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by Marius Benec

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Biblical Principles for Church Eldership

Updated: Dec 3, 2021


Marius Benec - Ecclesia Reformanda

Tom Patton, Mike Riccardi, John Street, Hohn Cho, Chris Hamilton, and George Crawford - Institute for Church Leadership

1. Biblical Philosophy of Ministry

The church is not simply a non-profit business. It is the body of Christ, and as such is the most unique corporate institution in the world. It operates on principles of distinctively Christian doctrine, servanthood, holiness, faith, hope, and love. This is not, of course, to say that it is impossible to be a biblically qualified elder and a successful businessman at the same time. It is simply to say that success and leadership in the business world do not always or necessarily bode well for eldership in the local church.[1]

The danger of temptation for pastors is to appoint people with power in the secular, professional realm (businessmen, doctors, lawyers) in the position of elders. Sometimes pastors inherit a diaconate of historical members that are more faithful to the denominational ties than to the Scripture and some may even be unconverted. The issue of church discipline is an issue of church leadership. It takes a special group of men to say to themselves: “We are going to do whatever it takes to do what the Lord has told us. We will not try to be popular or relevant but Biblical and willing to work hard for our people.

Ecclesiology, the study of the church is a broad topic for this study, but the focus will be on the Church Government:

  • Episcopalians – archbishops over other bishops (Catholics, Orthodox, Lutheran)

  • Presbyterianism – elders chosen by the congregation (property is owned by the denomination and not by the church)

  • Congregational – elders with no authority outside the church:

  1. Single elder congregational model – one senior minister

  2. Plural elder congregational model – they share equal authority in the church (Southern Baptist).

Definition of terms:

  • Elder zaqen (Hebrew) – (Numbers 11:16; Deuteronomy 27:1) - 70 tribal leaders assisting Moses – responsibility of judging the people – decision making – resolving problems (1 Samuel 11, 16) “Elders of Israel”; “Elders of the congregation” – serving as local magistrates.

  • Elder presbuteros (Greek) leader; mature age, elderly (24 elders in Revelation).

  • Bishops and pastors are not distinct from elders – presbuteros,

  • Episkopos (Greek) guardian of the people (1 Peter 5:1-5).

There is no distinction in Scripture between "elders" and "bishops" with regard to their position in the church. Acts 20:28 contains the Greek verb, "poimaino" translated "feed" here. The definition of this word is "to tend a flock as a shepherd". It just so happens that the noun form of this word, "poimaine" is translated "shepherd" in every scriptural occurrence except one, Ephesians 4:11, where it is translated "pastor". The New Testament “Bishop” or “overseer” is a unique leadership role in the church specifically responsible for teaching. 1 Timothy 3 defines it as “feeding”, “protecting” and “general nurturing of the flock”. Biblically, it is important to understand that there's no difference in the role of an “elder” or a “bishop”. “Elder” emphasises who the man is; “bishop” emphasises on what the man does; and “pastor” emphasises on how the man feels. There should be unanimous decisions among elders under the same guidance of the Holy Spirit. The elders are not supposed to operate by majority rule or vote. If all the elders are guided by the same Spirit and have the same mind of Christ, there should be unanimous decisions. If there's any division among them all the elders should study and pray and seek the will of God together until there's a unanimous consensus (1 Corinthians 1:10, Ephesians 4:3, Philippians 1:27). Eldership is a ministry of exhortation. It has the element of persuasion and pleading, comfort and encouragement and patient reiteration of important doctrine.

Apostle Paul is saying that if you lay hands on (appoint / ordain) a man who was sinning and thereby ordain him to be a pastor you have entered into the sin. If you don't want to be a participant in sin don't fail to seek the mind of the Lord in that process (1 Timothy 5:22).


2. Why Male Eldership?

The concept of ‘male eldership’ can go as far as to be considered a politically correct blasphemy. As a result of the sexual and homosexual revolutions that have taken place in just the last several years, even distinguishing between men and women can get you branded as a transphobic bigot. Any pragmatism used to drive the decision making in this issue is outside the scope of the Bible.


Key Bible texts:


  • 1 Timothy 2:8-15; Ephesians 5:24; Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:2-5.

1 Timothy 2:12 forbids women from teaching or exercising authority over men in the church. This command is grounded in the order of creation and is confirmed by the reversal of roles that occurred at the fall. It is not a culturally or contextually limited prohibition that no longer applies to churches today.[2] Women are, however, to teach other women and children – Timothy learned the Scripture from his mother and grandmother.

