As Foothills Fellowship embarks on voting to approve an amended constitution that calls for a Christ-ruled, elder-led church, I want to share some excerpts from an article entitled “A Proposal for Elder-led Church Government” by Dr. Bob Whitney, a seasoned pastor and Director of Ministry Support-Training for Slavic Gospel Association. Here’s what he writes:
“Everything rises and falls on leadership.” After 20 years in pastoral ministry I can look back at the three local churches where I served and see the truthfulness of this statement. The health, strength, and effectiveness of the church is directly related to the quality and function of its leadership.
The Bible recognizes and regulates the need for leadership and authority in society, in the home and in the church. It speaks to the issue of church government. The controversy, however, has always been over exactly whom did God intend to have the authority to lead the church. There have been several answers given, even by those of us who believe in the autonomy of the local church. Some have said the authority rests in a singular local church pastor. Others say the church is properly led by a plurality of godly pastors or elders. Still others say the authority of the church is in its membership. Who is right?
Who should make the important decisions in the life of the church; the pastor, an elder team or the congregation? I believe the biblical evidence points clearly to a team of elders as responsible for leading the church. Let’s discuss this under two headings. First, Biblical Principles, where we will briefly examine four clear guidelines for structuring a biblical form of elder church government. Second, Practical Considerations, where we will answer six questions on the details of how these guidelines work themselves out in the life of the church.
1. Elders are responsible for the oversight of the church.
There are three terms for church leaders that are used interchangeably in the New Testament. The word elder (presbuteros) is the most common biblical term used of church leaders. The word overseer or bishop (episkopos) is also used for the same office. The third word is pastor or shepherd (poimen). While pastor is the most common term used today for church leaders, it is the least used in the Bible. All three terms are used to speak of the same office. Elder emphasizes the man’s mature character, overseer emphasizes his function and pastor emphasizes his caring spirit. In I Peter 5:1-3, Peter exhorts the elders (verse 1) to shepherd (verse 2) the flock of God among you, exercising oversight (verse 2). When we examine the use of these three terms in the Bible a clear picture emmerges of the leadership and authority of elders in the church.
2. There should be a team of elders leading every church.
As Luke records the history of Paul’s church planting ministry, he carefully recounts how from the beginning these men where deeply concerned with the appointment of elders (plural) in every church. Acts 14:23 is part of a short summary statement of the things that mattered to Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” Their ministry of planting and strengthening churches was not complete without the appointment of elders within each local church. Notice the plurality of elders while the sphere of their leadership is a singular local church.
There are six other New Testament passages where this pattern is clear, and there are an additional eight passages that refer to the office of elders in the plural form. There are only three passages where the terms for the office of elder appear in the singular form. Two of these passages refer to the examination of individual elders as to their qualifications for the office and the third is how to handle an accusation made against an elder, There is nothing in these verses that contradicts the overwhelming evidence from Scripture that the church is to be led by a plurality of godly elders.
3. Elders must be spiritually qualified.
Paul lists at great length the qualifications for elders to serve in the church. There are two significant lists of character traits needed for a man to serve as an elder. They are found in I Timothy 3:1-7 and in Titus 1:5-9. These standards are essential considerations in selecting elders. The New Testament gives more instruction on qualifications of elders than on any other aspect of church government.
Alexander Strauch says, “Proper qualification is a scriptural imperative, objective requirement, moral obligation, indispensable standard, and absolute necessity for those who would serve as leaders in the church” (p. 76, Biblical Eldership).
Wayne Grudem writes, “Those who are choosing elders in churches today would do well to look carefully at candidates in the light of these qualifications, and to look for those character traits and patterns of godly living rather than worldly achievement, fame, or success. Especially in churches in western industrial societies, there seems to be a tendency to think that success in the world of business (or law, or medicine, or government) is an indication of suitability for the office of elder, but this is not the teaching of the New Testament” (p. 916, Systematic Theology).
4. The congregation should submit to the elder team.
It is assumed that church members will read all the Bible passages that clearly give the responsibility for the oversight of the church to the elders. It will be their deepest desire to please Christ and obey his Word. But submitting is not always easy for us. Therefore there is a direct word to church congregations in Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.”
In another passage Paul speaks of the love and respect that should be in the church for the ones given oversight responsibility: “But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another” (I Thessalonians 5:12,13).
