A Theology of Eldership
Lincoln could have been talking about eldership. If a person, or even an entire team, regards their role as entirely to do with vision-casting, strategic design and staff management – as opposed to pastoring (which is delegated to assistant/trainee/associate pastors), overseeing (which may be the purview of bishops, directors, apostles or superintendents) and theological protection (which is outsourced to writers of evangelical books, commentaries and articles) – then they may be managers, CEOs, even leaders, but they are not shepherds, no matter what label appears on their church website. Calling someone an elder doesn’t make them an elder.
That’s quite a sparky start, admittedly. But it is prompted by at least four, somewhat related, concerns.
Church Growth Pragmatism. The church growth pragmatists are always the bogeymen in these discussions, but often with good reason (and I say this as an attendee and even host of numerous leadership training courses, leadership coaching courses, Leadership Network learning communities, leadership conferences, and so on, almost all of which have been very helpful to me in a number of different ways). As I’m using the term here, a church growth pragmatist is someone for whom the key question, to which all others are subservient, is simply: “how do I get more people in my church?” It is often assumed that this is the same question as “how do we reach the most people in this community with the gospel?”, or even “how do we best fulfil the Great Commission?”, and to challenge this premise with the obvious objections is to risk being taken for a Luddite pedant fancypants anti-missional egghead theological nerd. (The obvious theoretical objection is that ten churches of 300 might well reach more people with the gospel than one church of 3000, and there are indeed some studies that suggest they tend to. The more practical objection is that only 6% of the people who join US megachurches were previously unchurched [Thumma, Travis & Bird, 2009], in contrast to 32% of people joining Protestant churches in general [Lifeway Research, 2009; note though that the methodology of the two studies is different, which makes the comparison inexact.] In other words: church growth and gospel growth are not the same thing. In many cases the former may even harm the latter.) But in the context of a discussion about eldership, this view is both highly significant and highly problematic. It begs the theological questions about what elders should be and do, and leaps straight to the practical question: how can a large organisation best be led? Whatever the answer is, that’s what “elders” are.
Multisite. Philosophers have been telling us for a while that we don’t so much think our way into new acting, but act our way into new thinking. Not many aspects of church life make this clearer than the recent acceptance of the multisite church model (which, full disclosure, we use at my church), and the way our praxis has rapidly rewired our theology of eldership. In many multisite models, it is almost unimaginable that the same person could publicly correct doctrine and privately comfort the dying. In some models, the idea that elders might actually know the people in their church, such that they could greet them, discipline them, counsel them about their work or their family, teach them, pray for them when they were sick or dying, and give an account to God for them, seems a quaint relic of a bygone age; those things are for site pastors or pastoral assistants, surely, not for the elders? He was never going to be a multisite fan, given his Presbyterian convictions, but I think Carl Trueman nails it here: “If your pastor doesn’t actually know you actually exist, he isn’t actually your pastor.” (I happen to think that the very concept of “one church, several congregations” is incoherent anyway, and that what we’re really talking about is “one eldership team, several churches”, but that’s for another day.)
Technology. The digital revolution has made both good and bad ideas spread much, much faster. In the first century, virtually the only way false doctrine entered the church was through somebody physically coming to town and teaching it. The invention of printing made it possible for church members to read things which were not sanctioned by their church leaders, and the circulation of tapes from the 1980s gave them access to sermons and preached materials from other pastors, but in the last fifteen years, for the first time in church history, ordinary church members have been able to hear far more theological content from people they have never met than from their elders. In a digital world, it can no longer be assumed that people will broadly believe what they are taught from the pulpit – numerous counterarguments to the elders’ position on X are immediately available at the click of a button – and this means that elders need to learn how to defend orthodox doctrine, and not merely assume it. Keller’s comments on this are worth hearing: “If pastors are not up to the job of distilling and understanding the writings of scholars in various disciplines, how will our laypeople do it? This is one of the things parishioners want from their pastors. We are to be a bridge between the world of scholarship and the world of the street and pew. I’m aware of what a burden this is. I don’t know that there has even been a culture in which the job of the pastor has been more challenging. Nevertheless, I believe this is our calling.”
