Leadership is an important issue in any organized group. We even have a word we use when it’s missing. If there is no recognized or formal structure of leadership or government, we call that “anarchy.” Obviously that is dangerous in a political sense. But it’s also dangerous in a local church.
God has decreed that there be order and leadership in various facets of life. Romans 13 tells us that He ordained civil government for the good of the people. In the family, he has placed parents. But what about in the church?
There aren’t many groups that would argue against a formal structure in the church. But sometimes, those who argue against a form of government in the church do so because they say it creates different levels of Christians and that violates our equality in Christ.
In response to that, it needs to be made clear that government is primarily about function. It’s not a hierarchy of worth or value. We talked about that when we discussed the Trinity. Jesus is equal to the Father in essence and power and glory. And yet he submits to the Father. He is functionally submissive.
The same is true in the home. Children obey their parents. Wives submit to their own husbands. Not because they are less valuable, but because that is the way God has designed the family to function. In fact, any good father or husband would give his life for his family. He esteems their lives as more valuable than his own.
In the church, leaders aren’t more important in God’s eyes. They’re not more valuable. But they do serve a distinct role. And that’s what I want to focus on today. It’s not enough to say that God wants leadership in a church. We need to ask: “What kind of leadership does He want?”
That’s a huge question, and a lot could be said to answer that. You could talk about the character of the leadership, and you could talk about the structure of leadership. Today, since we’re specifically dealing with how our church functions, we’ll mainly talk about how leadership is structured.
Ephesians 2:19 and 1 Timothy 3:15 refer to the church as “the household of God” (or the family). And so, since we are under God’s authority, we want to be faithful to the principles He has given us.
What is God’s design for the structure of leadership in a church? I’m going to give you the answer up front, and then we’ll spend the rest our time unpacking the statement. Here it is: God’s design for leadership is that a local church be shepherded by a plurality of qualified elders. That’s the main point for today. The pattern given to us in the New Testament is that local churches were to be shepherded by a plurality of qualified elders.
And this is an important message. If you’re an elder, then you want to know what God expects from you. If you’d like to become an elder one day, then you want to know what direction you should be going. But even if you’re not in leadership, you should know what the leaders’ responsibilities are. And you can pray for us. And you can help us do that better.
It’s helpful first to start with a discussion of terms. If you notice, the summary statement uses the world “elders.” That’s not a word we use ordinarily, so we wanna make sure we know what we’re talking about.
The terms “elder” was used by Old Testament Jews to talk about older men but also for those who were set apart for leadership. They were set apart because of their wisdom. They were judges. They were responsible for the affairs of the city and even religious worship.
The Greek word for “elder” is presbúteros, which is sometimes used to talk about older men, but is also used to refer to those who old a particular office.
In the gospel of Matthew and in the book of Acts we have references to the Jewish authorities, which included the elders, and the chief priests, and the scribes. They were the leaders.
But the word elder also started to be used with the leaders of the New Testament churches. Starting in Acts 11, we see that when Barnabas and Saul sent a financial gift from the church of Antioch to the church of Jerusalem, they gave it to the elders. Acts 15, talks about the council at Jerusalem, and it wasn’t just the apostles, it was the elders as well. Once the apostles were gone, those who were first-hand witnesses of Jesus, the leadership of churches was the elders.
But here’s the big question: How does the term “elder” connect to other terms the Bible uses for a leader? What’s the relationship? How do think about elders in comparison to words like overseers and pastors?
Are those distinct categories? Or is there some overlap between them? Or are they just different terms for the same office?
This is where different churches come to different conclusions. Here at our church, we’ve come to the conclusion and the practice that all these terms are synonyms. They don’t point to different levels of leadership. They highlight different features of the same leaders. And this is what I want to show you.
Go with me first to Acts 20:17. This is Paul giving a farewell speech to a group of men. He is headed back to Jerusalem after his Third Missionary Journey. And verse 17 tells us who he’s talking to. Verse 17.
