Disclaimer: This post probably wont interest everyone. It is part of a document that I created to encourage us to think more deeply about what the Bible does and doesn’t say about some aspects we tend to take for granted. I’m posting it here so that it’s available for those interested in thinking more about this area.
“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.” Titus 1:5
Before describing some of the important qualities for elders and how they are expected to serve amongst local assemblies, Paul starts with a simple description. I’d like to suggest that there are a few things that we can reasonably surmise in the historical situation of the early church.
The first is that the local assemblies functioned as the church prior to this without any formally appointed elders or overseers. Elders and overseers were not required for the church to be the church. Elders were not the foundation for what took place when the church gathered, what we today would often call a worship gathering.
This fits in well with the descriptions of participatory gatherings in the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 14:26). There were a lot of issues in Corinth that Paul needed to address in his letters to them, but none of his instructions involved shifting their format itself to an elder centric gathering. This is a really important point, in my opinion.
Before Titus arrived on this trip to Crete, these congregations didn’t have any formally established elders or overseers. Paul describes this situation not in desperate terms but rather as something left unfinished. Paul couldn’t have confidence that everything would continue well without knowing that there were people of character and competence that could make sure that the ministry there stayed focused on Jesus. I would like to submit these claims for your consideration here:
Many of the issues that come up in Paul’s letters and many others could likely have effectively been dealt with in local churches once elders were put in place who demonstrated biblical competency and character.
The only elders that the churches were expected to have long term were from their local churches themselves, not brought in or hired in from somewhere else.
Titus appointing these elders in each congregation established expectations for their role in the congregations, not as the ones who ‘do’ ministry but as ones responsible to ensure that ministry is done faithfully, and offering teaching and correction when it is not.
Titus appointing the elders established relationships of connection and accountability between the local churches and the greater movement. This will be a vital aspect to my proposal that follows. Because Titus appointed the elders, if he and Paul heard of issues going on in one of those congregations, he would have known who to contact.
After stating his purpose to Titus, Paul then moves on to describe two vital aspects for elders in these congregations. The first and most important is the qualification of character. All elders in the Churches of God must before all else be people of Christian character. Some of the observable qualities Paul mentions here are strikingly similar to those listed in his communication with Timothy in Ephesus and include: must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. (Titus 1:7-8)
Before all else, all elders in the Churches of God must exemplify these qualities and we must continually hold one another accountable to this kind of life of Christlike character. It is one of the primary aims for all disciples of Jesus, and elders must exemplify spiritual maturity in Christ.
The second vital aspect for elders follows immediately: “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.” (1:9)
Elders must not only be people of Christian character; they must also know what we believe, apply truth in the church to encourage the body and be able to defend the faith against false teaching. Elders have the responsibility to both continually train and equip the body in applied biblical knowledge for whole life transformation and to hold one another accountable for the pursuit of Christlike character across our body.
When Paul writes to Timothy regarding overseers, he is concerned about the same characteristics. With John WInebrenner, I believe that these are two terms (elder and overseer) for the same basic responsibility. The remarkable similarity between the qualities listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus one give weight to this assessment, in my view.
Regarding Timothy, it should be noted that he did not have a permanent role in the church in Ephesus. Paul urged him to stay there because of the significant issues going on there at the time as well as the training of elders who would be able to ensure the churches stayed focused and accountable once he left. (1 Timothy 1:3). Like Titus in Crete, Timothy in Ephesus would know the elders he appointed in Ephesus and be able to continue to encourage them and hold them accountable once he moved on to another location.
There is no indication that Timothy would stay in Ephesus once the significant issues were resolved and solid local elders raised up. Nor is there any indication that Timothy’s role would be filled by another individual, brought in from Paul’s missionary team. He, like Titus, was there temporarily, on behalf of the movement, to ‘set things in order’ and complete what was unfinished. The goal was not for Timothy to be their long term resident teacher, but rather to take the things he heard Paul say in the presence of many witnesses and entrust them to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others (2 Timothy 2:2).
As we survey the New Testament teaching of what an elder/overseer’s responsibilities are, the picture is clear. They are people of known Christlike character, who know the Scriptures and can teach them to others, applying them to real life circumstances (teaching, correcting, rebuking and training in righteousness – 2 Timothy 3:16). All this serves the core function of making sure that the church stays on track.
Two other passages bolster this clear purpose in the New Testament church. In Acts 20:28, Paul gives the elders from Ephesus this charge: “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.” Peter’s guidance to elders underscores Paul’s consistent message: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them…” 1 Peter 5:2.
It should be noted that there is no indication in the New Testament that elders are the only ones who are expected to be involved in baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Feet Washing or preaching. Any mention of a pulpit, literally or figuratively, is anachronistic to the New Testament.
The responsibility of a New Testament elder is, first and foremost, safeguarding the character and core doctrine of the community. It’s not that only elders can teach, it’s that elders must know and be able to communicate truth and be willing to do so, lovingly but directly, when false teaching, or unfaithful living is encountered. A great biblical example of this dynamic is the relationship that Apollos had with Priscilla and Aquila. They affirmed Apollos’ good teaching and yet still needed to “explain the way of God more adequately to him.” (Acts 18:24-28).
Elder is not a gift of the Spirit but rather a responsibility to the congregation, to the larger movement, and most of all to Jesus himself. Gifts are poured out from Jesus through the Holy Spirit to the whole body for service, equipping and building up to unity and Christlikeness as the entire body builds one another up in the congregation and out into the community around them.
Elders will include some who are apostolic, prophetic and evangelistic. Some will focus in an intense way on teaching (1 Timothy 5:17). Some may have other gifts. While some may focus on shepherding a small group or congregation, all elders have a shepherding role in the largest sense of collectively guiding God’s people toward God’s purposes. The best elder teams in local and regional churches will be made up of faithful disciples of varied gifts.
Thus far I have attempted to lay out a New Testament foundation for understanding the responsibilities of an elder. As students of the scriptures and those who claim the bible as our only rule of faith and practice, we should perhaps pause and weigh the things we learn from the New Testament and compare them to how we think about ministry and the responsibility of elders in our body today.
As we move forward, we should recognize that there is no person named in the New Testament in the role of pastor. Pastor is not a role or position (sometimes called ‘office’), biblically. Elder or overseer is the role that those we call pastors technically occupy. And because the responsibility of shepherding in the most important sense falls on all elders, if one elder is called pastor, why not all?
It is my belief, based on Scripture and experience, that we need to close the gap between our existing local church elders, who have often taken on a business or governance mindset, and those we currently call pastors. We ought to refrain from using a term like ‘lay elders’ as such a term comes out of the thougholly unbiblical concept of clergy in distinction from the laity, which is a biblical term for all of God’s people, including all elders. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ve consistently used the phrase ‘local church elders’. We may, in time, come up with a better way to designate these elders.
Historically, many denominations, including our own, have made a distinction between teaching elders and ruling elders. This idea, common in presyberial polity, in my understanding, is based on 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.”
In my mind, taking Paul’s comments to Timothy to be saying that there are two totally different kinds of elders, strains this passage well past the breaking point. A stark separation between ruling and teaching elders has been detrimental to the church and the biblical role of elder / overseer. We must do better than we’ve done in the past and present. Additionally, ‘ruling’ is a term that comes from some translations, that is thoughtfully unhelpful to Jesus’ concept of kingdom living and leadership. On the contrary, Jesus, Peter and Paul are constantly warning against the temptation to see a leadership role as ruling over others. (See Matthew 20:26-28)