Language. For a combination of missional and historic reasons, many churches are increasingly shying away from biblical terminology (elders, overseers, deacons, presbyters, pastors, bishops) and using generic categories with strong secular recognition (usually “leaders”). As is always the case, however, we begin by defining our language, and end with our language defining us: subtly and gradually, we start to think that the key function of an elder/pastor/overseer is to “lead”, as per the secular usage of the word, rather than to teach, exhort, shepherd, care, watch over, guard, pray, preach, give account, suffer, evangelise or whatever. This fuses with the fascination, bordering on an obsession, with “leadership” in the wider culture, and convinces both us and our people that our main task is to organise, command, strategise and plan, whether or not these are the primary things that biblical shepherds/elders/overseers do; a glance at the taught content in most training courses on “Leadership” would, I suspect, bear out this point. I often think of Eugene Peterson’s remark in The Contemplative Pastor, on hearing his friend use the phrase “I run a church” in conversation: “no answer could have surprised me more ... I distinctively remember the unpleasant impression it made.” Peterson himself uses more historically rooted language, talking about “the cure of souls”, and “teaching people to pray”, and being “lashed to the mast of word and sacrament”; the fact that such terminology would produce either bafflement or derision at most modern “Leadership Conferences” may be inescapable, but it should also be slightly worrying.
All of which is to say: we need a biblical theology of eldership. (I should say at this point that I am highlighting the need for a theology of the function and role of an elder, rather than for the manner in which eldership is to be exercised. There is plenty of good material on the way biblical leaders must lead: humbly as servants, faithfully as examples, diligently as co-workers, and so on. My concern is that the purpose and function of eldership has not always been adequately thought through.)
Despite the venerable tradition going back to (at least) Ignatius of Antioch, Presbyterians are surely right to insist that “elders,” “overseers” and “shepherds” are three different words for the same office. It also seems likely that “teachers” and “leaders”, when used of specific individuals, usually refer to the same people (although “teacher” is more variously used). The biblical texts which indicate we should take these terms together are primarily these:
- Acts 20:17-38. The Ephesian elders (17) are identified as having been made overseers by the Holy Spirit (28), and commissioned to pay careful attention to all the flock (28) and protect them from wolves (29), which are obvious references to being shepherds. The chief way in which they are called to do this is with respect to false teaching (30-31), following Paul’s own example (20-21, 26-27).
- Ephesians 4:11. The grammar of the verse indicates that there are four gifts here, rather than five: apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13. There are those who labour among you, lead you, and admonish you; this implies that the recognised leaders are those with a public teaching role.
- Titus 1: 5-9 / 1 Timothy 3:1-7. Paul gives qualifications for elders and overseers (Titus) which are almost identical to those he gives for overseers (Timothy), including the requirement to be able to teach sound doctrine (both).
- 1 Timothy 5:17. The elders will lead, and some will have special responsibility for preaching and teaching. The rest of the Pastoral epistles put a huge emphasis on this (esp. 1 Tim 4; 2 Tim 2-4).
- Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24. The expectation of leaders here is that they teach the word of God, and keep watch over the people.
- 1 Peter 5:1-4. Peter speaks to elders as a fellow-elder (1), and charges them to shepherd the flock (2) and be examples to them (3), and to exercise oversight willingly and eagerly (2).
In other words, when used of specific individuals in a local church, elders/presbyters = overseers/bishops = shepherds/pastors = teachers = leaders. Each word brings a different emphasis to the gift, so the words are not “interchangeable” in that sense, but they all refer to the same office.
The difficulty with such polyvalent language, of course, is that rather than seeing all of these elements as being integral to the elder’s role, we are apt to seize on the one or two which best fit our personality or gifts, and filter the office through that lens (thus, those who are good at teambuilding and vision-casting will make that central, boffins will make it all about doctrine, caring types will stress hospital visits and marriage counselling, and so on). A useful question to ask is: is there a unifying concept behind all this New Testament language about eldership, one that can be helpfully used as an organising centre?
I think there is. At root, the New Testament language about elders, shepherds, overseers, leaders and teachers is bound up with serving the church by protecting and guarding her from harm. Elders, biblically, are guardians. Take each of these biblical words in turn.
Shepherds. The primary reason a shepherd exists is to protect the sheep from harm. Yes, he leads them into new pastures, and prepares food and water for them, but the primary reason you employ a shepherd in the ancient world, rather than allowing the sheep to wander freely, is for protection: from injury, robbers, dispersal, wolves, and other wild animals. This comes through clearly in the key New Testament texts, in which shepherds lay down their lives for the sheep (John 10), and watch over the flock of God, whom he bought with his own blood (Acts 20); it also builds on the Old Testament imagery, in which shepherds, like David, are those who kill lions and bears in defence of their flocks (1 Samuel 17), hold rods and staffs to guard them (Psalm 23), and are called to protect their sheep rather than eat them (Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 34, Zechariah 10, etc). Shepherding spiritually, as physically, involves both protecting weak or injured sheep, and guarding the whole flock from enemies who would attack them.
