We begin in Ephesians 4–
(Eph. 4:11-13) It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
“Pastor” is another word for shepherd, and so this passage is quite plainly about elders. We see that being an elder is a gift from Jesus. The first test of who should be ordained an elder is: Did Jesus gift this man for service as a shepherd? If he shows little evidence of such a gift, he’s the wrong man.
One element of this test is whether the man does what shepherds do. In this passage, shepherds are called “prepare God’s people for works of service.” This doesn’t mean making demands from the pulpit–it means training, through example, through teaching, through mentorship, through recruitment. There are lots of ways to fulfill this, but shepherds are especially called to bring God’s people into lives of service. And if a candidate for shepherd has this gift, he should already be doing it. (Rom. 12:6-8 is similar).
We next turn to John’s Gospel–
(John 10:14-15) “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me– 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father–and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Jesus is the perfect exemplar of what a shepherd is to be. Does the candidate know the congregation? Does he care about people? Is he willing to make personal sacrifices for the church? Is service a calling or an opportunity for prestige and power?
This leads to–
(1 Pet. 5:2-4) Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers–not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.
“Not lording it over” is especially critical. Shepherds are to be like the Good Shepherd, not in the sense of his divinity but in the sense of his emptying himself, to take the form of a servant. Men who enjoy issuing orders a bit too much are not shepherds. Overseers are “eager to serve,” not to boss others around.
Another key passage is not even about elders, really–
(Acts 6:2-4) So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
The apostles asked the church to appoint men to be (probably) deacons. The requirements were “full of the Spirit and wisdom.” If deacons must meet this standard, then surely elders should, too–even more so.
“Filled with Spirit” means that the work of the Spirit in his life is plainly evident. You can see that God has molded this man to be a spiritual person. He has the fruits of the Spirit described in Galatians 5. Most importantly, God has poured his love out into his heart, as described in Romans 5:5.
Finally, the Bible uses three words to describe this office, and each brings its own nuance to the discussion. We can’t really understand the gift of being an elder until we understand the job.
Episkopos means overseer. In its ordinary sense, it means a supervisor or superintendent. It clearly indicates a certain level of authority, but this authority is repeatedly contrasted by the command not to lord it over the flock but to be a servant or even a slave of the church. Making management-level decisions is a service for the church and so must be done based on the church‘s needs and wants, not the elders’ tastes and preferences.
(Matt. 20:26b-28) Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave– 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The wise elder does not consider himself inspired to know all the answers. Rather, he constantly seeks input from the church–and not just from his friends and family. Maybe he takes surveys. Maybe he just calls around and talks to the members. Maybe he just interacts with lots of members. How else can he act as a servant? You can’t serve people you don’t know.
Poimen means shepherd and, in the New Testament, usually refers to Jesus. Psalm 23 is a pretty good introduction the metaphor. Shepherds feed, protect, and lead the flock. Shepherds leave the flock to rescue lost sheep. Shepherds know the flock and are known by the flock. Shepherds sometimes die for the flock. Lynn Anderson’s They Smell Like Sheep is a great book on the concept of shepherding. Buy They Smell Like Sheep
Presbuteros means “old man” but had a technical sense in Biblical times. In ancient times, cities were governed by elders, being older men trusted by the city’s residents to make decisions. They acted as a blend of city council and judge (separation of powers came much, much later!) Article on elders in the Old Testament
When the Jews were scattered about the Mediterranean world, they established synagogues that were overseen by elders, based on this model, essentially a city within a city. The Jews submitted themselves to be governed by Jewish elders in preference to be governed by pagan leaders, to the extent possible.
The Christian churches borrowed the term from the synagogue, and it clearly implies a certain authority.
(1 Tim. 5:17) The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.
“Direct” is translated “rule” in the KJV, which is in error. “Preside” or “manage” would be more accurate.
Christians often get into bitter disputes over how much authority an eldership has. Some have been burned by ungodly men improvidently appointed to the position, and so want to limit elders to having authority solely as examples. This is clearly not the New Testament’s description of the job.
On the other hand, some men want to be a board of directors, issuing edicts from the mountaintop, which is not right, either.
The balanced, Biblical position is that elders/shepherds/overseers are servant-leaders. And members of congregations blessed by such leaders rarely have to worry about just how much authority such men have.
Men who teach grace, who live love, and urge obedience to Jesus (rather than themselves) will rarely have to face a rebellion. On the other hand, even such men will at times have to make unpopular decisions, and the church is obligated to support them.
(1 Th. 5:12-13) Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.
The sad truth is that elders often have to make public decisions based on private information. A minister commits adultery and is fired. The elders elect to keep his sin a secret to help his family heal. The church wonders why a popular man has been let go. Rather than giving the elders the benefit of the doubt, they defend their friend. When the elders decline to explain their decision, the church feels confident they are hiding a secret and guilty of a cover up. Soon, the elders are forced to explain the sin, embarrassing the minister, the minister’s wife, the woman he slept with, his children, and his friends. The church’s distrust has hurt the very man they so wanted to protect–as well as increasing the victimization of his wife and children.
Elders do in fact sometimes keep things a secret that they shouldn’t. Everyone messes up at times. But those members of the congregation who assume that the elders are always wrong when they refuse to answer questions are guilty of a great sin. Often they are gossips. They are nearly always slanderers. And they are guilty of “grumbling” as the Israelites were–
(James 5:9) Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!
The fact is that an eldership cannot do the job God calls them to unless the church gives them the benefit of the doubt. If they don’t deserve to be trusted, they should be asked to resign. Otherwise, when you’re questions aren’t answered, assume the best, not the worst. And tell others to do the same. Act otherwise, and you’ll see good men resign and the congregation go into decline.
In conclusion, we have to get past the simple, tangible tests, like being married to one woman and having believing children, and peer into the candidate’s heart. It’s not enough that he isn’t violent. He has to be gifted to a very difficult task.
Now, no man will perfectly meet all these requirements. Rather, a candidate needs to bring his bundle of talents and gifts to the table to work with the other elders to form a leadership team that is, as a unit, all of this. This means that men who don’t work well with others, who don’t easily work as a team, who are stubborn or who little value the opinions of others, can’t be elders. It’s not a solo job.
Great, wonderful, Godly men are not always able to work closely with others, and such men should not be appointed. It’s better to appoint a man of lesser talents who can mesh with the rest of the leadership than a man of immense talent who can’t. There are other ways such men can serve–and serve effectively. No church can be united without a united eldership.