Church Leadership (Part 1)

With so many different church structures and leadership models, it may be something of a surprise to discover that the single consistent pattern for church leadership in the New Testament is that each local church is shepherded by a plurality of God-ordained elders

Church Leadership (Part 1)
"For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you’."
Titus 1 5

When Paul and Barnabas were in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, they ‘appointed elders in every church’ (Acts 14:23).

In Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, the apostle referred to ‘the elders who rule well’ at the church at Ephesus (1 Timothy 5:17).

Paul called for ‘the elders of the church’ at Ephesus (Acts 20:17).

The book of Acts indicates that there were ‘elders’ in the church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30; 15:2,4; 21:18).

The focal point of all church leadership is the elders. They are charged with teaching, feeding and protecting the church, and are ultimately accountable to God for their service. God has ordained this leadership role as a position of humble, loving service; the challenge for elders is to exemplify purity, sacrifice, diligence and devotion.

Timothy was in an established local church with elders in Ephesus when Paul wrote to him. In 1 Timothy chapter 3, Paul instructed him to identify appropriate men to serve as elders in Ephesus, always a necessary task because elders must cater for the present and future welfare of the local church.

This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop [overseer], he desires a good work (1 Timothy 3:1).

As he reminded Timothy in chapter 3 about the character and qualifications expected of elders, Paul restricted the role to men (‘if any man’). Every adjective in verses 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 dealing with elders is in the masculine form. Although there are many spheres of service for the Lord in which men and women fulfil the same role, shepherding the saints as elders of the church is not one of them.

The three main Greek words in the New Testament which all refer to the same role are translated elder, overseer and pastor. These words emphasise different aspects of this service.

Greek Words


From this word we get ‘presbytery’ or ‘Presbyterian’. It is usually rendered ‘elder,’ emphasising the maturity of the man and the dignity of his role.


We get ‘Episcopalian’ from this word, which is usually translated ‘bishop’ or ‘overseer’, referring to the elder’s function.


This is the word for pastor or shepherd.

Used interchangeably, the terms evidently refer to the same person. They emphasise not varying levels of authority or separate roles but different yet complementary aspects of service.

And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church (Acts 20:17).

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28).

The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind (1 Peter 5:1,2).

Elders of a local church are expected to function as a body. There is no example in the New Testament of a church with only one elder. Each time ‘elder’ is used it is plural, except where the apostle John uses it of himself in 2 and 3 John and where Peter uses it of himself in 1 Peter 5:1.

James instructed sick believers to ‘call for the elders of the church’ to pray for them (James 5:14).

In the opening greeting of his epistle to the Philippians, Paul refers to the ‘overseers and deacons’ in the church of Philippi (Philippians 1:2).

Paul warned the elders of the church of Ephesus, ‘Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which God has made you “overseers”’ (Acts 20:28).

The writer of Hebrews called his readers to obey and submit to the ‘leaders’ who kept watch over their souls (Hebrews 13:17).

There ought to be a body of elders with responsibilities for the church of which they form a part. Peter urged them to ‘Shepherd the flock of God which is among you’; while Paul said, ‘take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers’. Although the number of elders is always plural, their jurisdiction is singular.  Consequently, the elders in one church have no authority over believers in another. Because the apostles ‘appointed elders in every church’ (Acts 14:23), we may deduce that each church is autonomous.

How then are elders appointed, or how does one become an elder in a church?

Paul alluded to this when he spoke to the elders from the Ephesian church.

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28).

It is the Holy Spirit who makes elders.  This refers neither to an administrative process nor a subjective emotive experience. The Holy Spirit develops in a man the qualities necessary to fulfil the task. The fruit of His work forms the character described in 1 Timothy chapter 3. Such character is not natural but a work of the Holy Spirit as a man is brought into conformity to the Lord Jesus Christ. When the Spirit is at work and it becomes evident that a man bears the character of an elder, the believers will recognise him as such. The silence of scripture is instructive: it does not describe any prescribed process for formally recognizing elders. Each church must act with discernment and dependence upon the Lord.

But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labour among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction (1 Thessalonians 5:12, NASB).

This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop [overseer], he desires a good work (1 Timothy 3:1).