What's an elder?
Updated: Apr 1, 2022
Brothers and Sisters,
In anticipation of our upcoming officer nominations, I’m dedicating a string of letters to the basics of presbyterianism. Last week, I wrote about the truth, goodness, and beauty of our polity. Today, I’ll briefly share about the office of elder. Next week, we’ll consider deacons.
What’s an elder?
“Elder” translates the Greek word presbyteros (hence, “presbyterian”), but the office itself is also referred to by the word episkopos (“overseer”). In the New Testament churches, elders were appointed (Acts 14:23) to oversee and shepherd the flock of God (1 Pet 5:2).
On the basis of 1 Tim 5:17, we can make a distinction between two kinds of elders: those who “rule well” and those who, in addition to ruling well, “labor in preaching and teaching.” The former are called “ruling elders” and the latter are called “teaching elders.”
Nobody said we were all that clever…
Rick Allen, Richard Jennings, and I are teaching elders (TEs). Bob Allen, Jim Callicott, and Al Williams are ruling elders (REs). We also have a handful of men who’ve been ordained as REs in our congregation but are not actively serving right now.
Together, the elders serve on what’s called a “session.” From the Latin word sessio “seated,” this is just a fancy way of say we sit in a position of authority over the church yet under Christ.
Note: Because Richard is an assistant pastor (as opposed to an associate like Rick) he does not technically sit on the session or vote on matters of church oversight. Still, he attends our meetings and offers invaluable wisdom and insight. When Richard speaks, we listen.
What do elders do?
A quick jaunt through the New Testament reveals several of the key duties or functions of an elder in the church:
Shepherd the Flock of God (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:2)
Rule/Exercise Oversight (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim 5:17; 1 Pet 5:2)
Teach/Guard Doctrinal Purity (Eph 4:11; 1 Tim 3:2; 5:17; 1 Tim 4:16; 2 Tim 2:24)
Participate in the Courts of the Church (Acts 15)
Visit and Pray for the Sick (Jas 5:14)
Administer Church Discipline (Matt 16:19; 18:15-20)
Participate in the Calling, Examination, and Ordination of Officers (Acts 6; 1 Tim 4:14)
Practice Hospitality (Ti 1:8)
For all this and more, see Chapter 8 of our denomination’s Book of Church Order.
Who can be an elder?
The two classic texts that spell out qualifications for the office of elder are 1 Tim 3:1-7 and Ti 1:5-9). The list is long and weighty, indicating the gravity that attends the office. By God’s grace, elders can provide an incredible service to Christ’s flock. Sadly, many inflict great harm. This long list admonishes us not to be “hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Tim 5:22).
Desirous of the Office
Holy, Upright, Beyond Reproach
Male, the Husband of One Wife (cf. 1 Tim 2:12)
Lover of Good
Devoted to the Word
Able to Teach Sound Doctrine and Rebuke Those Who Refute It
Not a Drunkard
Gentle, Not Violent
Not a Lover of Money
Competent Manager of His Own Home and Family
Seasoned in the Faith
Well Thought of by Outsiders
It’s important to note that the vast majority of these qualifications apply to every believer. To say a man is qualified to serve as elder doesn’t mean they occupy a higher plane of spiritual existence; it means they embody the characteristics of a mature, godly believer in such a way as to be able to train others—in both word and deed—in the way they should go.
Another important note: only two of the qualifications have to do with competence (teaching and management). The focus is very much on character. The God who looks upon the heart is more interested in placing godly shepherds over His flock than the worldly wise.
What kind of authority does an elder have?
As I mentioned above, elders have the power to serve God’s people in wonderful ways. But they can also impede their walk with the Lord and sour them on the church. Tragically, we need not look too far to find stories of spiritual abuse at the hands of faithless elders.
Lest we ask too much of our elders and place them in positions where they don’t belong, we need to understand just what type of authority an elder has under Christ and over His flock.
According to our Book of Church Order, “the power which Christ has committed to His Church vests in the whole body, the rulers and those ruled, constituting it a spiritual commonwealth. This power, as exercised by the people, extends to the choice of those officers whom He has appointed in His Church” (3-1).
This power is wholly spiritual and not at all civil. Elders are called to exercise oversight in matters pertaining to the things of Christ—not of Caesar. By way of church discipline, we can bar you from the table, but we can’t send you to jail. We can mediate disputes between church members, but we can’t legally order one of you to pay restitution to another.
Another important point: the Church’s power (exercised through its officers) is ministerial and declarative. Because God alone is Lord of the conscience, we cannot make up doctrines and commandments which run contrary to or alongside God's Word. If I or any other elder tells you to do something in the name of Jesus, he needs to be prepared to point out exactly where the Bible says so. If he can’t, then he’s overstepped his bounds.
Apart from “running” the church and ordering of her worship, the elders’ Christ-appointed power is most evident in the exercise of church discipline. According to our Book of Church Order, which takes its cues, of course, from the Bible (Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5:1-13; Gal 6:1; Ti 3:10, etc.) there are 5 “censures” that a court of the church can administer:
Suspension from the Sacraments
Suspension from Office
Deposition from Office
At every point, the goal of discipline with specific respect to the offender is to bring about repentance and restoration. With respect to the church, the purpose of discipline includes the reclaiming and rewinning of erring brethren, the guarding of gospel truth, the vindication of Christ’s honor and glory, the deterrence of similar belief and behavior from others, and the averting of God’s wrath upon a disobedient and wayward congregation.
There’s much more that can be said about the office of elder. What I hope I’ve done is give you an overview of the office—its qualifications, responsibilities, and jurisdiction. If anything I’ve said is unclear or if you’re curious to know more, please don’t hesitate to ask.
In Christ Alone,
In case you want to dig deeper, our session recently read through and enjoyed Jeramie Rinne’s helpful little book, Church Elders. Rinne is a baptist, so he offers great insight on the role of elders in the local congregation but not beyond. For that, take a look at Guy Waters’ How Jesus Runs the Church, which is written from an explicitly presbyterian perspective.