict (there’s enough unavoidable conflict as it is!). They should be peaceable rather than divisive. Remember that Jesus blessed the peacemakers as those who would be called sons of God (Matthew 5:9), while Paul calls unnecessary divisiveness grounds for church discipline (Titus 1:10-11).

Finally, elders must not be lovers of money. Greediness has no place in shepherding God’s people. Unfortunately, to witness “pastoral” greed, we only need to tune into the latest television evangelists. Jude calls these kinds of false teachers “shepherds feeding themselves” (Jude 12). Instead of pouring out their lives to make the gospel known, they twist the Scriptures to support their own gain.

BE ABLE TO TEACH // VERSE 2

Of course, I passed over a few characteristics that we will give their own section now. The first that deserves its own placement is at the end of verse 2: able to teach. This is a significant qualification because it is what makes the office of an elder unique. All Christians should seek to known by the godly characteristics listed above. All Christians should long to have godly families, as we will see next. And all Christians should strive to grow in maturity and remain well thought of by non-Christians. All Christians are called toward those standards, but not all Christians are called to teach. Elders, though, must be able to teach.

In the last study, we saw that elders are biblically called to devote themselves to two tasks: prayer and the ministry of the Word. Pastors are commanded by the Scriptures to preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2)! Teaching is a critical and primary function of how they lead. Rinne says, “God rules his people by his Word, so the leaders of God’s people have always been entrusted with communicating God’s Word” (46).

Practically, what does this mean?

First, all elders must be teachers, but not all teachers are elders. In a healthy, discipleship-rich church, there should be many more teachers outside of the elders, so we should never classify teaching as an elder-exclusive activity. But as the guardians of doctrine within the church, elders actively disciple teachers and vigilantly watch their teachings.

Second, not all elders will be called to preach before the entire congregation, but I believe that all elders must be able and ready to do so. Presbyterians, particularly, distinguish between two kinds of elders: ruling elders and teaching elders. They take this thought from 1 Timothy 5:17, which says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” While this verse does seem to indicate a pattern of churches appointing one of the elders to do the majority of the preaching, I do not think it is presenting two different types of elders. All elders are called to lead (or rule), and all elders are called to teach. In this way, the distinction between vocational and lay elders is not a distinct of type of responsibility but of responsibility amount.

SHEPHERD HIS FAMILY // VERSE 2, 4-5

I have grouped the next characteristics together under the title of an elder being a family shepherd. Elders are called to shepherd the flock of God, but more immediately they are also called to shepherd their own families. Paul is very clear about why this is important: “if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” The ability of an elder to lead shepherd his family is directly tied to his ability to lead the church. Paul gives three characteristics of how that shepherding should be.

First, an elder must be the husband of one wife. This is a tremendously controversial and much debated statement. Most theologians agree that this verse is clearly demanding that elders be faithful to their own wives. Polygamy, adultery, and pornography are out of the question; he must be devoted to his wife. Controversy arises over the issues of singleness and divorce.

On singleness, some argue that Paul is demanding that elders must be married; therefore, single men are unable to become elders. This is poor interpretations since both Jesus and Paul were single, and Paul urged people to remain single in order to leverage their time for the kingdom (1 Corinthians 7:8).

In regards to divorce and remarriage, much prayer and wisdom is required. Many men who were divorced before they came to Christ have been needlessly excluded from leading. Grace should stand in those circumstances. But if a man has a pattern of divorce and remarriage, he should probably be withheld from eldership. Divorce and remarriage are messy circumstances in the first place and, when it comes to being an elder, they should be slowly and prayerfully considered.

Second, an elder must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive. Keeping children submissive does not mean ruling over them with an iron fist. That would be contradicting Paul’s command to fathers in Ephesians 6:4. Submission refers to the proper ordering or structuring of the household. Children are called to obey and submit to their parents, honoring them in the Lord. Does this mean that children are inferior to their parents? No, it simply means that God has ordained parents to be His representative authority to them. Parents guide their children as stewards of God; therefore, the only lasting authority that parents have is the Word of God, raising them in the instruction and discipline of the Lord (Ephesian 6:4). Likewise, elders are in authority to the congregation only through the Word of God. Mark Lauderbach says, “An elder with no Bible is an elder with no authority.” And the same could be said for parents.

