Eldership Study – Part 1

Understanding What Eldership Is, and Is Not

This study and the teaching therein, is written to work in conjunction with Alexander Strauch’s pamphlet, “Biblical Eldership: Restoring the Eldership to Its Rightful Place In the Church”.

The Problem of Eldership in the Modern Church

Biblical Eldership has become a lost doctrine and art in the 21st century church of America for many.  The reason is twofold…

  1. Alexander Strauch points out the first problem with eldership in the church in the first section of his pamphlet, entitled “The Problem”. While I want to give you plenty of opportunity to read it for yourself, he lays out the first problem with an illustration. The illustration is that of a church he walked in…on the front wall was a set of pictures forming a pyramid. At the pinnacle of that pyramid was the senior pastor, underneath were the associates, and underneath them were the rest of the staff; hidden down the hallway were the pictures of the elders…Now he drew a different conclusion about the problem than I did. The problem he points out, I will get to in a moment, but my reaction to this illustration was what I believe is the first problem with eldership and that is that the church has taken on a “leave it up to the professionals approach to ministry.”
    1. In many churches, especially mainline evangelical churches, the decision making process and oversight of the church is minimalized to the mind of one person – the pastor – or one person and a small supporting cast. The effects of such a decision are very difficult on a pastor and his family, as well as the church.
      1. From the church’s perspective, it means that the church is too dependent upon the wisdom and spiritual discernment on one person to make sure that the vision, doctrine, and work of the ministry is headed in a healthy direction. Further, when that person is removed from his position (no matter how good or bad the conditions), it leaves the church with a feeling of paralysis.
      2. On the pastor, it creates an unhealthy environment for him and his family. It puts too much stress on him to make every decision the right decision…when things don’t go well, he is not shielded from the entire brunt of the criticism…and it opens the door for opportunistic dictatorship (sometimes even with the most sincere motives).
    2. Many churches fall into this trap out of a sincere desire to be a “Pastor Led” church…or to give freedom and show trust in the leadership.
    3. On the other hand, some use this as an argument for not allowing the pastor to lead – setting up an environment in which the pastor is paralyzed in ministry, because the people don’t want to follow.
    4. And while in no way am I suggesting that there does not need to be a leader (by which I mean a singular leadership role, in which the “buck stops here” mentality must be taken (for example Moses, Joshua, Peter as leader of the apostles, etc.)), it is dangerous for the pastor and church to be in a position where only one person is making decisions.
      1. To counter balance this, in some churches the deacons have taken up a governing role – which is not their scriptural role.
      2. Or in some churches, the balance of power rests in the committees – which again is dangerous on many levels, for committee members are not held to the same standard of qualifications as a pastor.
    5. So problem number one can be summarized in the picture, by viewing the church as having one person who is at the pinnacle of power, making all decisions on behalf of the church – no matter how sincere and Godly they may be.
  2. Problem number two is much more clearly outlined and is found in the definition of eldership. For many, when they hear the term “eldership” it conjures up a definition which is foreign to scripture.
    1. Many modern churches and some exclusive denominations, use “eldership” to speak of a governing board – as Alexander writes on page 5, “Even among churches that claim to practice eldership, elders have been reduced to being temporary, lay, church board members, which is quite contrary to the New Testament model of pastoral eldership.”
      1. Such people have in mind a board of lay officials, influential people within the church, who advise the pastor and staff and hold them accountable. Victor A. Constien, a Lutheran official and author of “The Caring Elder”, illustrated this popular view of the elder’s role when he wrote, “Members of a congregation’s board of elders are not assistant pastors. They assist the pastor…elders help facilitate and strengthen the working relationship of the church staff.” – Here the term elder does not refer to a pastor, goes the argument…but merely a group of individuals who assist and hold the pastor accountable.
      2. For this model, an elder is nothing more than a CEO for the church, or a governing body…
    2. But this definition does not fit well with the New Testament view of eldership…So the problem with eldership in the 21st Century church is our definition of what elders are.

Defining Biblical Eldership

In order to understand and implement proper eldership, we must begin then by defining what true eldership is supposed to look like.  Alexander writes on page 7, “In Biblical terminology, elders shepherd, oversee, lead, and care for the local church.  (It should be noted at this point, that the term “Pastor” never appears in the New Testament.  It is taken from the word “shepherd”, which is exclusively used to denote the function of an elder.  In the New Testament, the terms “shepherd”, “elder”, and “overseer” are synonymous with one another – the reason being that the qualifications of the two are the same, and the first is simply a function listed of the other two.  So when we say “elder”, we are referring to “pastor”, “overseer”, and “shepherd”.)  In Acts 20:28, Paul reminded the Asian elders that God the Holy Spirit placed them in the flock as overseers for the purpose of shepherding the church of God.  Another great passage on eldership is found in 1 Peter 5.  At the conclusion, we are shown that there are four great purposes of eldership.

  1. First, Protecting the Flock.
    1. Perhaps the greatest responsibility of the eldership/pastors is to protect God’s people from theological and doctrinal error – Acts 20:17, 28-31 and Titus 1:5-6, 9.
    2. And the elders work together in this matter, so that one is not left to determining the doctrine of the church on his own. An example of this is given in Acts 15:6.
  2. Second, Feeding the Flock.
    1. Going back to the first problem stated, in some denominations, the eldership does not preach or teach, they are there to be CEOs. This has led to a false understanding and definition of why eldership is needed. – A church might think that if they have one teaching pastor, they have all their bases covered. The reality is far different however. At this church for example, if you combine Sunday mornings with Monday nights, we have some 450-500 people that are a part of our discipleship process and therefore, one person cannot handle this burden alone.
    2. But elders cannot be CEOs, they must be qualified to disciple and teach the people in the local body. In 1 Timothy 3:2, “teaching” is given as a qualification of the elder. In Titus 1:9, being able to “exhort in sound doctrine” is again listed as a qualification of the elder.
    3. And as Alexander points out, in 1 Timothy 5:17-18, Paul instructs the church to give special financial assistance to those elders who labor among them through teaching and preaching. – As a side note, this is why the Lead Teaching Pastor or Senior Pastor is the highest paid. It is not because he is doubly worthy of salary, or that he is the CEO, or that he is the most powerful in the body or staff; but rather because scripturally the church is commended to do so.
  3. Third, Leading the Flock.
    1. A shepherd is a leader or governor in the Biblical language…therefore, when Peter writes in 1 Peter 5, that elders are to shepherd the church, which means they are to do so by leading or governing. In 1 Timothy 5:17, they are said to “rule” (lead, direct, or manage).
    2. In Titus 1:7, they are said to be stewards of God’s household.
    3. Again in 1 Peter 5:1-2, they are told to exercise oversight, what is oversight? – Governance or rule.
  4. Fourth, Helping to Meet the Flock’s Many Practical Needs.
    1. James 5:14
    2. Acts 20:35
    3. This is where deacons play a pivotal role…they are not elders, but they are given to elders as servants of the church to help in the meeting of the needs of the local body.

So defining eldership is very simple when you think about it – we know what their roles and responsibilities are and we know the terms that are used for them (Elder, Overseer, Bishop, Pastor, Shepherd).  What is interesting is that in modern church, we have really not gotten rid of the eldership system, we have really renamed elders – “Assistant/Associate Pastors”.  But in so doing, we have shorted the church of others who fit the description of elder or pastor, who are qualified as elder or pastor, and who are gifted as elder and pastor by determining their position by their paycheck.  In many cases in the New Testament, the elder was bivocational or secular in his vocation, but he was still an elder in the church.

 

When properly defined, we come back to our first stated problems – that the church does not want to demand of lay people to do the work of eldership, even though they may be qualified to do so, so they take a “let the professionals do it” approach, hiring for themselves individuals to pastor.  But, inadvertently, it leads to the second problem because they want to maintain a system of checks and balances, so they form committees or boards to keep the eldership in line.  But by doing so, they miss out on the incredible blessing that comes with true Biblical eldership.

  1. I like what he says on page 11, “Biblical eldership, however, can’t exist in an atmosphere of nominal Christianity.” And again a paragraph later, “Some people say, ‘You can’t expect laymen to rear their families, work all day, and shepherd a local church.’ That statement is simply not true. Many people rear families, work, and give substantial hours of time to community service, clubs, athletic activities, and/or religious institutions. The cults have built up large lay movements that survive primarily because of the volunteer time and efforts of their members.”
  2. Inside a church there needs to be strong leadership, rested in the hands of elders, who may or may not be paid; but regardless of vocation, shepherd and oversee the flock.

The Great Fear

When having this discussion, the greatest fear is a loss of control.  People want to know, what about the congregational model we see in certain parts of the New Testament?  How does that fit together with eldership?  And specifically, doesn’t this put the congregation in a position of total loss of power?

  1. First, I would suggest to you that the authority ultimately rests in the church – the church is given the responsibility of church discipline, ordaining deacons, calling/ordaining elders, and the ordinances were committed to the entire church (Matthew 28; Mark 16; I Corinthians 11). – So there is certainly a congregational aspect to the church.
  2. Second, as a church gets larger, it becomes more and more crucial that eldership assume its role. For the work of the church becomes confined to the few who come to business meetings.
  3. Third, eldership is for the protection of the church – without it, people are left free to draw whatever conclusions they wish to draw without any oversight and protection to the pastor and the people, we have seen this before. In a pure congregational model, sides spew their opinions and decisions upon the whole, with an attempt to form sides, thus tearing the church apart. With eldership, there is a buffer of trusted men, who can sift through and sort through the facts and merits of a situation and calmly, patiently, prayerfully, and with a discerning spirit bring the proper decision before the church.
  4. Fourth, eldership keeps the staff and committees moving in a congruent direction. Instead of each piece of the puzzle making its own picture, the shepherd elders bring all the parts to work together.
  5. And finally, eldership sustains vision with longevity. While pastors and associate/assistant pastors unfortunately come and go, eldership continues the church moving in an appropriate direction.

Over the next few weeks, we will continue to work through scripture and argue the merits and benefits of eldership, as our church moves toward it.  In doing so, we will have time at greater length to discuss all the practical applications…but for today’s purposes, we will define what eldership is and begin to see how it practically would work within the framework of this church.

We are concluding at this point in the pamphlet through page 12.5.