The Function of the Elder (or, Does Scripture Justify the Modern Pastoral Office?)

I want this post (indeed, this series) to be affirming. I want to affirm what is scriptural even if that means denying what is accepted in our day. So, let’s look at what Scripture says about the elder and together affirm what is there. While I believe it is entirely acceptable for the elder to do things which are outside of Scripture, we should weigh these things against Scripture. If they are contrary to biblical principles, then we should deny them. I’m sure we will disagree on whether certain things are contrary to Scripture, but at least we can get some thoughts rolling.

Note: I believe that the words elder, pastor, overseer, bishop, overseer, etc. speak of the same person and they will be used interchangeably throughout this post.

What does the New Testament actually say about elders?

Surprisingly, it really doesn’t say much considering the size of the New Testament.

Let’s start with what Jesus says about the leaders of his Body. Admittedly, this isn’t specifically referring to elders, but it is referring to those who will lead, which certainly includes elders. In Luke 22 he tells his disciples, who were arguing about who was the greatest, that those who lead in the Kingdom of God are not like the Gentiles. They are not “masters” or “rulers” with authority over them. Rather, they are like slaves. They aren’t the oldest son who will run the family. Rather, they like the youngest person in the room.

In Acts 15 we find that the elders took part, with the apostles and the Jerusalem church, in a discussion on what to do about Gentile converts. The apostles and elders then wrote a letter to the other churches, telling them what the Holy Spirit showed them regarding the best course of action.

In Acts 20, they are to care for the church.

In Ephesians 4 they are, along with others, to equip the saints for ministry (building up the body).

In James 5 they are to lay hands and pray over the sick.

In 1 Timothy 5 they take part in preaching and teaching.

In 1 Peter 5 they are to watch over the “flock” like a shepherd and to be an example of how to live.

1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 tell us that the elder should live as an example for the church.

A handful of passages (e.g. 1 Pet 5, Heb 13, etc) speak of obeying the elders and that the elders are to “rule over” the church. In my next post I will deal with the issue of authority in the church. Here, I will only say that I believe these are misinterpretations and misunderstandings of the Greek text. More on that next time.

(This is not an exhaustive list of passages on eldership. If you wish to bring up more, I would be happy to consider them.)

Essentially, we see the elders carrying out a few general functions. 1) They are examples of how to live righteously, 2) they are to care for and watch over the members of the body, 3) they are to help the members use their gifts (here, I would include the function of teaching).

While you may disagree on my statement regarding authority, I’m sure we can all affirm these other functions of the elder. But, can we call this a full-time job? In one sense, yes. It takes all of one’s time to live righteously. In another sense, no. Allow me explain.

The majority of functions which constitute the modern pastor’s full-time status are nowhere in Scripture (e.g. preaching 3 times a week, making hospital/house-calls, administration, board-meetings, etc). The modern pastorate is based on the corporate business model in which he is the functional equivalent of a CEO.

Matt 18; 1 Cor 12-14; Eph 4:11-16; Col 3:16; Heb 10:24-25, etc. tell us that all of the members of the church are responsible for teaching, ministry, leading songs, admonishing, dealing with “church discipline,” encouraging one another, exhorting one another, prophesying, etc. All of this is done in the context of the corporate church gathering, not merely in everyday life (though, it is certainly done there as well). Also, “equipping the saints” is not exclusively pastoral; those who prophesy, evangelize, and teach are to equip the saints–these are roles which any member of the church could fill, depending on the Spirit’s gifting.

Yet, in the modern church, the responsibility of teaching, dealing with church discipline, counseling, equipping the saints, baptizing, serving the Lord’s Supper, etc. is placed squarely on the pastor’s shoulders. Another person, usually an ordained minister, is solely responsible for the music.

This shows that the Body is not given the opportunity to function in the church gathering as Christ and the Apostles intended. They cannot teach unless it is on occasion, with the permission of the pastor (I do not believe that Sunday School teachers suffices for the teaching that each member is called to do. It is not done in the context of the corporate gathering as in the NT.), they cannot lead in song, and they cannot take turns prophesying. Indeed, if anyone speaks during the pastors sermon (other than to say, “amen!”) they are viewed as a distraction.

“Ministry,” in the modern sense, is a function of the select few who are “ordained.” In the cases of some smaller churches, only one person is viewed as the “minister.”

In Scripture we find no distinction between “clergy” and “laity.” In fact, there is no such thing as “clergy!” There is no separate class of Christians who are assigned more responsibility in the church than any other. Of course, there are different gifts, but all of the members of Christ’s Body are responsible for all of the work done in the church assembly and life including (but not limited to) the actions listed above.

