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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.

Community | 1 Peter 4:7-11

Sermon | Week 4


The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:7-11)

A new command I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)


Through the Western Meadows Values Series, we are studying the biblical values that we hold as a church. Jesus’ Great Commission is our foundation. With those final words, Jesus commanded His disciples to make disciples of all nations. Our Lord calls us to fill the earth with His disciples, His image-bearers, so refusing to do so is disobedience.

Knowing Jesus’ command is important, but it is also necessary that we know how to make disciples. Like our Christian walk, disciples are made on two levels: individually and communally. Individually, we make disciples through witnessing about Christ with our lives, sharing the gospel with our words, and teaching one another to obey everything that He has commanded us. Communally, we make disciples as the church through the proclamation of the Scriptures, praying together, and loving one another in community.

Since we have addressed the importance of Scripture and prayer, we will now study the necessity of community. Though there are many texts that describe Christian community, Peter writes one of the best. He emphasizes that godly love must be earnest, and it will display itself through hospitality and using our gifts to serve one another. While this type of community is evangelistic, it is predominately a means of discipleship, building one another further in their walk with Christ.


Read verse 7 and discuss the following.

  1. Peter states that we are living in the last days. How does this fact connect to both prayer and community? How does Jesus’ coming impact how we live now?

Read verse 8 and discuss the following.

  1. Why is it important that our love for one another be earnest? How does love cover a multitude of sins?

Read verses 9-11 and discuss the following.

  1. Peter describes two ways that we love one another: by showing hospitality and by serving. Why should our hospitality be free from grumbling? Are you hospitable? What things typically cause you to grumble?
  2. What gift has God given you to serve the church? How can we speak “as one who speaks oracles of God”? How can we serve in the strength God provides?


Because all Scripture profits us through teaching, reproving, correcting, and training us, reflect upon the studied text, and ask yourself the following questions.

  • What has God taught you through this text (about Himself, sin, humanity, etc.)?
  • What sin has God convicted or reproved you of through this text?
  • How has God corrected you (i.e. your theology, thinking, lifestyle, etc.) through this text?
  • Pray through the text, asking God to train you toward righteousness by conforming you to His Word.
Good Works | Sound Doctrine

Church Elders | Titus 1:5

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might… appoint elders in every town as I directed you.

Titus 1:5 ESV


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.