Here I share some of my own thoughts about elders (overseers) and church leadership. I do not speak for a congregation or denomination. These are simply my own reflections on this important subject.

Click here to download. Elders is the transcript. Click on the arrow above to hear the talk.

Passages considered in the lesson (28 minutes):

  • Acts 13:1-4; 14:23; 15:1-35; 20:17-38.
    • Soon after churches were intentionally planted, team leadership / oversight was established (Acts 14; in Acts 8:4 and 11:19, we see the incidental establishment of the Christian communities). Of course one-man leadership might typify a just-planted church, for whom the church planter was a type of "father" (1 Cor 4:15). Yet the N.T. does not envision a protracted autocratic church polity, nor is this healthy -- too much pressure on one man; too little teamwork.
    • The congregation knows who its leaders are. It's probable that the overseers oversaw house churches. In either case, as shepherds they were personally involved with the flock (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-5; John 10:2-3,11-13).
    • Congregational autonomy does not mean that these leadership teams were isolated. When there was a need, they communicated (Acts 15).
    • When the apostle needed to communicate with the Ephesian church leadership (Acts 20), he sent for the elders.
  • 1 Timothy 5:17; 4:12-16; 3:1-7
    • Elders directed the churches. The buck stopped there (Acts 20:17-38; Philippians 1:1; etc).
    • Some (all?) focused on teaching and preaching (5:17), which Timothy modeled for them (4:13).
    • Paul provides a list of qualities, more than "qualifications."
    • Character is key, and in the long term is far more valuable than charisma.
    • Paul assumes that the overseers will be husbands and fathers. It's not so clear that he requires them to be, although a man's family certainly reflects his character and leadership ability. (Would Paul himself not be qualified to serve as an elder? How about Jesus?)
    • Older men were presumably more available for the work of shepherding the flock, as their family responsibilities would be simpler (older or grown children), vocations well established, more flexible in their schedules.
    • It seems hypocritical (to me) to hold overseers to a higher standard of integrity than the church leaders (evangelists or "pastors") to whom they are accountable.
    • It's unhealthy to put the spotlight on the children (as in the strictest interpretation of Titus 1:6), instead of on the man. Throughout the Bible, it's the shepherds who are held to the highest standard (e.g. Ezekiel 34; John 10).
    • The list in 1 Tim 3 is a description of a mature, male, Christian leader.
  • Proverbs 31:10-31
    • In some senses this woman is "super-mom." She embodies all the ideals and respected qualities of a spiritual woman. Does that mean that a lesser women isn't worthy of full respect?
    • Could it not be that 1 Timothy 3 refers to the goal of church leaders, even though overseers may fall short? Or that these are qualities to be collectively embodied in the group?
  • Ephesians 4:11
    • Apostles were few in number, and persisted for a single generation (Acts 1:22; 1 Cor 9:1). Their purpose was to establish the church, as living links to the Lord Jesus, so that his message was understood and preserved.
    • Prophets, whatever the exact nature of their work, were also part of the foundational level of the church (Ephesians 2:20).
    • Evangelists were highly mobile bringers of good news. They established churches and were dynamos of inspiration, evangelism, and leadership (Acts 21:8; 2 Timothy 4:5).
      • Although there has always been a need for evangelists -- and always will be -- they are not explicitly identified in church history. Rather, in the 2nd century each congregation was led by overseers. In time, an elaborate hierarchy was erected, yet this did not include evangelists, probably because they were not permanent fixtures in local church leadership.
      • As to the question of whether women can serve as evangelists, consider what's involved in this role: Going alone, or with a partner, to a town or are in order to preach; facing opposition and perhaps even imprisonment; putting herself into a dangerous position (gender harassment); etc. As long as "evangelists" are really serving as "senior pastors" (inspirational speakers / administrators), it will be somewhat difficult to uphold the necessity of male leadership (evangelists).
    • Teachers (assuming "teaching shepherds" isn't the way the phrase in this verse should be rendered) were explicitly present in some cities, like Antioch and Corinth (Acts 13:1; 1 Cor 12:28). In a more general sense, all should strive to be teachers (Hebrews 5:11-14), though with humility and caution (James 3:1).
    • Shepherds (overseers, elders -- the three terms were used interchangeably; note: this word should not be translated into Latin [pastor] simply in order to preserve a much cherished term). This is the only position of the four or five that is normative for church leadership, and the earliest centuries of church history consistently follow the N.T. pattern.

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