Male leadership is a timeless principle rooted in creation (1 Timothy 2:13-14). The scriptures clearly teach about the unique roles of women in the church and in the home. They are equal with men in dignity and value, but they have a different role during this earthly sojourn. God has given them many different gifts by which they can minister to the church and to the world, but they are not to serve as pastors. The Lord has not given his commands to punish women, but so that they can joyfully serve him according to his will.[3]

3. Holiness

One of the most significant human dynamics in the church’s continuing spiritual growth and health is the kind of leadership it is following. When biblically qualified men are leading a church with character and skill, it is a deep and wide blessing for the unity, holiness, and spiritual growth of the church. Put somewhat negatively, so many potential mistakes and heartaches can be avoided simply by ensuring that only those men who are biblically qualified become elders.[4]


Key Bible texts:


  • 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-4

The Bible lists out a number personal and public set of qualities that an elder need to be identified by:


  • Personal character

Above reproach

- Not able to be held to account;

- To have no flagrant sin or immoral activity that would blight or mar his

character so that the flock may follow his example in good conscience (1

Timothy 4:16);

- To have a clean, moral and spiritual reputation that is irreproachable.

Temperate

- It literally means “wineless” in a metaphorical sense in this text – mental

sobriety / self-control;

- To be clear-headed in thinking; alert, watchful and vigilant;

- To be balanced judgment; stable and self-restrained;

- To be mentally and emotionally stable facing the problems and pressures of

ministry.

Prudent

- To be sensible; self-controlled; exercising good judgment; discretion and

common sense in handling the complexities of life;

- To maintain an objective perspective in handling conflicts between believers;

- Not to be prideful, authoritarian or self-righteous.

  • Public character

Respectable

- To be orderly; living a well-behaved life;

- To be an example of discipline and structure.

Hospitable

- It means “love of strangers” – having an open and welcoming home;

- Home should be a place where both believers and unbelievers alike, are

welcome;

- To be an example where his life and his home is an open book for all to see.

Gentle

- To be forbearing, kind, magnanimous, equitable and gracious;

- To be quick to pardon a failure as well as not being prone to hold a grudge;

- To be willing to yield on a difference of opinion (not truth) and patiently

make allowance for weakness and ignorance;

- When people fail, to be Christ-like in his forbearing.

Peaceable

- “Reluctant to fight” – a person who promotes unity and harmony among

others;

- To have an uncontentious attitude;

- Not to provoke disagreements or arguments;

- To be the type of person who enjoys promoting righteous harmony among

the people of God.

Free from the love of money

- “Not loving wealth” – must not be covetous;

- Whether with great wealth or little wealth is not important, but whether he

loves his wealth (1 Timothy 6:10);

- To be motivated by the love for Christ, not by the love for money;

- To be content with God’s provision in his life and to be able to be a good

steward with it.

What is our holiness but Christlikeness? What is sanctification but being progressively conformed into the image of Christ (Romans 8:29)? As the Spirit reveals the glory of Christ to us, He thereby transforms us more and more into His own image and likeness. We simply reflect His own glory, beauty, and loveliness back to Him. So far from being man-centred, the pursuit of holiness for the sake of being pleasing to Christ is God-centred, because it seeks to please Christ with no other glory than His own.[5]

4. Reputable in the World

Every elder has two callings - external ministry outside the church and internal ministry inside the church. 1 Timothy 3:7 says: “…to have a good testimony among those who are outside…”. Ephesians 6:5-8 outlines 3 principles:

  • Building reputations through actions – 1 Peter 2:18;

  • Building reputation through attitudes (humility and sincerity);

  • Building reputation through perspective (to glorify God).

Work is to be considered as a spiritual sacrifice unto God. Scripture records godly people working in a secular arena: Joseph, Daniel, Nehemiah, Abraham, Jacob, Job. Lay elders are to be about the business of ministry alongside the pastor – apostle Paul was a lay elder.

5. Managing his household

This topic can be broken down in two major categories:

  • Relationship to his wife

Matthew 20:25-27 says: “…the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave…”

Jesus’ model of leadership is bottom-up. What is your relationship to your wife and your children? “…Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honour to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” – 1 Peter 3:7. The biblical implication requires study of their gender, of her as an individual. Biblical love involves giving (Ephesians 5:25)


How to love your wives? – As Christ loved:

- First (1 John 4:19);

- The most (Ephesians 5:25a); and

- Unmistakably – “in deed and in truth” (1John 3:18).


A godly leader is not a dictator, not dominating, and not demanding. A godly leader is focusing on the needs of others, is setting godly goals, and sets examples of control in every area of his life, is a problem solver, a teacher, and he is a joy to live with.

