The Office of Elder

The church exists wherever God’s people meet together in the name of Jesus Christ to worship God and to wait upon Him. As God communicates His grace through the Word preached and through the administration of the sacraments, God’s people congregate around that Word, and they have fellowship with God and each other.

The Word and the Sacraments, therefore, are necessary for the church to be present in its simple, spiritual, essential form. But for the wellbeing of the church, Christ, its King and Head, has made provision for its regulation and government. In the words of Scottish theologian James Bannerman, “Man is not the lawgiver of the Christian Church”; Christ is “the present Head and Continual Administrator of the Christian society.” And in the New Testament, He has furnished the church not only with the faith she must profess, and the ordinances that enable her to do so; he has also made provision for the government of His church through His own office-bearers.

John Murray reminds us that by investing men with authority in His church, Jesus does not curtail His own Headship, but rather establishes it. Jesus is exalted in glory, and He invests men with authority as under-shepherds of his flock. “The two aspects are correlative,” Murray writes.

This is seen in Paul’s exhortation to Titus to “appoint elders in every city” as Paul (Titus 1:5). By its very nature, this exhortation is assuming three things: the eternal permanence of Christ’s Headship, the foundational but temporary nature of apostolic authority, and the permanent validity of office in the church. In the light of the pastoral epistles, let us explore the significance of Christ-exalting and Christ-established office in the New Testament church.

A High Office
We ought to have a high view of office in the church. We ought, of course, to have a high view of every aspect of church life. Church membership is a high privilege and responsibility, as God’s people believe, confess, and live out their faith in the context of the family of God. But higher still, and, therefore, more responsible, is the role and office of those whose duty it is to feed the flock of God.

There are at least three indicators of the weightiness of the office of elder in the New Testament. The first is that the office is in the gift of the exalted Christ (Eph 4:11–12). Paul finds in the reign of the exalted Christ a fulfillment of Psalm 68:18, with its magnificent image of victory, exaltation, and benefaction. The conquering hero lavishes on his people the spoils of his conquest. Christ does that, too; as the risen, conquering Son, He gives gifts to His people to enable all of them to fulfill their ministry as the body of Christ. Can there be a greater indication of the weightiness of the elder’s office than to know that it is Christ’s donation?

Second, there is the fact that the office of elder is a direct consequence of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the church. In addressing the Ephesian elders at Miletus, Paul identifies them as having been made overseers of the flock by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28). Just as the Spirit commanded that Barnabas and Saul be set apart (Acts 13:2), so the Holy Spirit’s work is manifest in the setting apart of men to office. The proto-Deacons of Acts 6 were men “full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” not only as those who were indwelt by the Spirit, but as those who were commissioned by Him.

Third, office in the church is high and weighty because it is through the people of God that such men are appointed. The inward desire and aspiration of which Paul speaks in 1 Timothy 3:1 is balanced by the appointing of which he speaks in Titus 1:5. It is not in itself sufficient that a man should want to be a servant of Christ’s church; there must be a choosing, a selection, and an appointing. God’s people choose elders, and other elders gather to ordain and admit them to office (1 Tim 4:14). Maybe that is why John “Rabbi” Duncan, the Scottish Hebraist of the mid-nineteenth century said (tongue-in-cheek, perhaps) that “all Christendom becomes presbyterian on ordination day”!

All three of the above combine to describe what Paul calls “a noble task” (1 Tim 3:1). There is an intrinsic excellence in the office of eldership, derived both from its origin and its aim. It is the gift of God, and it is fulfilled in a task. Ordination is to a particular work; calling is to duty. The “task” of the elder is oversight and spiritual nourishment. The first of these is included in the word episkopos, or bishop. There is an episcopal function to the eldership, as Christ uses the elders of the church to maintain a watchful and prayerful concern over his flock. But there is also a work of pastoring, of shepherding the flock (Acts 20:28). That is perhaps included in the word presbuteros, which literally means someone older in years, but by extension also includes spiritual maturity and the ability to feed the sheep and lambs of the Great Shepherd (1 Pet 5:1–5).

A High Standard
Common to the epistles to Timothy and to Titus is a clear statement of the basic requirements of those who would be appointed to office in the church of Jesus Christ. These requirements are “necessary” (1 Tim 3:2). Without them, the people of God are exposed to danger and neglect. They require the careful appraisal of prospective elders and deacons, including candidates for ministry.

It is worth noting one or two general points. First, Paul assumes that elders will be male, heterosexual, evangelical believers. Office in the church is not a social status, nor is it open to females, nor is it open to homosexuals. These are the very points that defy the political correctness of contemporary society, with its clamor for human rights and equal opportunities. The gospel calls all without exception to come to Christ, but it does not affirm any and every lifestyle. And when it comes to office in the church, the New Testament includes among the qualifications for office that overseers be men, and, if they are married, that they be married to women.