Elders. Greg Beale makes the argument (compellingly, in my view) that the purpose of elders in the New Testament is to preserve the church during the eschatological tribulation. The period between Pentecost and parousia is marked by deception, false teaching, persecution and suffering (Matthew 24; 1 Timothy 4; Revelation 4-17), and the requirements for elders in the Pastorals should be seen against this backdrop: the guarding of the church so that she is not destroyed. To these references Beale adds not just Acts 20 (see above), but also Paul’s first apostolic journey, in which he and Barnabas teach the disciples that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (14:22), and then immediately appoint elders in every church (14:23), as if this (eldership) is the solution to the problem (tribulations). This obviously challenges the more ad hoc reading of these instructions in the Pastorals, as per Gordon Fee and others.
Overseers. The English word “overseer” is a very literal translation of episkopos, and is certainly preferable to “bishop” given the resonances that word has, but it still conjures up images of call centre supervisors, or at least a more managerial role. In Koine Greek, however, it had the sense of “guardian” (thus BDAG: “one who has the responsibility of safeguarding or seeing to it that something is done in the correct way, guardian; one who has a definite function or fixed office of guardianship and related activity within a group”, with primary references.) It may have been heard more like Ezekiel’s skopos (= watchman), which is how Calvin read it: elders are the “faithful watchmen” who “watch and take care of the flock, while other men sleep.” The language here is of being a lookout more than a line manager, a sentry more than a supervisor. The overseer’s role, of course, was the preservation of sound doctrine in the church (Titus 1:5-9; 1 Timothy 3:1-7), and this is what led to the distinction between bishops and elders in the late first century.
Teachers. I have argued before that the New Testament language on teaching can only be understood if we assume a distinction between “big T” Teaching (prescription and definition of Christian doctrine, as opposed to false doctrine, by the church’s accredited leaders, as in James 3 and the Pastorals) and “little t” teaching (explanation of the meaning of the scriptures to one another, by any Christian believer, as in Hebrews 5, Colossians 3 and Romans 12). In the former sense, the “teacher” is clearly one whose job is to protect the church from false teaching – although Paul is clear that this does not mean picking fights and being aggressive about it: “and the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:24-25).
Leaders. The two words translated “leader”, both of which are participle verb forms (hēgoumenos = one who leads, and proïstamenos = one who rules), are somewhat rarer in the New Testament. Luke 22:26 has Jesus’ famous instruction that the leader must become as one who serves, and Romans 12:8 presents leading as a spiritual gift which must be exercised “with diligence”, but both texts indicate the manner in which leadership is to be conducted, rather than indicating its function. The three occurrences of hēgomai in 1 Timothy 3:4, 5 and 12 refer to the ruling of the household. 1 Thessalonians 5:12, however, brings together three participles (the labourers, the leaders and the admonishers) to refer to the same individuals, and 1 Timothy 5:17 assumes that the elders will “rule”, and that some will have special responsibility for labouring in the gospel and teaching. Hebrews 13, finally, assumes the hēgoumenoi to be those who speak the word of God, have exemplary faith, keep watch over the souls of the people, and give an account for them (13:7, 17). “Leaders”, then, are hardworking and exemplary men who teach and admonish the church, and watch over them.
The aim of this overview is not to be reductionistic, as if the only function of an elder/pastor/overseer was to be a guardian. Nor is it to imply that the other things an elder does (evangelising, equipping, vision-casting, strategising, managing, communicating, exemplifying, disciplining, exhorting, confronting, and so on) are unimportant. Far from it! Rather, it is to put those functions in the context of the relevant biblical material, so that their essential nature – the serving of the church by protecting and guarding her from harm – can be more clearly seen. Vision-casting, strategising and managing, for example, can easily be seen as ways of protecting the church from dispersal and fragmentation (which, today as in the past, forms a significant part of the shepherd’s task). Disciplining, exhorting, confronting and exemplifying are bound up with protecting the church from sin, both corporately (“a little leaven leavens the whole lump”) and individually (“that they may learn not to blaspheme”). Evangelising, and equipping the church to evangelise, protect the church from introspection, insulation and inactivity, like a shepherd who protects his sheep from staying in the same field, and directs them to new pastures, using his staff (or sheepdog). Preaching and teaching, of course, are crucial ways of protecting the church from false doctrine. And so on.
