The following article is abridged and repurposed, with express permission of the author, from the Cripplegate blog. The original article can be read here. The article originally appeared as a chapter in Things that Go Bump in the Church by Mike Abendroth, Clint Archer and Byron Yawn.
George Orwell’s seminal political satire, Nineteen Eighty-Four, portrays a nightmarish world that is inescapably under the oppressive control of a totalitarian government. Every minute aspect of this dystopian society is monitored and governed by the unopposed rule of the tyrannical so-called “Party.” The dictator who leads the Party is a quasi-divine figurehead known as “Big Brother.” Information about citizens is gathered by seemingly omnipresent surveillance technology, and fear is instilled through ubiquitous propaganda posters with the ominous slogan, “Big Brother is watching you.”
Understandably, the idea that there is someone assigned to watch over you can be quite unsettling. People don’t want to be “looked after.” Either we see it as patronizing, like when you hire a babysitter for your teenager; or it is just downright creepy, as you would rightly feel if you discovered a stalker had a collection of photographs of you.
But from a different perspective, being watched over can be very comforting. The victim of a schoolyard bully would find great reassurance in a promise made by his older brother, “I’ll be watching over you this week at recess. No one will hurt you on my watch.” Likewise, the President is probably relieved to know that even while his eyes are closed in public prayer, his bodyguards are perpetually vigilant and attentive to the slightest threat of danger. A country can get on with its business knowing that there is a strong and prepared military that is constantly analysing intelligence and monitoring potential threats to the safety of its citizenry.
Your view of biblical church government through elders probably falls into one of the two antithetical sentiments: fear or comfort. Which of those reactions you have is probably determined by your experience. You have either witnessed the wise and godly use of authority, or you have been the burn victim of the sinful abuse of church leadership. And your understanding of the New Testament pattern for church leaders, or lack thereof, will also influence your experience. Exposure to poor leadership in a church is one of the most frequent excuses offered by professing believers for them not attending church. Conversely, though, the healthiest churches are those with good leadership.
Ultimately, we need to come to terms with what the Bible says about elders. God knows what is best for his flock. He outlines the requisite qualifications for elders, supplies their job description, limits their authority, and alone prescribes the role and function of leaders in the church.
Title Fight: The Biblical Terms
The titles for leaders in the New Testament provide instruction and examples of how we should view our leaders, and how they should view themselves. There are three primary terms used to describe spiritual leaders in the New Testament church. Each holds insight into the function and position of the servant-leaders of a healthy church.
At the Helm: Elders are Leaders
The term “elder” (1 Peter 1:5; Acts 14:23; 1 Timothy 5:17) refers to seniority and maturity. The word does not necessarily imply advanced age, but maturity, both emotionally and spiritually, is an essential quality of the elder (1 Timothy 3:2, 6).
The need for seniority is simply that someone needs to lead. Jesus chose twelve men to lead the early church. Among them, he instituted informal tiers. Peter, James, and John (and occasionally Andrew) were the inner circle. Even among this core group, Peter emerged as the first among equals.
Men of the (Wash) Cloth: Elders are Servant Leaders
The word “overseer” (Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5) means one who gives oversight or has authority over a group or situation as a watchman or superintendent. The leaders of a church are there to provide spiritual oversight and authority.
Spiritual authority in the church is not like secular authority in the world (Matthew 20:25–28). Jesus repeatedly taught and modelled that leaders in his church are to be servants of the flock. He donned a slave’s towel and stooped to wash his disciples’ reeking feet to prove that men of the cloth are to be men of the washcloth!
Fencing the Flock: Elders are Bodyguards
“Pastor” (1 Peter 5:1) refers to the work the leaders do. The word means to shepherd. The shepherd is an ideal metaphor for spiritual oversight, one that Jesus used of himself, as the job description has many parallels with church work.
Shepherds feed their sheep, as pastors nourish their congregation with teaching from God’s word (2 Timothy 3:16–17). Pastors guide the church in making decisions by directing them to the Scriptures, rebuking them when they sin, and exhorting them to obey God (2 Timothy 4:2), just as shepherds guide their sheep to safe and healthy pastures.
Shepherds are also guardians. The body of Christ needs guarding against the assault of error. Since our fight is not against flesh and blood but a spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6), our bodyguards need to be men of spiritual stature and confidence. Guarding the flock against predators was a shepherd’s prerogative, just as a pastor is tasked with defending the faith and exposing false teachers whose dangerous doctrines would ravage the church like wolves (Acts 20:28–30).
