Ever since I started these long-form articles, I’ve had some challenging situations and questions that have come up. I’ve been working on these articles for a while now, but the situations have so percolated that I just had to make an actual post about it. This one is on elders. You can read my other long one on deacons.
Today, people sometimes confuse the office of deacon and elder. At other times, they make a distinction between the pastor from the elders. In the early church, after the apostles’ time, elders were church officers second to bishops. During the apostles’ time, elders were crucial. Paul made the elders’ appointment a core aspect of his team’s work after the gospel had born fruit and resulted in a local assembly.
We need to dig deep but mind you, I can’t cover it all. Books exist that do a much better and thorough job. This is just me, working through some things and assuming some things (some of which I’ve already covered in other posts) to see where I land.
Episkopos and Presbyteros and = Elders
The Bible, particularly the New Testament, uses a couple of words to refer to this important position. One of them is presbyteros (which is where we get the name Presbyterians). That just means older man—or elder. It comes from the Israelite culture, where the leaders were the older men of the tribes in conjunction with the scribes (Matt 26:57). Paul tells Titus to appoint presbyteros, or elders (1 Tit 1:5-7).
The other word is episkopos (which you might’ve seen in the term Episcopalian). This word means overseer or the ones who watch over like a guardian. In Miletus, Paul calls for the elders, presbyteros, of the Ephesian church. When he’s speaking to them, he says that they are to watch out over themselves and the flock among which God has made them overseers (Acts 20:28), episkopos.
Two words for one office. Elders are bishops; bishops are elders.
Plurality of Elders
After some time in the ancient church, a single bishop would have a higher position over many churches and provinces. The Bible contains no such example in the New Testament.
The New Testament refers to elders in the plural. Paul summoned the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20:17. Peter exhorts the elders (1 Peter 5:1). Titus is supposed to appoint elders in Crete (Tit 1:5). Apostles and elders were part of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:2). The church at Antioch had elders (Acts 11:30. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders (plural) in every church (individual) Acts 14:23. Paul writes to the elders and deacons (Phil 1:1). James asks that the sick call for the elders of the individual church (Jas 5:14). 1 Thes 5:12, 13 refers to the leaders and Heb 13:7, 17 refers to they, or those leaders who watch over their souls.
The evidence is strong though there might be some cases of an individual elder.
For example, the church in Jerusalem might not have been a monolithic mega-church—maybe they didn’t have space. Multiple house churches may have had an elder, and altogether they formed the elders of the church in Jerusalem—but there’s no evidence for that.
Another example is that when Paul tells Timothy what to look for in an elder, he looks at an individual (1 Tim 3:2) but doesn’t do the same with deacons (1 Tim 3:8). Of course, this doesn’t make sense when he refers to elders in the plural in the same letter (1 Tim 5:17) or Titus’ actions for appointing elders—it could just mean that he’s using the term generically to represent any single elder without referring to the actual elder board.
Lastly, when writing, John refers to himself as the elder (2 John 1, 3 John 1). It could mean that he is the single elder of those churches or a single elder from the church he’s writing from. Or, it could mean that he’s calling himself an old man.
In all, I think the evidence is instead towards the plurality of elders, especially when you see the Scriptural evidence for plurality in general. There’s more wisdom in a group of counselors (Proverbs 11:14; 24:6) than in a single individual. Multiple elders work against a single elder “lording it over God’s flock” as Peter warns (1 Peter 5:3). With a group of elders, it’s easier to keep watch over the group (Acts 20:28) to see the dangers than to try to watch over oneself.
Elders Shepherd God’s Flock
As above, we noted that there were two words for one office. That one office of elder had a summarizing job: pastor, or shepherd, God’s flock. God is the shepherd of his sheep, but these elders functioned, although never named as such, as under-shepherds.
Peter writes to the elders (1 Peter 5:1) to shepherd the flock of God (1 Peter 5:2). He, being the Chief Shepherd, archepoimen, which implies that the elders are under-shepherds.
What Does it Mean to Shepherd God’s Flock?