Third, the elder must be hospitable. I placed this one under family shepherding because hospitality is a whole family effort. Hospitality literally means showing love to strangers. Hospitality is an act of love; therefore, it is a distinctively Christian characteristic. I read an online article last week in which a former Christian discussed what she missed about being a Christian and being a part of a church. One thing she pointed out was the meals that she received when she was very sick, which her non-Christian friends have never done. Christians are marked by hospitality, so an elder should model that hospitality.

BE A MATURE BELIEVER // VERSE 6

Next, Paul declares that an elder must not be a recent convert. Or conversely, he must be a mature believer. The Apostle’s reasoning for this qualification is to avoid save the man from developing a puffed up ego, falling into the sin of pride. That fear certainly makes sense. A young, immature Christian who is thrust into being in authority of the church is easy prey for pride.

The question, then, is what is a recent convert? What does it mean to be a mature believer? Truthfully, these questions need to be answer subjectively by necessity. In cultures where the gospel is just spreading and being a Christian is incredibly dangerous, men may become elders faster than in cultures where Christianity is the cultural norm. The main difference in those scenarios would be urgency. When becoming a pastor means placing a bounty on your head, most people will not see the office of an overseer as a place to power grab. Therefore, every culture must be wise and prayerful in defining a recent convert and mature believer.

How, then, might we define a mature believer in our present circumstances? Since Paul lists the primary danger here as pride, we can also conclude that mature believers are humble. Anyabwile lists six questions to ask:

Is the potential elder a new Christian?

If a man has been converted for some time, how spiritually mature is he?

To what extent is the man given to pride?

Is he gripped with a sense of his own inadequacy and need for God’s spiritual protection?

Is the man sensitive to criticism?

Is he able to submit to others (especially other elders) even when he holds a different opinion?

BE RESPECTED BY NON-CHRISTIANS // VERSE 7

Paul’s final qualification for the pastoral office is probably the most forgotten as well. Elders “must be well thought of by outsiders”. What does that mean exactly? First, outsiders here is referring to those outside the church, to non-Christians. Second, well thought of could also be translated as bearing a beautiful witness or testimony. Placing these ideas together, we see that elders must properly represent Christ to non-Christians. They must live out their witness well, so that they do not fall into disgrace. Knowing the main idea of this qualification, let’s address a few thoughts.

First, one implication of this command is that elders will have relationships with non-Christians. They are regularly engaging with outsiders. This can be with family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc. Pastors must be connected to non-Christians.

Second, an elder should be respected by non-Christians. Is he respected by his neighbors? By his non-believing family members? By his coworkers? He should be.

Third, elders should display Christ to non-Christians. The prospective elder should constantly strive to make the grace, mercy, and love of God evident in his life and communicate the glorious truths of the gospel whenever the Spirit’s wisdom reveals an open door.

Fourth, elders should display Christ even when hated. Respectable character is, unfortunately, not always going to be met with respect. Jesus warned that the world has a tendency to hate Christians: “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19). Elders, therefore, must be ready to stand with Christ, come what may. The respect of the world should never trump our standing with Christ.

THE REWARD OF BEING AN ELDER  // 1 PETER 5:4

Let us conclude our discussion of elders by returning to verse 4 of 1 Peter 5, which describes the reward for being a faithful pastor. In this verse, Jesus is called the chief Shepherd, the supreme Pastor, and when He returns, elders who have been faithful stewards will receive the unfading crown of glory.

What exactly is this unfading crown of glory?

First, we should note that Peter does not mean the kind of golden crown of royalty that likely springs to mind; instead, he is referring to a wreath that would be placed on the head of triumphing generals and winners of sporting competitions. 1 Corinthians 9:25 makes this clear: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.”

A crown, therefore, signifies victory, triumph, and honor. It symbolizes the race well run and the fight well fought. It is the hope of celebration following the exertion. And like a race, a competition, or a war, the pastoral ministry is strenuous. To intercede for others in prayer is to willful pour oneself out like a drink offering. To ascend to the pulpit and proclaim the Word of God is to apply a heavier standard of judgment upon oneself. To shepherd God’s people as God’s steward is to suffer rejection as we so often reject God. The work of an elder is heart-breaking labor. But the reward for faithfulness is participation in the glory of Christ that will be revealed to us. In other words, we are rewarded by experiencing the radiance of Jesus’ glory.

Brothers, that is a treasure that no moth or rust can destroy nor any thief break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-20)! The unfading crown of glory is worth every pain, suffering, and heart-ache that this life can throw at us.

