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Elders: re-visiting a New Testament church leadership structure

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In the New Testament church, the local leadership was made up of elders and deacons. Charles describes in this article the role of elders in the church. What do they do? What are the character qualifications for becoming an elder? What is their role compared to apostles, prophets and evangelists?

The New Testament leadership structure for the local church is a part of the leadership God gives to equip the saints and expand his Kingdom. We can expect God to raise up leaders from amongst believers who belong to a church (new or established).

The local church leadership in the New Testament was made up of elders and deacons.
Larger churches or networks of house churches in a city had apostles, prophets, evangelists and teachers who functioned as elders in the local church, but were also trans-local. They served the whole church in a city, region and beyond. Self-governing local churches (for the most part house churches of various sizes) related to an apostolic/prophetic team. The team came alongside the church and gave input into both building the church and the life of the church without taking away the local leadership’s authority and responsibility.

Apostolic/prophetic ministries could not “speak” into the life of a church without an invitation to do so. At the same time apostolic ministries had the freedom to take up issues they felt were important with the leadership because of a relationship built on trust. Everything was tested. The elders could choose whether to receive or reject advice and ministry from apostolic/prophetic leaders. The trans-local team equipped the believers so that the church grew into an apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, teaching and pastoral ”Kingdom of God people” in society.

There are three different Greek words that describe different aspects of the same elder leadership function and are used interchangeably with one another:
• ”presbuteros” – elder;
• ”episkopos” – bishop or overseer, a person who has oversight;
• ”poiman” – shepherd, pastor
See Acts 20:17-28; 1 Pet 5:1-2; Tit 1:5, 7; 1 Pet 2:25. All refer to the same person or leadership office, function, often in the plural form.

Here comes a short description of an elders character qualifications and their function:
1) An elder is a person called by God to:
      a. Be a shepherd (lead, nurture, care, admonish and protect) of God’s flock
          (in the local self-governing church) (1 Pet 5:2).
      b. Provide spiritual oversight and be accountable for and before the church
          (1 Pet 5:2, 1 Tim 3:1 and Heb 13:17).
      c. Teach and preach (individuals, groups or the whole church)
          (1 Tim 3:2 and 5:17).
      d. Administrate, govern and lead (all) the affairs of the church (l Tim 5:17).
      e. Pray for the sick (Jam 5:14).
      f. Impart spiritual gifts and release believers in ministry (1 Tim 4:14).
2) An elder is chosen from amongst believers in the local church (Tit 1:5) and is a person who: fulfils the character qualifications of eldership and does the work of an elder (through their God-given spiritual gifting).
Character qualifications are as follows (1 Tim 3:2-12, Tit 1:5-9 and 1 Pet 5:1-4):
      a. Above reproach, blameless, upright.
      b. The husband of one wife. Must manage his own family well and his children
          must also be believers and not open to the charge of being wild and
          disobedient, his children must obey him and his wife with proper respect.
      c. Temperate, self-controlled, holy and disciplined. Respectable, hospitable and
          one who loves what is good.
      d. Hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught so that he can
          encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.
      e. Not given to drunkenness.
      f. Not violent but gentle.
      g. Not quarrelsome, overbearing or quick-tempered.
      h. Not a lover of money or in pursuit of dishonest gain.
      i. Not a recent convert and must also have a good reputation with outsiders.
      j. Must be willing, eager to serve and not Lord it over the flock entrusted to him.
3) The office or function of an elder, although predominantly male, is also open to females*.
4) An elder is an elder so long as they are ”eldering” (functioning as an elder). There are no conditions in scripture concerning the length of time they serve, but, because of the nature of the office, function, there is an expectation that elders function long term.
5) An elder can be removed from their office / function if they disqualify themselves because of character deficiencies (Matt 18:15-17 and 1 Tim 5:19-20). An elder can also renounce his office, function due to personal circumstances.
6) Elders can be fully supported financially by the church (1 Tim 5:17-18) or have a job in society and so be partially or not at all financially supported.
7) Elders are often mentioned in the plural, which denotes several elders in mutual submission to one another (team) with a lead elder or pastor (team leader).

Today we have many different “titles” for church leaders. Sadly, together with this, we have lost some of the content of the original meaning so that local church leadership and ministry gifts have become diffuse. I believe we need to rediscover New Testament leadership and how it is exercised so we can apply it for our present contexts if we are going to see the church equipped and the Kingdom break out in power.

Source: Charles Kridiotis, FrontLine Foundations NetWork

* Refer to passages on leadership and spiritual gifts - Rom 12:1-8; 1 Cor 12, 13, 14; Eph 4:1-16; 1 Pet 4:7-11; passages on eldership - 1 Tim 3:1-13; Tit 1:5-9; 1 Pet 5:1-4; Acts, greetings and farewells in Paul’s epistles; all in the original Greek text).
1 Tim 2:12 is often cited to prohibit female leadership. The word “have authority over” in this text is not the Greek word “exousia” which is used elsewhere in the New Testament for “authority” or the like. The Greek word used here is “authentio” and is a hapex legomena; i.e. it is only found once in the Bible! Translators and Bible scholars are unsure how to translate this and have compared the use of the word in other Greek texts of the time. They have found meanings from “sexual licentiousness” in the earlier texts (which make sense when considering temple prostitution in the temple of Artemis), to ”a person placing themselves in a position of power”. What the studies do show is that the meaning of “authentio” changed with the passage of time and it was only after several centuries after Christ that the translation became ”authority”. By the way, 1 Tim 3:1 is not about males, it says ”If ANYONE (male or female) desires the office of an overseer.” even if the example that follows is of a male elder.