Biblical Eldership

Titus 1:5-9

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
August 2011

We are studying the book of Titus. It is one of the Pastoral Epistles written by the Apostle Paul around 63 AD about the same time Paul wrote I Timothy. I have a handout that I want to pass out that is an excellent overview of the Book of Titus that I found.

This book was written by Paul to Titus. Titus was a Gentile. He was Greek. He was not circumcised (Galatians 2:3). Timothy was a convert of the Apostle Paul and went on many of his missionary journeys.

Last week we saw that the context of the book was the island of Crete. Crete is a famous Greek island, the largest island of Greece located in the south of the Aegean Sea. It was a large island. There were many people on the island.

Homer said that it has one hundred cities on the island. Paul and Titus did some evangelism in Crete, planted churches. Paul left Crete but gave Titus a job to do after he left. His job was to ordain elders in each of these churches.

These churches needed some leaders but the leaders had to meet certain requirements. We looked last week at the qualifications for an elder in Titus 1. It was pretty practical. We looked at the seventeen qualifications of an elder in Titus. These requirements are in three areas: an elder’s home life, his personal life and his theology.

There are family requirements, character requirements and doctrinal requirements for the office. None are optional. An elder must have ALL seventeen. We also saw that each one of these requirements are qualities that EVERY Christian should have. Every Christian should be holy. Every Christian should have self control. Every Christian should be blameless.

Seven Common Errors about Elders

Last week, I made a promise. I went a little too long so tonight this should be a little shorter. I want to look at seven errors that churches make regarding elders. This list is not exhaustive. There are many things that could be added to this list.

These are very common errors that churches have about elders all across the country. I am going to step on some denominational toes here. Some of these errors are found in liberal churches and some of them are found in conservative churches.

Young Elders

There is no age requirement to be an elder. Paul does not say that elders have to be fifty or sixty years old. On the other hand, there is something not right about an elder who is seventeen or eighteen years old. Some churches have young elders (Mormon Missionaries), which is an oxymoron. It is a joke. They are barely adults and yet they are called elders. The word “elder” means “old man.”

Female Elders

Some churches have woman elders and woman pastors. There are plenty of churches that do this. The Presbyterian Church USA, United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church USA, Assemblies of God, Pentecostals and the Lutheran Church of America are just some of the churches that allow women to serve as elders, pastors, priests, and/or bishops.

The Presbyterian Church USA, for example, has allowed female elders since 1972. St. Marks Church in Burlington, one of the larger churches in our area, has female elders, according to its website.[1]

Biblical Evaluation

There are no women elders or female pastors in the New Testament. There is no biblical precedent for female elders. Elders in the Bible were always male. Paul constantly uses male pronouns. In fact, one of the qualifications of elders is that they are the “husband of one wife”.

Some have argued that female elders are mentioned in Titus 2:3 but that verse is speaking of older women, not women elders. It is not dealing with a church office but a category of people older men (2:2), older women (2:3), young men (2:6), young women (2:4)). In fact, the Greek word for older men (πρεσβύτης) is not even the same Greek word used for elder (πρεσβύτερος) in the previous chapter.

Can women be pastors? Women may have the gift of shepherding and do some pastoring but the office in the NT is limited to men. Does this mean that the Bible is sexist? No. The Bible teaches that men and women are equal in value and dignity. Both are created in the image of God but it also teaches that they have different roles and functions in the church.

No Elders

Some Baptist churches do not have any elders. They only have deacons in the church. In fact, the doctrinal statement of the Southern Baptist Convention says this:

New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers… In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” (Section VI on “The Church”)

Biblical Evaluation

The BFM (2000) specifically says that church offices are pastors and deacons. Why doesn’t it even mention elders? Let’s give the Southern Baptists some slack. Perhaps elders are included in pastors.

That may be but why do they not use the term used in Scripture that is used over and over again? Why do many Baptist churches do not have elders at all? They just have deacons and pastors or one pastor. It is an unbiblical structure. Churches in NT times had elders. Elders are biblical.

One Elder

Some churches have elders but they have only one and he is the pastor. Many Baptist churches are run by a single pastor with a body of deacons. They have a plurality of deacons but not a plurality of elders.

Biblical Evaluation

The Bible teaches a plurality of elders. Scriptures always speaks of elders in the plural. (Titus 1:5; Acts 11:30; 14:23;15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4; James 5:14; I Peter 5:1-2). They had multiple elders. Churches in the NT were run by a team of elders. That does not mean that the elders all do the same thing. Some may be better at administration.

Others may be better at preaching or other things. The point is that nowhere in the NT do we find a church with just one elder. No church ever had just one elder or just one leader. This is significant because it means that the authority and leadership of the church is to be divided and not concentrated in one person.

Where did this model come? It came from the Jews. It is the Jewish model. Synagogues were run by a by a board of elders. Sometimes churches only have one elder because they do not have anyone else who is qualified for the position. That is perfectly valid.

Better have no elders than the wrong ones. On the other hand, this is sometimes just an excuse. I have seen some churches go thirty years with just one elder. Many times, the church has qualified men but simply do not appoint them to the office for whatever reason.

Unqualified Elders

Many churches have elders in their church but they are not qualified for the job. Many churches select people for those positions who do not meet the biblical requirements for the office.

Many churches appoint leaders simply because they have good management or business skills or are successful in the community. Hosea 8:4 says, “They set up kings without my consent; they choose princes without my approval”.

The church today can do exactly the same thing when it puts people in offices without the scriptural qualifications. There are two mistakes here. Some churches throw the rules out and install anyone they want. Other churches add to the rules in Titus.