Many people then tend to use shepherding imagery to teach about the elder’s role. It is essential not to put too much weight on a metaphor. The main job of a real shepherd is to watch out for a flock’s safety and well-being. Sometimes that looks like watching out for predators by using mean dogs. At other moments it might mean shaving the sheep down. Other times, it might mean pulling the sheep by the neck with a hooked staff. Most of that would be weird if we applied it to church elders. Remember, God is the chief shepherd, and elders are only under-shepherds by implication that he has temporarily placed the people in charge of these men.
When Jesus gives a similar task to Peter, he explains that he is to feed Jesus’ sheep (John 21:15-16). Shepherding is, therefore, a nurturing task. Peter, describing the responsibility to elders, explains it as serving the sheep (1 Peter 5:2) as entrusted examples (1 Peter 5:3).
In the end, they are entrusted servants tasked with the responsibility of caring for God’s people who are under their care (1 Peter 5:2) by word and by deed. Paul, when speaking about the characteristic of elders, highlights what it means to be an example. When talking about the caring- nurturing-over-watching function, Paul refers to their ability to teach and preach the word of God (1 Timothy 3:1-7; 2 Tim 4:1-7). Not their ability to bind wounds. Not their ability to pull sheep by the neck with a hooked staff or employ mean dogs. Continually going back to their adherence and ability to explain and apply the word of God.
In all of these cases, this function of servant leadership with nurturing care and oversight is called ruling (1 Tim 5:17; Hebrews 13:17) or managing (1 Tim 3:5) without lording it over.
Elders work together with the congregation to decide on how the local church functions (Acts 15:22), watch over and protect the assembly (Acts 20:28), ruling by the responsibility of feeding the word (1 Tim 5:17; 1 Tim 3:2) with the primary charge over God’s flock to work amongst them (1 Thes 5:12). They are always on guard (Acts 20:31) and even ready to respond to physical problems (James 5:14).
This is a serious job that the elder enters into willfully (1 Peter 5:2) and with a deep love for God’s people (1 Corinthians 13).
Local Assemblies Must Be Shepherded
As above, Paul’s teams’ primary task after the gospel had produced fruit and a local assembly was planted was to preach and place elders. In some cases, if the gospel was already established, it might be possible that he saw the primary task of appointing elders.
Paul spent only a couple of weeks in Thessalonica and was rushed out during a riot. When he writes them, he was already encouraging the people there to know who were the people that were laboring among them, are over them, who have the right to admonish them and to hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work (1 Thes 5:12-13).
Paul wrote a letter to Titus that was meant for all the churches in Crete (Titus 3:15). He tells Titus and the Cretans why Titus is still there: to appoint elders (Titus 1:5). We know there were Cretans in Jerusalem during Pentecost (Acts 2:11), and we know Paul passed through Crete on his way to Rome as a prisoner (Acts 27:7-21), but we never see Paul establishing a church there in Acts. Either he passed through the area after the book or Paul sent Titus to Crete as he left another location—this means that it could have been a young church he had heard that those cities needed elders. Since Paul already had the habit of placing elders in the areas he preached (Acts 14:21-23) by his sending Titus, it seems to indicate that he didn’t have a chance to do this but still thought it necessary.
Paul went to Ephesus and spent at least two years there (Acts 19:18). If his earlier habit continued, he was the one who appointed the elders he summons in Acts 20:17. Years later, while Paul is imprisoned, he sends Timothy to do some work in Ephesus, which deals with the leadership by either appointing more elders (1 Timothy 5:22) and avoiding recent converts (1 Timothy 3:6) to even removing unruly elders.
Elders Are to Watch Where They Are
Paul, an apostle known for his itinerant (that is, traveling) ministry, spent months to years in the different places where he performed Christ-mandated his apostolic duties. He wanted to ensure that the work he did was to preach where Christ was not known so that he would not build on another’s foundation (Rom 15:20). The church itself was built on the foundation that the prophets and the apostles lay down (Eph 2:20). It was a foundation that no other could lay down, and that was Christ (1 Cor 3:11). This was done by the Incarnate God-Man, Christ Jesus, choosing his apostles, giving them his message, giving themselves to His message, and those apostles administering that message by preaching the word to every tongue, tribe, and nation.
