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Where Does the Bible Mention Church Elders?

Many churches select elders based on who is the most popular, likable, or charismatic priest. But what does the Bible say about a church elder's requirements?

church elders shaking hands, what does the bible say about church elders

Scripture has much to say about church elders. Sadly, it can be all too common for a congregation to select their elders on the basis of who is the most popular, likable, and charismatic, instead of holding fast to the biblical stipulations which govern this crucial position.

Which Bible Passages Mention Church Elders?

Church leadership is nothing to take lightly. Elders are not merely busy do-gooders. They are charged by God with the sober task of caring for Christ’s bride, the church, until He returns for her. In a sense, one might say that church elders are supposed to set the spiritual temperature of the church body. They do this by: 

- teaching sound (biblical) doctrine and refuting false beliefs which threaten the faith of the church (Titus 1:9)

- setting a Christ-like example for believers to follow (1 Peter 5:3)

- rebuking and addressing the sinful conduct of fellow believers (Galatians 6:1; 1 Timothy 5:20)

- implementing church discipline (1 Corinthians 5:5-11)

The office of church elder is a most honorable yet demanding undertaking. The core of the biblical discussion regarding church elders typically stems from the verses found in the Pastoral Epistles

- 1 Timothy 3:1-7

1 Timothy 5:17-18

1 Timothy 5:19

Titus 1:5-9

Several other passages outside the Pastoral Epistles contribute to our understanding of church elders:

- Acts 15:1-6

Acts 20:17-35

James 5:14

1 Peter 5:1-5

Are There Different Kinds of Church Elders?

There are not different kinds of elders per se, since all church elders are to hold the exact same qualifications. However, we can say that there are many ways in which an elder might fulfill the responsibilities of their office.

For example, let’s consider the teaching responsibility of an elder (Titus 1:9). All elders need to be able to teach. If a person cannot teach the sound doctrine of Scripture, they should not be a church elder. As such, teaching is a spiritual gift God gives to the saints, which He expects to be used to benefit the church body (Romans 12:7; Ephesians 4:11-12). That means all elders should regularly exercise their spiritual gift of teaching. An elder who neglects to teach is an elder who is shirking their responsibility. 

However, does this mean all elders must give sermons or teach Sunday school? Absolutely not. Teaching involves clearly communicating both the meaning and personal application of Scripture. This does not just occur behind the pulpit or in a Sunday school room. Teaching can also occur through counseling, which is the private application of God’s Word to an individual or small group of people. Teaching may also occur through writing. Maybe an elder can write a weekly newsletter or devotional for the congregation. If an elder is not a good public speaker, there are other ways they can fulfill their responsibility to teach. So, by this example, we can see how there are different ways to fulfill the office of church elder, but all elders must possess the same qualities described in Scripture. 

Are Church Elders Higher than Pastors?

Biblically speaking, pastors function as the primary teaching elders of a church. In most Bible translations, the word “pastor” only appears in Ephesians 4:11, when the Apostle Paul is describing the various leadership roles the Lord has provided to the church, “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12 NASB). Most scholars agree the word “pastor” in this context describes an elder in a certain aspect. The word translated “pastor” in Ephesians 4:11 is the Greek word poimen, which refers to a shepherd. Scripture describes church leadership in terms of shepherding, where the leaders both guard and take care of the church body. The connection between elders and the act of shepherding is clearly seen in Acts chapter 20 when Paul is giving his farewell address to the church of Ephesus. As Paul warned the leaders to protect the church body from false teachers, he said, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (elders), to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28 NASB) (emphasis mine). 

Scripture grants a certain amount of freedom for how a church body governs itself. Some congregations elect to delegate all decisions to their leadership. Other church bodies are run more democratically: the congregation votes on most important matters, and the elders provide spiritual guidance and oversight to ensure that all things are done and pursued in a godly manner. Either way works fine, but the elders must be active in overseeing the spiritual well-being of the congregation. Scripture, however, does not provide any explicit statements of certain elders being higher (more authoritative) than others. Since a pastor is an elder, there is no biblical warrant for viewing a pastor as more or less than an elder. 

Unfortunately, a lot of churches fall into one of two extremes. Either the pastor is treated like an inferior puppet, controlled by a group of board members who pull the strings. Or the pastor is the unchallenged, supreme dictator who controls and oversees all functions of the church body. It’s healthy for a church body to be governed by a group of elders which includes the pastor. Notice how Paul instructed Titus to appoint elders (plural) in every city, not just an elder (Titus 1:5). This way, all leaders are held accountable to each other, according to the commands given in God’s Word. Furthermore, the congregation will not be handicapped because of one man’s weaknesses. Just as God works through all His children to draw strength and nourishment from each other at the corporate level (1 Corinthians 12:4-7), church leadership should function similarly. This model works because Christ is the Head of His church (Colossians 1:18). The leadership should rally around one question whenever a disagreement arises: “what does Christ command in His Word?”

Why Should All Christians Learn About Church Elders?

It can be easy for a Christian to dismiss the notion of learning about church elders if they do not plan to fulfill that office. Nevertheless, all Christians need to understand what God expects from their church leaders. God does not raise up leaders to take free reign over his church body. All Christians should understand the responsibilities God places on church elders, so they can detect problems before it’s too late. Many pastors and boards of elders hijack a church body and use it for their own purposes and special interests. Some leaders use the church body to build their own kingdoms, instead of God’s. 

Few things are more dangerous to a church body than poor leadership. Paul was aware of the dangers which lurked from within the church. Before his departure, he warned the church of Ephesus, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30 NASB) (emphasis mine). 

The most dangerous people to the church are those from within. False teachers within a church body typically use biblical language and familiar terminology to mask their false doctrines. Others covet the role of elder because they want to show off their education. They may not teach anything false per se, yet their teaching does nothing to edify the church body because it is not centered on Christ and the gospel. These are just a couple of examples of people who might infiltrate the leadership of a church. For this reason, all Christians should be concerned with understanding God’s expectations for church leadership so that we might all unite together to contend for the faith (Jude 3) earnestly.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Nortonrsx

Stephen BakerStephen Baker is a graduate of Mount Union University. He is the writer of a special Scripture study/reflection addendum to Someplace to Be Somebody, authored by his wife, Lisa Loraine Baker (End Game Press Spring 2022). 

He attends Faith Fellowship Church in East Rochester, OH where he has given multiple sermons and is discipled by pastor Chet Howes.


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