Two Tasks

But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.
Acts 6:4 ESV

In 1 Peter 5:2-3, pastors are given three commands which correspond to their three titles: shepherd the flock (pastor), exercise oversight (overseer), and be an example to the flock (elder). Each command is a different aspect of leading God’s people. Pastors lead by shepherding, overseers lead by overseeing, and elders lead by modeling. These are great overall ideas, but how does that look in the everyday? What are the primarily tasks by which a pastor shepherds, an elder models, and an overseer oversees? Acts 6:4 gives us the two most important tasks required of a pastor: prayer and the ministry of the Word.

As we will see when we study the responsibilities of deacons, the apostles within Acts 6 are acting as prototype elders of the church in Jerusalem, and within that text, they also establish the first seven prototype deacons. Therefore, the apostles’ resolve to commit themselves primarily to prayer and the ministry of the Word must also be the heart of every pastor. The entire purpose behind establishing deacons was to defend pastors’ ability to focus upon praying and ministering the Word.

Above all things, pastors must devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. That’s not to say that an elder does not have other tasks that must be done, but being devoted means giving unremitted attention to these two things. If he can do only two things, they are prayer and the ministry of the Word. People often have a multitude of expectations for what a pastor ought to do, but the Bible is clear that these two tasks must be first and foremost.

The Ministry of the Word

A pastor must be rooted in God’s Word. As an overseer, he oversees through the Word of God. As a pastor, he shepherds with the Word of God. As an elder, he models submission to the Word of God. As intimidating as being a young pastor can be, it also forces me to depend upon the Scripture. I simply do not have the life experience or the time-hardened wisdom to say many things that must be said. Fortunately, I have God’s Word, which is the only authority worth asserting.

For the importance of ministering the Word to others, we only need to turn to the life of Jesus. The primary focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry was preaching the gospel. This, of course, runs against what we tend to assume. Our minds first go to Jesus’ miracles, but He performed those miracles in order to demonstrate the authority of His preaching. Mark 1:35-39 tells of Jesus’ disciples informing Him of people in need of healing, but He says to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out” (v. 38).

Furthermore in Mark 6 we find the account of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Verse 34 gives provides the background to that miracle:

When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep with a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.

It is tempting to link Jesus’ compassion upon the crowd immediately to His feeding them; however, Jesus’ love for them was first displayed in His teaching them. They were lost sheep, so He shepherded them by teaching them the good news of the kingdom. Jesus, therefore, saw teaching as shepherding. This is even further enforced by Jesus command for Peter to feed His sheep in John 21:15-19.

The mark of teaching God’s Word is so important for a pastor that it is listed in the office’s qualifications (1 Timothy 3:2). Although there will almost always be teachers in the church who are not elders, the ability to teach God’s Word is a requirement for elders. To be more succinct, not all teachers are elders, but all elders are teachers.

Titus 1:9 reiterates this necessity while providing a twofold look at its practice:

He [an overseer] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

Three points must be made from this verse. First, the ministry of the Word means holding firm to the Word as trustworthy. Second, he must be able to give instruction in sound doctrine. Third, he must be able to refute those who contradict it. Instructing and refuting are the two arms of ministering the only Word that is entirely worthy of our trust. In shepherding terms, instruction is feeding the sheep, while refutation is protecting them. All pastors must feed the sheep by teaching the Scripture and drive away the wolves by rebuking false doctrine.

Prayer

The second task of an elder is prayer. Why is prayer a job requirement for an elder? Aren’t all Christians supposed to pray? The quick answer is yes. All Christians are certainly called to pray. But remember, elders are models of Christian maturity; therefore, a pastor should desire for all those in his church to pray like him.

If this does not humble a pastor, he should probably examine his heart. Few Christians, pastors included, are strong enough in their prayer to confidently tell a new Christian to pray like they pray. Elders, nevertheless, must model prayer.

This does not mean, however, that elders are the only models of prayer in a church. Specific ministries of intercession are sorely missing in most churches today. In fact, I would urge each Christian to grow in intercessory prayer throughout their life. Too many older believers become disheartened in their old age that they cannot do the ministries they once did due to physical constraints. Aging, of course, cannot be stopped; therefore, we should prepare for becoming warriors of intercessory prayer in the years where our bodies can no longer perform many of their former tasks.