The elders didn’t come along laying a foundation, but rather overseeing and shepherding those growing on that already laid foundation. In this way, elders only partially continue the apostles’ work in that they minister the word, rebuking, exhorting, and correcting others in matters of doctrine (Eph 4:14). Itinerant speakers are neither apostles nor super-shepherds. Itinerant speakers should be functioning under the elders’ care in their home assembly and under the elders’ oversight in the fellowship they visit: they are not a super-Christian category given to function outside of God’s boundaries.
As Under-Shepherds, Elders Are Accountable to God
As appointed by God, gifted by Christ and the Holy Spirit, subject to God’s Word, identified by their work by in the local assembly, and tested and approved by that same local assembly, the elders have a serious responsibility. It is no wonder that those who work hard at this already tricky job are worthy of “double honor”—something I will touch on below.
This severe responsibility is made all the more poignant because elders have to give an account to God.
Everyone must indeed give an account to God (Rom 14:12). Every conviction and decision that has been made is brought before the living God as every Christian must appear before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor 5:10). Everyone will have to answer for even every idle word (Matthew 12:36)
Elders are called to give an account for others as well as for themselves. Elders are described as watching over souls.
This is why elders have to be heavily concerned for all aspects of corporate life:
- What the local church is taught.
- Which books are in the assembly library.
- Which music the assembly sings.
- Which hymns are placed on a monitor.
- Which ministries are believers participating in.
- Which preachers are influencing them.
- Which wolves are prowling about ready to pounce on the sheep be it from nearby or afar.
That said, we shouldn’t get carried away with what this means. The writer to the Hebrews doesn’t flesh out what this accountability looks like. It can’t mean that elders must give an account for how someone decided to raise their children despite what was taught in the local assembly. It can’t mean that elders must give an account for the way a man and his wife speak to each other despite the example the elders themselves have set. As above, accountability seems more likely attached to the things done under the local gathering’s purview and responsibility.
How Are Elders Appointed?
Elders were appointed by looking at the right qualifications. Just as in Acts, where the Holy Spirit worked in conjunction and through people’s actions (Acts 13:2; 15), Paul would call this appointment one done by God (Acts 20:28). This appointment doesn’t necessarily mean that the men were sinlessly perfect because he says that some of their own group would rise up and speak perverse things (Acts 20:30).
Instead, the men are already doing the work among the flock, the current leaders (if available like Titus or Timothy) show these men to already be doing the work and test them (1 Timothy 3:10), the assembly acknowledges that the men are doing the work. The men are recognized as officially doing the work (1 Timothy 5:22). This isn’t an overly private practice but handled with care, prayer, and reliance on God—but what that looks like is never specified. What is set are explicit characteristics and qualifications, which implies a thorough examination.
What Are the Qualifications of an Elder?
Timothy and Titus are to look for a few good men. First, Paul points out that anyone looking to do the work of shepherding God’s flock is actually looking to do is excellent. The object of their desire is good. Peter speaks about their willingness to serve (1 Peter 5:1-4) not out of compulsion but out of the right desire. With this, Paul goes into the overarching requirement of an elder: blameless or above reproach.
An Elder is not Sinlessly Perfect
This doesn’t mean that the person is sinlessly perfect. It doesn’t mean that the person has never done anything wrong. Peter, after all, wasn’t blameless: he denied Christ three times. Paul wasn’t innocent: he persecuted Christ’s church. John wasn’t blameless: he ran away when the going got tough.
Instead, Paul will describe what being above reproach looks like when evidenced in his words and lifestyle.
An Elder Must be Above Reproach
He leads this list that explains what it is to be blameless with “a husband of one wife.” Paul isn’t disqualifying single men. Nor is Paul qualifying men who cheat on their wives while maintaining their marriage and meeting the letter of the law as it were. Paul is saying to look at the man’s approach to the most sacred covenant he has ever and will ever hold as a Christian man and ask the question: what has this man done with it?
I have a much longer article on divorce and remarriage, but the point here is that this relationship, especially in that day and age, was so often taken for granted. It would have been easy for Paul to gloss over marriage and say, “well, no one is perfect: sure, some people have mistreated the relationship, but we need elders!” Rather, he puts his trust in God and sets the bar.
