Flashback Friday: Elders (Part 1)

In this week’s Flashback Friday blog we will be considering a past set of sermons that we did on the role of elders and deacons in the local church. In 1 Timothy chapter 3 Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, addresses Timothy, the pastor at Ephesus, on the topic of Elders and deacons. In the first 7 verses he directly addresses Elders.

As we address this topic a word needs to be said about the word elder in the New Testament. In fact, in 1 Timothy 3 the word “elder” is never used but Paul does speak of the office of overseer (v. 1). How does this compare with the elders spoken of in chapter 5? What about pastors? Some argue that these are three separate offices. Some argue that these are two separate offices. and some argue that these are all one single office. What does the whole of scripture have to say on this issue?

I believe there are two main passages that clear up this confusion for us; 1 Peter 5:1-4 and Acts chapter 20. In 1 Peter 5, Peter exhorts the elders to faithfulness in their witness and he refers to these elders as those who exercise oversight and as pastors who shepherd the flock (v. 2). This seems to indicate that in Peter’s mind there was not a distinction between elders, pastors, and overseers.  It Paul’s mind these were different names for the same office. Now in Acts chapter 20 we see the same thing.  Paul was giving his final speech to the elders at Ephesus and what we see in his address and verse 28 is this, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers to care for the Church of God which he obtained with his own blood.” It seems that in Paul’s mind as well the terms elder/overseer/pastor are interchangeable.

This concept of using different words to express the same office is not foreign to us. Think about the office of President of the United States. He can also be referred to as commander in chief, or chief executive, among other titles. Yet we know that all of these titles are in reference to a single office. So it is with the office of elder/pastor/overseer. Now with this foundation we can come to 1st Timothy 3 and see that Paul’s primary point is about the character of an elder.

Jeramie Rinne writes, “It became clear to me that Christlike elders are not an optional church feature; they are central to God’s plan for shepherding his churches” (Church Elders, pg. 17). We can see in the text that he provides both positive and negative commands about the character of an elder. In fact, Paul lays out these characteristics in an ABABC pattern talking about the positive then the negative then back to the positive them back to the negative before coming to a conclusion. Notice what Paul writes:

Therefore, an overseer must be above reproach,the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable,hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.  – 1 Timothy 3:2-6

Notice a couple things.  Notice the primary concern of Paul is character (not skill).  The only skill he requires of elders is the ability to teach (v. 2).  Notice that they are to have lives marked by faithfulness to Christ, to their wife, and to their family.

Paul finishes by telling us that an elder must have a good reputation among non-Christians.  He ends exactly where he begins: reputation matters. Pastors are not to be monks, they’re to be among the people. A pastor’s life must be known on a deep level. This is part of the reason a plurality matters (something we will look at next week). The expectation is that a man’s reputation, his family life, his relationship with non-Christians, among other things, must be clearly known and able to be examined. This means that pastors don’t live up on a mountain in solitude but in community and accountability

Lastly we will turn to consider the responsibilities of an elder.

Elders have two primary responsibilities: to teach and to lead.  1 Timothy 5:17 says it this way, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”  Some have claimed this verse teaches that there are two forms of elders, those who rule and those who teach. But that isn’t what the text is saying. It is saying that we should give honor to those who rule well, which are those who labor in teaching. All Elders lead and all should be able to teach but some rule and teach and labor in a way that is “worthy of double honor.” In fact, I would argue that teaching is one of the ways elders effectively rule. As elders cast vision and make decision among the body they must be grounded in the teaching and authority of the word of God. Elders have been given the authority and responsibility to lead (just as they “manage” their family) and to teach.

In closing, let’s ask ourselves four questions.

First, do we have a leaders that are marked by the qualities of 1 Timothy Chapter 3?  Are they faithful Christ and to their families?

Second, does our leadership structure reflect that of the New Testament? Do you have a Biblical understanding of elders and pastors? Do we understand their role? Do our leaders understand the importance of living in community and accountability? Brothers we are not monks.

Third are we pursuing men to this noble task? Are we training and equipping men who desire the office of Elder for that noble task?

Lastly to those who may be reading this and are not elders are you seeking to model these characteristics in your own life? Even if you are not called to the responsibilities of Elders we should all be striving for the character of elders.

Next week we will look at part 2 examining the relationship between elders and the sufficiency of scripture, the plurality of elders, the relationship between elders and the congregation, and the elder’s relationship to the only Head and Senior Pastor of the Church, Jesus Christ.

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