I recently asked a few friends if there is a blog topic I should take on. My friend, Brooks Szewczyk, recommended I write about the responsibilities of an elder. You should note a distinction I will be making in this blog. I aim to explain the responsibilities of an elder and not the qualifications. There is overlap between the two categories, but my focus has to do with function. As an elder of a local church, the subject is not only relevant to my life, but it’s a topic I take seriously. So here we go. Here are a few thoughts on the responsibilities of being an elder along with a few defining thoughts.
What is an Elder?
Before delving into the responsibilities of an elder, it’s essential to step back and define the role of an elder. First, the word is used to describe an older person. So, for example, my biological father is my elder. Historically, an elder is a person who is suppose to contain wisdom from life experiences. If you are new to parenting, you can seek out someone who has gone through the gauntlet of raising kids. You seek out your elders.
Similarly, an elder in a local church is supposed to have wisdom. This is why the apostle Paul tells his disciple Timothy the following:
He [An elder] must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.
– 1 Timothy 3:6
Scripture does not provide an age, and we do not know how far from conversion a man needs to be before becoming an elder. But a man must have the maturity to fight pride and the devil. So Christian maturity develops over time. You cannot microwave Christian maturity nor the wisdom that comes from growing in the faith. The other angle to approach 1 Timothy 3:6 is that a man must have been tested. It’s through the testing of faith in which maturity and wisdom grow. Instead of trials and suffering being an obstacle, they are actually opportunities.
I have a couple more thoughts on biblical eldership before laying out the responsibilities. Scripture is decisive that elders are men. Back to 1 Timothy 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…– 1 Timothy 3:1–2
And then we read in Titus 1,
…if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife…– Titus 1:6
In these passages, the qualification that an elder is the husband of one wife is accompanied by multiple qualifications. Only hermeneutical gymnastics can change the meaning of these passages.
I also want to point out that elder and pastor are used synonymously in the New Testament. In Titus, Paul uses the word πρεσβύτερος (elder, older man). In 1 Timothy 3, Paul uses the Greek word ἐπισκοπή, which means overseer, or one who is watching over. In both passages, the qualifications of an elder/pastor are being laid out. The connections are made more explicit in 1 Peter 5 and Acts 20. Here is what Peter says about elders.
So I exhort the elders (πρεσβύτερος) among you, as a fellow elder (πρεσβύτερος) and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd (ποιμαίνω) the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight (ἐπισκοπή)…– 1 Peter 5:1–2
We see how three separate concepts describe a man leading a local church, and now Shepherd is included. So it’s from Shepherd where we have our English equivalent of the pastor. The same pattern is found in Acts 20. I think the CSB captures the various terms.
17 Now from Miletus, he sent to Ephesus and summoned the elders (πρεσβύτερος) of the church. . .28 Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers (ἐπισκοπή), to Shepherd (ποιμαίνω) the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood.– Acts 20:17;28
Deacons are not Elders
It should go without saying, but deacons are not elders. I mention this because many Baptist churches have a pastor on staff, but the deacons function like elders. A cross-country trip through the southern United States will reveal a litany of Baptist churches with this model. Also, it’s common for an evangelical church to have a pastoral staff and a separate elder board. In this model, many of the pastors are not on the elder board. I do not think this model represents what we read in the New Testament. While passages like 1 Peter 5 and Acts 20 are compelling to show that there is no distinction between elder and pastor, the responsibilities of a pastor/elder seals the deal.
The Biblical Mandate of Elders
I will break down the responsibilities of an elder/pastor/overseer into four broad categories. The responsibilities are to lead, teach, care, and protect. I take them one at a time.
Implicit in the New Testament is that elders are to lead. Leading a local church takes on various functions, but we have a clear sense from the Bible. Leading includes teaching (more on that below); to give counsel (Acts 21:23); to handle disputes when they arise in the church (Acts 15:2); to care for and pray for the sick (James 5:14). If you extend some of the responsibilities of New Testament apostles to elders, we can also include church discipline (Acts 5:1-11) and provide direction to deacons who serve the church (Acts 6:1-7). The mere fact that Scripture mentions the role of elders in Acts 20, 1 Peter 5, 1 Timothy 3, and Titus 1 is an acknowledgment of their leadership responsibility.
The most obvious responsibility of an elder is to teach. Titus 1:9 makes the responsibility clear.
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.– Titus 1:9
Ok. An elder must hold to sound doctrine for the purpose of teaching others. Teaching can take the form of peaching on Sunday mornings, a theology or Bible class, youth group, and even at a small group gathering. In my experience, an elder must be ready to teach in formal settings and informal settings. For example, an elder might be at dinner with friends, and the topic of limited atonement comes up. At that moment, an elder needs to explain the theological and biblical position of limited atonement (or pick your topic).
I already pointed out that elders are to care and pray for the sick (James 5:14). So I’ll tease out how an elder cares for the local church using the shepherd/sheep metaphor. In Psalm 23 we read that shepherds carry a staff and a rod.
If you have ever seen a picture of a Middle Eastern shepherd, they often walk with the heard with a long staff in hand. The staff is long with a curl or hook shape at the end. There are several practical reasons for the staff. Of course, the staff can be an aid for walking, but more significantly, the staff helps keep the sheep together. The staff is a tool to keep the sheep close to the Shepherd. The staff is a symbol of the Shepherd’s love for his sheep. With the Shepherd’s outstretched arm, with staff in hand, he can gently bring back a sheep that begins to wander away from the fold.
Now, Psalm 23 is about God being the great Shepherd. But we have already seen how the Bible refers to elders as shepherds. 1 Peter 5:4 helps makes sense of the dynamic. Remember, the context of this verse is Paul addressing local church elders.
And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.– 1 Peter 5:4
The point to be made is that the shepherd/sheep metaphor works. Elders are shepherds who care for the sheep. And a shepherd can care for the sheep when he is with the sheep. Said differently, an absent shepherd cannot adequately care for sheep.
Back to Titus 1:9. This passage also clarifies that a means of protecting the church is to rebuke those who contradict sound teaching. The New Testament is replete with examples of Paul warning against false teachings. A warning is even extended to Timothy.
O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith.– 1 Timothy 6:20–21
Elders need to be the first to uphold sound doctrine, and they are to hold the line against what is false. And the call of protecting the church is further filled out with the shepherd metaphor.
If you know Psalm 23 the shepherd had another tool in his hand, a rod. A rod is shorter, dense, and wooden. It acts as a club. I suppose it’s equivalent to grabbing a baseball bat. When you picture a shepherd in your head, you see the staff. But you might not always see the rod. However, even though you might not see the rod, it’s there. The shepherd has it on him at all times.
One of the difficulties of shepherding is the constant movement to find areas for the sheep to graze. A shepherd may travel weeks away from home to find provision for the sheep. But traveling also means danger. In particular, threat because of wolves. The rod is used to beat back wolves who want to eat the sheep. The shepherd puts his life on the line to protect the sheep from the wolves. He will beat on a wolf as long as he needs to ensure the sheep’s safety. Listen to how Timothy Laniak describes the dependence the sheep have on the shepherd.
The responsibility of an elder is to use the staff and the rod.
I have not come close to exhausting the responsibilities of an elder. But the categories of leadership, teaching, care, and protection are a straightforward place to begin. Because blogs need to end eventually, I won’t get into the calling of an elder, or how does man discerning a call to ministry gauge the right fit in a church. Perhaps I’ll delve into these topics at a later date. But at the very least, I hope you have been able to see the beginnings of a biblical vision of eldership. When the responsibilities of an elder are paired with the qualifications, we see the high bar for eldership.