An Elder’s Character is to be Examined
The entire list is characteristic qualifications that examine the responses of a Christian man in his day today. Is the man dignified and commanding respect in his life? Is he known by his self-control or lack of control? Is he known for his hospitality, or is he rather known for his selective hospitality whereby he either gains an audience for himself or panders to a specific crowd (1 Timothy 5:21; James 2:1-7)? Is he known for trying to get money, or does money really never enter the picture? If he’s stressed, is he known for flying off the handle, or are those cases really not the way he operates? Is he known for being gentle and being a peacemaker, or does he cause trouble or is often rough?
An Elder’s Life is to be Examined
The examination is thorough, reaching into his home and business life: how does he rear his children, his home, his family? Are they well managed, out of control, or cowering under the wrath of Dad? What do people think about him at the workplace? What about at the local DMV? How about at that marketplace: all those places outside of the assembly? The church is warned that if they don’t look at this part of life, they can actually be putting someone in place who will fall into reproach and springing a trap set by Satan (1 Timothy 3:7).
An Elder’s Teaching Must be Examined
One of the qualifications looks at the amount of time in the faith: is he a new believer? If he is, then even if he meets all of the qualifications, Timothy shouldn’t appoint him because that sort of thing is a trap for his personal life as well (1 Timothy 3:6). He’s not ready for being an elder.
Almost every single qualification is an examination of character, lifestyle, and covenant. Even the elder’s ability to teach, which we would expect, highlights his ability to shepherd with the word of God. This ability dovetails back into an examination of his lifestyle (Titus 1:9). He should be holding fast to the faithful, apostolic word in his life and practice so that he can caution naysayers.
He needs to be both gentle and courageous. Not a fighter but able to refute. Hold fast in the face of rebellion (Titus 1:10). Keep preaching when the preaching gets tough (2 Timothy 4:1-4). His aptitude for teaching reflects inwards and outwards.
An Elder Must Meet All Qualifications
I know I didn’t list each characteristic in the typical way that examines all the back and forth on it. You can read Alexander Strauch’s book on Biblical Eldership if you want further study. The point here was that the examination is thorough and encompasses many facets of life. Those facets that are openly wrong automatically disqualify the man from being an elder. It might not disqualify him from serving in another area, but the eldership is barred.
If a man meets every single qualification but cannot teach, he cannot be an elder. He can be a deacon (because a deacon basically meets all those requirements except the ability to teach is never required), but the eldership is unavailable for him. If a man meets every requirement, including the complete giftedness in teaching, but is known for being a jerk at the workplace, the eldership is not available. If a man meets every requirement, except he blows his top whenever he’s challenged, the eldership is unavailable to him.
An Elder Must Not Be A Cowboy
Being part of a group means that sometimes decisions slow down. People who want to get things done sometimes, wrongly, speed ahead to make things happen. This can be evidenced in all sorts of ways, from collecting for a cause to a brand-new ministry. In so doing, the elder functions as if he has forgotten that God has called multiple men as elders for their own corporate good.
If elders are to be examples to the local assembly (1 Peter 5:3), they should reflect a sense of unity that others should mimic (Phil 2:2). This might sometimes make them slower. It might mean that the elders opt that some decisions will be decided by the majority, but everyone supports the process. It should never look like one elder either going off to do his own thing, making unplanned pronouncements on behalf of the elders, or refusing to participate when he doesn’t get his own way (3 John 1:9–10).
Sometimes this behavior is purely an example of wanting to be active—often seen in the young who just want to get things done. At other times it can reflect an incorrect view of the Holy Spirit’s gifts (for example: “I’m gifted by God as an administrator so I must do this work!”), which needs to be dealt with slowly and carefully re-aligned. It can sometimes be something worse (Romans 16:17), and it has to be dealt with differently.
Can Current Elders be Disqualified?
Paul handed Timothy and Titus a pattern for how he looked for elders. When Paul handed over the pattern, he made sure to write it down so that the local assembly could also learn the practice. He tells Timothy and the local church to take their time (1 Timothy 5:22)—they don’t want to appoint the wrong person and thus take responsibility for their sins.
He says that some sins are evident, and everyone can see them, but some follow later, so don’t hold the burden too heavy about making an utterly botched decision (1 Timothy 5:23-24). Even so, they are to expect that people are imperfect and will need some private correction like a dad (1 Timothy 5:1), but if they persist, then they’re showing their true colors and must be rebuked in front of everyone (1 Timothy 5:20).
