How "Eld" Must an Elder Be?

Neil Girrard

Scriptures Referenced in This Article:
          (Follow the Scripture links if you want to study the Scriptures for yourself.)
Mt. 20:25-26; 2nd π Jn. 21:15-17 π Acts 13:1-3 π 1 Cor. 3:1-4 π 1 Cor. 12:28 π 2 Cor. 12:12 π Eph. 4:11; 2nd; 3rd π 1 Tim. 3:1-7 π 1 Tim. 3:2 π 1 Tim. 3:4-5 π 1 Tim. 5:17; 2nd π 1 Tim. 5:20 π 2 Tim. 2:24 π Tit. 1:5 π Tit. 1:6-9 π Tit. 1:7 π Tit. 1:8 π Tit. 1:9 ; 2nd π Heb. 13:7; 2nd π Heb. 13:17; 2nd; 3rd π Jas. 1:21-22 π 1 Pet. 2:25 π 1 Pet. 5:2 π 2 Pet. 1:5-7

Defining the Term

To be involved in service to the Body of Christ as an elder, one must qualify for the work he is to do. This speaks again of the dual aspect of human nature: who you are in contrast to what you do - a lesson many Americans have failed to grasp the full significance of.

The word "elder" comes to us from two Greek words, "prebuteros" (elders or overseers) and "episkopos" (overseer or bishop). Anyone seeing those two words side by side can immediately see how two denominations came into existence. One argued that the elders must rule while the other argued that the bishop must rule. The silly part of that argument is that "presbuteros" is simply the name for the group of elders while "episkopos" is the name for the man who is a member of that group. It becomes even more obvious that no one involved had the slightest grasp on God's idea of authority when we recall that Jesus said, "The Gentiles lord it over their subjects... It shall not be so among you!" ( Mt. 20:25-26 - emphasis added; top) The interesting paradox of New Testament authority is that followers are to obey their leaders ( Heb. 13:7 , 17; top ) but the leaders are never to command and require obedience from the followers of Christ. The leaders must rather demonstrate their faith in God and their own personal loyalty to the kingdom of God while the followers, the less mature and more vulnerable, are simply to imitate their example and be persuaded to heed the truth the leaders speak.

According to the New Testament, to be an elder, one must be living according to certain guidelines. These guidelines were set forth by Paul in his letters to Titus and Timothy. Paul wrote to young Titus, "An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer is entrusted with God's work, he must be blameless - not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it." ( Tit. 1:6-9 ; top )


The first qualification of an elder is blameless. Here it is used in two specific aspects. First, the elder must have his family life structured around and functioning in the will of God. Second, his own character must be conformed to the image of Christ.

Under this first aspect - family life - the man must have only one wife whom he loves and cares for. As an elder, his life and lifestyle will be an example for the younger members of the body of Christ to follow. His marriage, though not necessarily ideal according to the world's ideas, will be characterized by open and honest communication, mutual prayerful support, and loving devotion. As for his children, they must be well disciplined and well loved. His children will be generally well behaved, not openly rebellious and blatantly disobedient. It is yet another nail in the coffin of the "church" that PKs, that is, preacher's kids, have the worst reputation of all. When the "church" systematically and consistently warps the children of the supposed leader of the congregation, one can easily discern that the system was never a construct of Christ.

Under the second aspect - conformity with Christ in how he deals with others - the man's character must be submitted to the control of the Holy Spirit. He must not be overbearing - he must be submissive to the needs of the people of God. He must not force his ideas on anyone but he must speak God's truth in love to build up those he is responsible to and for. He must not be quick-tempered. As Paul wrote later in his second letter to Timothy, "And the servant of the Lord must not be quarrelsome (fighting and contending). Instead, he must be kindly to everyone and mild-tempered [preserving the bond of peace]; he must be a skilled and suitable teacher, patient and forbearing and willing to suffer wrong." ( 2 Tim. 2:24 - Amp; top) To be an elder then requires great amounts of patience and gentleness. To be an apt teacher one must be an apt learner - that acquired lifestyle of being open to learn. One of the key elements too often found in "church" "pastors" is their "aura of infallibility" which they project from behind the pulpit. They studiously present themselves as experts and authorities on life, philosophy and the Scriptures. But let some "layman" or growing convert who is receiving revelation from God begin to seriously question and challenge their doctrines or teachings and you are likely to find that they spew forth sarcasm and bitter slander with amazing proficiency.

The true elder must not be given to drunkenness, that is he must exercise self-control, maintaining that balance between true, God-given pleasure and self-inflicted addiction. This applies to anything that can come between the man and God - whether that be drink, cigarettes, TV, women, "fellowship" (socializing with "church" folks), entertainment, possessions, whatever. In addition his participation in things that are questionable ought to be influenced by how weaker Christians are going to respond to his example. Anything that causes a weaker brother to stumble and sin ought to be given up - or at least practiced with great care, relying on the Holy Spirit to say when and where it is appropriate. Anything that becomes more important than doing God's will is idolatry. It is God's will that he be the best example of godliness that is possible for him to be.

As the Lord's servant, he must not be violent but gentle. The elder must also be honestly serving the people - feeding the flock, not fleecing the sheep. In every way, he must have only a pure motivation to serve, not being an elder to gain power or control over others or to become financially wealthy. He must be there simply and humbly to serve the needs of the people and not his own personal whims and desires.

Spiritually Mature

Paul listed what the elder is not to be in verse 7 . In verse 8 (top) , he goes on to say what the elder is to be. He must be hospitable, willing to share his home and resources generously. Since an elder is to have an exemplary family life, this is a perfect opportunity to share a strong Christian family life with those who have never seen it. He is to open his home to those who are in the body of Christ and in need of shelter. It is interesting to note here that the elder of the assembly is not referred to as being in some artificial building or authority structure, but in his own home, ruling over his own family well and sharing all of that generously.

The elder must also love what is good, seeking to exhibit it in his own personal character as well as attempting to draw it out in those people around him. The elder must be self-controlled, able to discipline himself to meet his specific deadlines and requirements. He must also maintain his own personal relationship with God every day. An elder who slips away from daily communing with God is open to attack and able to make grave errors in judgment and doctrine. And when an elder of an assembly falls, many in the body of Christ tend to stumble right along with him. Thus the elder must be upright, one of good reputation backed by a life lived according to the Spirit of God. The elder must be holy, living a life that is totally lived for God and set apart to Him.

The elder must also be disciplined. He must accept reproof and instruction if he is in the wrong. He must recognize that God may speak to him through anyone in the assembly - not just through someone with a man-given title. He must be the wise man who heeds instruction and loves reproof. And I believe it is one of God's special tests, one especially designed to test the humility of an elder, to send along a young convert or disciple with a deeper revelation in some area than the elder has. If the elder will not listen to the Lord when He speaks through the young convert or disciple, the elder is not truly humble. He is hard-hearted and unteachable and is well on his way to disqualifying himself from his work.

In verse 9 (top) , Paul tells us a little of what the elder must do - but what he must be in order to do that is implicitly implied. The elder must hold firmly to the trustworthy message of God's love through Jesus Christ. This implies that he must persevere throughout all circumstances and situations clinging to the original message from God. He must not allow himself to be deviated onto tangents. It is in this light that one who has been diverted into partaking of the "church" paradigm (demonic distortions of the corporate life in Christ) that clearly demonstrate whether the elder has remained faithful to the trustworthy message (the implanted word - Jas. 1:21-22; top ) as it was taught to him by the Spirit of truth. The "church" paradigm is a tangent which can divert the believer from the true faith. It is through sound doctrine, that is, hearing the commands of Christ as they are brought to life by the Spirit of God, that the elder can encourage others and refute those who oppose it. This implies the type of person the elder is to be: he must be strong, sympathetic and sensitive to be able to encourage those who are struggling or suffering. And he must be strong but gentle and loving to correct those who oppose the true faith and message of God.

In Paul's letter to Timothy, he wrote, "Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's ekklesia?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil's trap." ( 1 Tim. 3:1-7; top )

Since much of this is a reiteration of the message to Titus, I will only point out the additional qualifications of the elder. It is interesting to note that Paul calls being an overseer a "noble task," an equivalent in some ways to knighthood or being a hero in a war. But in Christ's "hierarchy" ("lower-archy" would be a better term for the servants of the body of Christ), he who would be first must be the servant of all. The elder's true role as servant cannot be over-stressed - it is his prime directive to serve the true needs of the flock.