The Bible is clear that the church of Christ is to be led by an official oversight body made up of godly men called elders who meet the strict standards of Scripture and lovingly shepherd the flock. I realize these four principles or guidelines raise a lot of questions. There are many decisions to be made by each local church about how to apply these principles in the government of the church. But there is great reward for the hard work of structuring a church according to biblical standards. Let me move into the realm of practical considerations. I share these ideas as one possible way to apply the scripture we examined together. I personally experienced how this can work successfully in the life of the church. I have served on two elder teams. In one church as an associate pastor for five years in another church as a senior pastor for 13 years. Here are the questions and answers with which we wrestled. I will answer each question with the example of how we applied the principles to our local church.
1. How are elders chosen?
Each year we asked the congregation to give names to the elder team of those individuals they felt met the qualifications for elders and to the best of their understanding had a desire to serve. This was always a useful exercise. As shepherds of the flock with responsibility for the care of souls (Hebrews 13:17) we had a pretty good understanding of who was ready to serve in this capacity. Yet depending on the size of the church there would be other names given which we did not know as well.
There would be an elder application and interview process for each candidate with the existing elder team. Think of the steps most churches go through when they hire a pastor, for that is exactly what is taking place although the elder may not be paid staff.
After the initial examination process a list of any new elders was posted for the church to review and evaluate. Although the elders took the lead in evaluating an aspiring elder’s qualifications, opportunity was given for the congregation to express any questions or doubts about a candidate. The input from the church was very important. Each elder was available for discussion and a visit by anyone who had a concern to share. After a period of time and answering of questions a final list was posted for the annual meeting and affirmation by the church membership.
Congregational meetings are generally not the time and place to work through issues. Elders should always be approachable and seek out input from the congregation prior to such meetings. This gives careful thought, prayer and personal attention to the issues. This also eliminates most misunderstandings and provides for open communication between the leaders and the congregation. All the work of communicating, explaining, and answering of questions should be done well in advance so that the congregational meeting is a time of affirmation and a celebration of the spirit of unity in the church.
2. Should elders have terms?
Once an elder is affirmed by the congregation and set apart for this task he continues in his work as long as he desires the work and meets the qualifications.
3. What if the elders can’t agree?
Elder teams should strive for unanimity. If there are several elders who have concerns, about moving forward on something, this is a signal to slow down and give more prayer and thought to the decision. Even if there is only one elder who has concerns, we slow down the process to give more prayer and thought to the issue involved. If after a prolonged time and several meetings there is still only one person opposed then he will typically defer to the unanimity of his fellow elders. Remember there is no room for personal agendas. The goal is to discern the will of Christ for His church.
4. To whom are the elders accountable?
Each year all of our elders went through a personal evaluation as well as an affirmation from the other elders. And every year at the annual meeting, all the elders (not just new elders) were presented to the church for affirmation for another year of service. The congregation affirmed the whole team, not individuals. Each church member knew that they were free to express concern or raise questions about any individual prior to the meeting. This open communication is much better than the typical secret ballot which promotes a lack of communication over congregational concerns. It is an important role of each elder to be humble and approachable with the congregation and their concerns. While each elder is ultimately accountable to God (Hebrews 13:17) there are also three other levels of accountability: personal, fellow elders, and congregation.
5. What does the congregation decide?
There was one regular scheduled congregational meeting each year. We asked the congregation to affirm two things; the annual budget and all the spiritual leaders for the coming year. Both the budget and list of leaders was given to the church well in advance and opportunities were provided to ask questions and share concerns prior to the congregational meeting. Sometimes small group meetings with the elders were available for anyone who wanted to come with a question. The annual meeting was like a wedding ceremony. All the work was done prior to the event – the counseling, the prayer and the discussions. The meeting, like a wedding, should be an opportunity to celebrate what has already been decided – in this case, by the elders and the church family.
6. Do elders and pastors have equal authority?
The pastor was one of the elders and therefore part of the team. He had no more authority than other team members. However, as John MacArthur writes, “That does not eliminate the unique role of a special leader. Within the framework of elders’ ministries there will be great diversity as each exercises his unique gifts. Some will demonstrate special giftedness in the areas of administration or service; others will evidence stronger gifts of teaching, exhortation, or other abilities. Some will be highly visible; others will function in the background. All are within the plan of God for the church.” (p. 27, Answering the Key Questions About Elders)