When we become spiritually mature, we can benefit our whole church.
- Elder /'ɛld.ər/ n. A leader or senior figure in a tribe or other group.
- 2. Presbyter: A spiritually mature Christian of any age, usually consulted as part of a church’s leadership, usually entrusted with ministerial or priestly responsibility.
- [Eldership /'ɛl.dər.ʃɪp/ n.]
The term presbýteros/“elder” is used to describe the senior Christians in a church: The longtime, spiritually mature, fruitful, devout Christians. The folks we can legitimately trust to give us solid advice and sound instructions about following Jesus. The folks the leaders of our churches trust; assuming our leaders aren’t nincompoops, so can we.
Elders don’t have to be senior citizens, if that’s what you’re imagining. Any 30-year-old who grew up Christian is (usually) gonna be further along in their walk with Christ than any 90-year-old new convert.
Yeah, sometimes Christians assume they’re elders, or certainly oughta be considered elders, because they are old. In one of my previous churches, we had a woman who insisted everyone call her “Grandma” (even people her age), and come to her for some of her sage advice. Which we didn’t, ’cause we knew she had a few screws loose. Emotional immaturity always means spiritual immaturity, and anybody who listened to her advice would quickly realize she knew very, very little about God. But she’d been in church all her life, so she assumed that granted her elder status. Does not. It’s about maturity, not age.
Every Christian should aspire to become spiritually mature. And therefore elders. So we need to follow Jesus. Do as he did. Come under the guidance of some of his wiser followers. Produce good fruit. Practice good works. Live wisely. Be responsible. Obey. Okay, we’re not perfect, but we’re trying, which is all God cares about; and after a certain point our fellow Christians will see the Spirit’s work in us, and ask us to take positions of leadership. And thus we become elders.
(That, or those fellow Christians don’t know what constitutes an elder, and ask us to lead because they like our style. As happens in many a dysfunctional church. If you’ve got a spiritually immature pastor, usually the rest of the leadership is just as bad. But that’s a worst-case scenario. Common though.)
In the bible, “elder” and “presbyter” are the same thing. In many churches, they’re not. My denomination, fr’instance: “Elder” is what we often call church board members, and “presbyter” is what we call pastors when they gather together for district-level or national-level stuff. Roman Catholic and Anglican churches translate presbýteros as “priest,” and have a whole different idea of what that duty entails.
But in the early church, the elders were the mature Christians who ran things. Simon Peter, apostle and missionary, called himself an elder.
How do elders lead?
Peter’s directions for his church’s elders demonstrate the proper leadership style for mature Christians. Elders should know this stuff already, but sometimes elders have bad days, or lose sight of what it is we’re meant to be doing, and need reminding.
1 Peter 5.1-4 KWL
- 1 So I encourage you elders, as an elder and witness to Christ’s sufferings,
- who also partners in his glory once he’s revealed:
- 2 Shepherd God’s flock which he gave you to oversee.
- Not because you have to, but because you want to, for God.
- Nor out of greed for success, but wishing them well.
- 3 Nor like a slave-driving boss over clerks, but like you’re also one of the flock.
- 4 When the head shepherd appears, you’ll receive a wreath of unfading glory.
With a good attitude. Yeah, as mature Christians, we’re obligated to help out the immature Christians. We gotta work with them. It’s our duty. But we need to avoid the grudging attitude which comes with the duty: “I gotta work with them again? Ugh. They’re so selfish and foolish.” True. But so were we, once upon a time. Thank God we knew patient, loving elders.
We have to bear in mind: We were immature once. We were young and dumb, and did a lot of stupid things before the Holy Spirit snapped us out of it. Some of us still do a lot of stupid things: We might be mature in spiritual things, but we’re just plain idiots about worldly stuff. (Which Jesus warned us against.
And do it in love. And joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, and other fruit of the Spirit, which as mature Christians we oughta have lots of. We should do it because God would, because we want to please God, because we love God, because we love the people whom God loves. We should want to take God’s love and pay it forward.
With others’ gain in mind. Sad to say, a lot of elders are only looking out for themselves. It makes them feel good to dispense wisdom and instruct newbies. It makes them feel important to be honored and put in charge of things. Some elders arrange everything for their benefit, and justify it by saying, “I’m a worker in the kingdom, and the worker is worthy of their wages.”
Elders need to think of our ministry as charity. Like Jesus instructed his students, we were given loads of freebies, and we should give things away in the same manner.
Like a fellow employee, not a boss. Also sad to say, a lot of elders don’t help newbies grow: They keep ’em down, keep ’em beneath them, and pile on the rules. They forget we all share the same master, Christ Jesus: They act as though they’re Lord, and hand down rulings and punishments and obligations and procedures. They turn our freedom in Christ into slavery.
