Why Your Church Should Have Elders (Part 4)

Jesus loves the church and has richly provided for her eternal health and glory (Eph 4.7-16). He sustains the church through a well-ordered, humble, Spirit-wrought polity. The New Testament teaches and demonstrates that local church leadership should be entrusted to a plurality of qualified men who, though gifted differently, are equal in authority and responsibility. Both biblically and practically, your local church benefits greatly by having a group of men sharing the pastoral responsibility for souls.

Here are some common questions when considering a plurality of elders for your local church.

Aren’t elders basically the same thing as deacons?
Though a common assumption in modern (Baptist) churches, there is a clear biblical distinction between the offices of elder and deacon. Deacon is not a synonym for elder.  For example, see Phil 1.1 where the roles are clearly distinguished in the Philippian church. While elders and deacons are called to diakonia (Acts 6.2, 4) they are called to different forms of primary service. Elders and deacons are to be same sort of men (cf. 1 Tim 3.1-13; Titus 1.5-9): mature, Christian men.  But their ministry to the church is different.  How so?

Elders/pastors/overseers/bishops serve primarily in the ministry of the Word (preaching, teaching, soul care) and prayer (Acts 6.4). These men provide the main diet of biblical instruction in both public and private ministry. They set the pace in public and private prayer. They also bear the responsibility of guiding the process of formal church discipline.

The elders oversee the spiritual health of the church and church members. They are not priests or popes. They do not dictate. They are shepherds who help Christ’s sheep feast on the gospel and enjoy God’s grace (1 Pt 5.1-5). They are to be joyfully obeyed in the way children submit to loving, grace-filled parents (Heb 13.17). Elders are a means of God’s grace so that we can flourish in spiritual maturity.

Deacons administrate “social ministry” (John Stott, The Living Church: 73) that could otherwise dominate the elders time and energy (see Acts 6.1-6). Arguable, we find the first deacons to be able preachers themselves and even martyrs (Acts 7; 8.25-40). Nevertheless, their primary ministry was tending to the practical needs in the church body.

The deacons are not vice-pastors, junior ministers, or interns. While deacons do not have pastoral authority, they are “in charge” of their particular practical/social ministries (Acts 6.3). And their ministry complements the elders’ main ministry by relieving them of burdensome administration. Deacons do not serve the elders.  They serve Christ by administrating practical needs in the church.

Both offices are ultimately subject to the church. The local church should be elder-led, deacon-served and congregationally-responsible.

Won’t the plurality of elders eliminate congregationalism?
Scripture indicates the exact opposite is true. Congregationalism thrives under proper biblical polity. Ultimately, the church is the final court of appeal in matters of doctrine, discipline and practice (see Mt 18.17; Acts 13.1-3; 15.22; 1 Cor 5.4-5; 2 Cor 2.6-8; 1 Tim 5.17-22). The apostles entrusted the choosing of deacons to the church (Acts 6.1-6). Even the apostle Paul was commissioned in some sense by the church in Antioch (Acts 13.2-3).  After deliberating how to enfold Gentiles into the brand new covenant community, the apostles and elders enjoyed the commendation of “the whole (Jerusalem) church” (Acts 15.22, 30).

Elders who love their flock would not lead them astray and congregations who trust their elders will gladly follow. The local church flourishes when elders are obedient to their charge (1 Pt 5.1-5) and devoted to those in their charge (Acts 20.28), and congregations are obedient to Jesus by submitting to the elders’ authority. Christ’s church is marked by heavenly humility. She is at her finest when, in subjection to Christ himself, elders humbly serve through robust biblical instruction and the church humbly submits to biblical instruction.

Are the offices of elder and deacon universal, perpetual appointments?
No.  The offices of elder and deacon are local church offices.  Particularly in the Baptist tradition of local church autonomy, no governing ecclesiastical body confers the offices on anyone.  Each local church recognizes her own officers prayerfully and Spiritually.

Because a man is an elder in one church does not automatically make him one in another church.  Another church may wisely consider his qualifications and experience, but he does not necessarily carry his eldership with him.  The next local congregation must formally recognize him as their elder.  Further, an elder may simply not want to be one any longer (1 Tim 3.1) or a church may no longer affirm his fitness any longer.

It seems deacon(esse)s were appointed for particular ministry needs (cf. Acts 6.3; Rom 16.1).  There were no deacons-in-general but deacons of specific ministries.  All the members were to serve all the other members in whatever capacities were needed.  However, if a specific ministry need became large enough or necessary enough to require administration then the church recognized deacons to manage the need.  That ministry may be a one-off occasion (Rom 16.1) or require ongoing administration (Acts 6.3), but the deacons was only formally needed as long as the ministry required administration.