In the speech that follows, Paul gives his own life as an example for them, and he gives them the instruction of verse 28. Look at that. This is important. Verse 28.
They are, first, to be on guard (pay attention). They are guardians, of who? Of the flock. They are part of the flock, but they are also its overseers. The Greek word is epískopos. Some translations use the word “bishop.” And their job is “to take care” of the church. Literally, it says “to shepherd” the church. It uses the verb connected to poimḗn, which is the word for a shepherd. So, an elder is an overseer, is a shepherd. They’re talking about the same office or position.
Now go over to Titus 1:5. This is a letter from the apostle Paul instructing Titus about finishing the church-panting efforts on the island of Crete. And verse 5 tells us Paul’s main command. Verse 5.
And in the next verse, Paul tells him what to look for—what kind of person should be appointed as an elder. We’ll look at that later on, but for now look at verse 7. Verse 7.
Again, this links the term “elder” with the term “overseer” or “bishop.” Lastly, go to 1 Peter 5. This is the closing chapter from Peter’s epistle to scattered believers. Verse 1 reminds them of the seriousness of the charge. Verse 2 is the command. Verse 2-3.
Shepherd the flock. The same word as in Acts 20. Elders are those who shepherds. And elders are those who exercise oversight . And the word Peter uses for oversight is the verb form of epískopos, an overseer or bishop.
So the best way to understand these terms is to say that they are really just different terms for the same position. An elder is an overseer. An elder is a shepherd. First Peter 5:4 says Jesus is the Chief Shepherd, so elders don’t have any intrinsic authority. It’s a derived authority. We are sheep and under-shepherds of Jesus Christ. We are human, physical, imperfect reflections or extensions of the Good Shepherd Jesus Christ.
And understanding these terms helps us answer the question: What are elders supposed to DO? What is their job description? This is so important to the function of a church. Sometimes a person’s idea of a church is as if the main preacher is the CEO. The staff is like the vice-presidents. And the rest of the elders are the board of trustees. They keep the staff in check. That’s not a healthy picture because it ignores the fact that all elders are called to be shepherds.
And the word we use in English for a shepherd is “pastor.” The term “pastor” comes from the Latin word for a shepherd. That’s why, if you look at Ephesians 4:11 where Paul lists people whom Christ has given the church, some translations use the term “shepherd” and some use the term “pastor.” That’s significant.
Sometimes we make a big deal to you the congregation that all the elders are pastors. But more important than that is that all the elders see themselves as pastors. All the elders are shepherds and overseers. And those terms are what help us understand our job description. We are all genuine pastors, even if we’re not all paid for it.
One author used the analogy of volunteer firefighters. They face the same fires as those who are paid for it. The same is true with elders. Every elder is a pastor. Some pastors might have more formal theological training, or more time available during the week, or more experience, or more contact with people, but they are all pastors. Even the ones that aren’t paid by the church.
Seeing ourselves as pastors really helps us understand our own job description. We’re shepherds. I read an article this week interviewing a big-name pastor in the south. He’s got a well-known multi-campus evangelical church. It’s one of the largest in the country. And he was asked: “What is distinctly spiritual about the kind of leadership you do?”
Here was his answer: “Nothing.” And he goes on to talk about how he is basically like a CEO.
The interviewer also asked: “Should we stop talking about pastors as ‘shepherds’?” His answer: “Absolutely. That word needs to go away… It’s not culturally relevant anymore.”
He separates the biblical concept of shepherding from the idea of leadership, basically saying the metaphor is expired. Well, that makes sense in a church that cares more about making people feel good and catering to their felt needs, than about being faithful to God’s Word. And it makes sense in a church where many will hear the pastor preach from a TV screen.
Do you remember the words of 1 Peter 5:2? Shepherd the flock of God that is AMONG you. First Thessalonians 5:12 mentions appreciating those who diligently labor AMONG the church.
