Elders in the Church
by Pastor Jim Feeney, Ph.D.
James 5:14 Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.
- •• In many churches today, unfortunately, sick believers could not obey this Scripture. Why? Because there are no elders in their church.
•• Every New Testament church needs elders. That is the biblical church leadership pattern.
Acts 15:4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders.
Acts 14:23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church.
Acts 20:17, KJV And from Miletus [Paul] sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church.
1 Timothy 5:17 The elders who direct the affairs of the church well...
- • The Jerusalem church — led by men trained by Jesus Himself! — had elders (note the plural).
• The apostle Paul made sure that the local churches he established were left under the spiritual oversight of elders.
• Pastor Timothy in Ephesus (1 Timothy 5:17) had elders helping him “direct the affairs of the church.”
• The New Testament pattern is a plurality of elders (think team leadership) in each local church. This biblical eldership is the broad-based spiritual leadership of that church. From among those elders, one specific man will be the primary leader (generally, but not always, called “pastor”) of that church. For example:
- • Timothy in Ephesus (1 & 2 Timothy)
• Titus in Crete (Titus 1:5)
• James in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:13; also Galatians 2:12).
- • This pattern was foreshadowed in the Old Testament “church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38, KJV). The main leader Moses was assisted by seventy elders (Numbers 11:16-17).
- • One primary church leader ... plural elders working with him in the spiritual leadership of the church. That is the consistent pattern.
• Note: some churches choose to use the synonymous term "presbyters" instead of "elders". The two words mean the same thing. They are simply different English translations of the same Greek word.
Having established the biblical principle of church elders, let us now examine in depth the leadership roles and ministries of elders — that is, the “job description” of the church elder.
•• Elders FEED — that is, they SHEPHERD the church.
Acts 20:17, 28 From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church....  Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.
- Vs. 28, KJV Feed the church of God.
1 Peter 5:1-2 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder ...  Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care...
- Vs. 2, KJV Feed the flock...
Vs. 2, Amplified Tend — nurture, guard, guide, and fold — the flock...
• Church elders are shepherds; they are feeders of the flock; they “tend” the people of God and watch for their well-being, as a natural shepherd does for his flocks.
•• Elders RULE — that is, direct the affairs of — the local church.
1 Timothy 5:17 Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour...
- NIV: ...elders who direct the affairs of the church...
• In both the Old and New Testaments, God established governmental structures for His people and for the work of God.
- • Church elders “rule” in the church (KJV).
• Elders “direct the affairs” of the church (NIV).
• Christ’s church is never rudderless, never leaderless. Jesus sovereignly leads from heaven. But He incorporates earthly, human elders into that church leadership process.
•• Elders OVERSEE the local church.
Acts 20:17, 28, KJV And from Miletus [Paul] sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church.....  Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers.
1 Peter 5:1-2, KJV The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder ...  Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof...
- • Elders are spiritual overseers. The Greek word, in both noun and verb forms, combines the word for upon with the word for look or watch. It is the noun (and verb) from which our English word "bishops" is derived. The King James translation of Philppians 1:1 speaks of "all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons." There in brief is the properly structured local church — the saints (all the believers), among whom are the bishops and deacons. Do you see it? Plural "bishops" (the elders in their oversight roles), plus deacons.
- • The elder is to be diligent to watch, to look upon, the flock and to know its condition.
• Proverbs 27:23 Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds.
•• Elders SHARE THE BURDEN of the primary church leader.
Numbers 11:16-17, KJV And the LORD said unto Moses, Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel ...  and I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone.
- • This was a great help and comfort to Moses. God-called and God-anointed elders were to “bear the burden of the people with” Moses. He did not have to bear it alone.
• Numerous surveys in our time reveal that one debilitating emotion felt by a high percentage of pastors is isolation, loneliness. Local church elders are part of God’s gracious solution to that isolation, as they work with the pastor in the care of the people.
Acts 21:18, KJV And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present.
- • James, the Jerusalem church leader, was continually blessed by the presence and labors of church elders. We see these same elders with James in the major doctrinal discussions of Acts 15.
• As of this writing (2005), I am personally thankful to have five godly and spiritually gifted men who are the eldership working with me in the spiritual leadership of South Valley Church in Phoenix, Oregon.
•• A good elder will also take HEED to HIMSELF and his own walk with God.
Acts 20:28, KJV Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock...
- • In my several decades of local-church eldering, I have continually needed to keep my own relationship with the Lord alive and vital. Otherwise, I am not well equipped to help others follow the Lord.
•• An elder is to be a GOOD EXAMPLE.
1 Peter 5:1, 3 To the elders among you, I appeal ...  being examples to the flock.
Hebrews 13:7 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.
- • Every one of us needs good examples, needs positive role models. Nowhere is this more important than in the things of God.
• Elders are the front-line examples to the local church. God’s people are charged to “consider ... their way of life and imitate their faith.” That places a heavy responsibility on the church leaders to be living a life worthy of imitating.
•• A good elder will be WATCHFUL.
1) Watchful for PROBLEMS: Acts 20:29-31, KJV For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.  Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.  Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.
- • This is a never-ending responsibility for pastors and elders. The parable of the weeds among the wheat illustrates this (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). One of the devil’s continuing strategies is to sow his followers among the people of God. Watchful elders must identify such people and defend the flock against their harmful influence.