For example, your church might have a summer food pantry requiring a measure of administration.  Your church would recognize deacons to manage the ministry need.  When the summer ministry ends there is no need for a deacon to manage it.  They are not demoted but the specific need is simply no longer necessary.  Any given church certainly has ministry needs requiring ongoing diaconal service (sacraments, finances, benevolence, widow care, etc.).  In those cases, a deacon would serve for a longer period of time, but he/she would be a “deacon of sacraments” or the like.

As with elders, deacon(esse)s do not hold their office perpetually.  Because someone is a deacon in one church does not automatically make them one in another church.  Again, the office is conferred by a local church and, in the Baptist tradition of local church autonomy, no local church exerts authority over another.  Another church may not have the same ministry need(s) or may already have deacons managing the needs.  Another church may wisely consider a deacon’s former experience but not automatically or necessarily so.

How does a church install elders?
There is a measure of liberty as to how a local church installs her elders. Generally speaking, elders were “appointed” and deacons were “chosen” (Acts 6.1-6; Tim 4.14). Paul commanded Titus, his apostolic representative, to appoint elders in every city. It seems prudent that elders appoint other elders with some form of congregational affirmation rather than an open ballot or the like.

Ideally, a local church raises up her own pastors (2 Tim 2.2). Imagine if your church’s next pastor search committee was the last one you would ever need! Therefore, anyone presented for the office of elder has likely been serving in the church for some time (cf. 1 Tim 3.6). The church has already observed and benefited from their ministry. The elders appoint a man who has already been demonstrating those qualities and abilities fitting for pastoral ministry. In the healthiest sense, when elders appoint other elders they merely formally recognize what the church has long been informally recognizing already.

What if a church has no formal elders and wants to establish them?
After being convinced from Scripture, it would help to ask a sister church with elders to help with the process.  In some sense, the sister church provides “surrogate” elders that help your church onto healthy footing.  From then the elders begin training and recognizing other men in the congregation who aspire to the office (1 Tim 3.1).

We trust in the Spirit of Christ more than strict protocols and processes.  Your church should pray often together and trust the Spirit to provide wisdom and congregational unity.  Jesus loves your church more than you do so he will give grace to the humble.

Are elders the same thing as church staff?
Not all elders are on the paid church staff. In fact, most of the elders should probably be “lay” (non-vocational) elders to avoid the professionalization of the pastoral office as well as the temptations that come with being paid to preach the gospel. However, anyone set aside in a primary pastoral capacity should be considered an elder.  Likewise, not all paid church staff should be elders. The variety of ministry support roles are just that: administrative support.

Are all elders considered pastors?
Yes. In fact, the words are synonymous. Vocational pastors are not the church’s “professional” ministers. Whether paid or not, all the elders share equal responsibility and authority. The “senior pastor” carries no more weight than the lay elder. Of course, this also means the pastors accustomed to their titles must humbly relinquish the glory attached to their vocational status.  Any vocational elders should especially use “we” and “us” as much as possible.

In terms of character and pastoral fitness, the church should expect from the lay elder what she does from the full-time pastor. While the full-time pastor(s) will probably bear the bulk of the preaching and teaching load, he/they do so in concert with the other elders who help oversee the church. All the elders share equally in spiritual oversight even if some or most of the elders are not as public as others. Most, if not all, the elders of the local churches addressed in the New Testament are anonymous so that Christ alone would be famous.

Together the elders equip, encourage and empower all the church members to mature in gospel knowledge and service (Eph 4.11-16).  “What is needed is a basic biblical recognition that God calls different people in different ministries. Then the people will ensure that the people are free to exercise their gifts. It is through this reciprocal liberation that the church will flourish” (John Stott, The Living Church: 75).

Elders do not hand-feed every sheep (only the weak/sick ones). They lead the sheep to fertile pastures where they’ve taught the sheep how to feast well on Christ.

Both biblically and practically, Christ’s church benefits greatly from having a plurality of elders kneeling at the helm. In fact, it’s Jesus’ design as carried out by the apostles in the local churches throughout the Roman Empire. The burden of gospel ministry is simply too heavy for one man to bear in any church of any size. Only Christ can bear the weight of the entire church.  For the sake of the church, the pastor(s) and ultimately Christ himself, your local church should have elders.

Revisit Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3.

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