The most extraordinary things about the biblical prerequisites for elders is that they are not all that extraordinary.
Our Good Shepherd has become the model for under-shepherds. His great concern is the good of the sheep. A good shepherd gives himself to the sheep. A thief comes to get something form the flock – wool or mutton. Jesus our Lord made every personal claim subservient to the blessing of his flock; even to giving His life that they might live.
The Bible clearly models a plurality of elders in each local church. Though it never suggests a specific number of elders for a particular congregation, the New Testament refers to “elders” in the plural in local churches (e.g., Acts 14:23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; Titus 1:5; James 5:14). When you read through Acts and the Epistles, there is always more than one elder being talked about.
Someone has said that more is learned from what is “caught” that “taught”… Though it is certainly important to communicate God’s Word didactically, it’s what people see in our lives that gives weight to our words. That is why the qualifications for elders are so important. If we are to “teach the Word of God” effectively, we must simultaneously “live the Word of God.”
Ministry as depicted in the New Testament was never a one-man show. That does not preclude the role of a dominant leader on each team. Within the framework of plurality, there will invariably be those who have more influence. The diversity of our gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4) means all people are differently equipped. Therefore a plurality of leaders does not necessitate an absolute equality in every function. In even the most godly group of leaders, some will naturally be more influential than others. Some will have teaching gifts that outshine the rest. Others will be more gifted as administrators. Each can fulfill a different role, and there is no need to try to enforce absolute equality of function.
Plural leadership is the norm for every church: “appoint elders in every city as I directed you.” “Elders” is plural and “in every town” is singular. It indicates multiple elders serving each church on Crete (1:5). Each reference to local church elders demonstrates plurality as the New Testament practice (see Acts 14:23; 15:22; 20:17 that show this same pattern of plurality). Paul’s reason for plurality within even small congregations makes sense. It provides accountability, support, and encouragement, increased wisdom, and diversity of gifts to increase ministry effectiveness.
To try to avoid leadership, and a leader among leaders, is to avoid not only a fact of life but a spiritual principle (Derek Prime and Alistair Begg).
Leadership in the church should always be shared – that is one reason that the apostolic pattern was to appoint a plurality of elders rather than a solitary elder in all the churches (Acts 14:23). But leaders too need to recognize one of their number as leader. This is an inbuilt principle of life, and we should not despise it. Husband and wife are equal, but leadership naturally rests with the husband. Children are equal in a family, but the oldest is looked to first when a crisis occurs. In some situations there may be one elder or spiritual leader who is actually called “the pastor,” who will be expected to lead his fellow leaders; and in others there will be a team ministry. But in every team there has to be a leader (Derek Prime and Alistair Begg).
Their [godly elders] humility makes them difficult to offend; their holiness makes them easy to trust; their gentle speech makes them easy to hear as sources of correction or critique; and their hospitality provides a context for spiritual encouragement and edification (Mark Dever and Paul Alexander).
It may be wise to recognize men who are already qualified and are already doing elder-type work rather than to “make” men elders simply by training them (Mark Dever and Paul Alexander).
An elder is simply a man of exemplary, Christlike character who is able to lead God’s people by teaching them God’s Word in a way that profits them spiritually (Mark Dever and Paul Alexander).
What are the practical benefits of having more than one elder?
1. It balances pastoral weakness.
2. It diffuses congregational criticism.
3. It adds pastoral wisdom.
4. It indigenizes leadership.
5. It enables corrective discipline.
6. It defuses “us vs. him” (Mark Dever and Paul Alexander).
The most effective boards can see issues from different sides and examine them fully, even when it means disagreement with the pastor. At the same time, healthy boards are united in purpose and plan, respecting one another’s differences. The strongest board is a team of coworkers willing to honor God not only with their decisions but also with the decision-making process. Their relationships are as important as their righteousness, and the relationship between pastor and board is cemented with trust; without that, the pastor’s ministry will inevitably come unglued (Marshall Shelly).
When it comes to elders, they are referred to by three different names. These are not three different offices, but one office with three interchangeable names that indicates their position or role. Elder – speaks to a man’s spiritual maturity. Shepherd or Pastor – speaks to man’s role in caring for the church. Overseer or Bishop – speaks to a man’s role in managing the church. A good example is Acts 20:28: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” The same could be said of 1 Peter 5. Verse 1 – “I exhort the elders.” Verse 2 – “Shepherd the flock.” Verse 2 – “exercising oversight.”
Elders “[lord] it over those allotted to [their] charge” (1 Pet. 5:3) when they think the church is there to serve them, place demands on the church that are unprofitable, desire personal fame and glory from the ministry, add or subtract from Scripture making their word more important, dominate others through power and intimidation, sinfully use the church, have a haughty demand for compliance or drive the church versus leading the church.
The true shepherd spirit is an amalgam of many precious graces. He is hot with zeal, but he is not fiery with passion. He is gentle, and yet he rules his class. He is loving, but he does not wink at sin. He has power over the lambs, but he is not domineering or sharp. He has cheerfulness, but not levity; freedom, but not license; solemnity, but not gloom.
My conclusion is that the local church is to be governed by a plurality of individuals who are described in the New Testament as elders, insofar as they hold an office of great dignity and importance (perhaps even with an allusion to age or at least spiritual maturity), or bishops, insofar as they exercise oversight of the body of Christ, or pastors, insofar as they spiritually feed, care for, and exercise guardianship over the flock of God.
We cannot sit back and wait for the sheep to lead. A few will, but by and large they are looking to us for direction, feeding, and leadership by our stepping out courageously in faith.