This is similar to the warning that Paul gave the very same Ephesian church elders years before. They were appointed by God, but they were to expect danger from inside and out. How is this possible? Jesus explains in John 6:70: “Didn’t I choose you twelve? And yet, one of you is a devil.”
Since that’s the reality, Paul charged the elders of Ephesus to watch out for themselves. He wasn’t telling them to watch each other’s back and to hide sin at all costs like a sinister cabal. He told them to watch over themselves like they are the flock: with concern and ready to act when that time came.
I have a longer article on church discipline. Still, essentially, Paul gives a process with elders going wrong in terms of their qualifications. In that other article, I highlight that although a crime might be a sin, a sin might not be a crime. There are no hospitality laws: you can do what you want with your house. But Christ commands hospitality from his people, and being inhospitable can disqualify an elder. Someone might privately accuse an elder of lack of hospitality, but that doesn’t mean that the elder is inhospitable. Although if several people bring up the charge after already privately confronting the brother, it might be a more severe situation (1 Timothy 5:19).
Some sins are crimes. If a child reports being touched inappropriately by an elder, the law states that this must be reported and handled by the police—let the cops do their jobs. People should trust God that this man’s innocence or guilt will come to light.
An elder can become disqualified, and the standing elders or the assembly have the responsibility to remove the elder from the position. Indeed, multiple elders, if not the entire sitting elder board, can become disqualified. Elders individually or corporately are disqualified when they are now known by a disqualifying fault that now leaves them under public reproach.
This reproach, though, must be aligned with Biblical principles. Elders aren’t necessarily disqualified because some in the assembly disagree with their decisions. Elders aren’t necessarily disqualified if division occurs in their community. The brilliance of the word of God must shed light on every different situation.
The Corinthian assembly is known for her divisions and inordinate practices. Yet, Paul says that there must be differences among them so that those who are actually approved may be evident to the assembly (1 Cor 11:9). Paul disagrees with the divisions (1 Cor 1:1) and is possibly highlighting the inevitable. Even so, Paul doesn’t tell the assembly that the leaders there are now disqualified but rather to rally around specific men as leaders: Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus should be recognized as their actual leaders (1 Cor 16:15-18).
Each of the assemblies in the last book of the Bible has a serious charge brought against them. None of those cases result in all of the leaders being disqualified. Ephesus is to repent of losing her first love (Rev 2:5); Smyrna to hold fast in the face of tribulation (Rev 2:10); Pergamum to repent of coddling false teachers (Rev 2:16); Thyatira’s charge is specifically against those who follow Jezebel’s teaching, but the rest of the people are to have no further burden and hold fast (Rev 2:24-25); those in Sardis are to wake up and repent, but the rest are to keep walking (Rev e:3-4); Philadelphia to hold fast (Rev 3:11); and Laodicea to become zealous and repent (Rev 3:19). The repentance in each of these cases might look like removing some of their leaders (for example, if some of the elders in Pergamum or Thyatira were the false teachers). Nothing implies the dissolution of an entire elder board.
How Long Should an Elder Serve?
When we speak about the length of time an elder should serve, we’re entering into a subject of wisdom rather than command.
As above, an elder serves only while being qualified as an elder but are there other cases? Some assemblies set fixed term lengths for their elder board. Others believe that once an elder, always an elder. Churches further muddy these waters when they ordain ministers.
Scripture is Silent on Elder Term Length
There are no passages of scripture in the New Testament that specify the elder’s term’s length. There are no passages of scripture in the New Testament that tells us how an elder should be appointed going forward. How does the process of recognition of work even look like? What is the process for removing the disqualified elder so that his family is also protected? The Bible is silent to the process but rich in matters of wisdom.
In the Old Testament, the Levitical work from age 25 to 50 (Numbers 8:24–26) anyone younger or older weren’t eligible to serve. Men were also eligible for the military at age 20 (Numbers 1:1–3). David eventually lowered the age for entering into the priesthood to 20 (1 Chronicles 23:27). There is no reason given. We know that lifespans were shorter back then, and the priest’s work included heavy lifting and activity—so maybe 50 was the upper limits of that. We also know that men were getting married young back then, and 20-25 was old enough to be tested. Indeed, even at 50, Numbers 8:26 seems to imply that the older retired Levites ministered to their fellow Levites even if they weren’t doing the priestly work anymore. The point of raising this is that the text merely lists the bracketing of the work.
