Gerry Breshears, Ph.D.

Some Basic Questions Relating to the Office of Elder

To define elder properly, one must begin with several basic questions: What is an office? What is a ministry? What is unique to the office of elder? What authority resides in the office of elder? How does the authority in the office of elder relate to a pattern of congregational authority?

First, we must define office, especially as distinct from ministry. It is a position of responsibility and authority, a trust or duty assigned by the church to a person to be performed for the common good.1 It has a permanence which extends beyond the tenure of the person holding the office. Because of holding an office, a person has the responsibility and the authority to carry out the specific stewardship associated with that office. An example is a police officer. The office carries the responsibility, authority and trust to guard and protect the citizens of the society. The officer has a badge to signify the office and a gun to enforce it.

Organization Charts in Modern Churches

Modern churches have many offices in their organization charts. In addition to the biblical offices of elder and deacon, we routinely appoint people to such offices as Sunday school superintendent, treasurer, worship leader, music director, head usher or administrative assistant. All these offices come with responsibility and authority, duties and stewardship to which the congregation selects and appoints people and charges them to carry out the responsibilities of the office. While the biblical offices of elder and deacon will be present in all churches, these extra-biblical offices may or may not be present in any specific church. The silence of the Bible in such areas gives freedom to develop the organization of the church in ways which meet the needs of the church within the limits of the biblically mandated nature and purpose of the church.

On Defining Ministry

In contrast, a ministry is any function carried out by any believer which aids the church in meeting its goals or fulfilling its purpose. Some ministries focus on fulfilling tasks while others enhance the group’s interpersonal relationships, enabling it to function as an effective social unit.2 Ministries flow directly from gifts given by the Spirit to equip the church to carry out its commission. Every believer in the congregation is gifted for ministry in Jesus’ name. Examples of ministries include visiting the elderly, teaching Sunday school, witnessing, or discipling a new believer.

Democracy at Work in Churches

Baptists are congregationalists, a spiritual democracy at work.3 The congregation is directly accountable to the ultimate authority in the church, the Lord Jesus Christ and His Word. Since every church is endowed with the gifts of the Spirit necessary for its life and ministry, the authority for that church is placed in the membership itself, functioning as believer-priests before God. Authority is not resident in members as individuals, but in the body as a whole. No person or small group of persons in the church, nor any external body can impose decisions upon the congregation. Every person, both male and female, votes to elect leadership, to determine the manner of worship, to adopt programs for ministry, to enter into association with other churches of like faith and practice for carrying out God’s mission to the whole earth.

The congregation, following practices described in the Bible, assigns responsibilities to officers of the church. Following the pattern of Acts 6, the congregation selects people for these offices, and holds them accountable for the responsibilities of the office. As they serve well and maintain the spiritual qualifications for the office, they are affirmed in the office. Leaders of the church have no more ecclesiastical authority than any other member. Their basic role is to lead the church in wise decision making.

Overseeing Role

Our fourth issue, the definition of elder, is the most critical for the purpose of this study. The Bible describes the office of elder or overseer4 as the highest office in a local church, charged with the responsibility of oversight of the doctrinal soundness and spiritual health of the church. The duties of elders revolve around two major areas of responsibility: pastoral care, including equipping for ministry and oversight of the services of the church, and guiding and guarding the teaching of the church.5

First, elders exercise pastoral care by keeping watch over the souls entrusted to them, giving account to God for the spiritual health of the congregation (Heb. 13:17). They manage the church by taking care of the people (1 Tim. 3:5). They tend, shepherd, or feed the flock (Acts 20:28), not by lording it over them, but by being examples to them (1 Pet. 5:1-3). They help the weak (Acts 20:35).

Their second area of responsibility includes guiding the teaching of the church, guarding it against error and false teaching. Paul told Titus an elder must “hold fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Tit. 1:9). Elders who guide well, will guard well. Proper guidance will give foundation for recognizing error. Guarding moves the people from error toward truth.

Administrative Supervisory Functions

Elders exercise administrative oversight (proistemi, literally stand before) the church. This oversight emphasizes their role in preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 5:17).6 They labor diligently among the members of the congregation, having charge over them and giving them instruction (1 Thess. 5:12). The congregation is to appreciate (1 Thess. 5:12), honor (1 Tim. 5:17) and obey and submit to (Heb. 13:17) elders who serve well. Part of the elders’ responsibility is passing on the teaching to other men able to be elders (1 Tim. 4:14) and other faithful ones who are able to instruct others (2 Tim. 2:2).7 This task of instruction requires that the elder faithfully pass on the teaching received from the apostles who received their teaching from the Lord. They do not pass on the teaching word for word, but interpret and apply it (cf. 2 Tim. 1:13-14), keeping it safe from distortion and corruption at the hands of others.

In the Ephesians elders’ retreat, Paul focused on the guarding responsibility of elders: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He has purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). He warned the elders against the savage wolves who will teach perverse things, trying to draw the people away from the truth. This picture reminds us of the Good Shepherd who has given His all for the sheep (John 10).

Some Unique Functions of the Office of Elder – Difference Between Office and Ministry

It is our contention that what is unique to the office of elder is not so much the ministry roles they fulfill, but the responsibility and authority for overseeing the ministry in the church. It is the elders who have final responsibility for testing the teaching of the church against the deposit received from the apostles. They have the responsibility to see that the congregation is being cared for. While they perform many of the ministry roles associated with the care and instruction of the people, those roles are not unique to the elders. Elders are to equip the congregation, but all members of the body are to use their gift to build up the body (Eph. 4:12-16). Elders are to care for the church, but everyone is to care for one another (1 Cor. 12:25). Elders have the responsibility to see that all persons properly use their gifts in ministry.

The Second London Confession (1677) expresses this distinction in relation to preaching:

Although it be incumbent on the Bishops or Pastors of the Churches to be instant in Preaching the Word, by way of Office; yet the work of Preaching the Word, is not so peculiarly confined to them; but that others also gifted, and fitted by the Holy Spirit for it, and approved, and called by the Church, may and ought to perform it (XXVI, Section 11).

The difference between office and ministry is clear in this foundational document of the Baptists.

Teaching Is Not Limited to Edlers

Teaching is a particularly significant example where a ministry central to eldership is not limited to elders. Elders must be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2) and labor diligently in preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 5:14). In this regard Paul urges Timothy as an elder to teach diligently (cf. 1 Tim. 4:11, 13; 5:7; 6:2, etc.) However, teaching is a gift given without any link to the office of elder or to gender (Rom. 12:7; 1 Cor. 12:28). Many others along with Paul taught the Word of the Lord in Antioch (Acts 15:35). Priscilla and Aquilla instructed Apollos (Acts 18:26). The contribution to the church meetings, which include psalms, teachings, revelations, tongues and interpretations, cannot be limited to elders (1 Cor. 14:26). People in general who are filled with the Spirit, in whom the Word of Christ dwells richly, teach and admonish one another (Col. 3:16; cf. Eph. 5:18-19). Older women show younger women how to live as Christians in their homes (Titus 2:4-5).

Anyone who attempts to limit teaching to elders8 will stumble on these sorts of passages. Teaching is not so limited. What is limited is the official responsibility and authority to ensure that the teaching that is done is in accord with the teaching received from the apostles, the deposit which comes to us in Scripture. The elders carry the overwhelming burden of responsibility for the correctness of the analysis of a scriptural passage, the principles derived, the applications made, the judgments made in the assembly. They also carry the authority necessary to carry out that responsibility including the authority to appoint or admonish, to encourage or silence.

Application for Today

How does this apply today? In considering the question of women’s roles in ministry we9 have come to the conclusion that the church ought encourage women to participate fully in any ministry open to any other non-elder for which they have the requisite gifting and qualifications. The one office which is not open to women nor to most men is the office of elder.

We do not see any specific ministry role limited to elders. It is in this context that we believe that ministry is not gender specific while the office of elder is. We do not see that any gift or any specific ministry would be closed to a woman on the basis of her gender alone.

However, wisdom suggests that some ministry roles in the church ought be regularly filled by elders. For example, we believe that the central teaching position should be regularly held by elders since that aspect is so central to the office of elder. Thus the pulpit ministry should be carried out by elders on a normal basis though this would not rule out occasional sermons by non-elders. Wherever non-elders carry out this key teaching role, it would be done under the close guidance of the elders.

The responsibility and authority for the care of the congregation and the guarding of the teaching of the church is unique to elders. Defining the office by certain functions distracts from the genius of the office and distorts the issue. Defining it in terms of the responsibility and authority connected with it will clarify not only what an elder is, but who can occupy the office. Distinguishing between office and ministry will guard the one while keeping the other open. With wise application of this principle, we will be faithful to the patterns of the New Testament. We can maintain the biblical limitation of elder to qualified men while following the openness to ministry to gifted persons, whatever their gender.

Please click here to read the article in Printer-Friendly version.

Gerry Breshears, Ph.D.
Division of Biblical and Theological Studies
Western Seminary
5511 SE Hawthorne Blvd.
Portland, Oregon 97215 USA

No Comment

Comments are closed.