  • Relationship to his children

A major part of this point is keeping children under control:

- Being able to use a wise biblical balance of both the rod and reproof (Proverbs 29:15;

Ephesians 6:4);

- Being able to correct his children (1 Kings 1:5-6; Proverbs 29:17);

- Willing to use the gospel with the correction of children (2 Timothy 3:14-15);

- Spank a younger child for defiance and rebellion, but not for childishness (Proverbs

29:15).

6. Elder Unity and Friendship

The church is led by a plurality of elders – Acts 15:2; James 5:14; Acts 14:23; Titus 5:1. If there is division within the elders, likewise there will be division in the congregation. The way that the leaders of the church relate to one another will eventually be reflected in how the congregation relates to each other. Harmony at the top creates safety and security for the flock.[6] Elders are to be “like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.” – Philippians 2:2

Unity starts with individual maturity in faith. Elders are bound together in unity through the unity of Christ – their common love for Jesus Christ and common passion for the Gospel. Men are united by common passions and convictions. The position of an elder cannot be given hastily – the highest standards must be maintained – it’s easier to appoint an elder than to remove an unqualified elder from the board of leadership. If we put an unqualified man on the board of leadership not only that we sow the seeds of disunity, but we commit the sin of laying hands on too quickly – 1 Timothy 5:22. The office of an Elder is only affirming the reality that someone is already qualified to lead by example. The unity among the Elders is intellectual – doctrinal, not emotional. The Elders are able to discern the wrong teaching and combat it. Unity among the elders is a low-calling – humility. Biblical unity involves biblical humility and meekness (Philippians 2:5-8; Proverbs 3:3).

7. Bad Elders

Unqualified elders bring shame upon Jesus Christ and to His Church. They make the Gospel a sham to the unbelieving world. Acts 20:28-30 warns: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” 1 Timothy 4:16 says: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.


Key points of self-examination for an elder:

  • Be honest with yourself concerning your conversion, your true salvation. Pastors and elders often attribute to themselves a special kind of grace that overlooks true faith and repentance.

  • Be honest with yourself concerning your conscience. Only you and God will know if you open the Bible to get its truth to grab your heart or just to move your pen. Once your conscience has become defiled, then it becomes dull and eventually becomes dead to sensitivity about sin.

  • Be honest with yourself concerning your carnality (temptation to sin). “A Christian is the one who knows himself the most, trusts himself the least and depends on God the greatest.” – John MacArthur

  • Be honest with yourself concerning your character / behaviour. Elders that have a certain degree of egotism that makes them arrogant with no regard for authority and power of any other. No one who is dominated by himself is fit to be an elder.

  • Pay close attention to your convictions. Apostle Paul warns Timothy to “keep a close watch on […] the teaching. The so-called jellyfish clergymen preach sermons without a point, awake no sinner and edify no saint. They think everybody is right and nobody is wrong, everything is true, and nothing is false, all the sermons are good, and none are bad. Sadly, many begin to develop doctrines designed more to please the audience than God.

  • Be honest with yourself concerning your congregation. We need to pay attention to our congregation and be honest about our commitment to it. There are men who call themselves pastors but are more focused on being preachers than shepherds. Sheep often bite and show immaturity and can turn on you, but it’s always been this way. We are to love the sheep regardless.

8. Deacon Qualifications and the Function of a Deacon

The term deacon or diakonos (Greek) occurs 29 times in the NT. Encyclopædia Britannica defines the term as “…a lay official, usually ordained, who shares in the ministry and sometimes in the governance of a congregation.

The first occurrence of this terms can be found in Philippians 1:1 which suggests a very specific title / office in a church. 1 Timothy 3:8-13 refers to the verb diakoneo (Greek) which means “to serve” or “to minister”. The passage of Acts 6:1-6, although has no mention of the term “deacon”, it presents the very first instance where 7 people “men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” were appointed to “serve tables” in order to allow the apostles to devote themselves to “prayer and to the ministry of the Word”. It’s a reminder of Exodus 18:17-27 where Jethro said to Moses to appoint leaders to judge ordinary matters and allow Moses to teach people the “statutes and the laws” of God.


The list of qualifications for the deacons is in 1 Timothy 3:8-13:

  • Men of dignity (serious or even majestic) – valuing holiness, not immature;

  • Not double-tonged – having honest and integrity of speech;

  • Not addicted to much wine – he must not fall into addiction of drunkenness;

  • Not fond of sordid gain – not greedy for dishonest gain;

  • Holding to the mystery of the faith – the great doctrines or fundamental tenets of the gospel;

  • Having a clear conscience – unaware of any unrepented sin;

  • Tested – examined; the verb is in present tense; therefore, the tests are ongoing proving their walk with Jesus;

  • Beyond reproach – blameless or unable to be convicted in a court of law (similar to the requirement for elders);

  • Husbands of only one wife – holy devoted to one’s own wife;

  • Good managers of their children – keeping the children under control, not rude or rebellious;

  • Good managers of their households – keeping a well-ordered home with peace and harmony.

