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3. Restoring Biblical Eldership to the Church: Defending and Defining Biblical Eldership (Titus 1:5-9, 1 Timothy 3)

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Editor's Note: This is a heavily modified manuscript (by the author) from this message on Titus.

I. Defining Biblical Eldership

Illustration: Hurricane Andrew and the man who built his house according to the state code for hurricanes. Hurricane Andrew was one of the worst hurricanes to hit the Caribbean islands and Florida. After the hurricane, news reports witnessed tens of thousands of homes flattened to the ground. As they were filming, they saw one house standing. They went to that house and the owner was cleaning up the front yard. They asked, how is it that your house is standing? He said, I built this house and I followed the Florida state code for hurricanes. If the code called for 12-inch beams, I put in 12-inch beams; if it called for a metal brace to the beams, I put in a metal brace. I built the house according to the code and the house withstood the hurricane. We need to build our churches on God’s code in Scripture.

Let’s read together 1 Tim. 3:14-15; 4:6, 11. Explain.

1. Pastoral Oversight by a Plurality of Qualified Elders

a. The General New Testament Concept of Eldership: Pastoral Oversight

The New Testament concept of elders is pastoral, as seen in Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1-2; 1 Tim. 5:17. The eldership is not an executive board of laymen, nor is it a finance committee or building committee or assistant to pastor. Once you understand New Testament eldership as pastoral oversight, it changes everything.

Read Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:1-2.

Definition of Biblical Eldership: “Biblical Eldership is pastoral leadership of the local church by a council of qualified, Spirit-appointed men.”

Illustration of the pyramid on pp. 15 of Biblical Eldership booklet.

The New Testament teaches that Christian eldership is pastoral leadership of the local church by a council of qualified, Spirit-appointed men. The New Testament defines elders as shepherds, overseers, stewards, and leaders of local church (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1; Titus 1:7; 1 Tim. 5:17).

b. Equality and Diversity within the Eldership

The first leadership body in the church was appointed directly by the Lord Jesus Christ himself and had within it, by His approval, both equality and diversity. There was no question that Peter, James, and John stood out among the disciples. We call these first among equals.

The same thing is true among the elders according to 1 Tim. 5:17-18. Brothers, this is very important for you to understand about the eldership. There is diversity within the eldership approved by God. Note the following Scripture passages:

Speaking directly to the elders of the church at Ephesus Paul says, “the Holy Spirit has made you [all of you] overseers, to care [shepherd] for the church of God” (Acts 20:28).

He later writes to the same church at Ephesus, “Let the elders who rule well [some elders] be considered worthy of double honor, especially those [some elders] who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). From these two magisterial, pivotal texts, addressed to the church at Ephesus, we learn that both equality and diversity exist within a biblical eldership.

On the side of equality (also called parity of the eldership) the Scripture teaches that all the elders:

  • have been placed in the flock by the Holy Spirit as “overseers” for the specific purpose to shepherd the church (Acts 20:28).
  • have been charged by the Holy Spirit to shepherd [pastor] the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-2).
  • share equally the authority and responsibility for the pastoral oversight of the entire congregation: “Pay careful attention…to all the flock” (Acts 20:28; italics added).
  • are equally responsible to be alert to the constant dangers of false teaching and to guard the flock from false teachers (Acts 15:6; 20:28-31; Titus 1:9-13).
  • are to be able to teach Scripture and rebuke false teachers (1Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9).
  • are to be publicly examined as to the biblical qualifications for “overseership” before serving as an overseer (1 Tim. 3:10; 5:22-25).
  • are responsible to visit and pray for the sick (James 5:14).
  • share the designations “elder” and “overseer” (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 5:17). The New Testament authorizes no special title or name for one elder above the others. No one in the New Testament is ever call “the pastor,” while others are designated “the elders.”
  • are equally accountable to the entire eldership body and under the loving pastoral care of the entire eldership body (Acts 20:28a).
  • are to be appreciated, esteemed “very highly in love,” honored, protected from slander, and obeyed (1Thess. 5:12-13; 1 Tim. 5:17-19; Heb. 13:17).