No Longer Desires to be An Elder
Is it possible that a similar sort of bracketing can happen with elders? It’s clear that an elder is qualified only as long as he meets the qualifications, and the assembly continues to acknowledge him as an elder, but what if he just doesn’t want to be an elder anymore?
1 Timothy 3:1 and 1 Peter 5:2 highlights the desire and the eagerness and willingness to serve as an important aspect of being an elder. Yet Hebrews 13:17 indicates that the work can become a joyless burden that proves useless for the assembly. Wisdom seems to suggest then that if an elder has lost the desire, eagerness, and willingness to serve, he should step down. This can be for any given reason beyond typical disqualifications.
Maybe he’s sickly. Or he’s much older. Or he’s wiped out from raising the triplets that they just had. Wisdom seems to indicate that it only makes sense for the elder to either take a break or fully step down.
No Ability to be An Elder
What if he has all the desire and eagerness and joy but none of the ability? For example, an older man might have all the passion from his younger years to serve but no longer allowed to drive a vehicle or move about without his ventilator. The assembly might acknowledge him as a wiser older brother, but in this case, they might have to help him to step down because he can no longer serve as an elder.
After Establishing Elders
What about the fact that we are mortal? An assembly needs to acknowledge those who labor among them (1 Cor 16:15, 1 Thes 5:12). The sitting elders should aid the church in that act of recognition long before they die and wisely training those men to take up the work. Once that work is being handled, is it wiser to step down and let the new and seasoned men carry the load?
I also believe that it is wise that they should no longer be active doing elders’ work but should instead shift their ministry emphasis. Wisdom would seem to indicate that if you have elders acknowledged as doing the work and an elder who has stepped down from doing the work, that that elder emeritus should stop doing the work of an elder. If able, he could serve as some sort of counselor to the sitting elders—after all, he has years of service under his belt—but he shouldn’t be “laboring among the flock”. This sort of activity can create unnecessary confusion and even division.
I agree with Bob Deffinabugh (with some expansion), that an elder serves:
- as long as he is qualified
- as long as he is able to do the work
- as long as he wants to do the work
- as long as the assembly acknowledges him as doing the work
- as long as he is able to help the assembly acknowledge others who are doing the work
- long enough that he is able to pass the baton to those who are doing the work, and if able
- serve in some sort of counseling capacity for the active elders without doing a new work himself
Should Elders Get Paid?
Elders should not be serving for the money. His life should not be driven by money (1 Tim 3:3), doing God’s work for money (Luke 16:13), or corrupted by willing to seek money (or fame) in any way possible (Titus 1:7). Loving money is dangerous and can destroy a person’s faith (1 Timothy 6:10).
Paul requires that believers, especially leaders, should follow his example of having their own jobs so that they can win the respect of outsiders and not be dependent on anyone (1 Thes 4:11-12). Paul reminds the Ephesian elders of his own practice of ministering while maintaining a job was an example that they should copy (Acts 20:33-35). He did the same thing with the Corinthians (Acts 18:3).
Even so, Paul was supported by other churches outside of Corinth (2 Cor 11-7-9) and promised that he would continue to function in this way. Paul notes that people who are fully employed in preaching the Gospel should be supported by physical means. He has a right to food and drink (1 Cor 9:5), be supported in his service (1 Cor 9:7), and be fed while plowing (1 Cor 9:8-10).
In this same way, Paul specifies that some elders were doing such an excellent job in ruling with the amount of work they did in word and doctrine that the assembly should free them up to devote themselves completely to that work without worry. In 1 Timothy 5:17, he again uses the example of an ox not being muzzled and that a laborer is worthy of his wages. He doesn’t explicitly say that these specific elders should be paid. Still, he says that these elders should be counted worthy of double honor and substantiates it with various examples from the Old Testament.
In today’s situation, this would mean that elders are enabled to devote themselves more fully to work by the church making it possible for them to do so. If the church is so equipped, it could mean that they actually pay the man a salary. Perhaps this means that a local church can cover the elder and his family’s health insurance—often a significant concern. I know some churches that honor such an elder by providing housing, utilities, and the internet. The man still had a paying job, but he no longer had to worry about paying a mortgage. Some churches have a study stipend where they help the elder with building their resources library. Yet others have purchased a car for their doubly honored elder.
