Elders, Who They Are and What They Do
Topic: Elders Scripture: 1 Timothy 3:1-7
Today is a special and important day in the life of our church. We believe that God’s word says that a local church should be led by a team of pastors, called and equipped by the Holy Spirit for that ministry. When we committed to planting Redeeming Grace Church as part of our pursuit of revitalizing this ministry in Southgate we submitted ourselves to godly men who could provide oversight. Until today, we have been under the authority of the elders of our sending church in Pittsburgh.
But this morning we will vote to install two additional brothers, Craig and Chris, as local pastors. This will bring our church more in line with the model we find in the Bible. It also means that we will be fully established as an independent church from Redeeming Grace Pittsburgh. We will retain our relationship, but as independent congregations. Each will be fully locally governed. I am thankful to our brothers in Pittsburgh who have prayed for us, given us guidance, and supported us every step of the way. I am thankful also for our local advisory team of Danny Toma, Camilla McKee, Joel Ashby, Bill Wilkins, and Craig and Sandy McGlassion, who have been a blessing in ensuring good communication and organization as we have worked to get to this point.
As we prepare ourselves to vote on the installation of new elders, it is good for us to be reminded of what God says about pastors and eldership. 1 Timothy 3:1–7 says,
3 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
In this passage the Bible lays out the requirements for an overseer. The word translated overseer is the Greek word ἐπίσκοπος which also means bishop. The New Testament uses several words to describe the same office. Here they are called bishops or overseers, in other places it is called pastor, which means shepherd, and elsewhere the word used is presbyter, which means elder.
Each of these titles are used interchangeably in the New Testament and just emphasize different aspects of the same office. For example, in Acts 20 when Paul meets the elders of the church at Ephesus, he calls them elders or presbyters in verse 17 and then in verse 28 he tells them to keep watch over those whom the Holy Spirit has made them overseers or bishops, and then calls them to care for or pastor the church.
In 1 Peter 5, Peter calls them elders or presbyters in verse 1 and then in verse 2 he tells them to pastor or shepherd the flock over which God has made them overseers or bishops. They are all the same thing. You could use any of these terms but around here we usually call them elders or pastors.
What we see when we look at these qualifications is that the elders are supposed to live lives that clearly mark them out as believers in Jesus. They are to be men whose lives testify to the power of the gospel. They are to have exhibited over a long time and in a way that is evident even to outsiders that they are mature in the faith. They should be men who have demonstrated they understand the word of God well enough to teach and correct others, and whose lives give evidence that they not only understand God’s word, but that they believe it and have been transformed by it.
They must understand and demonstrate faithful submission to Jesus because their office is to build up others in Christ. When we talk about them being leaders, what we mean is that both by teaching and example, they are guides. They point us to Christ and equip us to do what Jesus calls us to do. Ephesians 4:11–16 says,
11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Good pastors are a gift from God and a tremendous blessing. Their ministry helps us fulfill the calling God has given to each of us to grow in Christlikeness. The pastors are to steer us away from false doctrine, human cunning, and the deceitful schemes of the enemy so that we can be built up in love by the truth. Pastor and scholar Alexander Strauch summarizes the role of elders this way,
“According to the New Testament concept of eldership, elders lead the church, teach and preach the Word, protect the church from false teachers, exhort and admonish the saints in sound doctrine, visit the sick, and pray, and judge doctrinal issues.”
These men are not merely assistants to the pastor, they are pastors. All the elders share this responsibility. All the pastors are servants to the congregation and undershepherds of the Great Shepherd. The pastors of the church are first and foremost ministers of Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5:23 says it clearly, Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. The ones called to lead the church are the servants.
We do not call them father, because we have only God for our father. They are elder brothers, walking the path with us. They guide us as those among us who have maturity. The Bible knows nothing of the distinction between laity and clergy. We do not call them priests because every person united to Christ by faith has direct access to God. We do not need to go through a special class of priests or saints.
All Christians are priests, all are ministers, and all are saints. 1 Peter 2:9 says about all believers,
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
1 Corinthians 1:2 says all believers in every place are set apart, they are saints.
2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours…
Now, remember what Paul said in Ephesians 4:11,
11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ
The shepherds are to equip the saints for ministry. These men who we will confirm today are called to equip us for ministry. They are called to do this primarily by teaching and governing the church. They do both by being stewards of the word of God. Titus 1:9 says of an elder,
9 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.
Their authority and their ministry is bound up with the word of God. Not every pastor will have a primary role as a teacher or preacher but all must be competent in the word because they are called to govern or rule over the church according to it. 1 Timothy 5:17 says,
17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.
Those who labor in preaching and teaching are to be given double honor because it is chiefly through those things that the congregation is equipped and it is important that the congregation be properly equipped because they also have responsibilities. Each member is called not only to use our gifts to serve but are also responsible to exercise spiritual oversight. They equip us for our own ministry.
God establishes the congregation, not the pastors or elders, as the final earthly authority over the body. This is part of our responsibility as priests. It is the congregation, under Christ, that has the final say in the most important spiritual matters. Over ½ the New Testament is written not to pastors and bishops but to church members. All the teaching found in Romans, the Corinthian letters, Galatians, etc. were written to the members rather than the leaders. Paul writes to “all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints”, to “the Church of God that is in Corinth”, and to the “churches of Galatia”, you get the idea.
It is the congregation that is ultimately responsible for protecting the doctrine. Look at what Paul says to the members in Galatians 1:8,
8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
In Colossae he tells the members,
8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
It is ultimately the members responsibility to ensure that bad preaching and false teaching is not tolerated. Be sure to confirm only those God has called so you will be equipped to do this.
It is the congregation that ultimately decides who is added to the fellowship and whose confession of faith is considered credible. In 1 Corinthians 5:4–5 it is the church, not the pastors alone, that Paul commands to exercise discipline over the sinning member telling them,
4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
Similarly, Jesus instructs us that if a sinning brother refuses to listen to two or three witnesses, it is to be told to the church.
It is the members who are able to admit and restore people into fellowship. Look at what Paul says to the congregation about the repentant sinner in 2 Corinthians 2:6–8
6 For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, 7 so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.
Paul alone doesn’t restore this brother, the congregation must do that. It is the role of the members to affirm one’s testimony of belief and to accept others into the fellowship. It is the members that must accept or remove members. The pastors in Pittsburgh and I are in agreement that our brothers Craig and Chris be confirmed as pastors of this congregation, but it is ultimately the members that must recognize God’s call upon them.
It falls to the congregation to recognize and affirm the leaders God raises up and then submit and support their leadership. These two forms of authority are complementary and feed into each other. The pastors protect and feed the congregation with the word of God. They model ministry and inspire the mission. They persuade, encourage, and rebuke for the building up of the members. The congregation ensures their leadership is biblical and holds them accountable to serving the church according to their calling.
Both are under the authority of Jesus Christ and his word. Both are accountable to each other. Therefore, submitting to the authority of the elders is submitting to the authority of the congregation as it submits to Christ. When we vote today we will be voting to recognize these men as having been delegated that authority so they may serve you.
Through Paul the Holy Spirit says to the elders in Acts 20:28,
28 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.
To the congregation in Hebrews 13:17 he says
17 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.
And 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13 says,
12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
It is with great joy that I recommend both Craig and Chris to you this morning and we have a short message from the elders in Pittsburgh we would like to share with you as well.