What is an Elder Supposed to Do?


When Paul instructed Titus to appoint elders in every town (1:5), he immediately listed qualifications to find those men (vv. 6–9). What he spent little time on was the specific tasks they were supposed to do as elders.

From the remainder of the letter, it can be surmised that elders who oversee the church must silence false teachers (1:11), teach what accords with sound doctrine (2:1), model good works for others (2:7), exercise authority in matters of doctrine (2:15), and protect the flock from divisive persons (3:10). Yet, these are only some of the tasks mentioned in the New Testament. Today, I want to enumerate seven others, beginning with Jesus’ words to Peter in John 21..

Seven Tasks of an Elder Who Oversees the Flock

1. Feed the Flock.

It is arguable that the genesis of the pastoral office began on a seashore in Galilee. In John 21 Jesus went in search of Peter. Days before, on the night of Jesus’ arrest, Peter denied Christ three times. Crushed by his own disloyalty, Peter returned to fishing. However, as Jesus had called him to be a fisher of men before (Matt 4:19), he again came to restore Peter to Jesus’ ministry.

In verses 15–19 Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me more than these?” (Presumably motioning to the fish). Each time Peter responded, “You know I love you.” And each time, Jesus assigned him a pastoral task: “Feed my lambs” (v. 15); “tend my sheep” (v. 16); “feed my sheep” (v. 17). Using this pastoral metaphor, Jesus announced the primary duty of an elder (cf. 1 Pet 5:1)—to feed the flock of God with the food of God, i.e., God’s holy Word!

2. Instruct the Church.

Following the commission to feed the flock, both letters to Timothy and Titus emphasize the role of teaching. First Timothy 3:2 says that an elder must be “apt to teach.” Titus 1:9 goes even further. Elders must be able to instruct in sound doctrine and reprove those who are in error. While the whole congregation should instruct and exhort one another (Rom 15:14; Col 3:16), it is the elders unique responsibility to teach the congregation. Paul modeled this in Ephesus and commissioned the elders in that church to follow his model. The elder must preach the gospel of grace (Acts 20:26), from  the whole counsel of God (v. 27), in public and from house-to-house (v. 20), with passion both night and day (v. 31), calling for repentance and faith (v. 26) and opposing false teachers (v. 30). In short, the elder’s work is a teaching work, because it is by the word of God that Christians are born (James 1:18; 1 Pet 1:23), faith is given (Rom 10:17), and saints are sanctified (John 17:17).

3. Walk in a Manner Worthy of the Gospel.

If feeding the flock is the primary task, personal holiness is the primary qualification. As is evidenced in Titus 1, 1 Timothy 3, and 1 Peter 5, elders must model godliness: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, . . . not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:2–3).

Because dirty lives mar pure preaching, God repeatedly calls his elders to live above reproach (Titus 1:6, 7). As D. A. Carson has observed, qualifications for eldership are not extraordinary; they’re normal features of godly living, but without such living, the whole church suffers. It is not to much to say that churches rise and fall with the godliness of their leaders. And for that reason, elders must walk in a manner worthy of the gospel, so that as they call others to follow them godliness ensues and permeates the church.

4. Pray for the Needs of the Saints.

When the needs of the church in Jerusalem grew to include feeding widows, it was necessary to appoint godly men to assist the apostles. In that context, “deacons” were established, so that the apostles could attend to prayer and the Word of God (6:4). In a short time, the church called upon seven men to minister to the widows of Jerusalem, which allowed the apostle-elders to focus on prayer and the Word. And as a result, the Word flourished and many priests were converted (6:7).

Later in New Testament, elders are called on to pray. James, the brother of Jesus and lead pastor of the Jerusalem church, urged the sick to call for elders in times of need (5:14). By implication, Galatians 6:1–2 also teaches that the spiritually-mature are to be involved in the lives of sinning Christians. This involves intervention bathed in prayer. Elders must not only intercede for the congregation (on their own time), they must also seek out members to counsel and prayer with.

5. Evangelize the Lost.

Elders are also responsible for evangelism. In 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul urged Timothy to do the work of an evangelist. Though Timothy is not technically an “elder” in the Ephesian church, earlier in the letter Paul makes plain that all he passed on to Timothy was to be passed on to others also (2:2). Thus, any who desire to be an elder must make evangelism a priority.

At the same time, as David Murray observed yesterday, the qualifications of being “above reproach” and “having a good reputation with outsiders,” clearly delineate the evangelistic thrust of elder leadership. Not only do the elders evangelize; their godly character confirms the gospel they preach. Inversely, the evangelistic power of a church is threatened when an elders are ungodly or when elders fail to make evangelism a priority. Character and proclamation go hand-in-hand.

6. Pursue Order in the Church.

In addition to reaching the lost, elders must pursue order in the church. It is for this reason that Paul told Titus to appoint elders in the churches of Crete: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (1:5).

Likewise, in matters of church discipline, it is the spiritually mature elders who are designated to lead in matters of restoration (Gal 6:1–2) and excommunication (1 Corinthians 5). Though Jesus doesn’t make it explicit, elders are the natural mediators who arise in the middle step of his discipline procedures (Matt 18:15–17). Likewise, when the church observes divisive behavior (cf. Titus 3:9–10), it is the elders who step in to make peace. This division is often based on false teaching—doctrinal or ethical—and thus it ithe elders who must arbitrate. While all the congregation is called to maintain unity in the bond of peace(Eph 4:1–3), it is the elders who function as mediators and magistrates in the local church.

7. Give an account on the Last Day.

On the last day, everyone will give an account for their words (Matt 12:36) and actions (2 Cor 5:10). However, it says, respectively, in James 3:1 and Hebrews 13:17 that teachers and leaders will give a greater account. For this reason, church leadership is not something to be taken lightly. It is reserved for those who are spiritually mature, doctrinally sound, ethically honest, and ready to stand before God giving an account for the people they served.

A Final Word

To be an elder is no light work in the kingdom of God. It is not an honorary position in the church, for those who have served long enough. It is for those who are biblically qualified and prepared to lay down their lives for the sake of the sheep.

For this reason, it is imperative that elders reflect the characteristics of Titus 1, 1 Timothy 3, and 1 Peter 5. Only those men who have such prerequisite character will be able to withstand the pressures of the ministry and the attacks of the evil one. In this sense, it is a humbling and Spirit-dependent role, and yet for those who sobering desire this office it is a good thing (1 Tim 3:1), one that should be conducted with joy (Heb 13:17) and hopefulness (1 Thess 2:20).

Soli Deo Gloria, ds