Elders: The grownups in the church.

ELDER 'ɛld.ər adjective. Of a greater or advanced age.
2. [noun] A person of greater or advanced age.
3. [noun] A spiritually mature Christian, usually consulted as part of a church’s leadership, often entrusted with ministerial or priestly responsibility.
[Eldership 'ɛl.dər.ʃɪp noun.]

After Jesus was raptured, his church had to continue without him physically here. Which was fine, ’cause he’d already trained apprentices, and designated 12 of them as apostles. One was dead, so the other 11 picked a replacement Ac 1.26 and went back to 12. (It’s God’s favorite number, y’see.)

Running the church with only 12 leaders quickly became a problem, because the church immediately surged by 3,000 people, Ac 2.41 and soon after another two or five thousand; Ac 4.4 it’s debatable. In any event that’s a lot of people to train to follow Jesus; the food ministry alone was chaos, with accusations of prejudice against Greek-speakers. Ac 6.1 The apostles recognized they needed more leaders, and told the people to select their ministers based on their honesty, wisdom, and spirituality. Ac 6.3 In other words their spiritual maturity.

When Paul of Tarsus wrote to Timothy of Lystra about 20 years later, the apostle reminded the youngish bishop that spiritual maturity was still a requirement for leadership. Y’don’t just pick leaders because they’re friendly, popular, magnetic, and entertaining. (Or because they’re family!) You pick them because they’re fruity; because they’ve been letting the Holy Spirit develop their character and make ’em like Jesus. Only christlike people should lead and run Christ Jesus’s churches; nobody else is appropriate.

And arguably only people with Christ’s traits should run anything. Businesses, organizations, charities, campaigns; only they should be considered for public office. No I’m not saying only Christians should hold public offices; not only is that not constitutional, but it ignores the fact non-Christians can often be just as patient, thoughtful, gracious, kind, and self-controlled as any Christian. (More than many Christians, sometimes.) My point is the grownups need to be in charge. That’s especially true in Christ’s churches, but oughta be true everywhere.

The Christianese term for grownup is elder, which comes from the New Testament’s word πρεσβύτερος/presvýteros, “elder.” It’s where we also get our Christianese word presbyterian, “elder-run,” meaning a church run by elders, instead of by voting members or solely by the head pastor. Yeah, “elder” makes it sound like the church is being run by its old people (and yeah, such churches totally exist). But when the apostles who wrote the New Testament discussed a presvýteros, they meant the longtime, devout, spiritually senior Christians. The folks they could legitimately trust to give sound advice about following Jesus. The folks we should be able to trust.

Maturity. Not age, not talent.

No, elders don’t have to be senior citizens. Any 30-year-old who grew up Christian (i.e. Timothy) is usually gonna be much further along in their walk with Christ, than any 90-year-old new convert.

Though sometimes you’ll get senior-citizen Christians who are convinced they oughta be elders, solely ’cause they’re old. In one of my previous churches we had a woman who insisted everyone call her “Grandma” (including people the same age!), and expected everyone to come to her for advice. We didn’t. She lacked gentility: She was fearful, and terrified by so many things: Devils were everywhere! Her fears were really off-putting, and exacerbated by the obvious fact she didn’t know bible. But she’d gone to church all her life, so she presumed this made her an elder. No it didn’t. She lacked spiritual maturity. And the fact nobody took her seriously, really frustrated her—exposing her lack of patience too.

Eldership is about maturity, not age. And every Christian, including youngsters, should aspire to become spiritually mature. 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.

Yeah, we won’t be perfect. But the fact we’re trying, is what God cares about—and after a certain point our fellow Christians see us trying, see the Spirit’s work in us, and start to naturally defer to our spiritual maturity. They ask our advice. They expect us to take leadership roles. They treat us like the grownups in the church—because that’s what we’ve shown ourselves to be.

And yeah, often people get nudged into leadership for other reasons. They’re talented speakers or musicians, or they’ve gained some financial or political success, or they’re physically attractive. Happens in many a dysfunctional church. But the people of our churches are supposed to be reading their bibles, and oughta know these other attributes don’t make you a leader. Maturity does.

Likewise people who try to nudge themselves into leadership. Fr’instance some zealous kid will get it into his head that God wants him to become a pastor. (Which is fine; God does tell kids that sometimes.) But rather than get prepared—i.e. get an internship, go to seminary, work on their character—they demand the leadership role right now, and figure their zeal makes up for their character deficiencies. Young people are full of piss and excitement, but they go wrong all the time, precisely because they lack maturity, experience, and the Spirit’s fruit.

Nope; in the early church, Christians tried to put mature believers in charge. People who are grounded in the faith, solid in their practices, who had their fleshly zeal tamped down by the Holy Spirit. People who realize leadership is service: It’s not bossing others around, nor wielding power and making things happen. It’s being helpful.