With that in place, we can now go back to the four challenges we started with, and consider how this view of the elder as guardian might help us respond.
Church Growth Pragmatism. “So, what exactly is your job?” If political discourse teaches us anything, it’s that you can’t win with a paragraph if the other guy’s got a punchline. I often think of this when I talk to leaders of American megachurches: their clarity about what they are trying to do – “grow a church” – puts more nuance-laden versions (“live lives of good character, teach the Bible, preach the gospel, minister the sacraments, comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable, watch over the church, exercise discipline, administer the keys (?!), pastor the flock ...”) in the shade. So in the interests of brevity, not to mention comprehensibility, the language of being a guardian may help somewhat. It pulls together a variety of words that appear to have rather different resonances, and gives them a coherence that most people, whether inside or outside the church, can grasp; and let’s face it, it also sounds cooler than “instructor in sound doctrine”, less arty-farty than “cultural architect”, and less weird than “setter of theological plumbline.” If a slightly longer answer is needed, then eldership is not just about gathering, growing and governing, like a CEO, but also about guiding, gospelling and guarding, like a shepherd.
Multisite. Some ways of doing multisite preserve a very high view of eldership, and pose few theological or ecclesiological problems. The Ignatian model, whereby there are groups of elders over every congregation (= church), and yet one primary leader who gives the whole church in the city/area a collective identity and theological definition, is a good example (whether the primary leader refers to himself as a “bishop”, as Ignatius did, or “lead elder”, “senior pastor”, or whatever). But in those models where a good many people in the church are not actually known by any of the elders – which might, for the sake of argument, mean “names, occupations, immediate family members, spiritual health, and gifts” – the notion of the elder as guardian becomes more important: how can you protect someone you do not know? Practically, this obviously has ramifications for the number of elders a church has (it is hard to see how an elder can function biblically with a ratio of more than 150:1, for example), the way they spend their time, and in a large church, the way the layers of eldership (?) are structured.
Technology. Guarding the church from false doctrine in a digital age may be more complex than previously, but the principles have not changed: teach the truth at all times, identify falsehood where it is taking hold in the church, clearly and gently explain why it’s wrong, and keep preaching the gospel throughout. The key contribution that seeing elders as guardians makes, at least when it comes to technology, is in highlighting the need for those elders who labour in preaching and teaching to (a) be aware of false theologies, (b) discern whether or not they are threatening members of the church (which many will not be), and (c) know how to refute them with clarity and gentleness, yet without descending into continuous heresy-hunting and nitpickery. (This might, of course, be an argument for increasing our esteem for both theological and church-historical training for elders – but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?) That said, it should be encouraging that Paul, signing off his last will and testament, solemnly charges Timothy to preach the word, in season and out of season, as if this is the primary remedy to false doctrine. As is often observed, the best way to spot a counterfeit £50 note is to spend a lot of time with the real one.
Language. For all that I have said about biblical terminology, and the guardian thread that runs through it, I have no problem with someone introducing themselves as a “church leader”, and I do it myself when talking to unbelievers. (“Elders” connotes tribesmen with face paint and headdress; I used to say “pastor”, until a room full of fellow PhD students stared at me blankly. Most of them were Muslims, and had never heard the word.) It might even be the best word to use when describing oneself in a Sunday morning meeting, or (at a stretch) on a church noticeboard or website. But in a culture like ours, the word “leader” will need continual redefinition, lest people assume we are basically Christian CEOs. Just as Eugene Peterson qualifies “pastor” with three adjectives (unbusy, subversive and apocalyptic), so we probably need to qualify “leader” with other, more biblically grounded, language (servant, pastor, guardian, and so on). Ideally, the closer into the church community one gets, the more one will understand about the elders’ role, and the more scripturally informed one’s explanation of that role will be.
An elder is a pastor is a shepherd is an overseer is a teacher is a leader, and in many ways the unifying concept underlying the biblical material is that of guardian. Our job, as elders, is to protect the church from harm – from danger, dispersal, division, drift, deviant doctrine, disobedience, destruction and ultimately the devil – while we wait for the day when Jesus returns, conquers the accuser, and takes his rightful place as the Shepherd to end all shepherds. Until that day, we are called to be not just gatherers, growers and governors, but also guides, gospellers and guardians; not in mere pragmatism, professionalism or presentation, but in preaching, protection and prayer (and, obviously, alliteration). “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”