What is an Elder?

What is an Elder?

The New Testament has much to say about the office of elder. Jesus, prior to his ascension, commissioned his chosen apostles to do the foundational work of spreading the gospel, making disciples, and building up the foundation of the church. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the church grew explosively all over the Greco-Roman world and beyond. Who was to lead the individual churches in every city and town once the apostles moved on or died? Who would ensure that sound doctrine was taught and upheld against false teachers? Who would serve as examples of faithfulness to the congregation and provide care for the individual members? ‘Elders’ or ‘Overseers’ (terms used interchangeably to refer to the same office) are the ones called to fill this role. 

This was nothing new. The role of elder goes back deep into Israelite history (Ex. 24), and was the foundation of the synagogue system as well. The apostle Paul instructed Titus to appoint elders in every town among the churches of Crete, and that they would put things into order (Tit. 1:5). In both 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, Paul gives qualifications for those who would serve as elders, including that they be: above reproach, self-controlled, holy, self-controlled, gentle, managing his own household and children well, not a recent convert, and able to teach. As spiritual fathers, this role is reserved for qualified, godly men who are called by the Lord and confirmed within the church. The best evidence is that each church was led by a plurality of elders, who served as the leaders of each congregation, supported by the deacons (Acts 14:23, 16:4, 20:17, 21:18; Tit. 1:5; Jas. 5:14).

What do elders do in the church?

Elders Feed. In many ways this is the most important function of an elder. They feed the people of God from the Word of God so they can grow in maturity in Christ. They nourish and sustain the faith of the church through the ministry of the Word. This includes preaching and teaching, but also through offering wisdom, counsel, prayers, and more from the Scriptures. 

Elders Lead. As spiritual fathers of the church, elders are the leaders of God’s people in each local congregation. They are tasked with organizing, setting vision and direction, keeping the congregation on mission, and setting an example of faith and godliness in speech and conduct. Jeramie Rinne in his book ‘Church Elders’ says, “God has called elders to be men worth imitating… When a church appoints a man to be an overseer, it is formally saying, “Here is an official, church-recognized example of a mature follower of Jesus.” …A church should be able to direct a newborn believer to an elder and say: “Do you want to know what a real Christian should be like? Then look at him” (p. 101).

Elders Protect. Christ and his apostles often warned of false teachers and other deceivers leading the people of God astray. Elders defend the church by articulating and upholding biblical doctrine, correcting errors and opponents, and being active in church discipline. This is part of what it means to be overseers. They are watchful for danger in the form of false doctrines and false teachers who seek to deceive the church. 

Elders Care. Overseers watch over the spiritual health and lives of the church (Heb. 13:17). Shepherding God’s people requires that elders know, love, and live among them. This includes caring for them through various tragedies, hardships, and temptations; through counsel, organizing assistance, and support. Care includes celebrating with them life’s joys, such as marriage, the birth of a child, or graduating. 

Elders Seek. Finally, elders seek out the people of God who have not yet come to know Christ through faith. In this way, elders engage in personal evangelism and lead the congregation in this as well.

Godly elders are a gift to the church and are essential for the health and growth of the congregation. As an elder, I am humbled by this calling and thankful that God uses me among my fellow elders in this way. I encourage you to take a moment and pray for your elders, that they would fulfill their calling with faithfulness, joy, and integrity.


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