The elder must be above reproach, there must not be any fault that can be found in him nor any charge which can truthfully be brought against him. And for any sin which he commits but refuses to repent of, he is to be publicly rebuked so that everyone else will be careful not to sin. ( 1 Tim. 5:20; top ) This requires much dedication and commitment to the Lord over a rather long period of time. This is another reason why Paul says that an elder must not be a recent convert. To really be an effective elder in an assembly, one must be spiritually mature, experienced in dealing with people's needs often while side-stepping their desires, quirks, and expectations. This maturity does not come upon the elder in a short period of time except in very rare instances of special graces in areas of specific need. In the case of a newly evangelized area where it is impossible for the evangelist, prophet or apostle to remain, perhaps God in His infinite wisdom might raise up an elder from recent converts to shepherd the otherwise shepherd-less sheep. But that would be the rarest of exceptions to the "rule" as previously stated.

That an elder must be spiritually mature cannot be over-stressed. He must be submitted in all areas of his life to the control of the Holy Spirit and seeing fruit, not only in his own life, but also in the lives of others around him as a result of his ministerings. The elder must have a functional working knowledge and some experience with each of the steps that make up spiritual maturity. (see 2 Pet. 1:5-7; top ) But that knowledge and experience must also be in submission to the Holy Spirit.

In short, the elder must be spiritually mature, walking with God, pleasing to Him, and conformed to Christ's image. He must be able to deal with people and problems in a Christ-like manner. Anything less than this is not acceptable. Anything less and this man is not an elder.

Spiritual/Functional Authority

There is no question that we need to better understand what an elder is to be and do. We need to recognize and honor those who do the task well just as we need recognize and reprove, and, if necessary, avoid those who do not do the task well.

But in looking at his qualifications, it is now necessary to consider the bigger picture of his work. First, we must understand that there is no instance of only one elder in a local assembly recorded in the Bible. And we must also recognize that the original term did not include the notion of a "pastor" at the top of some corporate pyramid. It was not until some time after the Bible was written that "church" fathers began to discuss the details of the structure of "church" leadership. It was in the first and second centuries, some time after the last book of the New Testament was written, that the notion of a single bishop at the head of each assembly (and usually for each city) came into being, a notion that became even more widely practiced after the Roman emperor Constantine severely compromised Christianity in the fourth century.

From all this, we can infer that an elder, an overseer, a bishop, is simply to be only one member of a group of elders who have specific duties, functions and obligations to fulfill in the body of Christ. The first function of the elders is to rule over the earthly affairs of the kingdom of God - but this means something other than what most of us will imagine it means. The Greek word used for "obey" in Heb. 13:17 (top) carries with it the idea that we are to allow ourselves be persuaded by the truth which our leaders speak. It is not that the elders have authority of their own because of their age or role - it is that they have the spiritual authority of Christ to the extent that they walk in and adhere to His truth. Thus we are to obey the truth the elder speaks and which the Holy Spirit quickens to life within us, but we are not to simply obey the elder himself just because he says so. There is no place for authoritarian abuse in the Body of Christ. ( Mt. 20:25-26; top )

But as Paul told Timothy, the elder, within this framework of spiritual authority, must be able to manage his own family so that he is qualified to manage God's people. ( 1 Tim. 3:4-5; top ) Later in the same letter, Paul speaks of the elders who direct the affairs of the body of Christ. ( 1 Tim. 5:17; top ) The elders are to prayerfully decide what is proper for their assembly as a whole to be involved with, present it to the people (if the people haven't presented it to them) and wait and work until each one of the assembly is in one accord on the matter, remaining open to the Lord as the vision for that assembly is brought into clearer focus. Again this patient waiting on the work of the Holy Spirit in building up the body draws from each individual elder's ability to hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught so that neither the elders nor the assembly gets drawn off into some weird pseudo-Christian tangent (like "church"). It is precisely because most Americans have little patience and virtually no comprehension of corporate unity that most Americans see nothing wrong with the "church" paradigm.

The second function of the elders is to teach the people of Christ how to live a Christ-oriented life. Whether that elder be gifted as an apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd or teacher ( Eph. 4:11; top ), he still has much to demonstrate and teach from the Lord. This only stands to reason since the qualifications to be an elder are to be a functioning, spiritually mature man of God. Thus the elder need only share what he has personally learned to be of great benefit to those he serves. Paul said to Timothy that those elders who also teach are worthy of double honor ( 1 Tim. 5:17; top ) - and they are likely due for a "Well done, My good and faithful servant" on judgment day as well.

The third function of the elders is to guard the body of revealed truth from perversion and error. ( Tit. 1:9; top ) This also draws from the qualification of being firmly rooted and grounded in the sound doctrines of God, of being able to rightly divide the word of truth by the leading of the Holy Spirit. They must not silently allow heresy and error to be taught or practiced in the assembly.

The fourth function of the elders is to oversee the people of Christ as a shepherd oversees his flocks. Christ's threefold repetition of "My lambs" and "My sheep" to Simon Peter ( Jn. 21:15-17; top ) serves to remind all Christians who hold responsibility for the spiritual lives of others that the persons they are serving belong, first of all, to Christ. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers, elders, deacons and parents are all undershepherds responsible for nurturing and pasturing Christ's flock. The elders are responsible for promoting mutual overall harmony, peace, spiritual growth and direction by setting the example to be followed ( 1 Pet. 5:2; top ) so that the body is equipped and edified, ready to meet and overcome every situation whether mundane or emergency. Only as the elder walks in submission to the Spirit of God can he hope to find the strength necessary to fulfill these roles.

This is what an elder is and what he does. As younger sheep, we must recognize those that walk in true obedience to their call and take care to listen to them. ( Heb. 13:7 , 17; top ) Then we should seek to grow into such conformity with Christ that we would one day qualify for such a role ourselves. There are literally thousands of places that need spiritually mature men of God to lend spiritual stability to the local expression of the body of Christ. One need only look around the world to see literally billions of people in need of a role model who truly imitates Christ.


There is one more question which remains. How are elders recognized and set in place? The New Testament answer to that question is the apostle. (see Tit. 1:5; top ) And so that there is no difficulty in recognizing the apostle, the New Testament gives clear insight into the apostle's role. He will be clearly recognized by the signs and wonders which accompany his ministry ( 2 Cor. 12:12; top ) and by the clear confirmation of the Holy Spirit among the truly spiritually mature members of the local body of Christ. (see Acts 13:1-3; top ) And he will not call himself a "missionary" (the Latin equivalent of "apostle") just so that he doesn't have to measure up to the spiritual requirements of an apostle! Though there will always be rogue "pastors" and rebelliously independent congregations who will not recognize God's true apostles, the obedient and mature remnant will have no difficulty recognizing those who have truly been called by God and who are walking where He would have them.

The practice of having a congregation vote in its elders and overseers (bishops) has absolutely no New Testament counterpart (though that may be how elders and overseers are selected for consideration) - just as surely as the practice of having the "pastor" select (hire and/or fire) his board at will (as some teach is right) has no New Testament counterpart either. The elders are selected by a mature and gifted apostle who, by the direction of the Holy Spirit, recognizes the maturity of the elders. The apostle does not have any local "position" as such, but does have spiritual authority (not to be confused with human-styled authority) to bring order to the local expression of the body of Christ. (see 1 Cor. 12:28; top )

Each of the giftings that God gives to make the body mature - apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers ( Eph. 4:11; top ) - are functions rather than what we corporate- and politically-trained Americans would think of as "offices." There were a large number of Greek words that Paul could have used - words that referred to secular and government offices and positions - but he did not use any of them! Let us note that very carefully. There were a great number of Greek words available to the New Testament writers to depict any of the servants of Christ to the body as an "official position" - but not one of those words is ever used to describe any servant of Christ!

The shepherd or pastor (Greek poimen) is simply one who pastures the sheep. In the modern context of "church," most often the "pastor" tries to hand feed each sheep from the podium. If you can picture trying to hand a piece of grass to a flock of sheep, you'll quickly catch the ludicrous nature of what the "pastor" is really doing. He is not leading them to fresh pastures so that they can graze for themselves - he is starving them so that he can conform to Martin Luther's unScriptural notion of a "pastor," something which can only be called a Roman Catholic priest in Protestant clothing. This "pastor" is succeeding only in keeping the people in spiritual infancy - all in the name of "discipleship" and "teaching."