Although all elders share equally the same office and pastoral charge, there is at the same time rich diversity of giftedness and life situations among those within the eldership council. It is obvious that not all elders on an eldership council are equal in giftedness, effectiveness, influence, time availability, years of experience, verbal skills, leadership ability, or biblical knowledge. Note the following:

  • Not all elders labor diligently “in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). Although all elders must be able to teach, to refute false teachers, and be spiritually alert to the dangers of false doctrine, not all have the spiritual gift of teaching or evangelism or the same degree of proficiency at teaching or preaching the gospel. This implies that one or some elders will have a more prominent public role in the pulpit ministry to the whole church.
  • Not all elders “rule well [a marked proficiency]” (1 Tim. 5:17). Although all elders must be able to lead and manage their homes well, not all have the spiritual gift of leadership or the same degree of leadership skills (Rom. 12:8). This implies that one or some elders will display among the elders more prominent leadership initiative and influence.
  • Not all elders receive “double honor” from the congregation and its elders; indeed, it is mandated that the elders laboring in the Word be compensated for their diligent labor (1 Tim. 5:17-18). This implies that the elders and congregation acknowledge, set aside, and support those elders laboring in the gospel and equipping the saints by the Word (Eph. 4:11).
  • Not all elders receive financial compensation or the same amount of compensation (1 Tim. 5:18; Gal. 6:6)

So both equality and diversity exist within a church eldership council.

There are two unbiblical extremes that have historically distorted the biblical equality and diversity of eldership. The one extreme is to sacralize and professionalize a gifted elder, making him in effect the Protestant priest, the chief shepherd, the anointed one, or the one who alone can bless, preach, and administer holy things.

The other extreme is to enforce complete equality among elders, allowing for no special giftedness, calling, function, or financial aid for any member. By God’s help, let us seek to represent accurately and completely Christ’s and his apostles’ instructions on this important subject.

2. New Testament Qualifications for Elders

a. Spirit-Given Desire

Eldership begins with a Spirit-given desire to shepherd the Lord’s people.

“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” (Acts 20:28).

“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1).

“Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly” (1 Peter 5:2).

b. Objective Biblical Qualifications

The one subject the Bible is most clear about regarding eldership is the qualifications for elders. This is a matter of grave importance to God. There are three passages that list the qualifications: 1 Tim 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5. A person may have the desire, but not qualify biblically. The qualifications are to protect the local church from unfit men. The great problem I see in churches today is that we don’t take these qualifications seriously. We take on elders who are biblically unfit and then we wonder why we have so many problems. People sometimes say eldership doesn’t work. Well, of course it doesn’t work if we don’t have biblically qualified elders.

The qualifications also help us to understand the work of the elders.

(1). Moral and Spiritual Qualities

A Good Reputation

“Above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2, Titus 1:6)
“Respectable” (1 Tim. 3:2)
“Well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim. 3:7)

Family Life: Marital and Sexual Life

“The husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2, Titus 1:6)

Family Life: Children

“Must manage his own household well” (1 Tim. 3:4)

“His children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination” (Titus 1:6)

Personal Self-Control

“Sober-Minded” (1 Tim. 3:2)
“Self-Controlled” (Titus 1:8)
“Not greedy for gain” (Titus 1:7)
“Not quick tempered” (Titus 1:7)
“Not quarrelsome” (1 Tim. 3:3)
“Not a drunkard” (1 Tim. 3:3)
“Disciplined” (Titus 1:8)

Relational Skills with People

“Gentle” (1 Tim. 3:3)
“Upright” (Titus 1:8)
“Not quick tempered” (Titus 1:7)
“Not quarrelsome” (1 Tim. 3:3)
“Not Arrogant” (Titus 1:7)

Hospitable and Loving

“hospitable” (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:8)

“a lover of good” (Titus 1:8)

Personal Integrity

“Above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2, Titus 1:6)

“Being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3)

“Not greedy for gain” (Titus 1:7)

“Upright” (Titus 1:8)

“Hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught” (Titus 1:9)

“Holy” (Titus 1:8)

Spiritual Maturity

“Not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:6)

(2). Abilities

Family Management

“He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive “(1 Tim. 3:4)

“His children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination” (Titus 1:6)

Personal life Example

“Being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3)

Biblical Knowledge

“hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9)

Communication Skills

“be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9)

“able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:3)

“But we will devote ourselves to prayer and ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4)

c. Public Examination of a Candidate’s Qualifications

“And let them also be tested [examined] first; then let them serve…” (1 Tim. 3:10a).

“The sins of some men are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden” (I Tim. 5:24-25).

