We want to make sure that we pass along some of the core elements that should be present in a New Testament Church today. One of those basic elements includes the New Testament’s teaching of a plurality of elders. The following texts are helpful in thinking about how elders should be qualified, how they should function, and how they relate to the congregation as a whole. As we move through more doctrinal elements, I’ll post key texts that give us direction on being biblical in the way we “do church.”
In Every Church
There were elders in every church (not just an elder in a bunch of house churches in a city). The fact that Paul is establishing elders in every church and moving on weighs against multiple “sites” or “campuses” who are ultimately under a single elder. These texts seem to argue against Papal and Episcopal forms of church government, even those found among Baptist churches in the multi-campus movement.
ESV Acts 14:23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
ESV James 5:14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.
Qualifications (see also the charts below)
Paul gives explicit instructions regarding elders, who must be “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2) and orthodox—“holding firmly to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to instruct in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Tit 1:9).
ESV 1 Timothy 3:1 ff The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
ESV Titus 1:5 ff This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you– 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He 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.
In Every Region
The New Testament indicates that anywhere churches were planted, every church had elders. These references to elders are made in a way that shows that this reality—that the churches had elders—was assumed and needed no discussion or explanation.
All the churches Paul and Barnabas planted on the first missionary journey, Acts 14:23
Jerusalem Acts 15:2
Ephesus: Acts 20:17–38 (1 Timothy 3:1–7; 2 John 1:1? 3 John 1:1?)
Philippi: Philippians 1:1
Crete: Titus 1:5
“the twelve tribes in the Dispersion”: James 1:1; 5:14
The dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia: 1 Peter 1:1, 5:1–5
The terms “elder” and “overseer” (bishop) are used in a way that indicates that they overlap in meaning in the New Testament, and the pastoral imagery from which we derive the title “pastor” also overlaps with the use of these terms. Thus, the New Testament seems to indicate that an “elder” is an “overseer” (bishop) is a “pastor.”
Acts 20:17–28: “elders of the church . . . shepherd the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers”
Titus 1:5–7: “appoint elders . . . . For an overseer”
1 Peter 5:1–4: “I exhort the elders . . . fellow elder . . . shepherd the flock . . . exercising oversight (plural participle) . . . when the Chief Shepherd appears”
1 Timothy 3 seems to lay out qualifications for two offices in the church, elder and deacon, and this is confirmed by Paul’s greeting to the “overseers and deacons” in Philippians 1:1. What we see in Acts 6 gives us a good model of how elders and deacons should serve, even though Acts 6 doesn’t call the seven deacons, and even though the Apostles, not the elders, are appointing the seven to serve. The following observations are instructive:
1. The congregation is asked by the apostles to identify men, whom the apostles will then appoint for the work. This points to elder-led congregationalism: initiative from the leadership, input from the congregation, approval by the leadership.
2. The Apostles seek help in service that they might devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. Pastoral ministry is prayer and the ministry of the word.
Qualifications for Elders in 1 Timothy and Titus
Elders in 1 Timothy Elders in Titus
3:2, above reproach 1:6, 7, above reproach
3:2, husband of one wife 1:6, husband of one wife
3:2, self-controlled 1:8, self-controlled
3:2, hospitable 1:8, hospitable
3:2, able to teach 1:9, 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
3:3, not a drunkard 1:7, not . . . a drunkard
3:3, not violent but gentle 1:7, not . . . violent
3:3, not quarrelsome 1:7, not be arrogant or quick tempered
3:3, not a lover of money 1:7, not . . . greedy for gain
3:4–5, manage his own household well . . . care for God’s church 1:7, God’s steward
3:4, with all dignity keeping his children submissive 1:6, children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination
3:6, not a recent convert
3:7, well thought of by outsiders
1:8, a lover of good
Qualifications for Deacons and Deaconesses in 1 Timothy 3
Deacons in 1 Tim. Deaconesses in 1 Tim.
3:8, dignified 3:11, dignified
3:8, not double tongued 3:11, not slanderers
3:8, not addicted to much wine 3:11, sober
3:8, not greedy for dishonest gain
3:9, hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience 3:11, faithful in all things
3:10, tested, serving if blameless
3:12, husband of one wife
3:12, managing children and household well
(HT: Jim Hamilton)