A Word to Elders

1 Peter 5:1-4

From Sovereign Grace Church’s Book of Church Order

2 The Office of Elder

2.1 New Testament Terminology: Elder, Pastor, Overseer

From the beginning, local churches have been governed and led by elders (Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) with the assistance of deacons (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Tim. 3:8-13).

Elder, Pastor, Overseer

The elder is ordained in a church to lead, teach, care for, and protect that local church. While we most often use the term “elder” for the pastoral office of the church, this is only one of several terms used in the New Testament to describe the role. The Bible refers interchangeably to this office as “elder,” “pastor” (or “shepherd”), and “overseer.”

“Elder” comes from the Greek presbuteros (e.g., 1 Tim. 5:1). When used of the office in the church, the implication is that the man is a mature and wise man, not necessarily that he has reached a certain age (1 Tim. 4:12).

A second term used of elders in the New Testament is “pastor” or “shepherd” (Gr., poimēn) as in Ephesians 4:11, “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” (cf. John 21:16; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1-4). Places like John 10 and Psalm 23 remind us of the specific, individual care that God extends to us as our “Good Shepherd” and model for us what is meant by the term as it is applied to the elders of a local church.

A third term is “overseer” (Gr., episkopos) as in 1 Timothy 3:1: “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (cf. Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:7). This term captures the authority and leadership entrusted to elders.

It is critical that we see the equivalence of these three terms in the New Testament: an elder is a pastor is an overseer. We can see the synonymous nature of the terms in Titus 1:5-9 where Titus is told to “appoint elders” (v. 5), and then he is instructed concerning potential candidates: “the overseer…must be” (v. 7). Further, in Acts 20:28 the Ephesian “elders” (20:17) are told how they must “shepherd” their flock as “overseers.” In 1 Peter 5:1-4 he addresses “elders” (v. 1) and tells them to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (v. 2), specifically by “exercising oversight” (v. 2). While verb forms are mixed with the noun “elder” here, the ideas of elder-shepherd-overseer are clearly coextensive.

Thus, we ought to use all three terms to refer to the same office. Further, we need to let our understanding of the pastoral office include the connotations of all three terms. We cannot let one term swallow up the other two. Thus, the leadership and authority implied by “overseer” is to be joined to the protection, care, and nourishment implied by the use of “pastor”; and both of these are to be attached to the wisdom and mature discernment implied by the term “elder.” The Bible itself must guide our use of these different terms, not how they have become traditionally understood in certain denominations.

2.2 The Responsibilities of the Elder

The elder-pastor-overseer has four broad responsibilities within the local church. Elders feed, oversee, care for, and protect the flock entrusted to them.

2.2.1First, pastors are to “feed” the flock entrusted to their care (John 21:15).

Elders are “teachers” (Eph. 4:11) who build the church in their care by “preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). This is why an elder must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). Teaching happens through the ministry of the Word on Sunday mornings but also in the more private “reproof…correction…training” (2 Tim. 3:16), and exhortation (4:2) that happens in the pastor’s ministry to individuals.

2.2.2Second, elders are to oversee the flock entrusted to them (1 Tim. 3:1).

Elders provide leadership and thus manage “God’s church” (1 Tim. 3:4-5). This leadership requirement is seen by the use of the title “overseers” to describe an elder (Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1-2; Titus 1:7). Further, the use of the term “manage” in 1 Timothy 3:5 and the reference to “ruling” (Gr., proistēmi) in 1 Timothy 5:17 also support the notion that elders govern the church in a leadership capacity (cf. Rom. 12:8; 1 Thess. 5:12; etc.). Hebrews 13:17, which uses the more general term “leaders” (participle from ēgeomai, “lead, guide”), commands Christians to “obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls,” which seems to provide corroboration regarding the management and governing responsibilities of elders. Additionally, 1 Peter 5:2 reminds pastors that they are to be those “exercising oversight, not under compulsion.”

2.2.3Third, pastors are to care sincerely for the flock entrusted to them by God (Acts 20:28).

Just as the great commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor (Matt. 22:36-40), and apart from love we accomplish nothing and are nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3), so a shepherd must “be genuinely concerned” for the “welfare” of every member of his respective church, not seeking his own interests, but “those of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 2:19-21).

2.2.4Fourth, elders protect the flock, looking out for “wolves” that can come from without or within the church (Acts 20:28-30).

Elders are to “pay careful attention” and to “be alert” (vv. 28, 30). This is not to give an elder a suspicious heart, but a watchful one; not a cynical heart, but a cautious one. For example, the elder must know the difference between someone who disagrees with him and a divisive man who is actually a “wolf” (Rom. 16:17-18; Titus 3:10). Such attentiveness and discernment is part of the role.

  1. The Elders’ Role
  2. The Elders’ Readiness

“A perfect man would never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and other people) like a crutch which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need a crutch at times; but of course it is idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our loves, tastes, habits, etc.) can do the journey on their own.” —C.S. Lewis

“Elders must be eager to teach but not eager for cash.” —David Helm

“Humility and sacrificial service are the hallmarks of godly leadership.” —David Helm

  1. The Elders’ Reward

“The term glory carries the nuance of an outwardly visible evidence of honour.” —Wayne Grudem