In each case, these churches with these sorts of servant leaders are counting them worthy of double honor.
Mind you, this doesn’t apply to all the elders. Some of the elders might not be able to work in labor and doctrine as strongly as others—and that’s okay. That’s not a mark for jealousy. That’s an opportunity for the fellow elders to thank God and support the man in his work. Some churches have called these men (I think inappropriately) their lead pastor, and others have (possibly rightly) said this is their first elder among an equal eldership—a concept that finds support in Acts.
This also doesn’t necessarily apply to every elder board in every church. It’s not as if every assembly must have one elder who is counted of double honor. It does mean that when the elders and congregation have one of these guys, they should know it and act accordingly.
Sidenote: Should Someone Who Preaches a Sermon Get Paid?
As an aside: this doesn’t mean that every sermon is a paid sermon. I know that within the local assemblies I’m part of, we have a habit of giving a financial gift to cover travel expenses getting to and from the assembly. That makes sense since these visitors might sometimes be driving some distance to get to the meeting. Often, we take preachers out to eat after they’ve labored so that they and their family can go home full just as we have gone home full of the word.
But this practice isn’t fellowship (what a mistitle), nor is it an exchange of goods. This practice should be thoughtfully considered and then correctly applied. We don’t want to give the impression that we’re paying for preaching!
This is nowhere clearer than within the local assembly. If the local gathering grows to believe that every message is exchanged with a physical reward, they make a categorical mistake that teaches the wrong lesson. They have extended a correct category (those who spend their time laboring in word and doctrine) and confused it with the spiritual gift’s regular exercise within the local assembly (the priesthood of all believers).
Those who occasionally preach in the local assembly are getting to use their gift. If we teach by our actions that this usage is always exchanged with cash or some physical gift, we’ve now effectively cheapened the ministry to the Lord. After all, women are serving in word and doctrine by raising children and teaching Sunday school—indeed a more important service than the occasional sermon—and not once does it enter into anyone’s thinking that this service should be rewarded with financial means. That doesn’t justify the point, though—maybe women should also get paid. Or perhaps, the entire practice is misconstrued.
Let me put this differently: in a local assembly, members who get to use their gift shouldn’t have their heavenly reward stolen by a cheap earthly exchange (Mat 6:19-20). Instead, their use of their facilities is for the sake of a greater reward (1 Cor 3:8). Even external occasional speakers shouldn’t receive compensation for their sermon but rather cover their expenses to get to your church.
If anything, when the local church has speakers serving the Lord in any capacity (be it from the pulpit or from Sunday School), the church should instead invest in the entire body’s spiritual maturity. Perhaps it means that the local assembly might build up their internal library for all preachers in the church to leverage. Or it might mean creating a corporate hospitality fund: everyone gets a joint meal to rejoice in God granting this ministry.
Now there might be some men or women that the local elders have identified as actually containing a particular gift that looks like it is geared towards preaching and teaching. The elders could (but not necessarily) consider occasional gifts like a commentary for these men or women—but never tied to a sermon or service. We don’t want to twist forming minds to serve the Lord for the earthly reward. None of this is commanded, and a local church should avoid making it rule. With all of that aside, the point of devoted elders who have committed their waking moment to word and doctrine is clear: our churches need to do better.
Some Closing Thoughts About Elders
I definitely didn’t cover everything. For example, I never explicitly mentioned Diotrephes. In the reader’s view, I might have downplayed it a bit by writing about the topic as if an elder was merely being a cowboy. The reason I did that is that I doubt Diotrephes started where he ended up. And when it was too late, John had to pull apostolic rank.
In all honesty, I think that this is the reason Paul warned the Ephesian elders. There is one way to be qualified, but the ways that elders can go wrong are myriad. We shouldn’t underestimate our sinful ability to twist just about anything. At the same time, we’re also called to assume the best (1 Cor 13:5), which sometimes winds up in wrongful inaction. Through it all, we must rely on the word of God over against the machinations of men. Sometimes unbiblical opinions and solutions are whitewashed with spiritual gloss and dubbed holy.
