Elders and Biblical Church Leadership

In the book of Titus, the apostle Paul is writing to a younger pastor who had been placed in charge of the churches on the island of Crete, which is in the Mediterranean Sea south of mainland Greece.

Chief among the tasks that Titus had been given was the appointment of elders in all of the churches. In Titus 1:5-9 we find explicit instructions about God’s plan for spiritual leadership in the church, and it is as applicable in our day as it was in Titus’.

In this passage we read:

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—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. 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, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 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.

So, with these verses in Titus 1 as our primary passage for understanding biblical eldership, let’s explore a number of relevant questions regarding leadership in the local church.

WHAT IS AN ELDER?

The reason Paul left Titus in Crete was so that he could “put what remained into order” for the churches, and this meant he would need to “appoint elders in every town” as Paul had directed.

Clearly, Titus knows exactly what Paul means because Paul doesn’t have to explain here in this epistle what an elder is. Titus has already been taught about this. And so we have to do a bit of study outside of Titus 1 in order to rightly understand the term elder.

Several Titles, One Office

One of the most critical truths to grasp is that in the New Testament the terms elder, overseer, and pastor all refer to the same office. There are only two offices for the church mentioned in the Bible – elders and deacons – and those who occupy the office of elder are referred to a few different ways.

Interestingly, although “pastor” is the most commonly used term today, it is the least frequent term for this office in the New Testament. In fact, as a noun, the Greek word we translate as “pastor” occurs only in Ephesians 4:11. However, the verb form of that same word, which we translate as “shepherd” occurs often as a way of describing the work of the spiritual leader.

Greek has only one word for shepherd and pastor. It’s the same word, and a shepherd is one who leads sheep to pasture. Pasture, pastor, you can hear the connection.

In our own passage, we see Paul use elder, shepherd, and overseer interchangeably.

The same is true for 1 Peter 5:1-2:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd [verb form of Pastor] the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight [verb form of Overseer], not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly.

We see the same thing occur in Acts 20:17-38 where the elders are referred to as overseers and they are called to “shepherd” the church in Ephesus. And it’s not just about how titles are used interchangeably in the same passage, but also how the duties of the office are attributed consistently regardless of the title being used at the time.

As John MacArthur summarizes: “As numerous passages in the New Testament indicate, the words ‘elder’ (presbuteros), ‘overseer’ (episkopos), and ‘pastor’ (poimen) all refer to the same office. In other words, overseers and pastors are not distinct from elders; the terms are simply different ways of identifying the same people.”

Plurality of Elders

The second truth we want to understand clearly is that the biblical model for church leadership is a plurality of elders. When Paul instructs Titus to appoint elders in every town, we know from the grammar and other passages of Scripture that he means multiple elders for each church.

Every time the New Testament speaks of leadership in the local church, it is in the plural – as in there are multiple elders for each church.

  • For example, in Acts 14:23 says elders (plural) were appointed in each church in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch
  • James 5:14 says to call the elders (plural) of the church to pray for the sick
  • Philippians is addressed to the saints in Philippi, together with the overseers (plural) and the deacons (also plural)

It bears repeating that every single time the New Testament speaks of the leadership of the local church it does so in reference to a plurality of elders in each one.

Having a plurality of godly men serving as elders is the biblical model of church leadership. It is also very practical. By having multiple shepherds, the flock can be better cared for. The elders are able to hold one another accountable to the responsibilities of the office, share the burden of those responsibilities, and exercise their unique gifts to better serve the church.

But how can you know who the elders should be? We have answered the question “What is an elder?” Next, we will consider the question of who is qualified to be an elder.

WHO IS QUALIFIED TO BE AN ELDER?

First, we must be clear that God has reserved the role of elder for men. The ever-decreasing popularity of that truth does not alter it, and Christians should never allow themselves to begin thinking that they have a better way of doing things than what God has laid out in His Word.

We see in our passage today – which refers to the qualified elder as being the husband of one wife – that male eldership is assumed. We see in passages such as 1 Timothy 2:11-14 that male spiritual leadership in the church is prescribed.

That of course does not mean that women should not exercise their spiritual gifts, only that all Christians – both men and women – are to humbly commit to doing so within the patterns that God has ordained. And God has clearly ordained that the role of elder/overseer/pastor is uniquely reserved for men.

However, that doesn’t mean that every male Christian is qualified to serve as an elder. And the primary focus of our passage is making clear what does qualify a man to serve the Lord and His church in this capacity.

Do not miss the fact that, except for in verse 9, all of the qualifications we are about to review have to do with character and not skillset. This is why 1 Timothy 5:22 warns “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” – which is to say do not be too quick to appoint an elder lest you appoint one who is not qualified. You must be confident that they meet the biblical qualifications.

Look at Titus 1:6-8:

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. 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, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.