Elders, though, should not only model prayer for the congregation; they should also pray for the flock of God. Personally, I use either physical notecards or the app, PrayerMate, to pray for every member of the church. Placing each family unit on a card, I pray for three to five cards each morning. While that system is not required of each elder, it does ensure that each member is being prayed for by his or her pastor on a regular basis. Without this system, I tend to only pray for those who I know are in present need of prayer, but as a follower of Christ, I do not want people to only pray for me whenever I am in visible need. I want to be prayed for at all times because I need prayer at all times! How then can I not do the same for the congregation?

The danger of prayer is that it is so easy to neglect. Since most prayer happens behind the scenes, a pastor can be readily convinced of the need to focus on more “important” and showy things.

In terms of importance, seemingly random needs will always come to the surface at the moment of prayer. Unfulfilled to-do lists come to mind with a renewed resolved to see them accomplished whenever one becomes ready to pray. But there is no work more important than prayer.

As for showy things, it is all to easy, as a pastor, for me to neglect prayer in favor of doing things that will be seen by others. For me at least, it’s rarely a means of stereotypcial boasting; rather, I often fear being viewed as lazy. Time spent in prayer, after all, is time not spent elsewhere. By working prayer into my schedule, I must set aside more “productive” and visible tasks.

The heart is ultimately at stake here. I prefer the hands-on work because it can be recognized and affirmed by others; prayer, however, is between God and I. Working for the approval of men is often the root cause of my procrastination of prayer. Prayer is work, but it is work without the recognition and affirmation of others. Since pastors live before the watching eyes of the congregation, God was certainly wise in pairing the public work of teaching with the private work of prayer. When I teach well, I risk taking the glory for myself, but knelt in true prayer, I can do nothing but give glory to God.

Prayer forces a pastor to remember that only the Holy Spirit can change hearts. Pastors need to always be reminded that God shepherds His people through them. God is the worker, and they are His instruments. They cannot do the work of shepherding alone; they need the empowerment of the Spirit.

Three Commands

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
1 Peter 5:1-5 ESV

In his magnificent book, Sojourners and Strangers, Gregg Allison argues that there are four biblical responsibilities for church elders: leading, teaching, praying, and shepherding. While I do agree with his assessment, I would like to structure it differently. Instead of saying that an elder has the four responsibilities above, it seems better to say that an elder has one responsibility that is displayed through three primary branches, which then practically functions within two primary tasks. Shepherding is, I believe, the one overall responsibility to which every elder is called, and I will argue that shepherding and leading are two sides of the same coin. Following the example of Jesus, a Christian leader is called to be a servant and a shepherd. Pastors lead by shepherding, and they shepherd by leading. You cannot divorce the two concepts from one another.

Pastor: Shepherd the Flock of God

Within the fifth chapter of 1 Peter, the apostle begins an exhortation to church elders. He writes to them as a fellow elder and gives them one big command that he explains and qualifies in verses two and three: shepherd the flock of God. Of course, pastor is one of the three titles used for elders within the Bible, and it means a shepherd. A pastor is a shepherd, so the primary command to a pastor is to shepherd the flock, the congregation. But notice the wording of that phrase: shepherd the flock of God. A pastor’s congregation is not his congregation but God’s. The church is God’s flock, His people.

But what does it mean then to shepherd?

Psalm 23 is likely the passage that first springs to mind.

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
– Psalm 23:1-4

The same imagery being used by David in Psalm 23 is the imagery being used by Peter here. A shepherd takes care of sheep. A shepherd guards and protects sheep. David is the archetypal shepherd in the Bible, who slew bears and lions to defend his flock. Pastors likewise must defend, care for, and nourish God’s people.

In order to shepherd well, a pastor must possess two qualities: a love for God and a love for God’s people. That may sound incredibly simple, but do we truly live that way? Because the congregation is God’s flock, a pastor cannot properly love them without first having a love of God. He cannot love what is God’s without first loving God.

Of course, these qualities are not exclusive to elders; rather, the pastor is intended to model them before the congregation. After all, Jesus said,

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:37-40).

Each Christian is called to love God and love people. Pastors, therefore, are called to model loving God and loving people.

In an article titled Two Indispensable Requirements for Pastoral Ministry, Kevin DeYoung takes those two qualities one step further. He says that a pastor must like to study the Bible and must like his people. He uses the word like with purpose. A pastor must not only love God, but he must like studying His Word. Why? God reveals Himself through His Word. How can anyone truly love God but not enjoy studying His Word! And a pastor should not just love God’s people, he should like them. Shepherds like being around sheep, and a pastor should like being around God’s flock.