1 Peter 5.1-4 KWL
1 As an elder and witness to Christ’s sufferings,
I therefore encourage you elders, fellow 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 who helped set us straight.

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 know a lot about religious stuff, but we’re just plain idiots when it comes to worldly stuff. (Which Jesus warned us against. Mt 10.16) It’s our duty to get ourselves, and other immature believers, beyond this point.

And do it in love. And joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, and other fruit of the Spirit, which mature Christians 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 graciously pay it forward.

WITH OTHERS’ GAIN IN MIND. Sad to say, a lot of elders only look 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.” 1Ti 5.18 Or they claim everything is for our mutual benefit… but they benefit way more than newbies do.

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. Mt 10.8 I have no business whatsoever charging newbies a fee for the stuff the Holy Spirit taught me for free. For that matter, whenever somebody made me pay for it, and shouldn’t have—’cause way too many so-called “shepherds” rip off their flocks for profit—I should all the more turn round and give it away, and undercut those thieves.

LIKE A FELLOW EMPLOYEE. NOT A BOSS. Also sad to say, a lot of elders keep newbies beneath them. They wanna stay on top; they don’t want these other Christians to become equals. They act as though they’re Lord, not Jesus, and turn our freedom in Christ into slavery.

The Spirit’s fruit is ἐγκράτεια/engkráteia, “self-control.” Ga 5.23 All of us need to learn to govern ourselves! Newbies won’t learn to independently function as a Christ-follower when an elder always has to sign off on their every act, or demand they be accountable for every thought. Not that we’re not accountable to one another, but elders have no business putting people into slavish positions. Yeah, I might tell my students they need to confess their sins to someone else, Jm 5.16, 1Jn 1.9 but of course it needn’t be me. And I should be able to trust them to figure out for themselves who they trust to confess to, when they oughta confess, what they oughta confess, and so forth. God’s not a micromanager; I shouldn’t be one either. It’s hard enough managing myself! I’m too busy judging on my own sins; I have no business judging anyone else’s.

If elders are the church’s grownups, we need to act like grownups. We need to practice a lot of humility. We still answer to Jesus, after all.

Defining an elder.

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.

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. (Church duties vary so widely, and can change so greatly, that it doesn’t matter what your duties are: You do what needs doing.) Instead Paul emphasized character.

Because most organizations, stupidly, overlook character. They hire people based on their skillset… and get burned when these people’s hideous character flaws inevitably get in the way of the job, and damage the organization instead of helping it. Loveable rogues may make entertaining TV shows, but they’re utter hell to work with. And if you put ’em in church leadership, they shipwreck the church. They 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 ἀνέγκλητος/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 1.6 is these folks aren’t argumentative, immoral, nor insubordinate. Nor arrogant, angry, drunk, picking fights, or focused on results instead of people. Tt 1.7 They don’t make excuses for their fruitlessness; they don’t do fruitlessness. 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 (μὴ αἰσχροκερδῆ/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 (μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἀνήρ/miás gynekós 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 to give such “small” jobs only to mature Christians, i.e. elders.

BELIEVING CHILDREN (τέκνα ἔχων πιστά/tékna éhon pistá, “children having faith”). Every minister’s first priority is their family. If they’ve not raised their own kids to be Christian—if their own devout lifestyle hasn’t significantly impacted their children for the better—they don’t have a devout lifestyle. They’re hypocrites. The kids know it. That’s why they don’t believe.

Now, I don’t know that Paul was writing about adult children. ’Cause we can do absolutely everything right, yet our adult children might still quit Jesus. It happens. But if a Christian can’t point their minor children to Christ, when the kids are most open to him, how does this demonstrate their ability to lead God’s church? It doesn’t.

THEY STICK TO THE MESSAGE (ἀντεχόμενον τοῦ κατὰ τὴν διδαχὴν πιστοῦ λόγου/antehómenon tu katá tin didahín pistú lóyu, “sticking to the faith[ful] word according to teaching”). 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.

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 (μὴ πάροινον/mi párinon, “not a drinker”; νηφαλίους/nifalíus, “sober”). This applies to problem drinkers as well as alcoholics: Ministers shouldn’t need “liquid courage” before they can approach people. Nor should we figure—as young people will—that once our job is over, we 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 (σεμνούς/semnús, “honorable”). Never appoint an leader whom the people of your church—heck, the people of your city—don’t respect. Lots of churches violate this rule by putting pastors’ kids, newbies, or immature young people, in positions of responsibility long before they’re ready. 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.

Are you cut out for church leadership?

Often Christians 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 ministry, i.e. serving others. They mean moving into a church career: Getting a job at the church, becoming a pastor, going to seminary, that sort of thing. That’s another ball of wax: Sometimes God wants us to make a career of it, and sometimes he just wants us to volunteer. But either way, we’re meant to become elders, and minister.

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.” 1Ti 3.13 KWL You get more respect, more confidence, more faith.

So aim for Christian maturity. Start ministering.