One author said it like this. Shepherds smell like sheep. That means there’s a relationship with them. It’s people work. It’s hands-on. It’s not just “sit in an office and make a decision.” It’s more than just general oversight. It’s personal oversight.
For what purpose? … For growing you in spiritual maturity. That’s what Ephesians 4:12 says. We equip (or train) saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. We are used by God to help move you toward mature manhood in Christ. Everything we do as elders is supposed to be for that aim.
We pray. We teach. We admonish. We affirm new leaders. We rebuke when necessary. We defend you from false teaching. And we lead by example. That’s what God calls elders to do. We need to make some organizational decisions at times, but that is done to help us stay focused on growing in Christ. It’s done to help us protect the flock and mature it. And the instrument God gave us for that is the word of God. That’s what the Spirit uses to sanctify us.
So, again: What is God’s design for church leadership? It’s that a local church be shepherded by a plurality of qualified elders. A church needs to be shepherded.
Now we also need to talk about that word “plurality.” That’s connected to the word “plural” which means that there should be more than one.
The Bible doesn’t give us a number or a ratio. And some churches may not have more than one. But the more healthy churches will have or be moving toward having more than one elder. Why do we say this? We say it because it’s the pattern in the New Testament.
I want this to be clear. In the New Testament, there is no example of a church led by majority opinion or by a single pastor. Instead, the leadership is presented to us as a unified group. We can’t trace all the examples today, but the word “elder” is almost always used in the plural. It was a group. When it’s used in the singular it’s talking about a man in sin, or when an Apostle is referencing himself personally.
Go with me for a second to Acts 14:23. I want to walk you through some of the examples. We already saw the example of the elders in Jerusalem. Look now at Acts 14:23. What did Paul and Barnabas do? Acts 14:23.
They selected elders (plural) in every church (singular). Acts 15 is the Jerusalem Council. And again, elder is used in the plural. We already saw the example of Acts 20 where Paul talked to the elders (plural) of Ephesus. And we already looked at Titus 1:5, where Paul instructs Titus to appoint elders (plural) in Crete.
Go with me now to James chapter 5. This is a another important passage for elders. James 5:14. James is talking about people who were sick. Possibly due to unrepentant sin in their life. And look at what he says. James 5:14.
Call for the elders (plural) of the church (singular). And obviously this implies that the elders were accessible to this sick person. They lived near enough to visit this sick person.
That’s what we mean by plurality. Having a plurality helps a church make decisions with wisdom. It makes sure it’s not just one person’s agenda that’s being followed, unless that one person is Jesus Christ. Having a group helps make sure that the entire church is being served, not just one section.
But just to be clear. Having a plurality doesn’t mean we’re all the same. Like I said before, there are different strengths and experiences. There are different specific duties we might have. But we all are responsible for the church. And we are all pastors. We are all equal in our office.
Think about the Twelve Apostles. How many can you name? There’s Peter, and James, and John. And Andrew. And then the rest of the list seems less significant because we don’t know as much about them. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t Apostles. Philip, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alpheus, Thaddeus, Simon the Zealot, Bartholomew, and even Matthias who replaced Judas. They were all apostles, even if they didn’t all have the same public ministry or notoriety.
Elders are equal. And the healthiest churches will have a plurality of elders who shepherd the church.
This brings us to our last question for today? Who is supposed to be an elder? Again, remember our summary statement: a local church is supposed to be shepherded by a plurality of qualified elders. So the question is: Who is qualified?
This is big deal. I’m not sure which is more dangerous, a lack of leadership or poor leadership, but both are not God’s design. Having the right people in place is also important because Hebrews 13:1 and 1 Peter 5:3 tells us that elders are supposed to be exampled to the flock. The church is called to imitate its leaders.