Overseer: Exercising Oversight

If shepherding the flock of God is the big overall command, the next phrase is a further explanation of that command: exercising oversight. A pastor, as an overseer, must exercise oversight over the church. Just as a pastor and an overseer are different titles for the same office, so exercising oversight is, at its core, the same command as shepherding the flock of God. They are each the same responsibility of leading God’s people, but they emphasize a different aspect of that leadership. A shepherd’s duty is to care and provide for the flock, while an overseer manages and guides God’s people.

What does this oversight look like?

First, exercising oversight means watching over souls. Hebrews 13:17 commands:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

While this verse very purposely does not target pastors specifically (instead applying to everyone is a position of leadership), it should bear tremendous weight upon the heart of all pastors. He must view this verse with joyful fear because every pastor will give an account to God for the congregation they shepherd.

This is also why a proper understanding of membership is important. Pastors must know who they are watching over, which people they are responsible for overseeing, because they will answer to God on behalf of each soul.

James 3:1 is sage advice:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

As an elder, I will not merely give an account of my own soul to God (which is burdensome task indeed!), but I will answer to God on behalf of each soul within my congregation.

Second, exercising oversight means equipping the saints for the work of ministry. Ephesians 4:11-14 teaches us this principle:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

An overseer must equip the saints for the work of ministry. As a pastor, I am not a minister who has been called into the ministry. Instead, I was called into the ministry as a Christian, just as every Christian is called into the ministry as well. We all have ministries, areas of life where we are called by God to serve one another.

To discover those areas of ministry, we only need to ask a few questions. Are you a spouse? If yes, that’s an area of ministry for you. Are you a parent? Another ministry. Are you child? Are you employed? We have been placed in each realm of life by God for a purpose. And the role of an overseer is to equip the congregation for their ministries. We do not hire a pastor to do the ministry for us, but to lead us in how to minister throughout our lives.

Elder: Being an Example to the Flock

The third command that Peter gives is to be an example to the flock. Once more, this is not an independent command. Just as shepherding and overseeing are the same command viewed from different angles, so is being an example to the flock. Modeling maturity and godliness is the task of an elder, just as shepherding is for a pastor and overseeing is for an overseer.

When considering maturity, we should note that age is not the primary factor for being an elder; spiritual maturity is. Paul gave this famous instruction to his young disciple, Timothy:

Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity (1 Timothy 4:12).

The first half of that verse is too often cited without the latter portion. Young pastors, because of their youth, have all the more reason to set an example for the flock in their speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity. In short, an elder must model godliness to the congregation. He must give an example of a life that is fully surrendered over to God’s will.

But elders must also model repentance for the congregation. No pastor is perfect and without sin; therefore, pastors will always have sin to repent of. Yes, they are shepherding God’s people, but they are also a part of God’s people, being shepherded by the chief Shepherd. Like all Christians, elders will fail and fall into sin. But the mark of a Christian is not sinless perfection; it is repentance. Christians are a people who repeatedly cling to the hope of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Elders, therefore, must model that hope via repentance.

Why a Plurality of Elders?

Given that appointing elders in every town was Paul’s primary directive to Titus, it is troublesome that so few of us understand the biblical concept of eldership. In fact, thinking about a church’s elders likely conjures up either wizened old men or cultish organizations governed ruthlessly by a handful of men. As you may have already guessed, the biblical idea of church elders is something else altogether. Thus, I will endeavor here to give a brief explanation of biblical eldership and then a three-pronged argumentation for why I believe in churches being led by a plurality of elders.

WHAT IS A CHURCH ELDER?

Biblically, there are only two official offices within each local church: elders and deacons. That answer may be surprising, given the absence of a pastor. Well, allow me to explain. Titus appears to show that elders and overseers are different words for the same office. Paul first writes, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might… appoint elders in every town as I directed you (v. 5)”. In verse 6, Paul gives a general overview of the qualifications for being an elder. Verse 7 then continues to give more specific qualifications, but this time Paul uses the word overseer.

There is a similar occurrence within Acts 20:17-38. In this text, Paul is returning to Jerusalem in spite of his probable imprisonment upon arriving, so as he passes into a harbor near Ephesus, he calls for the elders of the Ephesian church to speak with him for the last time. These men are clearly called elders of the church in verse 17, but Paul also refers to them as overseers in verse 28. Thus, it is evident that elders and overseers are simply two words for the same role, but what about pastors?