Qualifications mean nothing if there is not examination. The examination is in a general context and so it is something done by the leaders and the church. This is another issue of grave importance. If we don’t officially examine the fitness of our elders and deacons then the qualifications don’t mean anything and we keep winding up with the wrong people. I find this to be the single greatest problem in churches regarding eldership. The elders are not being seriously examined as to their qualifications.

Furthermore, an examination of qualifications is not the same thing as a vote (one member, one vote), but a public examination of objective qualifications. There is a great deal of freedom as to how this is specifically carried out.

d. Public Appointment or Recognition

In the New Testament, elders are publicly appointed and recognized because eldership is both a work and an office. 1 Timothy 3:1 calls the position “overseership,” that is an office. As an office, there are qualifications and there are duties, which not everyone in the church has to fulfill. It is something you become part of or are removed from.

1 Timothy 5:19-22 talks about removing elders from their position and restoring them to their position.

For elders’ appointed to office see Acts 14:23, Tit. 1:5, 1 Tim. 5:22, 24-25.

Summary: The Four Pillars of Appointing Elders

  • Personal desire for pastoral oversight (1 Tim. 3:1, Acts 20:28)
  • Meeting biblical qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, 1 Peter 5:1-4)
  • Public examination (1 Tim. 3:10; 5:24-25)
  • Public appointment (1 Tim. 5:22, Acts 6:6)

3. New Testament Roles for Pastoral Elders

The general New Testament concept of the eldership is the shepherd concept, not the board concept. There are four specific aspects to the shepherding task. In fact, the more you can learn about shepherding sheep, the more it will help you to understand what shepherd-elders do. The imagery of shepherding is a great biblical image. We are using it throughout this whole series because it is a biblical image.

a. Teach (Feed) the Church

(1 Tim. 3:2, 5:17- 18; Titus 1:9; 1 Thess. 5:12)

This is the proactive side of the ministry, feeding the sheep. No food means no growth. No food means no flock. In many ways this is the most important job of shepherd elders.

Hosea, the prophet, cried out, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6a). Ezekiel also denounced Israel’s leaders for not feeding the people, but feeding only themselves:

Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? (Ezek. 34:2b).

The prophet, Jeremiah, prophesied that God would some day give Israel good shepherds who would teach and instruct the people. These are shepherds after God’s own heart: “And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding” (Jer. 3:15).

In the New Testament Church, God requires that all pastor elders be able to teach the Word. This is a biblical qualification. Titus 1:9 says every elder must be able to teach and protect the church from false teachers.

He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers (Titus 1:9-10).

The reason is that everything elders do they do by the Word. They lead, feed, and care for others by the Word. That does not mean that every man needs to be a professional public speaker, or orator, but he must be able to open the Bible and instruct believers, answer questions, and stop false teaching. He can encourage a believer, lead a Bible study, and instruct someone in the gospel.

Elder candidates must be examined as to this biblical requirement (Titus 1:9).

However, in the New Testament Church, there are some elders—not all—who labor at teaching and evangelizing. The teaching-preaching ministry is so important to the local church that the Scripture approves of some elders giving part or full-time to the ministry of the Word, both in evangelism and in Bible teaching. 1 Timothy 5:17-18 states:

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”

b. Protect the Church from False Teachers

(Acts 20:28-31; Titus 1:9; Acts 15; Hebrews 13:17)

One of the major aspects of the elders’ work is the protecting, guarding, and watching ministry. It is vital to the life of the flock. “Guard the flock,” Paul says and we must say the same today.

The archenemy of the church is the false teacher. Acts 20:28-31 is the key passage for this. In Acts 20, a great apostolic passage, we have an overview of all church history and it is not a pretty story.

Read Acts 20:28-31 with brief comment.

Another very important passage is Titus 1:9-10.

He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers (Titus 1:9-10).

This passage authorizes the elders to protect the church. They can discipline false teachers, note Titus 1:10-13. The survival of the church depends on stopping savage wolves. A shepherd has authority over the sheep to protect and defend. He may have to give His life for them.

Cult watchers all agree there is an unprecedented worldwide explosion of cults today. This was stated by Walter Martin, author of Kingdom of the Cults, and today by Hank Hanagraph who has taken his place today. Hanagraph is the Bible Answer Man on the radio.

Illustration: One of our younger elders, Dave Anderson, asked Bruce Ware, one of our best evangelical scholars today, where the main attacks were coming from. Bruce sighed and said, “They are coming from every direction. Every single doctrine is under attack.” He told Dave he had not seen anything like this before.

