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Understanding the Role of Elders in the Local Church

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At the end of his first epistle, after addressing matters such as holiness, submission, and suffering, the apostle Peter turns his attention to shepherding in the local church. He writes,

I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:1–5)

It’s evident from this passage that the New Testament places a high value on church leadership. This is because few things are more important to a church’s vitality than those who lead it.  A brief survey of church history will show us a consistent pattern that a church does not, and will not, advance beyond its leaders’ spiritual progress. For this reason, Paul would tell Timothy in his first letter, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (3:1). Spiritual leadership is weighty.

Few things are more important to a church’s vitality than its leadership.

We can see the New Testament’s high view of church leadership unfold in the church’s earliest days. As the Gospel penetrated communities throughout the known world, converts formed local churches. And what did the apostles urge these churches to do? They were to appoint elders to lead (Acts 14:21–23; Titus 1:5). These leaders were people who belonged to the church community and were entrusted to make sure that God’s Word was taught and applied, God’s Son was honored, and God’s people were edified.

It’s in the context of a local church community that Peter’s guidance for church leadership ought to be applied. And the question “How is the church to function?” is no mere matter for human speculation; the answer is in the Bible. Pertaining to church leadership, Peter in particular wants us to think in terms of it being pastoral, accountable, plural, and spiritual.

Pastoral Leadership

That church leadership is pastoral is evidenced by the terminology Peter uses in verses 1–2. Using three Greek terms interchangeably, he establishes the nature of pastoral leadership.

First is the word “elders” in verse 1. The Greek word for “elders” is presbuteroi, which gives us our English word presbyter or presbyterian. The term denotes spiritual maturity, implying that a church leader, regardless of his age, must show that he’s advanced greatly in the Christian life. Next, when Peter exhorts the elders to “shepherd,” the verb used can be translated as “pastor.” As such, this command takes the pastor’s role beyond a strictly administrative realm and into that of caring for God’s people—“the flock of God.” Peter further describes the role as “exercising oversight,” or episcopoi (from which we get our English episcopal), a word dealing with governance.

How should we make sense of these various titles and descriptions? Fundamentally, elders speak God’s Word to God’s people (Heb. 13:7). They lead the church in the ministry of the Word, showing themselves to be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). Elders lead and feed the flock, knowing that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4; cf. Deut. 8:3).

Elders live under the constant pressure of knowing they will one day stand before the Chief Shepherd, giving an account for how they led His flock.

After describing their nature, Peter then details how elders are to exercise their oversight. He employs three phrases: “not under compulsion, but willingly”; “not for shameful gain, but eagerly”; and “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” Given the lofty biblical standard, it’s essential that leaders assume the pastorate humbly, checking their hearts against the criteria that Peter lists.

Accountable Leadership

Leadership is not only pastoral; it is also accountable. The elder who takes his calling seriously lives under the constant pressure of knowing that the “chief Shepherd” will one day appear, not only granting an “unfading crown of glory” but also requiring that he give an account for how he led (Heb. 13:17).  Scripture teaches that we are accountable to one another, yes (Eph. 5:21); but that’s not what Peter has in view here. He has in view elders being accountable to Christ.

Importantly, the New Testament presents an accountability structure that is neither a democracy nor an autocracy but a theocracy. That is, God mediates His rule through His Son, the Chief Shepherd, by means of the Bible.  This is why Paul, thinking along the lines of church leadership, writes,

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. (1 Cor. 4:1–4)

Servants of God’s people are to be found faithful, Paul states—not necessarily successful, at least by the world’s standards! And it’s Christ who will render that verdict: “It is the Lord who judges me.” Leaders are accountable to Christ.

Who will give an account? Those to whom the church’s leadership is entrusted. Do we understand the significance of setting apart people to leadership positions in the church?

In the church, God mediates His rule through His Son, the Chief Shepherd, by means of the Bible.

If you are a pastor, the implications for today are sobering. The words spoken from the pulpit: you will give an account. Every private counsel: you will give an account. Every occasion on which you make light of God’s Word: you will give an account.

Plural Leadership

A third quality of church leadership according to the New Testament is its plurality. After all, Peter exhorts the “elders”—plural, not singular. Christ, the Chief Shepherd, has purposed to appoint undershepherds to lead His flock by the crook of His Word. So it’s His flock, and it’s His Word by which we correct, exhort, encourage, etc., in the church.

Because eldership is a plurality, the position’s requirements are shared requirements. There isn’t one distinction of standard for one pastoral duty and a different one for another. Rather, the privileges and responsibilities—the triumphs and the trials that accompany leadership—are shared among those whom God has positioned to lead.

Yet while there ought not to be a distinction of standard, there may be a distinction of function. Put another way, there are always leaders among leaders. We can see this in Jesus’ pattern for leadership. He called the Twelve and appointed from among them three leaders: Peter, James, and John, who were Jesus’ inner circle, as it were. Paul also distinguished among church leaders based on their function: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor”—and here’s the distinction—“especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17).

We must recognize the unique temptation that accompanies the preaching of God’s Word. Preachers hold a position in which they can build up or tear down on a grand scale (Prov. 18:21). What protects the one entrusted to preach from becoming arrogant, domineering, and tyrannical? Plural leadership. The corrective is built into the very blueprint of New Testament eldership. It’s the elders’ shared responsibility to protect one another as they guard, lead, and love the flock well.

Spiritual Leadership

Church leadership, lastly, is spiritual. Peter acknowledges the inherent spiritual quality of leadership when he speaks of the elder being “a partaker in [God’s] glory” and of his anticipating “the unfading crown of glory.” These are spiritual realities for a spiritual role.

The biblical commands to ‘obey’ and ‘submit’ to one’s leaders are difficult but clear.

What role, if any, should the congregation play in the church’s spiritual life? Hebrews 13 helps us. Writing to church members, the author stresses their function:

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. … Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb. 13:7–8, 17)

“Remember.” “Imitate.” “Obey.” “Submit.” These commands summarize the congregation’s spiritual responsibility to their leaders.

The ideas of obedience and submission are admittedly difficult, but they’re clear. We may wonder whether there’s ever an occasion when these commands do not apply. Must we always submit to our leaders? Scripture is clear on this matter too. Leaders are those who speak God’s Word (Heb. 13:7). Certainly, if church leadership departs from the authority and rule of God’s Word, then their leadership is due neither obedience nor submission. Yet as long as they remain reined and ruled by Scripture, they should be given due deference.

If church leadership departs from the authority and rule of God’s Word, then their leadership is due neither obedience nor submission.

Indeed, the church as a whole is to live under the rule of God and His Word. The eighteenth-century pastor John Newton would often offer his congregation a reminder along these lines, which resonates still today:

I account it my honour and happiness that I preach to a free people, who have the Bible in their hands. To your Bibles I appeal. I entreat, I charge you to receive nothing upon my word, any farther than I prove it from the word of God; and bring every preacher, and every sermon that you hear, to the same standard.1

This article was adapted from the sermon “Leaders in the Local Church” by Alistair Begg.

John Newton, “Of a Living and a Dead Faith,” in The Works of John Newton (1820; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1985), 2:558. ↩︎

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