It may surprise some to know that the title of pastor is found only once in the New Testament (Ephesians 4:11); however, the role and activity is certainly present. Pastor means shepherd, so a pastor’s job is shepherding. Pastor’s lead and guide Christ’s flock (the congregation), feeding them the nourishment of God’s Word. Paul uses the verb for shepherding in Acts 20:28 by commanding the overseers to “care for the church of God.” Peter also exhorts church elders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you (1 Peter 5:2)”, which is a command that he received from Jesus directly when He said to Peter, “Feed my sheep (John 21:16).” Finally, the verb is used negatively in Jude to refer to selfish shepherds who only care for themselves (Jude 12). Elders (or overseers) are, therefore, called to pastor (or shepherd) the church in which God has placed them.

Pastors, elders, and overseers, as described in the New Testament, are different titles for the same office, and those titles are important. Pastor emphasizes the leader’s role in tending to the church, primarily through teaching them the Scriptures. Elder connotes the maturity and wisdom that must mark the man of God. Overseer indicates the governing leadership that elders must possess in order to guide the church toward effectively making disciples. There is no pastor who is not an elder and overseer as well. Likewise, an elder is simultaneously a pastor and overseer, and an overseer is also a pastor and elder. Though various giftings might make one feel more like a pastor than an elder or overseer, you simply cannot divorce the three titles from one another. Each is essential for healthy leading of the church.

WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY?

Elders are pastors, pastors are elders, and overseers are pastors and elders too. Hopefully we now have a better idea of what the Bible means by church elders, especially since elder is used far more frequently than overseer or pastor. Let us, therefore, now address the issue at hand: why does Paul tell Titus to appoint elders (as in plural)?

Most Baptist churches today (which is the immediate context of my discussion) are governed by a three-branch single-pastor system, with deacons and the congregation sharing investments of authority in directing the church. Being led by multiple elders, each of whom has equal authority with the pastor, is an entirely foreign concept. This oligarchical approach is somewhat threatening in comparison to the check-and-balances of the U.S. government-inspired system we commonly use (but we will discuss the three-branch system later). Our authority, however, is based upon the Word of God, and we willingly allow it to dictate how we organize and lead.

I believe that the Bible teaches that local churches are to be governed by elders, meaning more than one of them. The title of elder is used nineteen times in the New Testament in reference to church leaders (beginning in Acts 11:30). Each usage in singular form is specifically about the office in general (1 Tim. 5:19) or a specific elder (1 Peter 5:1); otherwise, it repeatedly refers to the elders of various churches. In Acts 11:30, Paul and Barnabas are sent to the elders of the church in Jerusalem. Acts 14:23 shows Paul and Barnabas appointing elders in every church by prayer and fasting. The first glimpse of the authority of elders is seen in Acts 15, where we find the elders of Jerusalem gathering with the apostles to decide whether Gentiles must be circumcised. In Acts 20:17, Paul meets with the elders of the church in Ephesus one last time. Paul addresses the letter of Philippians to all the believers of the church with special emphasis to the overseers and deacons of the church (Phil. 1:1). In returning to our present text, Paul exhorts Titus to appoint elders in every town (Titus 1:5). Each city, therefore, possessed multiple elders.

Allow me to briefly raise a possible question: since each city had a plurality of elders, could they not be the collective pastors of different churches within the city? Throughout the New Testament, the only identification used for local churches is their city of location because there was only one church per city. Jerusalem, Rome, Ephesus, Philippi, and all others each had elders for the church that existed in those cities. With multiple congregations coexisting within cities, the logical adaptation of this principle to modern church life is for each church to have its own body of elders. Otherwise, if we wanted a New Testament-minded system, we would need to consider each congregation a piece of one large church per city with each pastor being one of the elders for the city’s church, which, for obvious reasons, would not work very well at least within our social context.

In summary, biblically each church was led, taught, and guided by a group of elders (also called pastors or overseers). There was no one man who led the church with greater authority than the others. Each elder is equal in authority to one another, and together, each reflecting the qualities listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, they lead God’s people toward expanding the kingdom of God through making disciples.

WHAT DOES HISTORY SHOW?

As we enter the second category of arguments, I pray that the biblical case was sufficient for guiding our understanding because submitting ourselves to the God’s Word ought to be the highest priority of the Christian. I hope, then, that I have outlined enough of the Scriptures to display what I believe is the most biblical answer to how a church should be governed: a plurality of elders. If the Scriptures do not persuade us, nothing will. Nevertheless, I will present an historical case for elder plurality, and let us center our historical discussion around answering this question: if having a plurality of elders lead the church is biblical, why do most modern churches not follow this model?