The Spirit’s fruit is engkráteia/“self-control.”
So elders need to practice a lot of humility. We still answer to Jesus, after all.
Requirements for elders.
When Paul instructed Titus to pick out elders, he recommended people of good character, much the same way he told Timothy to require it of deacons. If we Christians are gonna lead, we can’t practice the same fruitless, fleshly behavior as pagans and newbies. Especially since we’re trying to teach people not to behave that way.
Titus 1.5-9 KWL
- 5 This is why I left you on Crete: You can set right what’s lacking.
- You can set up elders in each town, like I ordered you.
- 6 If anyone’s blameless, monogamous, with believing children,
- not argumentative, immoral, nor insubordinate—
- 7 for supervisors have to be blameless as God’s stewards.
- Not arrogant, angry, drunk, a fighter, nor greedy for success;
- 8 instead loves strangers, loves goodness, sensible, fair, devout, self-controlled.
- 9 And they stick to the faithful message they’ve been taught,
- so they can help with healthy teaching, and expose those who oppose it.
Titus 2.2-5 KWL
- 2 Male elders must be: Not mixed up with alcohol. Well-regarded.
- Sensible. Healthy in faith and love and endurance.
- 3 Female elders likewise must be: Holy in lifestyle. Not devilish. Not enslaved to much wine.
- They teach what’s good, 4 so they can encourage female newbies to love their men and children,
- 5 be sensible, be pure, do good works in their home, and take their men into consideration.
- Thus God’s word won’t be slandered.
You’ll notice Paul’s requirements weren’t educational, theological, or technical. They were entirely based on character. He didn’t tell Titus to make sure elders knew their duties first, ’cause anyone should be able to figure out whether a person is qualified to do a job. (Or even needs to be qualified: Often people are bright enough to figure it out on their own.) Instead he emphasized character. Because most organizations, foolishly, overlook character flaws, hire people based on their skillset… and get burned when these character flaws inevitably get in the way of the job. Loveable rogues may make for entertaining TV shows, but they’re utter hell to work with. And if you put ’em in church leadership, they’ll crash the church. They’ll drive Christians away from both church and Jesus.
Some of these qualifications are the same as those for pastors and deacons. I’ll go through a few.
Blameless (Greek anéngklitos). Not accused of anything. No controversies are hanging over their heads. Nobody in the church has a legitimate grudge against them. No scandals are tainting their record. The church isn’t overlooking serious character flaws because they’re just so winsome, so talented, so anointed, or whatever other excuses churches make for putting problem people in charge.
Connected to that
Tt 1.6is these folks aren’t argumentative, immoral, nor insubordinate. Nor arrogant, angry, drunk, picking fights, or focused on results instead of people. Tt 1.7They don’t make excuses for their fruitlessness (they don’t do fruitlessness), and they don’t try to ignore or intimidate those in the church who are over them. They’re trustworthy. The church will never be embarrassed by setting them in charge.
Not greedy for success (mi aishrokerdí/“not [into] embarrassing gain”). A lot of people covet success, however they define success: They want money, possessions, power, titles, positions, and to get ahead. And some folks aren’t satisfied with being an elder: They want to be the most popular elder. Or the head elder. Or carry more weight than the pastor. Or they want that duty because it looks nice on their résumé, but can’t care less about the church.
Or they want it to look like they’re doing a spectacular job in their role, but they’re actually doing nothing, and lying about results. Like giving a testimony of “We had 20 people come forward!”—but not to receive Christ; the preacher told everyone to come forward, and all 20 of ’em came up. You know, fraudulent stuff like that. Bluntly, these “slight exaggerations” are lies, and you don’t want a liar, nor anyone unethical, in leadership.
Monogamous (miás gynaikós anír/“one-woman man”). In both Jewish and Cretan culture, polygamy was actually allowed; but thanks to Roman influence, it was frowned upon. Keeping this in mind, this statement isn’t so much about polygamy, or even adultery (a fleshly lifestyle, which disqualifies people from leadership right there), but promiscuity.
Sex is a powerful temptation. Not just for ministers, but everyone. Just about every church has undergone a sex scandal. (If yours hasn’t, it’s only a matter of time: It’s either a new church, or your leaders have been successful thus far at hiding them.) And loads of churches get people to look the other way at sex scandals because those involved were “only the usher” or “only the secretary” or “only a youth leader”… and nobody realized we’re only to give such jobs to mature Christians, i.e. elders.
Believing children (tékna éhon pistá/“children having faith”). Any minister’s first priority is their family. If they’ve not raised the kids to be Christian—if their devout lifestyle hasn’t significantly influenced their children—they don’t have a devout lifestyle. They’re hypocrites, and the kids know it, ’cause kids always know.
