Are Elders Leaders?

Every passage of Scripture, understood in its own context, helps us gain a greater understanding of the whole of the picture of New Testament faith and practice. Faithful students of the Bible should keep both the ‘big picture’ and the study of each smaller section in mind as we study.

I’d like to look at Titus 1 today and see what we can learn there about the role of elder / overseer in the local church, according to Paul’s letter to Titus.

The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. 6 An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. 7 Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. 8 Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. 9 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.

Titus 1:5-9

I’d like to suggest that there are several things that we often read into these texts. Or rather we have preconceived notions when we open the Bible.

One is that each congregation ought to have a senior or lead pastor. We take this for granted because pretty much every church we know of today does. The problem is that the New Testament does not offer us this model. We bring it with us.

Sometimes we assume Titus (or Timothy in those Letters) is ‘the pastor’. The fact that we call these the Pastoral Epistles reflects this understanding. The problem is that it’s misleading. Neither Titus nor Timothy were an ongoing, permanent presence in a local church but were there for a time and a purpose. This is quite clear here in Titus where he is instructed to go town through town in Crete and appoint elders there.

The other major question is, how are elders/overseers (both of these terms are used in this passage of the same people) expected to function in these local congregations? And is leadership the best way to describe that?

We have lots of ideas when it comes to what a leader is. One of those is that they are out front, leading the way so that others might follow them. We assume that leadership comes first and then leaders form the shape of congregational life.

The problem with this view is that the congregations in various towns on the Island of Crete had already been functioning without fomalized elders / overseers!

So much could be said about this, but the point being, established overseers or elders (what we often call pastors today) were not the lynchpin of a congregation of believers.

And yet, something indeed was missing without them. There is an essential role for elders/overseers in these congregations. Paul considered this part of what was unfinished. He and Barnabas follow a similar practice in Acts 14:23, returning to previous places and appointing elders there.

So elders/overseers aren’t the foundation of congregational life but were necessary to its ongoing health such that it was quite important to Paul that they be appointed. What is their role or responsibility then?

While a great deal is said here and elsewhere about these people’s character needing to be exemplary, there are two concepts I’d like to mention briefly.

An overseer is to be one who manages God’s household (the congregation in that place). Overseer is an appropriate English word for this task and Paul here connects Titus with a familiar role in the Greco-Roman world. While we might tend to think of this person as the head of the household (‘man of the house’), this is not the case. This person would have often been a slave or freed-person who was entrusted by the master as a steward of that household. The steward’s purpose is to ensure that people in the household are taking responsibility for their parts and honoring the master such that the household functions well.

This, I would suggest, is perhaps the primary responsibility of elders/overseers. Making sure that everyone works well together toward the same end and that what is said and done and taught honors the Master.

This is why elders aren’t the center of the local church. The Spirit enabled, Jesus exalting, mutually encouraging body is the center of the church. Elders are not necessarily needed for that to happen. But they are needed to help ensure that it continues to happen as it should, especially in the midst of threats.

The other major component mentioned here (verse 9) is that an elder/overseer must hold firmly to the trustworthy message that was taught. Paul elsewhere instructs Timothy that elders must be able to teach. This is not because they must be great 30 minute sermon deliverers but for a particular purpose. “…so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”

Because there were and are many false teachings around and there must be people entrusted to know the truth well enough to be able to fight off the wolves and have the boldness to do so as well as the respect of the rest of the congregation. Paul (and Titus and Timothy etc) couldn’t be in every house church in every town and city. They needed to know that there were people whom they could trust. They could rest easier knowing that because these elder/overseers were there and growing, that the church would stay on track and fight off false teaching and encourage and teach what is good.

Is that leadership? I suppose we could call it that. But it’s really more like stewardship. It’s not necessarily out front but sometimes looking on and hopefully smiling at the reality that Jesus would be pleased with how these people are building one another up and growing up into him who is the fullness of all things.

Elders, pastors, whomever…don’t think of yourself primarily as a leader, but first as a steward/servant/slave of the Master who will have to give an account for the faithfulness of the household.


Author: Dan Masshardt

Husband, Father, Pastor...

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