What is an Elder?

What is an Elder?


The Head of the church is the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18). He purchased the church with His own blood (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 1:18-19), He builds the church (Matt. 16:28) and He loves the church (Eph. 5:25). Because the church belongs to Him, it is His right to determine what a church does and how it ought to function. As members of the church, we ought to strive to be obedient to Him and willingly submit to His rule. How does He exercise His authority and rule? He has entrusted this task to under-shepherds who are to lead, teach and care for the people of God. In chapter two of his letter to Timothy, Paul had provided instructions concerning public worship. In this chapter he moves onto the topic of church leadership. Who has Christ entrusted the leadership of the church to? In his letter to the Philippians Paul begins by saying, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons” (Phil 1:1). This verse reveals three groups in the church at Philippi, “the saints“, “the overseers” and the “deacons“. It is this second group that we will be considering in this post.

As you read through the book of Acts there are various references to the leadership of the local church. The first time in the NT we are introduced to elders in the church is in Acts 11. Paul and Barnabas brought a gift to the Jerusalem church for their time of need. It was handed to the elders (Acts 11:30). Up until this point, the apostles had been showing the leadership in the local churches (Acts 4:35-37; 6:1-6). On another occasion after a time of ministry in Lystra, the apostle Paul was stoned by a crowd and dragged out of the city thinking he was dead (Acts 14:19). After that, Paul and Barnabas went to various cities encouraging the churches. Then we learn the following, “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” (Acts 14:23). In Acts 15 an issue faced the church concerning Gentiles coming into the church. There were some who were requiring circumcision in order to be saved (Acts 15:1). Paul and Barnabas were appointed to go to a council in Jerusalem (15:2) where “the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter” (Acts 15:6). In Acts 20:17-38 Paul gives a farewell speech to the Ephesian elders (the same church Timothy was in). His charge to them reveals the pastoral influence and obligation they have to the congregation. After Paul bid the Ephesian elders farewell, he journeyed to Jerusalem. After arriving, Luke records, “On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present” (Acts 21:18). This again reveals the leadership the elders were having in the church. From these passages in the book of Acts it becomes clear that in the early church there were elders. The concept of elders most likely was carried over from the Old Testament (eg. Ex. 3:16; 12:21; Num. 11:16); however the New Testament changes the function of this role in a way that is applicable to the New Testament church.

So then, what is an elder? When used of this particular position and function, the word “elder” refers to an individual who serves in a leadership role in the church. The word elder draws attention to his spiritual maturity. It is the teaching and assumption of the New Testament that there will be a plurality of elders functioning in the local church. There are two other words used of an elder, an “overseer” (or “bishop”) and “pastor” (or “shepherd”). These three terms all refer to the same position, are used interchangeably (Acts 20:17-38; 1 Pet. 5:1-2) and provide insight into the nature of this role. Amongst the plurality of elders in the local church, one of them is usually recognized and gifted as the pastor-teacher (Eph. 4:11). This individual will labour mostly in the preaching and teaching of the Word of God, be devoted to the ministry and will be remunerated (1 Tim. 5:17-18), however other elders and gifted men can still preach and teach.


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