The Church is God’s vehicle to establish His kingdom in the earth. His authority and government is most fully expressed in the church. In this lesson we want to take a look at the pattern of Church government according to the New Testament. In New Testament Church government, Christ’s example is the base upon which we must build. His servanthood and love are expressed through the ministry of elders and deacons for the purpose of nurturing and serving the people of God.
We find a team ministry concept recognized throughout the Book of Acts and the Epistles. A team of leaders often served as elders to give oversight and care to the flock of God. We can see such an example in the church at Ephesus. Paul called for these elders and instructed them.
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the Church of God, which He bought with his own blood. (Acts 20:28)
The churches in the New Testament were led by a plurality of leaders, as it was in Ephesus (Acts 14:23; 15:2, 4; Phil 1:1). Among the team of leaders there was a mutual respect and recognition of each man’s authority. Like James in the Jerusalem church, however, there was a lead elder that led the team (Act 15:13-22).
What Is An Elder?
The elders of the New Testament church were the pastors, overseers, or leaders who had charge of the flock. They were the regular teachers of the congregation who had responsibility to train the people. The Greek word presbuteros denotes stature by comparison of age, maturity, or authority. The term elder refers to the person. This term was used regarding the leaders of the synagogue who were more mature. The early church adopted the same term in referring to those who served in giving oversight, care, leadership, and instruction.
What Does An Elder Do?
The job description of an elder is two-fold. Peter, an apostle who served as an elder, gives us a summary of that these responsibilities.
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers– not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. (1 Pet 5:1-3)
In this passage Peter tells the elders to do two things: (1) Pastor or shepherd the flock. The word shepherd is translated from the Greek word poimaino (poy-mah’-ee-no), which means to feed, rule, or tend the sheep. (2) Bishop or oversee the flock. This means to look diligently or to take oversight. The job description of an elder is to pastor and bishop. Both of these reflect the ministry of Jesus. Pastoring includes the care and feeding aspect while bishoping involves protecting and warning against sin by giving oversight to people’s souls. Elders are to perform these responsibilities willingly with a servant’s heart and free from authoritarianism.
Who Can Serve As An Elder?
Church leaders in the New Testament who served in the job description of an elder, functioned in one of the five gifts of an apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, or teacher. Examples include, Peter an apostle who served as an elder in Jerusalem as well as prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch (1 Peter 5:1; Acts 13:1). These all served in the role of an elder, which included teaching and feeding the flock of God (Acts 11:26). Therefore, the prerequisite for being an elder was to be called and given to the church as one of the five gifts in Ephesians. In addition to the grace of God, moral and ministry requirements are spelled out in 1 Timothy 3.
Elders are not just selected by other leaders or by a vote of the people. They are called by God and proven through time and service as worthy to be ordained in that particular local church.
The process of selection includes the following essential elements:
1) A personal response to the call and gift of God. The individual must know personally that God has called him to one of the five gifts of Ephesians 4:11.
2) Evidence and fruit of a gift among the congregation. This gift must be evident among the members of the congregation by the fruit of his labor.
3) A willingness to work and submit under someone else. In order to have authority, one must be under authority. It is important that a man who is to serve as an elder be submitted to the vision and not to his own agenda.
4) A demonstrated willingness to care for people. Discipleship and care for others is a must for an elder to earn the authority needed to give oversight.
5) A confirmation of their gift through prophets and apostles. Elders are not to be selected by the other elders alone, but from the evidence of the congregation and by confirming prophetic words of the presbytery (1 Tim 4:14).
6) A level of respect and authority among the people. An elder must be able to stand before the people with spiritual authority of his own so that when he speaks he stands as a representative of God.
Two Offices In The Church
There are only two offices in the church, the office of the bishop or elder and that of the deacon. The office of the bishop is the same as elder or shepherd. This office has fifteen qualifications identified in addition to the gift and calling of the individual. Gifts and callings remain in a person’s life, but one can be in or out of an office. Therefore, an elder may be disqualified if he fails to meet the proper requirements. These include being above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, prudent, respectable, hospitable, a good teacher, not given to drunkenness, gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money, rules his house well, not a new Christian, and well spoken of outside the church (1 Tim 3:1-7).
The office of the deacon serves the congregation in delegated authority under the elders and has the primary care for the social welfare of the people. They carry out directives and vision that is set by the elders. Deacons have at least eight qualifications including; worthy of respect, not double-tongued, not addicted to wine, not lovers of money, wholehearted followers of Christ, tested by doing other jobs, husband of one wife, and good managers of their home. In addition, the ladies must be dignified, not gossipers, temperate, and faithful to what they do (1 Tim 3:8-12).
About the Author:
Glenn Shaffer is the author of Apostolic Government in the 21st Century, Christianity 101 and Discipleship 201. He has a Masters of Ministry degree in leadership studies from Southwestern Christian University and is working toward a Doctorate in Ministry at ORU in Tulsa.
Glenn and his wife, Ami have been married for 40 years with two sons, Matt and Daniel. Together, they co-see the elder pastoral care of Destiny Life Church, one church in two locations (Owasso and Claremore, Oklahoma) where they have been serving for almost 4 decades. It is a non-denominational church, based on a New Testament Apostolic form of church government. Together, they also serve as the directors of ATI- Apostolic Teams International, an emerging network of churches and ministers.