What is most frightening is that among Bible-believing, conservative Christians, aberrant doctrines are also exploding: the health and wealth doctrine, false miracle workings, holy laughter, the politicizing of the Gospel, feminism and same sex marriages.

Furthermore, elders must protect the church from internal fighting and group factions. The great scourge of a sinful race is fighting. Cain killed Abel and we’ve been “killing” each other ever since. This is not an easy job for the elders.

The discipline of sin, confronting sin, and reconciling people is emotionally exhausting work. It is dealing with people’s sins that wears elders out.

c. Leading the Church

(1 Tim. 5:17; 1 Thess. 5:12-13; Phil. 1:1; 1 Peter 5:2)

A number of key verses and words show us that the elders form the leadership body of the flock. They are to shepherd the church. Part of shepherding is leading. They are the overseers of the church; the process of overseeing means superintending the church. First Timothy 5:17 states the elders take the lead (prohistemi). Read especially 1 Timothy 5:17; 1 Thess. 5:12.

The single, biggest complaint I hear against church elderships is that they are not leading. They are caretakers. There is a lot of talk but little gets done. They have very little vision, little direction and the same old problems reappear month after month, year after year never being addressed. This is very frustrating to the flock. People want to be led and be confident that the church is going somewhere. People need a challenge. Leadership requires vision.

Now the best definition of leadership is “leadership is influence.” It doesn’t matter what titles you have or position; if you are not influencing people, you are not leading people. When Mr. D. E. Host was asked what is a leader he said “a person whom people are following.”

I want you to understand that the rule of leadership and stewardship is use it or lose it. Power not used is power defaulted on.

Let me assure you there is nothing that frustrates people more than leaders who don’t lead, who don’t follow through with their jobs and who allow their particular ministries to flounder. These kinds of leaders create a lot of fighting in the church. People who work with them want them to get out of the way because they have become a bottleneck. Some of our worst fights have been over leaders who ruin programs and frustrate the people but won’t improve. If you are a leader the Bible says to lead with zeal (Rom. 12:8).

Now the Holy Spirit gives spiritual gifts of leadership. The Bible teaches that there is the spiritual gift of leadership in Rom. 12:8:

The one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal [diligence].

This is the gift of prohistemi. Paul says something very interesting. He says the man with the gift of prohistemi, let him do it wholeheartedly, zealously.

Some of the elders will have the leadership gift. If you have the leadership gift, let me tell you what the apostle Paul would say to you: Lead wholeheartedly. Do it zealously, but humbly, lovingly, and not for self-glory.

Don’t be passive about this matter; passivity is an enemy. Be patient, but not passive.

My beloved brethren we are in desperate need of biblical leadership. People who can organize people, motivate people, and move the people forward. Our goal is to become more Christlike individually and corporately. Peter would say, “Shepherd the flock.”

I like to ask elders this question. If you have a literal flock of sheep, would that flock of sheep be alive by the end of the year with the way you care for your spiritual flock?

d. Healing and Caring for Practical Needs

(Acts 20:35; Titus 1:8; James 5:14)

The elders also have many practical duties. They are to be concerned for the needy and the weak and the poor.

Read Acts 20:34-35 and James 5:14-15.

Elders do not do everything, but they make sure that others like the deacons or Women’s ministry are working on hospitality and visits, counseling for families, premarital counseling (which is so important) and marital counseling, as well as visitation of the bereaved and visiting shut-ins. Deacons and Women’s ministry do many of these things.

Ultimately the elders make sure that the people are doing their duties. But there are occasions when there are serious sinful problems in families that only the elders can handle. There may be deaths or serious hospital visits that only the elders can handle.

The elders set an example of care and love for one another. If you are caring and giving the people will follow. Remember one of the qualifications for elders is loving what is good, that is, deeds of kindness and love to others (Titus 1:8).


Brethren, please do not be passive about your work. The Bible says, “Shepherd the Flock.” Too much is at stake. The saints need your positive, godly, prayerful leadership. They need good communication with you. They need to know you are going some place and you have vision. They need to be challenged and have their horizons broadened. They need to hear teaching they haven’t heard in years or maybe have never heard. Let me assure you, people will respond to good leadership. They always do, they always have; People are not any different today. If you lead them, they will follow.

Let me close with Paul’s final words to the Ephesian elders.

And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:32).

It is by the Word that the church is created, that it matures, that it is protected and that it grows and is built up. As elders, be men of the word, be biblical elders.

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership, Pastors

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