Tékna means Paul wasn’t writing about adult children. We can do everything right, yet our adult children might still decide to have nothing to do with Christ. That’s a whole different deal. If a Christian can’t direct their minor children to Christ, when they’re most open to him, how does this demonstrate their ability to lead God’s church? It doesn’t.
They stick to the message (antehómenon tu katá tin didahín pistú lógu). Elders need to not just know our Christianity, but be committed to it. No, we don’t need to be fully trained theologians and seminary graduates. But we do need to know the basics, ’cause we’ve been living them out. We need to know our church’s statement of faith. We oughta know the creeds, that Jesus’s death frees us from sin, and what God’s kingdom is. We should be praying, reading our bibles, attending church regularly, and being generally religious about our relationships with Jesus.
And we need to be committed to these things. Churches should never have an elder who believes in God, but isn’t so sure about Jesus. Or doubts whether prayer works. Or doesn’t believe in miracles, or resurrection, or trust the scriptures. If elders don’t, it’ll come out, and become a giant problem.
Not mixed up with alcohol (nifalíus/“sober”). This applies to alcoholics, of course. But also to people who are problem drinkers. Ministers shouldn’t need “liquid courage” before they can preach, or deal with difficult people. Nor should they figure, as young people so often do, that once the job is over they can go to the pub and get sloppy. People love to use the excuse, “The minister does it; why can’t I?” Part of being mature, and a leader, is that we curtail our Christian freedoms for the sake of immature Christians.
Well-regarded (semnús). Never have an elder whom the people of your church—heck, the people of your city—don’t respect. Lots of churches violate this rule by putting newbies, or certain members’ kids, in positions of responsibility, long before they’re ready for it. The assumption is they’ll grow into the job. The reality is far different: The power goes to their head, and they get worse, not better. Maturity is the result of obedience, not leadership. Immature Christians need to be kept far, far away from leadership roles until they’ve proven themselves.
No, an elder might not know how to work the sound system, or clean the kitchen, or write a proper lesson plan and three-point sermon. But elders can learn. Since they’re already blessed with the Spirit’s fruit, they’ll do it in love, in joy, with patience, with kindness and self-control and forgiveness and grace. They may not get things technically correct, but they’ll get everything spiritually right, and that’s what matters most.
I’ve been criticized before for saying this, but I’m still gonna say it: Churches have every right to add qualifications to Paul’s lists, if and when they feel the need.
There are many Christians who insist churches have no business adding to the scriptures. They don’t want their churches forbidding them from alcohol, tobacco, movies with questionable content, makeup, certain styles of clothing, certain items from popular culture, being alone in a room or car with someone of the opposite sex, and all sorts of cultural limitations which we find in conservative churches. They want their freedoms in Christ.
I don’t blame them. But again: Sometimes we gotta curtail our freedoms for the sake of immature Christians. Let’s say your church ministers to a lot of recovering alcoholics. Or your church has just been through a really awful sex scandal. Stands to reason the church will be more sensitive than usual, with the rules about such matters much stricter than usual. No, these extra rules don’t come from the bible. They come from the needs of that church. And if you can’t minister to your church’s needs, don’t take the position.
If they aren’t actually the needs of the church, go ahead and prove your case to the leadership. If you can’t prove it, conform. If you can but they refuse to listen, you shouldn’t minister there anyway. And if you take a leadership position, then break the rules because you don’t agree with them, that’s sin: You promised before God to follow the rules, and violated that promise. Repent.
Are you cut out for church leadership?
Often Christians will wonder about God’s will for our lives, and whether we oughta move into ministry, or some position of church leadership. Well, that’s a no-brainer: Every Christian should already be ministering in one way or another, and every Christian oughta be maturing our way up to eldership. Including you. So yes, you oughta move into ministry. Start serving.
But when Christians talk about “going into ministry,” they don’t actually mean
That means work on your spiritual maturity. Get rid of fleshly behavior. Get your family in order—that should be your first priority, long before you start pitching in at church. If your family’s a mess, that’s the ministry God has for you, for now. Grow up. Help your family. Lead them before you lead others.
That done, go ahead and volunteer for things at your church. Pitch in where you see a need. Churches ask for help all the time: Be that help. Demonstrate your willingness to serve. Demonstrate your willingness to take orders. Your obedience reveals your maturity. So when they start looking for deacons, you’ll come to mind. (Unless you’re disobedient, immature, and more of a pain than a help. But you’re gonna work on that, right?)
You’ll find the more you serve, the more obedient you are, the more mature you become, and the faster your fruit—and faith!—will grow. That’s what Paul meant by, “Those who serve well, in good standing, gain along with that more confident faith in Christ Jesus.”
So aim for Christian maturity. Start ministering.