The New Testament gives clear indication that local churches were originally led by multiple elders together. One of the earliest Christian writings outside of Scripture, the Didache, urges churches to “appoint therefore for yourselves bishops [overseers] and deacons worthy of the Lord (15:1)”. In fact, the first notion of a single pastor system does not arrive until later with the writings of Ignatius, who separated the titles of overseers and elders from one another. In his letter to the Trallians, Ignatius writes, “In like manner, let all men reverence the deacons, and the bishop likewise, even as Jesus Christ who is the Son of the Father; and the presbyters [elders] as the council of God, and as the bond of the Apostles. Without these there is no Church (3:1).” Thus, Ignatius developed the idea of one ruling overseer with a council of elders and a body of deacons. It is possible that this concept derived from a misunderstanding of the usage of elders and overseer in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. As both texts are similar in their usage, let us observe Titus for them both. Paul commands Titus to appoint elders (plural) in every town, but in verse 7, Paul lists the qualifications of an overseer (singular). Ignatius and others may have read these verses as suggesting that each church should be governed by one overseer and multiple elders. Even though some people still appeal to this argument today, it seems highly speculative. Given the interchangeableness of the titles in Acts 20, there is no reason to assume that Paul is meaning different things when speaking of elders and overseers. In fact, the clearest reading of the text is to understand that Paul speaks of overseers in the singular because he is describing the position generally. For example, saying that plumbers should be able to fix a pipe gives no indication as to a number of plumbers; it is simply a general statement meant to apply to all plumbers. Similarly, this is Paul’s meaning in Titus 1:7. He speaks of overseers singularly as a generality that pertains to all overseers.

Regardless of the reasoning behind a single-pastor system, it quickly became commonplace among churches. The Catholic establishment of monarchial bishops who rule over churches became the predominate practice, which has led to a plethora of extra-biblical terms and hierarchies such as archbishops, auxiliary bishops, coadjutor bishops, and cardinals. Quite simply, this shift did not arise from nor was it submissive to the Scriptures, and the trend continued until the Reformation.

As Baptists, we will now approach the history of elder plurality within our denomination. In Elders in the Life of the Church, Phil Newton and Matt Schmucker argue wonderfully for a plurality of elders. The first chapter, written by Newton, presents the historical nature of elders and the Baptist denomination. I whole-heartedly suggest reading the book, which for Baptists the first chapter alone is worth its price. Newton explains that while a plurality of elders was never universal among Baptists it was not uncommon. He cites a few influential Baptist speakers in the 1700-1800s that reshaped the system. Isaac Backus and John Leland led the way. “Both men had been shaped by the developing colonial culture’s emphasis on the individual and had relegated the church to a secondary position relative to the individual (30).” The influence of the newly formed United States three-branch government is impossible to miss as, over time, the Baptists created a three-branch system within churches with authority dispersed to a single pastor, a board of deacons, and the congregation.

Allow me to close this section with Newton’s closing words of the chapter:

The past two hundred years have witnessed the demise in elder plurality among Baptists. Pastors have begun to resemble CEOs rather than humble New Testament shepherds. Their staffs are hired for their business skills. And their churches are run like big businesses, requiring the corporate structures of a successful company.

A candid look at polity in churches at large today raises questions regarding our diligence to conform to Scripture. Specifically, how well are Christians in the West doing in being different than the world around them? Are we acting as salt and light in our communities? Are our “family values” appreciably different from our neighbors? Connected to theses questions regarding the holiness of the church are the polity questions: Are our congregations nurtured and disciplined like their New Testament counterparts? Are our membership rolls inflated, and could this be contributing to our worldliness? Are pastors and staff members held accountable to anyone besides themselves? Might the alarming rate of immoral behavior among ministers be connected to the disconnect between church staff and a plurality of godly elders, both lay and staff? To put it plainly, I believe recent experience teaches what Scripture at least implies—that the holiness of a church is tied to its polity, just as faith is tied to order.

Our Baptist forebears sought to anchor their church structures and practices in the teaching of Holy Scripture. These stalwarts did not conform their churches to the popular designs of the day, but applied the truths of Scripture to forge a path for their heirs. In the end, whether or not Baptists historically practiced plural eldership is secondary. The primary focus for church leaders today must be to understand what God’s Word teaches, and then to order their churches accordingly. History merely serves to affirm the veracity of Scripture (36-37).

WHAT IS THE MOST PRACTICAL?