Let’s briefly consider each of these qualifications.

Above Reproach

You’ll notice that this is mentioned both in verse 6 and again in verse 7. This phrase does not mean being faultless but indicates that the person does not make themselves open to attack by their conduct.

Being above reproach includes not only being free from scandal and suspicion but in being seen as someone who actively takes steps to prevent being put in a compromising position. He has an earned reputation for righteous living.

In a way, the remaining characteristics simply expand on and describe being above reproach.

Husband of One Wife

Literally, in Greek this phrase says an elder must be a “one-woman man.” This requirement does not seem to indicate that a leader in the church must be married or apply only as an exclusion of polygamy (having multiple wives).

Instead, it has to do with complete faithfulness to your wife if you are married.

His children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination

I don’t believe that a man is disqualified from spiritual leadership if he does not have children or if his children are not believers. Whether or not someone’s child will become a follower of Christ is beyond any parent’s ability to control.

Other translations render this as “his children are faithful” and the remainder of this verse shows what is meant: that they are not “open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.” They should be faithful, self-controlled children who are responding to their father’s leadership.

This is seen in the parallel passage in 1 Timothy, where the related qualification is:

He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?

Not Arrogant

To be arrogant is to be self-pleasing or self-willed. An elder must not be one who looks out primarily for his own interests but looks out for the interest of others whom he is responsible for. He is not marked by selfish ambition or seeking personal gain.

Not Quick-Tempered

To be quick-tempered is to be quick to get angry, having a short fuse. But Scripture tells us that we are to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

An elder should be steady emotionally, and should not be someone who is easily set off. For a leader to be “not quick-tempered,” he must maintain his composure even in the face of difficult circumstances or undue criticism. In all his actions he must first ask himself how he will honor Christ with his words or deeds and maintain his composure at all times in order to do so.

Not a Drunkard

To be a drunkard indicates that someone drinks alcohol to access or is even addicted to it. A pastor should not be addicted to alcohol or anything else. We should be in control of our bodies and our senses, and not be enslaved to anything.

Not Violent

This does not mean only that the overseer should not get into physical altercations with others – though certainly that is out of bounds for a spiritual leader. This speaks of being a quarrelsome person, someone who is contentious, always ready to pick a fight.

An elder should not be someone who is characteristically argumentative. Instead, they must consider others’ needs above their own, check their words and actions by how others would perceive them, and be gentle in word and deed. He must be willing to endure harsh treatment, listen well to a critic, and respond in a loving manner. While the leader must be prepared to defend truth wherever it is attacked, he should be much less inclined to defend himself.

He should not be quick to enter into arguments or other confrontations when they are not necessary or helpful.

Not Greedy for Gain

In the list found in 1 Timothy, Paul writes that the elder should not be a “lover of money.” We know from Scripture that a love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.

A leader should make decisions that are in keeping with Scriptural principles rather than allowing a desire for profit to dictate their actions. They should not be preoccupied with money or personal wealth, and they should be generous with what they do have.

Hospitable

With this character trait, we’re not simply talking about having people over to your home – though that can certainly be a means of showing hospitality. The word means being generous to guests, especially to strangers, and doing good for fellow believers.

Leaders should be generous with their time, their resources, their belongings. This does not mean that they give away all they own or fail to guard their time/resources in appropriate ways. It does, however, mean that they approach each day with an eye to how they can serve others with what God has entrusted them with.

Lover of Good

A church must have spiritual leaders who promote virtue and love what is good, pure, and holy. An elder should promote virtue in his life and exhort others to do the same. While always avoiding the pit of legalism, leaders must genuinely set their affections on things that are good, pure, and worthy of commendation. He should not spend his time, money, or attention on things that are not helpful or good, and instead focus on things that are.

Self-Controlled

In Greek, this speaks of being of sound mind; being moderate in opinion and passion; discreet, sober, temperate.

In The Measure of a Man, author Gene Getz explains that “a prudent, or self-controlled, person is humble, grateful, and prayerful. The leader who is self-controlled is not prone to over-reacting but is in control of himself and of his response to outside circumstances. “

Upright

Refers to being just, righteous, and law-abiding. The man of God – and particularly an elder – must be someone who is obedient to God and acts justly towards others. He must be righteous in his own behavior and in his dealing with other people so that his actions speak well of himself, his church, and his Savior.

Holy

Undefiled by sin, free from wickedness, pure. To be holy is to be set apart for God and from the sins of this world.

Disciplined

Discipline means controlling one’s self, to be temperate. A leader must be someone who is disciplined enough to avoid temptation, flee from it, and pursue holiness in their personal life.

 

This is quite the list! The parallel passage of 1 Timothy 3 also includes things such as being well thought of by outsiders and not being a recent convert to the faith.