1 Timothy 3:8-11 refers to women. The Greek words that we translate as deacon or deacons in the Bible can refer to either men or women. The same Greek word is sometimes translated as wives but here in this verse there is no possessive word which we might expect to see if it were supposed to be wives. In this passage we have an entire list of qualifications for deacons and the word “women”. The very next Greek word in verse 11 is “likewise” or “in the same way” and that is really how we arrive at the concept of deaconesses or women deacons. Because we are indeed talking about deacons in this passage, in fact we are listing character qualifications for deacons immediately before and after verse 11, that describes character qualifications for women which is to be considered likewise or in the very same way as the character qualifications for deacons. One of the NT examples is in Romans 16:1 which mentions Phoebe “a servant of the church”.


Qualifications for deaconesses:

  • Dignified – recognizing the importance of the church, of spiritual things and of the work that they do;

  • Not malicious gossips – this can be translated as “slanderer” or even “devil”;

  • Temperate – it literally means sobber, not drunk, vigilant, clear minded;

  • Faithful in all things – reliable, trustworthy in every aspect of life.

9. Discipleship

Discipleship is normal Christianity. Christians are both discipled and disciplers. An elder disciple the unsaved, church members, new believers, pre-marital counselling, aspiring elders, existing elders and pastors.

2 Timothy 2:2 speaks of the cycle of discipleship. Paul discipled Timothy whom is was to disciple “faithful men” and who “will be able to teach others also”. Discipleship is training, teaching, discipline. It involves a relationship between a teacher and a learner, a leader and a follower, a life and an imitator.


Key Bible texts:

  • 1 Thessalonians 1:5-8; 1 Thessalonians 2:13-14; 2 Timothy 2:2; Acts 16:1-5

Doctrine is the foundation of faithful conduct. The conduct of a believer is a response to truth and an application of that truth. In 1 Timothy 4:16 Paul exhorts Timothy to (1) “pay attention to yourself” (life / conduct) and (2) “to your teaching” (doctrine). An elder’s authority comes not from personal opinions or personality, but from the Word of God.


Elders’ discipleship is not based on their:

  • authority – telling people what to do;

  • opinions – telling them to live like you;

  • popularity – number of disciples;

  • program – a set time over coffee for one hour a week;

  • unrealistic expectations – setting deadlines for reaching a target.

Discipleship is not a one-way street. An elder also needs to learn and be an example of humility. Discipleship is:

  • Personal – Paul calls Timothy his son “my true child in the faith” – 1 Timothy 1:2; he gives Timothy his testimony – 1 Timothy 1:12-17;

  • Doctrinal – life guidance without doctrine is simply opinion; “instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines” – 1 Timothy 1:4; Paul is teaching Timothy ecclesiology in 1 Timothy 3;

  • Practical – Paul is addressing false teachers, discussing the law, the gospel, warning to keep faith, prayer, role of women in the church, apostasy, discipline, preparation for difficulty, all throughout the first and second letter to Timothy;

  • Confrontational – Paul takes sharp tone with Timothy – 1 Timothy 4:7 “have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women”; he addresses issues in Timothy’s life.

  • As we follow our Lord, we quickly learn that part of imitation is replication. Having a personal relationship with Jesus is magnificent, but it is incomplete if it ends with us. Part of being his follower is to intentionally help others learn from him and become more like him.[7]

10. Church Discipline

John Calvin identifies 3 essential pillars that define a church: the preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments / ordinances, and church discipline. “Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin.[8]

A church leadership has the responsibility of pointing the church to the holiness of God. Church discipline has 3 goals: to restore the one who has sinned (Galatians 6:1); to purify and build up the church by deterring sin (1 Timothy 5:20); to maintain the glory and honour of God (1 Corinthians 5).


Practical implementation on church discipline:

  • Discipline for private sin (Matthew 18:17-17)

  • Discipline for public sin:

- Flagrant public immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1-5);

- False teaching (Romans 16:17-18);

- “Factious and Divisive” people (Titus 3:10-11).


The aim of exercising church discipline is repentance and its results:

  • Acknowledgement of sin;

  • Developing a Godly sorrow for sin (2 Corinthians 7:10);

  • Confessing sin for what it is;

  • Developing hatred for sin;

  • Turning from sin (metanoia (Greek) - change of one's mind);

  • Turning to Christ and His holiness;

  • Seeking forgiveness from those who have been wronged; and

  • Making restitution (where possible).