That’s the rub. Because we know our own inclination to go wrong, we’re sometimes afraid of doing right. Passages about assuming the best or dealing with sin are ignored, and imbalance reigns. It’s the same thing with the issue of church discipline. Hearing all of this, you can understand why Timothy was told to take a little tonic for his tummy.
It takes hard work. Sometimes there is no divine light illuminating the path, and often the claim that some position is right because it was revealed by the Holy Spirit is concerning. Again and again we’re called to go back to the faithful word of God because that’s where God promised to act.
As questions come up, I’ll expand and update this post.
Compared Qualifications of Elders and Deacons
It would be a mistake to see all of the qualifications of a deacon and assume that it is interchangeable with an elder. Although many of the qualities overlap, duties aren’t laid down for the deacons as they are for the elder.
|Aspire/desire the voluntary work (1 Tim 3:1 Peter 5:2)||√|
|Above Reproach or Blameless (1 Tim 3; Titus 1:6)||√||√|
|Husband of one wife (1 Tim 3:2; 1 Tim 1:5; 1 Tim 3:10)||√||√|
|Temperate (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:8; 2 Tim 2:25)||√|
|Prudent (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:9)||√|
|Respectable or Dignified (1 Tim 3:2; 3:8)||√||√|
|Hospitable (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:8)||√|
|Able to teach, working hard at teaching, able to exhort in sound doctrine and refute/rebuke those who contradict; (1 Tim 3:2; 1 Tim 5:17; Titus 1:9; 2 Tim 2:25)||√|
|Shepherd the flock of God, exercising oversight (1 Pet 5:2)||√|
|Not addicted to much wine or accused of dissipation (1 Tim 3:3; Titus 1:6,7)||√||√|
|Not violent (1 Tim 3:3; Titus 1:7)||√|
|Gentle (1 Tim 3:3; 2 Tim 2:25)||√|
|Peaceable and not quick-tempered (1 Tim 3:3; 2 Tim 2:25)||√|
|Free from the love of money and not fond of sordid gain (1 Tim 3:3; Titus 1:7; 1 Pet 5:8; 1 Tim 3:8)||√||√|
|Keeps children under control who are believing (1 Tim 3:4, 12; Titus 1:6)||√||√|
|Good reputation outside of the church (1 Tim 3:7, an example to the flock Titus 1:3)||√|
|Not double-tongued (1 Tim 3:8)||√|
|Not a recent convert (1 Tim 3:6)||√|
|Rule Well (1 Tim 5:17)||√|
|Holding to what is good (1 Tim 5:8); Holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience (1 Tim 3:9)||√||√|
|“Also” first be tested (1 Tim 3:10)||√||√|
|Devout (Titus 1:8)||√|
|Some are worthy of double honor (1 Tim 3:17)||√|
|Some gain a good standing and confidence in the faith before God (1 Tim 3:13)||√|
|Not rebellious (Titus 1:6)||√|
|Not self-willed (Titus 1:7)||√|
|Just (Titus 1:9)||√|
Three caveats must be mentioned when looking at the chart above.
First: a white spot doesn’t assume the negation to the qualification. In other words, a deacon is called to not be double-tongued—but that doesn’t mean that an elder should be double-tongued! An elder is by necessity not double-tongued based on the large list of influencing qualities (being above reproach, dignified, prudent, and having a good reputation even amongst those outside of the church). Indeed, even though some of these characteristics might be the duty for all Christians (deacon’s wives 1 Tim 3:11; widows 1 Tim 5:13; avoiding slander and gossip 2 Corinthians 12:20) it might only be explicitly mentioned for the deacon because of their work. In their capacity as deacon, they would hear things from both the congregation and the elders which required honesty in communication.
Second: a white spot doesn’t mean an absence of the quality. For example, an elder is called to be hospitable but that doesn’t mean that a deacon can’t be hospitable. Hospitality is an attribute for all Christians and in fact, there are many who hold the office of a deacon who are already hospitable (or prudent, temperate, and able to teach).
Third: Holding the negation of a non-mandated characteristic could be grounds for not being qualified under the rubric of “being above reproach”—a characteristic that applies to both deacons and elders. Although Paul never lists “not being self-willed” for a deacon, being such would disqualify the man because he is not above reproach and surely not respected because of it.