Any study or discussion of church elders focuses immediately on the qualifications for this office. Most of these qualifications are found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Elders are mature people who exhibit the behaviors and character traits which every Christian seeks to attain. Thus, elders should be people who have attained a high degree of spiritual growth, Christlikeness, wisdom, and maturity. They should be mature Christians with experience in leading smaller groups (their families) so that they will be prepared to lead larger groups (their local congregations).
The work of the elder
Elders sometimes see themselves as church money managers,
mere decision-makers, and administrators. Some elders
have been appointed because they are popular, run secular businesses
successfully, or are good at general leadership. But what
are they supposed to do spiritually?
The word “elder” suggests a maturity that should be respected
and honored (1 Tim. 5:1; 1 Pet. 5:5). It carries with it
the weight of wisdom and knowledge (Job 12:12; Lev. 19:32).
Elders of ancient Israel served as counselors to kings. Today,
elders should be our counselors.
Church leaders are also called overseers. This implies they
are to superintend, guard, and oversee. But what are they to superintend,
guard, and oversee? The treasury? The church building?
Souls? The correct answer is all of the above, but watching
for the well-being of souls should be their priority (Heb. 13:17).
Two Greek verbs are used for overseers. Episkeptomai means
“to look at, examine, inspect, have oversight, care for, go see,
visit with, help” (James 1:27; Matt. 25:36). The word episkopeo
means “look at, take care, see to it” (Heb. 12:15; 1 Pet. 5:2).
Hence, for an elder to oversee, he must be deeply concerned
about the flock, visiting them and caring for them, and he must
be willing to get involved in their lives.
It is good for our elders to spent at least 3-5 hours every
week, apart from the Sabbath morning hours, in service and
ministry to church members and the community. This ministry
of evangelism will help them grow spiritually and also expand the
kingdom of God.
The overseer must also be vigilant, prudent, respectable,
hospitable, and skillful in teaching (1 Tim. 3:2). This qualification
of an elder is an important gift that should be exercised in the
church and outside of it. Elders should lead the way in promoting
discipleship and spiritual growth.
Leaders also are referred to in the Bible as pastors or shepherds
(1 Pet. 2:25). The terms are used figuratively to compare
the physical job of shepherding to the spiritual job of being an elder.
A good shepherd or elder supplies needs and gives comfort
(Ps. 23; Isa. 40:11). The shepherd-elder must have an intimate
knowledge of the flock. He knows his flock from spending time
with them. They respect him and listen to him. Shepherds never
do their jobs in “shepherd meetings;” they do their work among
the flock—living with them, feeding them, protecting them, sacrificing
for them. And one of the shepherd’s chief concerns involves
the wayward members of his flock (Matt. 18:12-14).
Church leaders are also called stewards (Titus 1:7). A steward
is a manager. In the Bible, a steward was a slave or servant
who had been put in charge of his master’s household or
property. He was responsible and accountable for things that
belonged to someone else (Heb. 13:17). He had authority, but
only to the degree that he acted on his master’s behalf and for
his master’s purposes.
Similarly, church elders are to “rule” or lead (1 Tim. 5:17;
Heb. 13:7, 17), but they are not to act as “lords” or “masters”
over the congregation (1 Pet. 5:1-3). That is Christ’s role. Elders
rule and lead, but not because they are superior to the rest of
the congregation; rather, they lead because the congregation has
seen in the elders the maturity and character traits they need to
Christ gave us a leadership style that focuses on being a servant
to others. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to
serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:25-28).
Like Jesus, elders lovingly lead and serve His church (1 Tim.
3:4, 5). Elders lead by providing spiritual leadership, developing
a vision for the congregation, and ensuring that the mission of
the church—seeking and saving the lost—is fulfilled.
An elder is responsible for much more than reading the Bible,
calling for the offering, or making decisions. An elder leads as
he uses God’s Word, his spiritual maturity, and his experience
to serve, love, and persuade. He must be able to watch for, lovingly
correct, and rescue those who err. Because of the elder’s
knowledge, responsibility, and accountability, the flock of God is
to respect and listen to him—as long as he is faithful to God.
S. Joseph Kidder is a professor of church growth and leadership
at the Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary
in Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA.