Why Biblical Elders Are Vital to Church Health
Church leadership models always seem to be going through a type of cultural renovation. Trying to stay relevant, influential evangelicals try to innovate at every turn; trading in biblical roles like elder and deacon for newer, less biblically stringent leadership positions. Some churches avoid having elders altogether because of bad experiences or horror stories from others who warn, “Don’t have elders, they will control you!” Other churches have senior pastors with their own agenda in mind who purposely manipulate the system to ensure that only “yes-men” make it into leadership. Still, there are churches who have yet to raise up elders or don’t know how. Whatever the scenario, biblical eldership is not always taken as seriously as it should be, and yet, it is incredibly vital to the health of a church.
Elders are important to the church because, first and foremost, they are the leaders that Christ has appointed to oversee His church. This is not mere suggestion – it is the biblical mandate. A church cannot be a fully healthy church without elders, and a church can most certainly not be a healthy church without qualified elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). At the very least, there should be elders being raised up where there are no qualified elders yet. Elders are so important that one of Paul’s first apostolic decisions in the churches that he established was to appoint elders there (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5).
Besides their biblically mandated presence in a church, there are several specific ways that elders are important to the vitality and health of a church. Here are are six to consider:
1. The church needs elders who are spiritually minded
Far too many elder boards are nothing more than a polity board when instead they should be pastoral. The church doesn’t need corporate shot-callers, it needs shepherds. True elders are ultimately put in their position by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28), not by being golfing buddies with the senior pastor or a wealthy influencer in the church. The term elder, in the Bible, is reserved for spiritual men who shepherd the flock. The terms πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros), ποιμήν (poimen), and ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos) are all used to describe the same office in the New Testament. Overseers, pastors, shepherds, and elders are all operating as the same kind of servant leader(s) of the church. Therefore, elders are spiritual men who are spiritually minded. They aren’t concerned with holding a position of power, but rather, being a faithful steward of what Christ has entrusted them with.
2. The church needs elders who care for the people
Christ’s people needs care – period. From counseling, to comforting, to correcting, to concern, no body of believers should be without overseers who have a genuine care for their souls (Hebrews 13:17). One of the ways that care is continuous is in the prayer life of an elder. Elders take time to pray fervently for the people. While the people are working, battling sin, and facing another day of challenges, there ought to be elders who are spiritual men going to the throne room of God on behalf of the people. This by no means is to say that the church must have some sort of priestly mediator – for we have Christ and need no other. It is to simply say that shepherds should be praying for the flock; knowing that God uses the power of prayer to preserve people.
3. The church needs elders who model for the people
They don’t need to be perfect or on a pedestal, but elders should be joyfully modeling a commitment to Christ and holiness in their lives. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 lays out qualifications that all Christians should strive for, but specifically, it lays out qualifications that all elders must possess. In fact, one of the responsibilities of an elder is to set an example for the flock (1 Peter 5:3). Elders who are qualified prove to be helpful models for people who need encouragement, discipleship, and a real life example of how sanctification works! Paul said, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). That’s the kind of leadership the church needs from elders.
4. The church needs elders who support church discipline
Elders oversee church discipline and support a system of correction, purification, and restoration within the church. This is a healthy ecosystem in that the elders are often appointed by those within the church based on their qualifications, then serve to support the church through discipline and oversight. What a model of humility by both the congregation and the elders! (Matthew 18:15-20; Galatians 6:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:13-15; Titus 3:9-11).
5. The church needs elders who teach the Word
While all believers are to be teaching and admonishing one another (Colossians 3:16), elders are specifically called to the ministry of the word (1 Timothy 3:2) and charged with the task of preserving sound doctrine within the church (Acts 20:31; Titus 1:9). No church should ever have to suffer through the burden of not having gifted leaders who guide them in the Scriptures. Elders should be seen as essential to feeding the flock so much so that one of the primary emphasis in a local church is the raising up, and support of, biblical elders.
6. The church needs elders who protect them from deceivers
Elders are essential to a church because their ministry includes an emphasis on protecting the people by using the word to refute those who would harm them. Again, this is something that all Christians can do, but Christ has seen to it that there’s no question of who must do this. Even though people appoint and humbly follow their qualified leaders, it is ultimately the Holy Spirit who “makes” elders the overseers of the church (Acts 20:28) and demands they must protect the people. Elders stand against false doctrines, mark false teachers, and refuse to concede against any wolves that would prey on the flock (Acts 20:28-30; Romans 16:17-18).
Governance models within any given church may vary. Some will opt for elder led, some for congregationalism, and others will mix these two and find a type of balance. No matter the model, biblical elders are critical to the health of a church. Our goal should be to see Christ raise them up in our churches for the good of His people and glory of His name.
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The Master’s Plan for the Church John MacArthur
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Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology By John S. Hammet