Man-made rules replace the biblical rules. Here’s a novel idea. Let’s follow the Bible. We do not need to become like the Pharisees and add a list of qualifications that Paul did not give us. We should  also not take away any of qualifications that are listed in the text.  Both extremes should be avoided.

Weak Elders

Some churches have elders. They have a plurality of elders in the church but they do absolutely nothing. They are just figureheads. The one who really runs the church is the senior pastor. He is the one with all power and rules over the elders. He is the person at the top of the organizational pyramid.

Where did this model of one man ministry come from? It is actually very old. It goes back to the second century and comes from a man named Ignatius. Ignatius was one of the apostolic fathers. He was friends with Polycarp, one of St. John’s closest followers. He wrote an epistle to him.

Ignatius believed that the head of the local church was a bishop. Each church was to be presided over by a single bishop. Ignatius said, “As there is only one flesh of Christ and one Eucharist, there should be only one bishop”. The bishop was the ultimate authority of the church. It was a little different to the modern idea of a bishop who rules over a geographic area or a diocese, rather than just a local church.

Biblical Evaluation

Even though this view is very old, it is unbiblical. We know it is unbiblical for several reasons.

1.  Bishop (έπίσκπος) and elder (πρεσβύτερος) mean the same thing.

All biblical scholars agree on this, even Roman Catholic scholars like Ray Brown. The words “bishop” and “elder” are interchangeable in the NT. We see that in Titus 1:6-7. Notice how the two terms overlap one another.

AN ELDER must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient.  Since AN OVERSEER manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain.

The word “elder” points to the dignity of the office and the word “overseer” points to the duties of the office. Their job is to oversee the affairs of the church.

2.  There is no evidence in the NT of a churches being run by one person.

There was not one bishop over the church but many (Philippians 1:1).  There was no “monarchical” bishop in the church at Philippi.  That whole concept is a post-New Testament development.  No man in the New Testament is ever referred to as “the pastor” of a church.

Churches in the NT were not run by one person (God’s CEO). The idea of one man ministry is a Roman Catholic notion with the pastor functioning like the Pope the sole authority. The church in the NT was not a dictatorship (I Peter 5:1-3).

3.  The problem with having the pastor over the elders is that the words elder (πρεσβύτερος) and pastor (ποιμήν) mean the same thing in the NT.

They are synonyms. All scholars agree on this point.  One of the jobs of elders is to shepherd or pastor the flock (Acts 20:28). Elder and Pastor are not two different offices in the NT but are two different words for the same office. A pastor is an elder. An elder is a pastor. Does this mean that it is unbiblical to have a senior pastor? If they are two different offices, it is unbiblical.

In most churches, elders are different from the pastor or the pastoral staff and have less authority that the pastor or pastors. On the other hand, it is not always unbiblical. One of the elders can take the lead and be more visible but that does not mean that biblically he has more authority or power than the other elders or is more important.

You can have a “first among equals”. All of the apostles were equal in authority but Peter took a natural leadership role among the Twelve. He is mentioned first in many of the lists of apostles in the NT. They are all equal in rank.

Elected Elders

In some churches, leaders are elected, not selected. That is how the Pope gets in. He has to have enough votes. The way you become an elder in the Christian Church denomination is that someone in the church nominates you to the position (you cannot nominate yourself) and the congregation votes on it. Churches that have a congregational form of government elect their leaders.

Biblical Evaluation

Elders in the Bible were appointed. Paul told Titus to appoint elders. He did not tell the church to elect elders. They were not chosen by congregational vote (Titus 1:5; Acts 14:23). Paul and Barnabas appointed elders and Titus was to appoint elders as well.

That is very significant. It goes against the policy of some churches. Now this does not mean that they cannot have input from the congregation. They should only be appointing qualified people who have clear evidence that the Holy Spirit is working in his life.

The Holy Spirit is the one who really appoints people to the job (Acts 20:27). Elders are made by God and not by men. I believe that the job of the church is simply to recognize people who are already leaders in the church and already serving and ministering in different capacities.

Two Main Functions of Elders


They are to provide structure to the church, to manage the church (I Timothy 5:17; 3:4-5).  This involves planning, setting goals, solving problems, making decisions. They are to rule the church.

The Bible says that they are not to rule harshly like a dictator but they are to rule. That is why they are called overseers (Titus 1:7). Their job is to oversee the affairs of the church. They may delegate some of the responsibilities but it is their responsibility.


Jesus is the head shepherd. It is not the pastor of the church. Jesus is the chief shepherd in I Peter 5:4. He is the head elder. Jesus told Peter, “feed MY sheep”. The elders are the under-shepherds.

A major responsibility of elders is to shepherd the sheep (Acts 20:28; I Peter 5:2). One day they will give an account of how well they did that (Hebrews 13:7). The Bible describes Christians as sheep and sheep need a shepherd.

In fact, they can’t really survive without one. What do shepherds do? The noun shepherd is the same as the Greek word “pastor”. They take care of the sheep (physical as well as spiritual needs), protect the sheep and feed the sheep. That involves some teaching. The sheep get hungry and thirsty and need to be fed. We saw that last week. Jesus said to Peter, “If you love me, FEED my sheep”.

One of the tragedies of the church today is that most elders focus on administration. Very few if any ever do any teaching. Their job is not just to teach but to encourage, to exhort, to discipline (in some cases) and to warn the sheep. Part of their job is to guard against false teachers (to protect the sheep against wolves).

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