Where Do Elders Come From?

churchFrom the beginning of the church, there were designated leaders. And though given various names (e.g., elders, pastors, overseers) they served the same function. As God-given leaders of God’s flock (Acts 20:28) and under-shepherds to the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1–4), these men were called to model the faith before God’s people and to teach the word of God, protecting God’s children from error and bolstering their faith in Christ.

A cursory reading of the New Testament shows how important these men were. In Acts we find elders in Jerusalem (11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6; 21:18) and Ephesus (20:17). When Paul planted churches in Galatia, he appointed elders in each church (Acts 14:23). In correspondence with Titus, he told him to appoint qualified overseers in the churches on Crete (Titus 1:5–9). Similarly, Timothy received instruction on the qualification of overseers (1 Timothy 3:1–7) and instructions for removing unqualified elders (5:17–23).

Even before Paul wrote his Pastoral Epistles, he had called churches to care for those who taught them (Galatians 6:6–9) and to honor those who led them (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13). Similarly, James, Peter, John, and the author of Hebrews all spoke in various ways about the office of the overseer/elder/pastor (see James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1–4; 2 John 1; 3 John 1; Hebrews 13:7, 17). In short, the New Testament says a great deal about this important role, and it does so because the health of the church depends on those who lead them with God’s Word.

Yet, for all that it says about the office, we should ask another important question: Where do elders come from? Thankfully, the New Testament is not silent on this question. Just as it describes how to recognize an elder, it also describes where they come from. And faithful churches (and the elders who lead them), will be aware of how God raises up elders.

Where Do Elders Come From?

Continue reading

If Dietrich Bonhoeffer Were Your ‘Doktorvater,’ or, Seven Qualifications for Ministerial Students

seminaryIn doctoral studies doktorvater is a term for the direct supervisor who oversees your research and writing. It is not surprising that aspiring seminarians seek out a program based on the possibility of working under such a supervisor. For historically, it has often been the case that rising disciples take on the theology and ecclesial habits of their doktorvater.

Sadly, in seminary life there are many students who go through their studies without such a ‘father in the faith.’ Paul House has written about this trend in contemporary theological education, and his book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer is aimed at correcting it. I am sympathetic to his argument, as my forthcoming book review at TGC will show. In what follows I want to consider once slice of what seminary training with Bonhoeffer might have looked like.

Seven Requisite Qualities for Studying Under Dietrich Bonhoeffer

For now, I am especially intrigued by the program of study instituted by Bonhoeffer. What would it have been like to have Dietrich Bonhoeffer as your doktorvater? Based on Paul House’s book, Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision (44–45), here are seven things it might have entailed and what Bonhoeffer would have expected.

  1. Submissive to the Word. “Candidates would be committed persons, individuals who knew that their calling ‘demands the entire person. It demands a life under the word of God. Everyday must stand under the discipline of the word.'”
  2. Self-disciplined. Candidates must “foster daily habits of Bible reading, meditation, and holy living.”
  3. Willingly submissive to church authority. Candidates must “pledge themselves to brotherhood with one another and obedience to the church authorities.”
  4. Loyal Allegiance to Christ over Country. “As a citizen [in Nazi Germany], a candidate would ‘serve the truth alone and understand himself to be accountable only to the word of God.'”
  5. A Diligent Student of the Word. “‘The candidate should make it his duty to read a section of the New Testament and the Old Testament daily in the original language. The expectation is that by so doing, he will come to know the entire New Testament and important parts of the Old Testament in the original text and will have worked through several texts with scholarly aids (concordance, dictionaries, commentaries).” [emphasis mine]
  6. An Apt Theologian. “A candidate was to have ‘thorough acquaintance with the confessional writings of his church and be completely accountable with regard to them.” Additionally, “since the church [i.e., the German United Church] had both Lutheran and Reformed congregations, the directors wanted pastoral candidates to be familiar with both confessional traditions.”
  7. Pastorally-Discipled. “Each candidate was to have spent some time as an apprentice with a fellow pastor who prayed with him and guided his work.”