And how could anyone who follows such a "pastor" be anything but carnal? One says "I'm of this teacher," another says, "I'm of that pastor," another says, "I belong to this denomination." - how is it possible to address such as these with mature spiritual truths? (see 1 Cor. 3:1-4; top )

In the modern context, many evangelical, charismatic "churches" send a teacher to a new area to start a "Bible study" in the hopes that he will become a "pastor" of a "church." In the New Testament pattern of ekklesia, the apostles are sent to raise up and appoint (recognize) local elders who then are to nurture and pasture that local body - and the apostles are freed to move on, sometimes even before order is fully established. Over the years, we have allowed our "church" traditions to usurp the authority of God's word in our lives. This is especially true in regards to the methods in which we gather and assemble.

The Fivefold Ministry

Paul wrote, "And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers..." ( Eph. 4:11; top ) Some have tried to see this as only four separate categories and, putting it in conjunction with their own confusion about elders and a bishop and with Paul's statement that "a bishop must be able to teach" ( 1 Tim. 3:2; top ), have tried to make the shepherd (poimen) and teacher (didaskolos) one gifting that is supposedly synonymous with both elders (presbuteros) and a bishop (episkopos). Thus they have come up with the notion of a pastor-teacher who functions as the despotic ruler over a group of people (exerting his authority and power over them as far as they will reasonably endure). This is what usually happens when men attempt to divide the word of truth using only human logic and reasoning - utter chaos and conflicting confusion!

When Paul is writing to the Ephesians, he has in mind what God has done to make the body mature. He starts off with the trans-local giftings - those who take the message of the kingdom and the gospel to undeveloped or under-developed regions: the apostles, prophets and evangelists. Then he shifts to the local giftings - those who are raised up by God within a local community: the shepherds and teachers. When Paul is writing to Timothy, he has in mind what God requires of an elder - one who has already become mature in the body of Christ. The former (apostles, prophets and evangelists) is more involved in the maturation process at the beginning of establishing a corporate body - the latter (shepherds and teachers) looks more at the process of God's work of bringing the corporate body to maturity one man at a time.

Those who would confuse a shepherd (poimen) with an overseer or bishop (episkopos) have failed to read Peter's first letter wherein he says that Jesus is "the Shepherd (poimenas) and Overseer (episkopos) of your souls." ( 1 Pet. 2:25; top ) While there is some similarity and overlap in function between the responsibilities of a shepherd (poimen) and an overseer (episkopos), they cannot be exactly the same thing. No one who has two apples in his lunch box says, "in my lunch box is my apple and my apple." Neither would Peter - not to mention the Holy Spirit who inspired him to write - say something so inane.

There is a way to understand the leadership God has given to His body. When Paul writes to the Philippians, he recognizes only three categories of believers: elders, deacons and saints. The elders and the deacons are the leaders - the more mature examples. The saints are the body of believers who are either less mature or simply are not gifted with leadership giftings. When we cross-match the two categories of leaders with the five types of giftings, we see that God will cause anyone gifted in a fivefold ministry to first be a deacon, a servant, and then, if he doesn't disqualify himself through sin, error or neglect, an elder. Many a deacon - that is, a disciple of Christ gifted with one or more of the fivefold ministries - has gotten entangled in the "church" deceptions and has failed to go on to become the elder God intended them to become. It is not uncommon, because of the deceptive "church" paradigm, for one who is barely of deacon caliber to be given the authority and responsibility withheld for elders. Or a deacon gifted in teaching comes to a town (doing the work of an apostle), takes on the title of "pastor" (but never gets his hands on the sheep or lets them get near to him) and then settles down in that town and expects to be obeyed as if he were an elder or bishop. This confusion is totally contrary to the New Testament pattern.

We need to renew our understanding of God's authority structure for His people and submit ourselves to Him. We need to stop bowing down to man-made traditions and notions that literally sap the life out of the congregation.

Before you today is life and death. Choose life that you may live a life worthy of the high calling of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I'd love to hear comments and/or questions from you! Email me!

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