What Is A Biblical Elder?

“The danger facing modern congregations is to read into the Scriptures our twenty-first-century ideas about church government. We have added plenty of bells and whistles: directors of mass media, pastors of recreation, Sunday School committees, boards of directors, not to mention all the seminars and books that tell churches ‘how to do it.’

The drive to increase growth and expand ministry has complicated the structure of churches. The consequences have been twofold. First, churches have shifted the privileges and burdens of ministry to the ‘professional’ staff, while bypassing gifted leaders whom God has placed into their memberships. Second, churches have let the call to nurture, equip, and disciple believers to be salt and light in the world get lost in the shuffle of big events and choreographed performances” (Elders in the Life of the Church, 45).

Acts 14:21-23

After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

Appointed by mature men

As we read through this text, we see that elders are appointed to the service of the church. We never really see, in Scripture, this model by which the church votes to receive elders. They are always appointed by apostles or other elders. We see this as Paul instructs Timothy in 1 Timothy and even as Matthias is chosen to be an apostle at the beginning of Acts. The ones doing the appointing are men who are mature in the faith. It wasn’t really until the late 18th Century that elders were voted on in the church. While I am not claiming, here, that voting is necessarily a sinful way to approve of elders, I am making the claim that we simply do not receive that example for the church anywhere in the Biblical text.

The reason for this, if we read 1 Timothy 3, is because it takes people who are mature in the faith to properly consider whether or not a candidate is biblically qualified for ministry as an elder. Biblically, whatever an elder is, that elder is firstly appointed by other elders. We see this model repeated throughout the New Testament. The danger of having any other model is simply that people tend toward choosing teachers for themselves based on their own preferences and not based on God’s qualifications (2 Timothy 4:3). Though not everyone is guilty of doing this, there are many who are. I remember interviewing for several churches who based their search on the personality, age, or technical gifting of the candidates. This is entirely unbiblical. While it may be prudent for the elders of a church to have the congregation affirm a new teaching elder, the Biblical model is that the elders are the ones doing the appointing according to God’s instruction.

Mature in the faith

The next truth we see in these verses is that those who are appointed as elders are themselves mature in the faith. The word elder, concerning the office, does not refer to age, but maturity. We see this reflected in the qualification in 1 Timothy and in Paul’s instruction that no one look down on Timothy because of his youth (1 Timothy 4:12). Maturity in the faith has to do not merely with having a knowledge of the content of God’s word but also with having that word applied through tribulation in this life. According to the passage above, we enter the kingdom of heaven through many tribulations. This is the process of sanctification. It is those who are sufficiently sanctified who are appointed to the office of elder (see the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3).

Commended to the Lord

Finally, we also see that as the elders were appointed, they were commended to the Lord. They were entrusted to God for their service in Christ. While it would be fallacious to claim that there was no accountability (there was), it remains that there was no explicit hierarchical structure of elders (like in Romanism or Presbyterianism). They served under God’s authority and the elders who were appointed became equal elders with those who did the appointing. This is one reason local church autonomy is so important. Not to say a church is absolutely autonomous, for we are under God’s providential authority; but churches are free to follow God’s Scriptures apart from the rule of other churches or a denomination or a religious system. If elders have truly met the qualifications given in 1 Timothy 3, then we ideally would not experience too many issues with this model. The accountability of an elder takes place in the context of peers and fellow workers. This is why we champion, when possible, a plurality of elders at every local campus.

As we move forward through the Acts narrative, we see some of the responsibilities of Biblical elders.

    1. To know the work of the ministries and missions endeavors of their local body (Acts 15:2-4).
    2. To cooperate with the elders of other local church bodies for the purpose of ruling Biblically on any doctrinal issues of the day for the sanctification of the saints (Acts 15:1-31).
    3. To bear the doctrinal responsibility of the local church body according to the Scriptures (Acts 16:4).
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