In the modern church (of which I have been a part for over 17 years) the “laity” has a few opportunities for what is often mistakenly called “ministry.” These are things such as door-greeting, handing out bulletins, nursery duty, running sound, passing the offering plate, etc. I believe this is a heart-breaking waste of the gifts the Holy Spirit has given the members of Christ’s own Body. To replace a person’s God-given privilege and calling–to teach, prophesy, or lead a song and thus, build the Body–with a handful of bulletins or an offering plate is to deny the manifestation of the Kingdom on Earth.

On the other hand, there are times in which people have the opportunity to do real ministry, such as, feeding the poor, volunteering at a shelter, and serving each other in times of need. As a denomination, the SBC has done great work in the way of disaster relief. I am thrilled that many churches do such things. However, in most cases, this is not the norm. And, the church gathering still functions in a way that denies the mutual ministry set forth in Scripture.

It is important to note Hebrew 12:15. The writer is speaking to believers concerning each other. In English translations it says to “see to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by that many be defiled.” The Greek word translated, “see to it” is the word episkopountes, from which we get our word “Episcopal.” It is the same word translated “overseer” when speaking of elders in the church. This passage shows us that the work of “oversight” is not limited to the elder. All believers are responsible to care for (watch over) one another.

Some have taken my position as one that denies any sort of leadership. But, this isn’t the case at all. I simply believe that Scripture shows us a much different model of leadership from what we find in the church today. It has also been argued to me that the church needs a “head.” I agree with this, but nowhere in Scripture is a human designated as the head of the church. Indeed, only Christ is the head.

In conclusion, I believe that what Scripture affirms as normative for the church gathering necessarily denies, or at least greatly limits, much of what the modern pastors does. As Francis Chan put it, if you lived on an island and just read a Bible and decided to start gathering as the church, it would look nothing like what we currently have. I believe that every member would take part in the gathering, every member would be the “ordained minister,” because we are a Kingdom of Priests.

Does the modern church gathering look anything like what we find in the New Testament? Should it? Is the eldership, as shown in Scripture, a full-time or even bi-vocational “job”? If you were to read the Bible with no prior experience in the modern church, would you envision the church gathering functioning as it does today?

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4 responses to “The Function of the Elder (or, Does Scripture Justify the Modern Pastoral Office?)

  1. If you are willing, please contact me. I am a former worship director at a PCA church in Atlanta for several years who was pushed out by a controlling pastor who was threatened by my questioning of his control. I have no bones to pick, just a lot of pain. Your post above has comforted me in my seemingly solitary questions. Would you be willing to correspond with me in any way?

  2. Thanks for that Tylor. The church I attend does much of what you mention (all members contribute to weekly sermons, prophesying, leading prayer, administering the LORD’s supper, etc). My Sr. Pastor considered his job to “work himself out of a job”. Meaning that he would preach more than anyone else, but was always encouraging others to “get a word ready”. Since he passed away, the teaching and preaching has truly been spread out the among the body. When we partake of the LORD’s supper, we have a different member of the congregation lead it each time. This is really beautiful in that it encourages each person to research and find something personal or “new” to them to share with the group regarding this sacrament. At our Wednesday night prayer meetings we have a different person lead each week, who then also gives a shorter devotional type teaching.

    Of course, many people dont like this “team” approach to church. Most of our visitors want us to have one person who preaches each week. They dont understand why we spend so much time in worship or why we let people other than “leaders” on the microphone during a weekly service. They dont like that we (shocking I know) take the time to actually PRAY over our members needs during the service (even if it makes the service go for 2-3 hours).

    Many of our members left once the Sr. Pastor died because we had his wife become the new Sr. Pastor and they didnt agree with female leadership.

    We do have “leadership”. There is no disorder or chaos. The Sr. Pastor directs the meeting at the leading of the Holy Spirit and will call forth individuals while being sensitive to the Spirit. You would be amazed at how much better the Holy Spirit can put together a meeting than any human efforts ever could. The songs always go with the sermons which always go with the prophetic words/ scriptures that God places on different individuals hearts. None of the people discussed it in advanced, but all listening to the Spirit creates a “concert” that is beautifully in harmony, orchestration, and order. Every meeting is different and exciting, never boring or predictable.

    Sadly most people like the comfortable church they are “used to” regardless about what the Bible says regarding everyone contributing to the assembly of the saints. They want it to start and end at the same time and be consistent so they know exactly what to expect. In other words, they reject the leading of the Holy Spirit, who blows whenever and wherever He wants to.

    Keep on writing. And be encouraged, there are churches doing what you believe and know in your heart is correct.

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