Having now addressed the biblical and historical arguments for and against a plurality of elders, we will next approach the pragmatics behind this governance. Obviously, the biblical case must be of prime importance with us always ready to submit ourselves to the Bible’s instructions, and though secondary to the biblical arguments, reviewing history is helpful in making informed and confident decisions.  With these two in mind, practicalities are also important to consider, and I believe that elder plurality is the most practical form of church governance available. With that being said, here are a few thoughts of pragmatism on multiple elders.

First, it strikes me as odd that many hesitate on a plurality of elders because they fear an abuse of power and authority by the elders. After all, the current model of Baptist churches was created to ward off such mistreatments. The obvious answer though is that if each elder matches the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 the congregation should have little fear that he would abuse his authority. However, if an elder is found to be severely falling short of those standards, Paul gives the actions to take in 1 Timothy 5:19-20. To avoid such scenarios, great care must be taken in ordaining elders to serve the church, which is why Paul goes on to say in verse 22, “Do not be hasty in laying on of hands”. The laying on of hands was the physical action used to signify ordination as an elder or deacon. If elders are wisely chosen, the congregation will be able to confidently trust their leadership, just as a wife trusts her husband to lead her.

Though abuses can (and unfortunately will) happen, the chances and effects of them are decreased with elder plurality, and the reason is accountability. With multiple elders all being equal in position and authority, each elder is more easily accountable to the others. With one person leading the church, accountability is diminished, and for examples, look throughout history books at the bishops during the Middle Ages. Take false doctrine for example. In a single-pastor system, the church is far more susceptible to wavering from the truth if the pastor begins to teach heresy; whereas, if one elder among others begins to believe false teachings, his brothers are able to correct and rebuke him while ensuring that the congregation does not follow after him. In short, elder plurality is not subject to great abuse of authority but actually provides greater accountability in preventing it.

Second, growing up in churches traditional for our time, I quickly became accustomed to the virtual parade of pastors that many congregations experience. The church of my youth saw pastors come, stay for a few years, then move on to another church or ministry. Though each pastor struggled to leave the church in a better place than it was when they arrived, I could not help feeling cheated. Most pastors gave little more than a two week notice of their exit, and without fail the vacuum of leadership undid much of their former work. Thus, each subsequent pastor finds himself building upon a partially demolished structure that may be fortunate enough to have a solid foundation rather than improving upon the work done by the pastor before him. The vacuum of leadership does much damage to even the strongest of congregations, so I have never understood why a pastor would claim to love the flock while not preparing for his absence. After all, love of my wife leads me to have life insurance so that she will be relatively provided for should I die. What plans do pastors have for their flock should the Lord take their life next week? Should pastors not be motivated by love to consider how they might care for the congregation even after they are no longer with them?

These are the sort of questions that haunt me as a pastor. I long to care and shepherd the congregation that I am to lead beyond my time with them, whether the Lord takes me elsewhere or to be with Him. Under a single-pastor system, the only solution is for the pastor to establish a meaningful and well-planned transition to his successor. While I think that such transitions are much needed, sometimes they are simply impossible. A plurality of elders is, I believe, a sufficient solution. Though elders are equals, that does not stop a vocational elder from assuming a larger portion of responsibility and work; however, in his absence, the church is not without leadership. The other elders will find themselves with heavier loads and shouldering more responsibility, but the congregation is still being led and loved. Having multiple elders is a pastor’s life insurance for the congregation.

Finally, the third largest practicality for functioning under a plurality of elders is that together the group overcomes the weaknesses of the individuals. If an elder is called to wisely counsel the congregation, provide leading guidance, and administer sound teaching of Scriptures, there is a likeliness that he will excel at one better than the others. Rarely is a pastor ever equally skilled in the three; rather, one or two will be his strength and the others his weakness. Establishing a plural eldership helps to offset the weaknesses of one man. If the vocational elder (the primary preaching pastor) is weak in wise counseling, there will hopefully be at least one other elder who is a stronger counselor than he is. In this way, the diversity of leadership helps to account for a single man’s flaws.

CONCLUSION

Obviously, the thoughts expressed above are far from extensive; however, I pray that they are a sufficient overview and summary of the essence of the issue. Elder plurality is, I believe, the biblical system of church governance. Regardless of cultural or historical tradition, we must ultimately submit ourselves to the Scriptures, trusting that God’s Word will not lead us astray. For more reading on this topic, I have listed several books that are worth consultation.