All in all, the men whom Bonhoeffer sought to train were those who gave themselves to the Word and gladly submitted themselves to Christ, his church, and the pastors of those flocks. Moreover, in the face of Hitler’s reign in Germany, Bonhoeffer was looking for those men who would stand against the grain of national opinion. To be a servant in Christ’s church, Bonhoeffer believed one had to be an apt theologian, student of the word, and disciple of the church, while at the same time not seeking a position among the world.

For Contemporary Application

In historical context, the training Bonhoeffer offered only lasted a few years. Beginning in 1935, the Third Reich shut down his school in 1940. Because many of his pupils would be drafted into Germany’s army, most of them never reached the fields of pastoral service. Nevertheless, his labors were not in vain. His two most influential books, Life Together and The Cost of Discipleshipwere born in these seminary years and addressed to men in seminary contexts.

One can hope that in the days ahead, as theological education becomes more imperiled and the costs of pastoral ministry increase, more pastor-theologians will see the need for such educations models. Already, this trend is beginning in schools like Bethlehem Seminary and Beeson Divinity School. Without denigrating larger schools (of which I owe my whole theological training), it is my hope that schools—large and small—will take serious the call to develop godly servant leaders, not just enlist large numbers of graduates.

Scripture reminds us that the qualifications for pastoral ministry are high (1 Tim 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9), which means that the standards and structures for theological education should be equally high. Though this kind of standard may shrink enrollment, it may in the end raise up a stronger band of brothers. This, House argues, was Bonhoeffer’s vision for training gospel ministers, and it is one that we should seriously consider as we plan and pray to train the next generation.

May God be pleased to raise up a generation of stalwart biblical stewards. And may he at the same time, raise up local, pastor-led, church-centered theological schools to do such training.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Continue reading

Establish Elders for the Sake of Evangelism


evangelistThe saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

— 1 Timothy 3:1–7 —

I’ve gotten out of the habit of curating and quoting other blogs recently. But as our church continues to look at Titus 1 and the role of elders in the church, I find David Murray’s post on 1 Timothy 3:1–7 extremely enlightening—especially, his final point.

In numerical fashion, Murray lists ten realities about elders from 1 Timothy 3:1–7.

  1. The vital importance of these verses: This saying is trustworthy
  2. The huge responsibility in these verses: the position of an overseer
  3. The powerful and pure desire in these verses: If anyone aspires to the office…
  4. The worthy work in these verses: a noble task
  5. The uncompromising imperative in these verses: the elder must be
  6. The beautiful self-control in these verses: blameless
  7. The useful service in these verses: hospitable, able to teach
  8. The testing ground in these verses: manage his own household well
  9. The fearful danger in these verses: not a recent convert
  10. The evangelistic impact of these verses: well-thought of by outsiders

In his blog post, he explains each of these. They parallel a number of the points I made in yesterday’s sermon on Titus 1:5–9. However, it’s the last point that he makes that deserves our consideration. As to the evangelistic impact of elders, Murray writes,

Who we elect to office communicates so much to the world about what the church and the Gospel is all about, that it should be considered a major part of our evangelistic message to the world. The list of elders’ qualifications have two similar bookends: “above reproach” and “well-thought of by outsiders” underlining that electing elders is an evangelistic act.

“Electing elders is an evangelistic act.” I couldn’t agree more, and I think it is an under-appreciated truth.

The Vital Role of Elders in Evangelism, Church Growth, and Church Health

To many, church leadership structures are a secondary or tertiary matter. In recent days, I’ve had more than a few comments downplaying the importance of leadership structures.

Especially when a church is struggling or filled with strife, it is easy to think that revival or changed hearts is needed. There is no denying the need for repentance and reconciliation. But to dismiss the role elders (or the lack thereof) plays in church health misses much of what the Pastoral Epistles teach.

Church health—and by health I mean ability to protect, proclaim, and display the gospel—is necessarily retained and promoted by true elders. And when the structure of elders is missing or leaders in the church are less than what 1 Timothy 3 describes, it should not come as a surprise that evangelism, church growth, and church health are all in decline.

May God be pleased to raise up godly elders in your church and mine—not just for the sake of church leadership, but as David Murray reminds us, for the sake of evangelism too.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds