The Biblical Requirements for Elders
The Relatively Simple Office of the Overseer
Mankind has the innate desire and ability to complicate what the Lord makes simple. The OT Jews were not satisfied with merely the Law and the ordinances; they had to add hundreds of traditions and inane rules to it. The Roman Catholic church today does the same thing, making tradition greater than the Scriptures.
[Attempt a true Christian witness to any Roman Catholic today and you’ll find out very quickly just how true this is.]
And while it should not be so, the same, silly, unnecessary and unjustifiable characteristic is found in the so-called conservative churches of our day. I refer to the ever-more creative names for the office of elder and how it has been morphed into something completely unknown to the Apostles.
If you review the websites of current evangelical churches, you’ll find about the same number of types of elders as one would find of makes of automobiles or brands of breakfast cereals:
- Senior Pastor
- Senior Associate Pastor
- Senior Elder
- Executive Pastor
- Extension Ministries Pastor
- Associate Pastor
- Minister of Spiritual Development
- Children’s Pastor
- Youth Group Pastor
- Worship Pastor
- Women's Pastor
- Young Adult's Pastor
- Family Pastor
- Pastor of This-and-That Ministries
- Pastor ad nauseam …
Are any of these biblically defensible? Are any of these actually useful? Is there any biblical reason for these titles?
Spoiler Alert: No!
This looks a lot like "spiritual posturing" run amok, the futile attempt at "modernizing/corporatizing" the church.
It is not my purpose in this series to establish the fact that the biblical model for the assembly is that it have multiple elders. Yes, I know that some assemblies, due either to their newness or their size, may have, at any given point in time, a single elder only. But, it remains that the biblical model for churches is that each has multiple elders.
As I detailed in another chapter, the elder must be able to teach and to manage. There is, however, one biblical distinction that may be made concerning the office of the overseer:
1 Tim 5.17-18
The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.”
The above distinction is whether the necessary effort expended by the elder makes him worthy of receiving "full-time income" from the assembly for his labor.
First, think about what the Apostle Paul said here and what it really means to the typical overseer:
1 Tim 3.7
And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
The clear inference is that the overseer actually has regular dealings with those who are not part of the assembly; because of that (outside) activity, he is to have a provable, demonstrable and favorable reputation with the lost.
The natural question that arises is obvious:
how is this reputation to be achieved if that overseer is not actually “working in the world”, at least initially?
The Lord recognizes that in the normal development of the overseer’s experience and service within the assembly the time may come when he can no longer devote adequate time to both his secular job and his responsibilities within the assembly. That is, he can no longer be bi-vocational.
This is the inference of that phrase “double honor”.
The first honor is that he was found worthy and qualified to become an elder, and from that office lead and manage the assembly (and/or share its leadership with other elders).
The second honor for “especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” is that he can biblically be considered to become “full-time” as the elder and therefore be financially supported by the assembly which he oversees.
But, please note: this honor should be considered if and only if the laboring overseer has established a reputation “with those outside”. Based on 1 Tim 3.7 and 1 Tim 5.17-18, appointing a man elder who has not established a reputation “with those outside” can’t be appointed as an elder; he hasn’t fulfilled the requirements.
So, to get back to the purpose of this article: the relative simplicity of the position of overseer:
The Scriptures know of only a single office: the overseer/elder/pastor/shepherd (whichever term you like–they are synonyms for the same office). Of that single office, there are exactly two categories:
- the elder is bi-vocational (he has a "job" for the financial support of his family and he manages the assembly), or
- he is employed full-time by the assembly.
There are no other distinctions that may be established by or justified from the Scripture. You’ll search in vain to find any support for any of the silly and self-important titles in the representative list above.
Unfortunately, modern churches think they are to be run like corporations, with various layers of leadership in distinct contrast–and contradiction–to the NT, which knows only of the single, simple office of the elder without any of these artificial distinctions. I believe that one would be hard-pressed to demonstrate that professional pride is not involved to establish these various titles/layers:
"After all," they would undoubtedly reason, "one of the elders simply must be more authoritative, more important, more influential, etc., then the others. What if they can’t decide on a course of action–who would be the 'tie-breaker'”?
Of course, if the multiple elders aren’t unified in their leadership, than that assembly has really huge problems and is, for all intents and purposes, doomed anyway.
They might as well disband as a church and do something much more useful:
- free car washes,
- "Christian" seminars,
- provide yoga classes,
- have bake sales,
- raise money for "social causes",
- build things,
- film themselves doing charitable works (yes, I've actually seen this done in a church I visited about a year ago!)
- host Easter Egg hunts,
- host Halloween parties,
- host bingo,
- browse the 'net,
- binge-watch old cartoons.
It is very difficult already for true, faithful assemblies to maintain a consistent testimony in the eyes of the lost when thousands of careless, professing, empty, vapid, useless, lifeless, immature, poorly led, so-called conservative, evangelical churches have made such a mess of things with their dismal reputations and utterly futile "much ado about nothing" activities. These "churches" accomplish nothing more than to place yet another stumbling block in the way of true assemblies who seek to serve the Lord Christ faithfully.
[Doctrinal unity is the topic of another series of articles on this site.]