The title is not one to be flaunted. Shepherds were considered unsophisticated, uncouth, and socially undesirable. Theirs was not a position to be proud of. The work was extremely important, but nonetheless a dirty job that someone had to stoop to do. This is how Jesus wants His “under-shepherds” to view their position (1 Peter 5:2–4).
Walk This Way: Elders are Examples
Elders don’t just teach the word, they model it. Their very lives are motion pictures of what Jesus’ teachings should look like in practice. The flock will not only follow their leaders in the direction they take down the path of sanctification, but they will follow their pace and mimic the very way they walk it.
This is why Peter instructed pastors to lead in humility “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3).
Power in the Pulpit: Elders are Teachers
Since the primary ability an elder needs to have is the ability to teach (1 Timothy 3:1), it stands to reason that one of their primary roles is that of a teacher. The New Testament is unambiguous about the need for pastors to preach, teach, exhort, rebuke, counsel, admonish, encourage, and otherwise dispense truth in its various mediums and dosages (see 2 Timothy 2:4; 1 Thessalonians 5:14).
Not all elders will carry the same weight of a church’s teaching load, but the primacy of this role is seen, for example, in Paul’s instruction on remuneration of full-time preachers: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17).
Making the Grade
In many martial arts, grading is awarded on the basis of two seemingly unrelated criteria, namely competency and character. In the church, more so than in any other arena of life, the character of a person is as integral to the positions of leadership as competency. In fact, there are only two required abilities for an elder in the church, while the bulk of requirements are to do with one’s character.
The most important skill an elder needs to possess is the ability to teach (1 Timothy 3:2). This makes perfect sense, as his function in the church is to teach the word (through preaching, or conducting Bible studies, or by counselling people), to defend the faith against false teachers, and to guide the flock into wise decisions as laid out in the Bible. The ability to teach implies a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, theology, and application of doctrines to everyday situations. Not all elders are good at preaching, but they do all need to be able to know what the Bible says about a situation, and then help people to apply that knowledge.
Another ability an elder has to possess is the ability to “manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive” (1 Timothy 3:4). The management of a household covers many facets of oversight. To provide for a household involves financial planning, delegation of responsibilities, maintenance of facilities, concern for spiritual development, teaching, counselling, and countless ways of serving.
Paul makes the point that family management is a good test of his competency for spiritual leadership, “for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:4–5).
Much of the paranoia about Orwellian dictators lording it over the church can be dispelled at the list of character traits that qualify one for the office. It’s hard to imagine a totalitarian leader described in the terms Paul employs for elders: “Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Timothy 3:2–3).
The horror stories we hear of churches under the thumb of a megalomaniac pastor and his Gestapo elders are cases where the biblical standards have not been applied. The solution is not to invent an unbiblical system to replace the biblical one but to implement the biblical system properly.
A natural concern arises at this point: what if the elder is disqualified (lacking in the necessary character), or even just unqualified (lacking in the necessary abilities), and yet refuses to resign from the office?
Dishonourable Discharge: What to Do about Bad Elders?
Elders will sin because elders are human. The issue, as with any believer, is how do they respond when confronted with their sin? If repentance ensues, “you have won your brother” (Matthew 18:15). A repentant elder exemplifies what he should be teaching the flock.
In some cases, the sin may still require him to step down from the office of elder, even if he is repentant. In that case, he should graciously resign, so that the other elders aren’t forced to remove him from office.
The problem comes when “he persists in sin” (1 Timothy 5:2). If the elder denies his sin, or rationalises that it wasn’t sinful, or simply refuses to stop committing the sin, the other elders must deal with that situation decisively and publicly (1 Timothy 5:19–20).
Conclusion: Who’s Afraid of Their Big Brothers?
Elders are our big brothers—not the dictatorial Orwellian type, but the reassuring protective kind. These men spend their time praying for the flock, teaching, studying diligently to guide, and preaching boldly to protect.
We are told to “respect those who labour among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13). We should not resent their involvement in our spiritual lives but should cherish their care and cooperate with them.
As the writer of Hebrews says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17). To a mature believer, this blessing is a cause for reassurance and comfort, not fear and suspicion.