As a practical matter, church discipline typically happens at the time of Communion (1 Corinthians 11:29-32). The sinner cast out of the church is turned over to Satan (1 Timothy 1:20; 1 Corinthians 5:5). 1 Corinthians 5:4-5 shows that the power of God is present and where the church discipline is rightly implemented it is affirmed in heaven (Matthew 18:18). When church discipline is being carried out there is no need to state to the church more than what is necessary and edifying (Ephesians 4:29-30; 5:11-12).

11. The Elder Board

Scripture refers on many occasions to a plurality of elders (1 Peter 5:1; Acts 20:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; Acts 13:23; Philippians 1:1). Here is a list of eldership models that are not in the Bible:

  • The elder board being a secret society of supper saints – establishing their own culture, circle, socialising mostly within their group;

  • Elders tending to dominate and take upon themselves the entire ministry of the church;

  • Elders who consider themselves to having crossed the finish line – only showing up at the meeting and dictating others what to do.

  • Functions of the elder board agenda items:

  • Compliance with the Government’s requirements – making sure that the church is in subjection to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1);

  • Ministry of the Word – Titus 1:9 speaks of individual elders “holding fast to the faithful word” that he (Titus) “may be able to both exhort and convict those who contradict”. Elders as such should be able to discuss these matters together and lead the church in that same direction (Acts 15:4-6);

  • Ministry of prayer – elders need to come together and pray for the church that they minister to (Ephesians 1:15-17; Philippians 1:8-10; Colossians 1:9-10; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12; Philemon 1:6 – Paul praying for churches);

  • Appointing spiritual leadership – elders, deacons, missionaries, Bible study teachers, group leaders – the ministry must be delegated (1 Timothy 4:14; Acts 6:3);

  • Shepherding – it’s a group effort – the elders share equal and serious responsibility for the care of God’s flock (Ezekiel 34:1-10);

  • Guarding the flock from sin in the church – “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock…” – Acts 20:28. 1 Corinthians 5:2 speaks of the arrogance of the leaders who did not take action against the one who sinned.

An eldership board is to be unanimous, of the same mind in what matters and that is doctrine, church discipline, appointing leaders (1 Corinthians 2:14-16; Philippians 2:1-2; Ephesians 4:4). Also, an eldership meeting should not be concerned with deacons’ issues. There are separate tasks that the two offices should deal with as prescribed in Acts 6:1-7.

Factors that allow division in the elder board:

  • Allowing divergent doctrine (1 Timothy 4);

  • Allowing unqualified elders on the board (1 Timothy 5:22);

(Both of the above will soon lead to division in the church.)

  • Elders who are not functioning – maybe they’ve been there for a very long time and they are tired and cannot carry the load anymore;

  • Competition for influence – born out of pride and ungodly motivations (1 Peter 5:1-2; 3 John 9-11).

Factors that unify and elder board are godly men who are qualified, functioning, filled with the Holy Spirit and united in purpose (Philippians 2:2).

Think of how care-full a bride’s attendants are as they prepare her to walk down the aisle. Christ wants his leaders no less careful as they prepare his bride.

— Mark Dever


References:

[1] Dever, M., 2010. Looking For A Few Good Men. [online] 9Marks. Available at: <https://www.9marks.org/article/looking-few-good-men/> [Accessed 19 October 2020]. [2] Schreiner, T., 2010. May Women Serve As Pastors?. [online] 9Marks. Available at: <https://www.9marks.org/article/may-women-serve-pastors/> [Accessed 19 October 2020]. [3] Ibid. [4] Dever, M., 2010. Looking For A Few Good Men. [online] 9Marks. Available at: <https://www.9marks.org/article/looking-few-good-men/> [Accessed 19 October 2020]. [5] Riccardi, M., 2016. Pleasing To Him: Our Supreme Ambition. [online] The Cripplegate. Available at: <https://thecripplegate.com/pleasing-to-him-our-supreme-ambition/#more-100708> [Accessed 19 October 2020]. [6] Johnson, B., 2013. Building Unity And Friendship Among Elders. [online] 9Marks. Available at: <https://www.9marks.org/article/journalbuilding-unity-and-friendship-among-elders/> [Accessed 19 October 2020]. [7] Kell, G., 2012. Discipleship According To The Scriptures. [online] 9Marks. Available at: <https://www.9marks.org/article/journaldiscipleship-according-scriptures/> [Accessed 19 October 2020]. [8] Bonhoeffer, D., 1978. Life Together. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, p.107.

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