Second, there is virtually no difference between the requirements for elders in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. The same basic standards are laid down as the requirements for both offices. But by its very nature a standard excludes as well as includes; Calvin’s remark, therefore, is apposite: “that it might not be thought that, by excluding women only, [Paul] admitted all men indiscriminately” (Commentary on 1 Timothy 3). No women does not mean any man!

Third, there is little in the qualifications that is extraordinary. Paul does not call for elders to have academic qualifications to the highest doctoral level; nor does he insist that extraordinary gifts be evident. The phenomena of Acts—such as tongues-speaking or healing gifts—are not included. The requirements are actually what one would expect of any professing Christian; just that they ought to be present to an exemplary degree. The people of God ought to be able to look at their spiritual overseers and say, “That is the kind of Christian I ought to be.”

In the light of this, we might note that the qualifications themselves fall into three categories: theological, spiritual, and relational. First, elders ought to know the truth about God. The prohibition about a “recent convert” not being made an overseer (1 Tim 3:6) points to the need for the prospective elder to have had time to grow in grace and in knowledge of the things of God. The theological requirement is made explicit in the need for an overseer to be “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2), and also in the need for him to distinguish between sound doctrine and false (Titus 1:9).

Second, elders ought to have experience of the grace of God. That is to say, their knowledge ought to be much more than an intellectual exercise; it is possible for any of us simply to rest in knowing about God without knowing God in any intimate or spiritual sense. But when it comes to office in the church, the New Testament is insistent: to be an elder among God’s people requires a living experience of God’s grace.

Such is evident in the personal and spiritual traits that are to distinguish the overseers of God’s people. Self-control and gentleness (1 Tim 3:3) blossom as the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23). In Titus 1:8, Paul uses the adjectives “righteous” and “holy” to describe these office-bearers. He could hardly be more explicit: among the basic requirements for elders in the church is the need to have a living experience of God that manifests itself in personal piety and prayerfulness. If a man loves too much wine, or is greedy for more money, then his suitability for office in the church ought to be questioned. Indeed, the quarreling itself makes his suitability questionable.

Third, elders ought to be living to the glory of God. The arena in which the elders are tested is not simply the church; Paul asks us to bear in mind that the way a man is in his social relationships is itself an indicator of his relationship to God. That is why a man’s marriage and family life are important in this connection. Is this man everything a loving and faithful husband ought to be? Does he exemplify the characteristics of a loving Christian father?

Important also are a man’s relationships within society and community. There, in his daily life and occupation, he ought to be “above reproach” (1 Tim 3:2) and hospitable (1 Tim 3:3; Titus 1:8). He ought to be able to argue without quarreling, and to quarrel without being violent (1 Tim 3:3). Paul is not asking us to find perfect saints and make them overseers; but he is asking us to find exemplary ones, saints who are the embodiment of the transforming power of grace. This fact is highlighted in Titus 1:10-16, where Paul mentions some cultural norms in Crete and says that if Cretans live down to their own reputations, they are unfit for the work of the kingdom, and must be rebuked. But if grace has done its work, and these men live up to the calling of the kingdom of God, then their fitness for office in the church is beyond question.  

A High Service
There is another aspect to all of this. In all his discussion of the role of elders in the pastoral epistles, Paul use the distinct language of service. He talks about “caring for God’s church” (1 Tim 3:5) and about the elder’s being “God’s steward” (Titus 1:7). The oikonomos (steward of the house) serves the will of the master, making sure that the affairs of his house are all in order. Joseph had this role in the house of Potiphar (Gen 39:4), a slave entrusted with the oversight of the domestic affairs of his master. That service includes hospitality, which implies a sharing of one’s resources and time with others.

It also includes teaching, and exhorting “in sound doctrine” (Titus 1:9). Elders serve the church by opening the riches of God’s truth and instructing God’s people in what they are to know, believe, and profess. The language that Paul consistently uses, therefore, in the discussion of eldership, is the language of service.

What he does not use is the language of leadership. Yet, today’s evangelical church has become overly fond of the terminology of leadership. We talk about church leaders where Paul talks about elders; we talk about leading the congregation where Paul talks about serving it. I am aware of only one place in the New Testament where the language comes remotely close to the concept of  leadership: Hebrews 13:17, where God’s people are to “obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls.” But even there, the exhortation is to the people to submit, not to the elders to act with modern notions of leadership.

All of this leads me to ask whether it might be time to return to the older language of service and ministry in connection with office in the church, and jettison our talk of church leadership and strategies for leadership. At the end of the day, eldership is a very specific and nuanced kind of leadership: one that operates by service and example, rather than by strategy and goals.

Little wonder Paul exclaimed, “Who is adequate for these things?” (2 Cor 2:16), and could only answer, “our adequacy is from God” (2 Cor 3:5).

*This article originally appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of Expositor magazine.

Iain D. Campbell is senior minister of Point Free Church, a congregation of the Free Church of Scotland on the Isle of Lewis. He is author of numerous articles and books, including I Am: Exploring the ‘I Am’ Sayings of John’s Gospel.

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