• Elders must watch for people infiltrating the church with immoral intentions, destructive doctrines, divisive words, and a host of other evil influences.
2) Watchful for SOULS: Hebrews 13:17, KJV Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.
- • God calls us His sheep, His flock. That is not, as some have suggested, a “put-down”. By contrast, it speaks of the loving care of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and of His desire that His flock be well taken care of. And that loving watchfulness for souls is a major responsibility that Jesus has assigned to the elders in the church.
•• Elders are to safeguard GOOD DOCTRINE.
Acts 15:1-2, 6 Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”  This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question....  The [Jerusalem] apostles and elders met to consider this question.
- • This was a major doctrinal issue — specifically, if circumcision was necessary for salvation. The collective wisdom of these godly apostles and elders resolved this major doctrinal dispute.
Titus 1:7, 9 Since an overseer [an elder (vss. 5-6)] is entrusted with God’s work ...  He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.
- • In more than three decades of being a church elder, I have found safeguarding sound doctrine to be one of my main responsibilities. Churches have members at all levels of spiritual maturity. Those well grounded in the faith must help those not so well grounded to resist the siren song of “every wind of doctrine.”
•• Some elders, not all, PREACH and TEACH the WORD as a primary ministry.
1 Timothy 5:17 The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.
- • This clearly shows that the “work” of some elders (not all) is “preaching and teaching” God’s Word.
• A personal reflection: I have been an elder in local churches for the past 31 years. Like all elders, I have the multifaceted responsibilities noted in this bible study. But my primary eldering duty in all those years has been “labour[ing] in the word and doctrine” (vs. 17, KJV).
•• All elders must be APT to TEACH, as the need arises.
1 Timothy 3:2 Now the overseer must be ... able to teach.
- KJV: apt to teach
Titus 1:9, KJV Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.
- • Not all elders will be primary pulpit speakers. But they do need to have a basic capability in imparting the Word of God. This may be in a home fellowship context, over coffee, or in any of a number of informal situations.
•• Elders will LAY ON HANDS as a “presbytery”, often with prophecy.
1 Timothy 4:14 Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.
- KJV: Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.
• The “presbytery” (KJV) is the eldership, the “body of elders” (NIV). Instead of "elders", some churches use the synonymous term "presbyters", thus the naming of the assembled elders as "the presbytery".
• Elders might lay on hands for ordinations, in praying for the sick, sending forth missionaries, and a variety of other situations where God’s blessing is invoked.
• At times, this laying on of hands will be accompanied by “a prophetic message” (NIV).
•• Elders will visit and pray for the SICK.
James 5:14-15a Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. [15a] And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.
- • This is a wonderful privilege that a church's elders have — that is, being called to the home or hospital to pray for the sick, and to expect the sick to be healed.
• The process is generally something like this: a sick person, or someone on their behalf, calls an elder to come and pray. That elder invites another elder or two to accompany him. They visit and pray for that sick person. I have seen numerous people healed by following this biblical pattern.
•• Elders manage major church FINANCES.
Acts 11:29-30, KJV Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea:  Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.
- • The Jerusalem church elders (note: not the deacons) had the responsibility of administering this financial offering.
1 Timothy 5:17 The elders who direct the affairs of the church...
- • This would include ongoing directing of the financial “affairs of the church”.
•• Elders exercise HOSPITALITY.
1 Timothy 3:2 Now the overseer must be ... hospitable...
- KJV: ...given to hospitality
Titus 1:6, 8 An elder ...  must be hospitable.
- • I recall clearly when, as a young, single Christian, I began attending a church in Anchorage, Alaska. Within a short time several of that church's elders had extended to me invitations to their homes. That personal touch, and the associated fellowship, cemented my relationship to that church in a heartfelt bond that continues at a geographical distance to this very day [2015 update].
•• An elder must WORK HARD at his duties.
1 Timothy 3:1 Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task.
- KJV: ...he desireth a good work.
• The word “work” here comes from a Greek noun whose verb form means to work, to toil.
• The “work of the ministry” (Ephesians 4:12, KJV) is just that — it is work! The saving and nurturing of souls is serious business. No man should “set his heart on being an overseer” unless he is committed to serving the Lord and his people as a church elder with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Summary of the Elder’s Ministry
- • Feed God’s people
- • Rule/direct the affairs of the church
• Oversee the flock
• Share the burden with the pastor/primary church leader
• Take heed to his own walk
• Be a good example
• Be watchful
• Safeguard good doctrine
• Some (not all) preach and teach
• Be apt to teach
• Lay on hands as part of the church’s presbytery
• Visit and pray for the sick
• Manage major church finances
• Exercise hospitality
• Work hard at his duties, serving God and man
For further study on the qualifications for elders, I refer the reader to the primary texts found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9.
One closing thought to those who might be wondering about whether we should have women in church leadership as elders. The biblical answer to that would be "no." For example, in the list of elders' qualifications noted above, one of those is that the elder be "the husband of one wife" (1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6, NASB). I have written at length on this at:
Male Leadership in the Home and the Church
The Ordination of Women | Arguments For and Against
Christian Women's Ministry in the New Covenant
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©2005, 2015, James H. Feeney. Copyright statement.