What Should Churches Do Who Have Elders?

churchTitus 1:5–9 and 1 Timothy 3:1–7 give a host of qualifications for potential elders. Additionally, they give indication as to what an elder is supposed to do—to instruct the flock in sound doctrine and protect the church from false teaching, immorality, and division.

Yet, what about the congregation? Does the Bible have anything to say to church members as to their relationship with the elders who shepherd them?

While no virtue list exists for congregations like that of potential elders, the New Testament does instruct church members to love, support, and even submit to their leaders. In fact, from the context of many passages related to church leadership we find at least a dozen ways Christians should relate to those who lead them.

Twelve Ways The Church Relates to its Leaders

1. Provide assistance so that the minister of the Word can devote himself to the Word of God and prayer.

In Acts 6, the congregation chose seven men to “wait on tables” (i.e., meet physical needs) so that the apostles could continue to focus on the preaching of the Word. As the church grew more needs arose then the original apostles could handle. Therefore, the church in Jerusalem recognized and appointed seven qualified men who could assist in the ministry. By calling out men to serve the physical needs of the church the apostles could focus on teaching. The result was dramatic: “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (v. 7).

2. Provide monetarily for those men who labor in the Word.

While not all elders will be vocational ministers, Paul encourages churches to remunerate those elders who labor faithfully in preaching and teaching. First Timothy 5:17 –18 reads, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” Of course, there are other examples with Paul where he refuses support and provides for himself (1 Thess 2:9; 2 Thess 3:8), but for the longstanding minister of the gospel, monetary support is vital for that man to be able to give himself fully to the ministry of the Word.

3. Recognize leaders as gifts from God.

It is easy to take leaders for granted. While a new preacher may seem charming at first; very soon they blend in with furniture. Especially in lengthy pastorates, it is possible to forget that qualified leaders are a gift from God. The same may be true when a pastor or elder does not exactly match our preferences for leadership. Nevertheless, in Ephesians 4:11 Paul speaks of apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers as gifts from God. While some of these of offices have ceased (apostles and prophets, in my estimation), evangelists and pastors continue to be gifts that God gives to churches for the upbuilding of the body.

4. Receive the equipping ministry of pastor-teachers.

Pastor-teachers, alternatively called elders or overseers, are not just gifts to the church, they are vital initiators of change and growth. In Ephesians 4:12 Paul writes that these gifted leaders are “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” And he continues in the following verses saying that these ministers of the Word must continue equipping the church “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (v. 13).  From the context, the pastor’s teaching ministry is necessary for the church to grow “in knowledge” and “mature manhood.” Without such equipping the church will not grow, and only when the church receives the teaching of faithful pastor-teachers will the church look like, sound like, and act like Christ.

5. Seek their assistance and prayer in times of need.

Elders are not just men of the Word; they are men of prayer. And when a need arises, James says elders are the ones to call. He asks, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (5:13–14). While believers of any age or maturity can pray for one another, it is fitting for the elders of the church to come and pray for those in need. In the same context, the sick are encouraged to confess their sins to one another (5:16). While it doesn’t say so explicitly, there is good reason to include elders in this place of confession. As spiritually mature men, elders are naturally the ones who can counsel a confessing sinner and bear them up gospel truth (Gal 6:1–2).

6. Consider their life and imitate their faith.

One reason God requires (and gives) elders to each church is to provide models of godliness (1 Tim 4:12). Making this point, Hebrews 13:7 says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” Leaders who speak the Word of God of God to you are a priceless gift. When their lives match the message they preach, Christians have a walking illustration of the gospel. Such men should be considered and their faith imitated (cf. 1 Cor 11:1).

7. Acknowledge, love, and live at peace with those who lead them.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13, Paul says, “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you.” Because of the pastor’s role of rebuking sharply error in the church (e.g., Titus 1:9, 13; 2:15), it may be easy for members to grow offended. However, God calls members to respect and love those who lead them in the Word. In this way, God grows his people by putting godly men over them who they must submit to with respect and love. Of course, in reality, there are innumerable challenges that make such submission difficult. But that is the point: By laboring to love and respect fallible (but faithful) leaders, God matures his children.

8. Submit to those who lead you.

Even more counter-cultural is the language of Hebrews 13:17, which says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” In our day submission is a four-letter word, but it is one that churches (and marriages) need to recover if Christians are going to obey God. Churches that submit to their leaders model a spirit of gentleness that pleases God and puzzles the world. Such trust in leadership is just one of the ways that body of Christ invites the world to see the power of the gospel.

9. Examine the ‘fittedness’ of a elder candidate.

God not only gives lists of elder qualifications, he also expects churches to carry out a process of examination (1 Tim 3:10; 5:22–25). The reason for this is that churches are best positioned to test the qualifications of a potential elder. First, they know the candidate (not just his ability to ace an exam). And second, they know what their church needs, unlike a seminary classroom. In truth, because each church is different the maturity, wisdom, and experience needed to be an elder will differ. For this reason, it is the local church that should examine an elder candidate.

10. Hold accountable those men who serve as elders/overseers.

Even as individuals of the church are called to submit to those who are over them in the Lord, the congregation as a whole has the right to hold accountable their elders. First Timothy 5:19–22 explains that when an elder is out of line–either morally or doctrinally–the council of elders has the responsibility to hear the accusation when it is brought by two or more members. In keeping with Old Testament protocols for accusations, the church should exercise patience and prudence when an accusation is made, but they must ascertain the viability of the complaint. In this way, the church must hold elders accountable and protect elders from false accusations. Only by God’s grace can a church balance this “legal” act, but such grace is pursued and founded on the clarity of God’s Word.

11. Appoint qualified elders.

If a church has the right to discipline an elder for misbehavior or false teaching, they first have the responsibility to appoint qualified elders. For this reason, God gives two lists to consider (1 Tim 3:1–7; Titus 1: 5–9). These lists do not say everything about what qualifies a man for a particular church, but neither should a local church substantially add to the inspired requirements. Men who aspire to the office of an overseer, should regularly keep these standards in view. As should the church who follows these men. Practically, these qualifications should be the first place a personnel team or church council looks when calling a pastor or considering men for eldership. Too often, they are an additional addendum to a list of other qualifications related to style or schooling.

12. Desire to join the ranks of leadership.

Finally, 1 Timothy 3:1 indicates that any qualified man who desires to the office of an overseer should pursue such a calling. While not every person who is desirous to teach should or can teach (see 1 Tim 1:7), a call to eldership must include a subjective desire to do the work willingly, not under compulsion (1 Pet 5:1–4). Contrary to common practice, elders are not called out and created by seminaries. Seminaries, when rightly conceived, assist the work of the local church. Elders are raised up in churches, and should therefore look to call out “the called.” Even more, elders should encourage other potential elders to hold fast to the word of God and grow in their ability to communicate the word and defend it (Titus 1:9). While in the end only God can develop an elder, he uses the local church to strengthen, test, and affirm that calling. For that reason, churches should encourage godly, Word-centered men to grow in their gifts so that in time they might be qualified to shepherd in the church.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds