Developing Elders in the Church

Posted On July 23, 2020

Suppose you were called to pastor a church where none of the elders were biblically qualified, though they had been serving in their “positions of authority” for decades? Or what if you are serving at a church that had learned a bit about the Bible’s teaching on eldership, yet they simply renamed the board of deacons to elders, changing the name, but not the function? Whether you personally have experienced eldership done poorly, or you shepherd those who have suffered under unbiblical leadership, the sheep will either be helped or hindered in direct proportion to our affirmation and practice of biblical eldership. They will be stimulated toward holiness under shepherd-elders, or they will be hurt under the tyranny of unqualified leadership. To the extent that we follow exactly the blueprint of the Scriptural mandate, and example will be the extent of the church’s health.

Said differently, how much are you willing to wiggle from God’s Word?[1] It is not only the final authority for faith and practice, it is the only revelation of what constitutes God’s work. Brothers, do we indeed tremble at God’s Word, as the prophet Isaiah exhorts us, with the sincere desire that God would look to humble under-shepherds who seek to build His work according to His instructions alone, rather than exercising a rogue spirit of our own entrepreneurial genius (Isa 66:2)? Do we maintain the conviction that God’s work done God’s way will never lack God’s blessing, even though it may mean disfavor with His people and their tradition of how they’ve always done ministry?

One step removed from the revelation of Scripture—God’s self-disclosure of what His church is and how it is to function—where we are not diligent in bringing the church into conformity to the inspired, inerrant, authoritative, and sufficient Word, places us on a theological banana peel where the footing of the church goes out from under us. Though God has left some room for each local church to decide how best to apply the clear teachings of Scripture in areas of corporate worship and fulfilling our ministry, the clear and established qualifications of elders do not fall into that category. There are not exact and detailed commands that drive certain ministry practices, thus allowing for differing philosophies of ministry. But when it comes to the leadership structure of the church of Jesus Christ, He has been much more direct, making our attention to the details an essential duty, rather than an optional nicety.

In line with the Reformation conviction of Sola Scriptura, let’s concern ourselves only with God’s leadership manual for church practice, which undoubtedly leads to our good and God’s glory! Survey the New Testament; the Church’s risen and returning Lord, its Head, accomplished redemption’s plan in His life, death, and resurrection. And having preached the Gospel of the Kingdom, He gathered to Himself the apostles who would carry on His work in preaching the Gospel, so that the Church was born in Acts 2. Whereas the Gospels present the life and ministry of Jesus and His call of the Master’s men, Acts is Dr. Luke’s presentation of the continuation of Christ’s ministry through the apostles. In Acts chapters 1–11, we have the only commissioned leadership that Jesus Himself established in the flesh. But by the time we arrive at Acts 11:30, we have the first mention of church elders.

From Acts chapters 12-20, we follow Luke’s accounting of Gospel and church work done by both the foundation layers—the apostles, along with the elders—as they are established in the local church. Acts Chapter 20 is Paul’s famous farewell to the Ephesian elders, where in v. 32, the mantle of ministry is passed to the elders. As we continue studying, from Acts chapters 21–28, we see elders only, where they emerge as church leaders, in contrast to the unique ministry of the apostles, who have now passed off the scene. No more is the church to see apostles, who led with the power Jesus gave, of signs and wonders to validate their credentials (2 Cor 12:12). Now the modus operandi for the church would be the faith and obedience model, following the ministry of the Word that has been established. Now, as the Word of God is preached, we follow these shepherds’ instructions, along with their example of what those truths look like with flesh on.

Elders are given the primary task of shepherding and leading (Heb 13:17; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:2), and teaching (1 Tim 3:2; [4:6]; Titus 1:9) the flock. It’s a role that bears great responsibility (Heb 13:17; Jas 3:1), privileges (1 Tim 3:1; 5:17–18), and influence (Hosea 4:7–9; Lk 6:40), and thus elders are to be chosen with the greatest of care. God’s plan for leading His church is that of a plurality of biblically qualified shepherd-elders for each local church (Titus 1:9; 1 Pet 5; 1 Tim 3). That’s why Titus was commanded to appoint elders in every city on Crete (Titus 1:5). They are those who diligently handle the Word in public proclamation and individual soul care (2 Tim 2:15; 4:1ff) as they love, shepherd, and protect (1 Pet 5:1; Heb 13:17; Ezek 34), along with setting an example for others to follow them as they follow Christ (1 Tim 4:12; 2 Tim 3:10; 2 Thess 3:9; Heb 13:7). However, they can’t take others past their own personal growth, and that’s where the real significance for character qualifications come out.

The sheep are to look to shepherds, and as their lives lead to Christlikeness, so they follow (Heb 13:7). Each of the men who are called by God to eldership and affirmed by their congregation are to be men whose character is a model of Christian virtue, an example of Christlikeness. When elders are officially recognized and placed in this leadership office, they yield great influence over others. Therefore their spiritual character is the first and most important attribute to be considered, above any popularity, availability, or charismatic personality.

These character qualities are clearly laid out in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:5–9. Remember, these are the pastoral epistles, God’s instructions on how the church operates (2 Tim 3:14–15), and God’s requirements for His under-shepherds that stand in His stead to lead His people in greater resemblance to His own beloved Son.

And though these are God’s words on His work done by His men, these qualities many times are not studied well, clearly understood, nor especially unequivocally enforced. Instead, leadership in typical churches becomes a matter of popularity, power, or church policy rather than what God has dictated. Can I just remind us that it’s better to desire what we don’t have (as we petition the Lord to call, gift, and employ godly elders in service and wait on Him to shepherd us in the long process, moving slowly) than to have what we don’t want (men unqualified in any respect).

This counsel of elders is to be a model of men who are:[2]

Above reproach—that is, unable to be charged with sinful behavior that would impede his integrity and credibility in teaching, being an example to follow, or allowing the name of Christ to be maligned. This applies to his conduct and reputation both inside and outside the church (1 Tim 3:7). It is not that there will not be accusations in life, as any frontrunner who is blazing a trail of godliness in an ungodly world will face opposition and threats, but it’s that the accusations cannot be valid or stick to him. Just like that can of Pam in your baking cabinet that you spray on the pan so that the goodies won’t stick, so the men of God live sincere and credible lives of integrity such that false accusations won’t stick, as they are inconsistent with the manifest character of the man. Again, this overarching trait does not speak of sinless perfection but of a life growing in Christlikeness, exuding Christian virtue. This one overarching qualification is then fleshed out by the other qualifiers of what this unquestionable and irreproachable character looks like.[3]

Marital fidelity—literally a “one-woman man,” a phrase best understood to mean one who is totally dedicated to his wife in his heart and in his actions. A shepherd-leader is to be an example of those who love, desire, and think only of his wife. He’s not a womanizer. Thus, even if a single man, he is a man of moral purity with no hint of impropriety.[4]

Self-controlled—controls his emotions, behavior, and life. This means that he is not quick-tempered and/or pugnacious, and he does not indulge in excesses of Christian liberty (1 Cor 8:1–3; Rom 14). He is not self-indulgent, but well-balanced, calm, and careful, with no excesses in life that diminish clear thinking and sound judgment.

Respectable—this applies to his life in regard to both those inside and outside the church. His character reflects a maturity and sobriety that adorns the doctrine of Christ.

Hospitable—his home must be one that is open to others. As he shows kindness to strangers, he is generous and caring toward others, using what God has given him to serve them. This also speaks of one who is friendly and approachable.

Gentle—he has a meekness of character, displayed in a pattern of humility, compassion for others, and an appropriate softness in dealing with people. This speaks of one who is not easily offended, is patient, and is concerned to bring others along in spiritual maturity.

Not covetous—one who is content with God’s provisions in his life (Phil 4:11–13); he is not envious, does not show partiality (Jas 2:1–6), and does not seek his own gain (Matt 6:19–34; 1 Tim 6:6–10).

Good leader at home—one who manages his own household and has children who “believe” (cf. Titus 1:6). This is best understood as being not in open rebellion, but respectful and under control. The implication is one whose home displays a pattern of orderliness and not chaos; displays a model of biblical roles—of submission—within the marital and parental relations.

Spiritually mature—not a new convert (1 Tim 3:6), but one who has enough experience in the faith to show faithfulness and perseverance through testing. This also implies that he has attained a certain degree of Bible knowledge and understanding so that he can instruct others.

Able to teach—this simply means that he has biblical/theological knowledge to such a degree that he is able to instruct others, manifesting a Spirit-enabled ability to communicate and defend doctrine (Titus 1:9). This is a skill in communicating God’s Word, as well as integrity to teach carefully what Scripture says. This is the primary quality that differentiates elders from deacons. Though both groups may be involved in teaching to some degree, elders must have cultivated an aptitude toward handling God’s Word. During the public examination, he demonstrates this aptitude in answering questions on biblical, systematic, and practical theology. Thus, the congregation gladly affirms and comes under the leadership of such a one who can shepherd them in the truth.

These biblical qualifications are Jesus’s own non-negotiable requirements for all who would lead His church as under-shepherds. Brother-elders, let us function faithfully for our Lord, along with the character to back it up, that we might be mighty tools in the Master’s hands. As feeble, but faithful ministers, let’s be diligent in taking heed to our lives before the flock.

And flock, these character traits must be met specifically by those in office as elders, but they should equally be sought and implemented into the lives of all who claim to be servants of the Lord. It is not a higher standard for leaders, simply a higher accountability by virtue of the visible position in the fishbowl of ministry. And as you see these character traits exemplified in men, consider speaking with your elders about them being considered for eldership, as they study, are examined, and then affirmed.[5] Let’s continue to pray for God to raise up godly servant-leaders to feed and protect the flock, for His eternal praise and glory! Study with, examine, affirm, and then support the elders’ God raises up. May we esteem them very highly for their work’s sake.

Are you looking for further resources to enlarge your understanding and implementation of biblical eldership? Though we may not agree with each point and cross our theological “t’s” in the same manner, the following is a helpful list for your Amazon Wish List:

  • Biblical Eldership-Alexander Strauch
  • Shepherding God’s Flock-Jay Adams
  • The Titus Mandate-Ted Bigelow
  • Pastoral Ministry-John MacArthur
  • The Master’s Plan for the Church-John MacArthur
  • Answering the Key Questions About Elders-John MacArthur (helpful little booklet to keep on the resource table or Book Nook in your church Foyer)

[1] I recall that one of the many resources admonishing me to be Bible-driven in ministry belief and practice was George Zemek’s Doing God’s Business God’s Way (Wipf & Stock, 2004). It was written on the basic premise that if we really affirm the doctrine of total depravity, then we’ll be convinced that man’s substitute is severely lacking, though God’s Word and His Spirit are the two offensive weapons capable of subduing rebellious man and then building them up for His glory.

[2] For more instruction on the qualifications for spiritual leadership, consider John MacArthur’s The Master’s Plan for the Church (Moody Publishers, 2008), especially Appendix 3, pp 243–264.

[3] Homer Kent calls this the “general qualification” followed by the moral and mental qualifications. The Pastoral Epistles, 121ff.

[4] I recognize that there may be a difference of interpretation among our fellowship, as I’d recently reconnected with an older VOICE article that would not take this view. There’s also a helpful exegetical paper by Michael Canham that would prefer my espoused view about this much-debated verse.

[5] There are documents on this subject that spell out the process at www.biblicalexpositor.org under “eldership.” Man doesn’t make elders, God does. Yes, man does make elders but they tend to be a poor substitute for the men God calls and gifts and congregations affirm. Part of the pastoral duty in his leadership development is to come alongside these dear brothers to study and fan the flame of their understanding and their godly practice. There are other helpful resources here, such as our outline for the ongoing study for eldership, qualifications for servant-leaders in the church, and a lay-level writeup on biblical eldership. There’s also a paper on walking through whether we ordain all elders or affirm.

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