Two passages of the Bible tell us what to look for in an elder. We have 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. There’s a lot of overlap in these passages, so for today go ahead and look at 1 Timothy 3. Let’s look at some qualification for appointing elders.
The first qualification comes in verse 1. It says there than an oversee must aspire to the work. This word is talking about a desire, a longing. You should never select an elder who doesn’t want the position. He should have a desire for the office.
First Peter 5:2 says they shouldn’t serve under compulsion, but willingly. Some people are used greatly by God and enjoy serving in other areas. And rather than spend more time on caring for flock, they would rather grow the flock or minister to practical needs. Those are very much needed things. Not everyone will become an elder. And not everyone should be. Not everyone wants to be. If you want to select a qualified elder, find someone who wants the position. Find someone with desire.
Number 2, find someone with character. We wont’ go into all the specifics, but the key phrase comes in verse 2. An overseer must be above reproach. To reproach someone is to shame or discredit them. To be above reproach means that this person has a life that can’t be legitimately attacked. It doesn’t mean he’s perfect, but it means he is not going to be a stain on Christ. He is an example to others, not of perfection, but of healthy progress.
This is the core of an elder. It’s not about how smart he is. It’s not about his business savvy. It’s about his character. And the verses that follow highlight that.
Look at his family life. He should be faithful to his wife. He should be a good manager of his home and his kids. Look at his personal life. He should be self-controlled, wise, not a bully, not greedy. Look at his life in the church. He should be hospitable and ministering to others. And look at his life outside the church. Look at verse 7.
Would you be comfortable with the current elders approaching the rest of the church, your wife and kids, and even the people at your job about you? Would they say you are an example of good character? If not, then you don’t meet the qualification for an elder. Can you imagine the leaders of the church having a poor reputation with the community. It would be a disgrace.
A qualified elder has a desire and he has character. Verse 6 also says he must not be a recent convert because that can lead to pride in his heart. There should be a time of testing and evaluation.
Number 3, a qualified elder must have the ability to teach. You see that at the end of verse 2. Titus 1 says he must be able to exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict. This doesn’t mean he can answer every question, but it means he has an understanding of the Bible, of theology, of the major doctrine of the faith. And he can defend it.
This ability to teach might vary in a church, depending on how mature a congregation is, but you can imagine how sad it would be if I said “turn in your Bibles to Nehemiah” and you looked over at an elder next to you and asked him “where’s Nehemiah?” and the response was: “I don’t know.” There’s a level of understanding an elder should have.
Being able to teach doesn’t mean he has to be a preacher, but it means he is using his knowledge to instruct others. Whether that’s one-on-one, or in a small group, or in a larger setting.
There’s one final qualification I’ll give you today, and this one can be controversial, but we believe it’s what God’s word teaches. An elder should have desire and character. An elder should be able to teach. And lastly, an elder should be a man. It’s a position reserved for men.
Again, this is not about being superior to women, it’s about following God’s design. When Paul talks about deacons here in 1 Timothy 3, he mentions men and women. But when he discusses elders he only mentions men. And it uses all masculine pronouns. Having male leadership in a church also reflects the male leadership of a home.
Also, we have the teaching of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 which states that a woman should not have authority over men in the church. It doesn’t say that’s because she’s incapable. It connects it to God’s design in creation. And the distortion of this design goes all the way back to the Fall, when Satan deliberately approached the woman instead of the man. God’s design is that a man be the leader in the home, and that the final leadership in the church be for men.
Men who desire the position. Men who are marked by their character. And men who are able to teach the true doctrine of Jesus Christ. Men who can rightly handle the word of truth. We’re not all at the same level, but we’re all called to be examples for the rest of the church.
This is God’s design. A local church is to be shepherded by a plurality of qualified elders. And the more we seek to honor God’s design, the more effective we will be. The more God will bless our efforts.
Are the elders the only ones who do work around here? Of course not. And I hope we’ll see that more when we talk about spiritual gifts next week. Let’s pray.