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Within the community of God’s people, God marks out certain people for responsibilities of care and leadership. The Bible refers to these people by a number of words, one of them ‘elders’. This is the word that the Old Testament uses for those in Israel who exercised leadership in the community (Exodus 24:1; Deuteronomy 21:1-6; Ruth 4:2-11; 1 Samuel 8:4; see RULER), and that the New Testament uses for Jewish officials who administered Jewish affairs through the synagogue councils and the Sanhedrin (Mark 15:1; Luke 7:3; Acts 4:5; see SANHEDRIN; SYNAGOGUE). It is also the word that the New Testament uses for leaders in God’s new community, the church (Acts 14:23; Acts 15:4).

Developments in church leadership

The first Christian church was in Jerusalem, and in its early days its leadership came from the group of apostles whom Jesus had earlier appointed (Acts 4:37; Acts 6:2; Acts 11:1). God did not provide these apostles with a master plan of detailed procedures upon which they were to structure the church, whether in Jerusalem or elsewhere. Instead he left them to respond to the church’s needs as his Spirit directed them. As the church grew, they introduced whatever organizational arrangements they considered necessary (e.g. Acts 6:1-6).

As the church expanded into neighbouring regions and countries, the apostles had increasing responsibilities outside Jerusalem. Soon the church in Jerusalem had its own group of governing elders, and these were distinct from the apostles (Acts 11:30; Acts 15:6). The practice of appointing elders was later copied in other churches (Acts 14:23), though there is not enough information to indicate whether the form of church government was the same in all the churches.

The New Testament speaks consistently of leaders in the churches, though it does not always give them an official title (1 Corinthians 16:16; Galatians 2:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; Hebrews 13:7; Hebrews 13:17). Even where the Bible recognizes a title, the emphasis is usually more on the work the elders do than on the office they hold (Acts 20:17; Acts 20:28; 1 Thessalonians 5:13; 1 Timothy 3:1; 1 Peter 5:1-3).

English versions of the Bible use various words for church leaders – ‘elders’, ‘overseers’, ‘guardians’, ‘bishops’. These names are translations of only two words in the Greek of the original New Testament, presbuteroi and episkopoi, and both words seem to apply to the same office and person. For example (quoting the RSV), in Acts 20:17 Paul sends for the elders (presbuteroi) of the Ephesian church, but when they arrive (v. 28) he calls them guardians (episkopoi). Likewise in Titus 1:5 he tells Titus to appoint elders (presbuteroi), and then in the same sentence (v. 7) he calls them bishops (episkopoi). In reference to any specific local church, the Bible always speaks of a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23; Acts 20:17; Philippians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:12).

Responsibilities of elders

Elders are likened to shepherds over a flock. They are the leaders of the church, whom God has placed over the church to guide it and care for it (Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 3:5; 1 Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:1-3; see PASTOR; SHEPHERD). Others in the church can help the elders by taking responsibility for many of the practical ministries of the church. In this way they give the elders more time for the important pastoral ministries God has entrusted to them (Acts 6:2-4; James 5:14; see DEACON).

All elders should have some ability at teaching (1 Timothy 3:2), though some will be more gifted than others, and therefore more occupied than others, in public preaching (1 Timothy 5:17). Through their own ministry and that of teachers from elsewhere, elders should provide the church with teaching that is upbuilding and protect it from what is harmful (Acts 20:28-30; Titus 1:9). Elders must therefore be people of discernment (1 Timothy 1:3-7; 1 Timothy 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 2:14-16; 2 John 1:7-11).

In addition to having qualifications in relation to gift and ability, each elder must fulfil certain minimum requirements in relation to his character and behaviour. As a leader he is in a position of example to others, and therefore his family life and public reputation must be of the highest order (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Any accusation of wrongdoing against an elder must be supported by witnesses. If the elder is proved guilty, he should be publicly rebuked, again because of the high standards required of those in positions of leadership (1 Timothy 5:19-20).

Appointment of elders

The Bible gives no specific instructions concerning how elders are chosen or appointed. In the case of the churches that Paul and Barnabas established in Galatia, the first elders were appointed by those who planted the churches (Acts 14:23). Normally, people should not be appointed elders too soon after their conversion, because time is needed for Christian character and spiritual gift to develop (1 Timothy 3:6; 1 Timothy 5:22). If a church is left without elders, it is liable to lose direction (Titus 1:5; Titus 1:10-11).

Those who have the responsibility to appoint elders must realize that only the Holy Spirit can really make a person an elder (Acts 20:28; 1 Corinthians 12:11; 1 Corinthians 12:28). They should also make sure, through prayer and consultation with the church as a whole, that those whom they appoint are those whom the church recognizes as elders. Church members must have confidence in their leaders if they are to respect them and heed their instruction (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; Hebrews 13:17). They should also give the elders suitable payment for the work they do and the time they spend in the service of the church (1 Timothy 5:17-18; cf. Galatians 6:6).

With the passing of years and the growth of the church, additional elders will be needed. Certain believers may recognize the direction in which their spiritual gifts are developing and desire to be elders (1 Timothy 3:1; see GIFTS OF THE SPIRIT). People in the church will recognize his gift; in fact, elders have a responsibility to train those who appear to have leadership ability (2 Timothy 2:2; cf. Acts 13:5; Acts 16:1-3). The example of the apostles in the early church suggests that the existing elders are the ones who make the appointment (Acts 1:21-26; cf. 1 Timothy 4:14; 1 Timothy 5:22), but before doing so they find out the mind of the church (Acts 6:3; cf. Acts 15:22).

Some may be tempted to avoid eldership because of the difficulties and tensions that come with it (1 Peter 5:2 a). Others may be tempted in the opposite direction, and try to use the position of elder to further their personal ambitions (1 Peter 5:2 b,3). Elders can learn how to be true shepherds of the flock by following the example of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for it (1 Peter 5:4; cf. John 10:11; Ephesians 5:25).

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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Elder'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. 2004.

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Sunday, January 19th, 2020
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