Scripture is inescapably clear that in appointing elders, the most vital question is whether or not they possess the character necessary to fulfill the great responsibilities of the office in a God-honoring way.

But that is not to say skills and giftedness are unimportant – they are very important. And in order to properly consider those areas we must ask the question, “what does an elder do?” and look to Scripture for the answer.

WHAT DOES AN ELDER DO?

A major part of rightly understanding what an elder is has to do with rightly understanding what an elder does. We are helped here by leaning into the metaphor of shepherding, and we can look at the role of the spiritual shepherd in the same categories as a literal shepherd.

A shepherd leads, feeds, and guards his flock. While with a shepherd and actual sheep this is a pretty straightforward job description, let us see how shepherds in a church lead, feed, and guard Christ’s sheep.

Lead

Elders are spiritual leaders, guiding the sheep to green pastures and still waters. In a spiritual sense, his would mean setting the vision of the church and putting in place the means of fulfilling its mission.

To sum up the purpose of this leadership, we read in Eph 4:11-12:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry.

As spiritual leaders, they are to be followed. In Hebrews 13:17 we read:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

The elder is to lead both in guiding and by example. They also lead through teaching the Word.

Feed

Next, we see that the shepherd is to feed – that is, to provide spiritual nourishment to the church. In addition to prayer, this is primarily accomplished through preaching and teaching.

We see both of these mentioned in 1 Timothy 5:17, where it says “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”

And we see this explicitly in our passage here in Titus 1. As mentioned earlier, here in verse 9 we have the only skillset mentioned as a prerequisite to being an elder – the rest of the passage has been all about character.

In Titus 1:9 we read “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.”

“Hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught”

A leader should be able to speak the truth even when it is unpopular. A ministry leader must stand firmly on the Word of God and not try to water down the more difficult aspects of Scripture. He should not sacrifice biblical truth for expedience or convenience; instead, he must “hold firm” and stand fast – knowing that with the Bible as our “firm foundation” we stand fast.

“Able to give instruction”

Or as 1 Timothy 3 states it, “able to teach,” means exactly what it says: an elder must be skillful in teaching and instructing others. A leader in the church should be able to teach the Word of God in a way that is clear, loving, and accurate.

Someone who is skilled in teaching should also demonstrate the skills of patience, diligence in study, and genuine affection and care for those he teaches. This teaching can be in 1-on-1 discipleship, in small group settings, in a classroom…but foremost is in preaching the Word.

And this isn’t just any instruction, but “instruction in sound doctrine.”

A leader needs to be able to draw people to the Bible and teach them effectively. This should include making known the instructions of Scripture, drawing their hearts to a greater love for their Savior, and exhorting them to obedience.

Just as Paul instructed Timothy, the elder must “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”

Guard

The elders of a church are tasked with keeping watch over the souls of those who are entrusted to them. They are, in effect, to guard and protect the sheep from harm – such as going after those that stray from the flock, caring for those who are hurt, and watching for predators.

One of the primary ways that spiritual shepherds watch over the souls of the flock and provide oversight is guarding against false teaching entering into the church.

As we see in our text, the teacher should have the ability to both transmit truth and combat error, when needed: “and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”

To rebuke is to reprimand, call to account, refute, and show one’s fault. This is a necessary element of the shepherd’s work. He must be both gentle towards those under his care and at all times be ready to defend them from those who would do them harm.

John Calvin said: “The pastor ought to have two voices: one, for gathering the sheep, and another for warding off and driving away wolves and thieves. The Scripture supplies him with the means of doing both, for he who is deeply skilled in it will be able both to govern those who are teachable, and to refute the enemies of the truth.”

After Paul “called the elders of the church to come to him” he said to them in Acts 20:28-31:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert

An elder must always be alert, guarding the flock from harm – whether that harm be from within or from without.

For those who would aspire to the office of elder, know that you desire “a noble task” as 1 Timothy 3:1 states. But know, too, the great weight of responsibility that exists for those who would answer such a call of God. You must meet the character qualifications laid out in Scripture, rightly understand the responsibilities, and be willing to give of yourself to lead, feed, and guard the sheep.

Not for your glory – but for Christ’s.

In 1 Peter 5:1-4, Paul writes:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

Yes, the elders of the church exercise spiritual authority. But they do so only so far as the Word of God provides. And they are to do so as under-shepherds of the Chief Shepherd – Jesus Christ – to whom they will give an account.

CONCLUSION

In order for a church to thrive, it must be structured according to the Word of God.

In order for a church to be structured according to the Word of God, it must have biblical leadership in place.

As we have seen in Titus 1:5-9 and several other passages, biblical leadership in the local church means having a plurality of spiritually qualified men who lead, feed, and guard the church through providing oversight, teaching sound doctrine, and keeping watch over the souls of the congregation.


Additional Resources

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You May Also Like