Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Growing up, my understanding of the church was based purely on what I had seen. Every church, I figured, was just like my church—or, at least, it ought to be. And the reason I figured every church did things the way my church did them was because my church was all that I had ever really seen.

When I went to college, I faced a dilemma. None of my friends believed in the validity of infant baptism. And so, as the topic came up, the views I held from my upbringing were challenged. I was faced with two options: I could (A) cling tightly to what I believed simply because that is what our church had always done and it was all I’d ever known. Or, I could (B) turn to the Bible to see if it said anything about baptism.

That experience shaped how I would attempt to view the church. As the Lord called me to be a pastor, I realized that he had spoken in the Bible and therefore the Bible alone was my authoritative source for understanding God and people, the world and the church.

What that meant was that I did not have to cling what I had always believed or wanted to believe was right. Rather, God had spoken about reality and what he said is true, even if it doesn’t always line up with our philosophical and rational preferences. And, even more, God had spoken about the church—about things like pastors and deacons, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, congregationalism and membership. And, what God said was both true and healthiest, even if it didn’t agree with what I’d always heard, what I’d always seen and to “the way we’ve always done things.”

I resolved at that point to always make my best effort to bring every belief I held and every word I taught in line with the Word of God. I resolved to “throw every theological belief out the window,” unless it was founded on God’s Word. In a way it was scary. I didn’t know where that would lead. Yet, in another sense, it was refreshing and reassuring. I didn’t have to worry about defending what I wanted, I only had to read the Bible and believe what it said.

Where Do We Turn to Learn?

Every one of you has an idea about the nature of the local church and things like membership, the Lord’s Supper and baptism. Every one of you has an idea about pastors and deacons, who they are and what they do. And, every one of you probably bases that on one of two things—what you’ve always seen and done and were told, or the witness of the New Testament. I want to challenge you this morning to go back to the Bible on everything you believe—whether that be about salvation or deacons or our Savior Jesus Christ—and build your beliefs on the foundation our Lord has laid in his word.

It was April of 2006 that I preached at Northbrook in view of being your pastor. So, almost one year ago, many of you were reading over my resume, biography and philosophy of ministry. I introduced my comments on the pastorate with this sentence: “I believe that the New Testament (and not tradition, experience, pragmatics or preference) is the final authority on the role of the pastor in a New Testament church.” I italicized it because wanted to emphasize that Scripture alone was our final authority in deciding how to understand the office of pastor.

So, with that said, let us go to the Scripture to understand what the New Testament teaches about pastors.

Titus 1:5-9

In our passage this morning, Paul is writing to Titus to give him instructions about how to finish ordering the churches they had planted together on the island of Crete. In verse 5, Paul tells Titus, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you…”

What are elders?

The word “elder” is used over 20 times to refer to an office in the local church. In this sense, we could define elders as follows:

The elders are a group of men, called by God and conformed to the Gospel in sound living and sound doctrine, who are set apart by the congregation to oversee and pastor the local church by teaching, ruling, caring for and equipping the saints, as loving and humble examples of Jesus Christ.

The Elders…Oversee and Pastor the Local Church.

I say that “elders…oversee and pastor,” because the terms elder, overseer and pastor are used interchangeably to refer to one office. The terms “elder” (or, presbyter), “overseer” (or, bishop) and “pastor” refer to the same thing. So, we would not separate elders, pastors, and overseers into three different groups with differing functions.

Scriptural Examples

In this passage, Titus (1:5, 7), Paul refers to “elders” being appointed in verse 5. In the following verses, he gives qualifications for elders, but in verse 7 he refers to “an overseer.” So here Paul uses “elder” and “overseer” interchangeably as two terms for one office.

The same is true with the terms “pastor” and “elder.” As far as I can find, the only place where “pastors” are mentioned using that term is Ephesians 4:11, where Paul writes, “he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds (KJV/NAS-pastors) and teachers.” The word “pastor” means “shepherd.”

In 1 Peter 5:1-2, Peter writes, “So I exhort the elders among you...shepherd (pastor) the flock of God that is among you...” Peter tells the “elders” to “shepherd.” That is the elders are the ones who “pastor” the flock of God.

In Acts 20, we find all three terms used interchangeably to refer to the same group of people. In verse 17, Paul calls together “the elders of the church.” Then, as he addresses these elders in verse 28 he says, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers…” Paul tells the elders to care for the “flock,” which indicates they are “pastors” (shepherds). And, he refers to the elders as “overseers.” So, we can conclude from several passages that elders, overseers and pastors are the same thing.

This is historically recognized in our denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. In the Abstract of Principles, which is the first doctrinal statement ever adopted by a Southern Baptist body, we read, “The regular officers of a Church are Bishops or Elders, and Deacons.” Likewise, in the first Baptist Faith and Message, written in 1925, we read of the church, “Its Scriptural officers are bishops, or elders, and deacons.” Bishop and Elder are used interchangeably.

The Elders are a Group of Men.

The New Testament pattern is a plurality of elders for each church. That means that there was not “one pastor per church,” but several in every local congregation. There was not “a pastor” and a group of “elders” to assist. But a team of men, who were equally elders, each with equal vote.

One of the areas that I covered in my philosophy of ministry presented to Northbrook was my understanding of the office of pastor/elder, especially in regard to how many a church should have. I covered this, because it is essential how I understand the church. I wrote:

The pastors/elders are regularly referred to in the plural (Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5; 1 Timothy 4:14, 5:16; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1, 5). When it is possible (that is, when gifted and called men are available), I believe it is expedient to appoint a plurality of pastors/elders to keep watch over the church, as Paul instructed Titus (Titus 1:5). When such men are not available, I believe it is a pastor's duty to look for such men and to train them for such ministry (2 Timothy 2:1-2). Most of these men will not be paid staff but gifted and called members of the congregation who are essentially permanent in their membership….I know that baptist churches differ in their pastoral structure. I am willing to work within different set-ups, though I will guide the church toward what I feel is a biblical model.

Plurality - How many ought there to be in a local church?

When the word “elder” appears in the New Testament and is used in reference to the church office, it appears most often in the plural.

For example, in Philippians 1:1, Paul and Timothy write to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” In 1 Timothy 4:14, Paul refers to the “council of elders” that laid their hands on Timothy. And, in 1 Peter 5:1, Peter address “the elders among you.”

In our passage, Paul tells Titus to “appoint elders in every town.” That means Titus is to appoint more than one. One could argue that there were multiple churches in every town and that Titus was to appoint an elder in each church in each town, thus “elders in every town.” I think that is doubtful. However, this verse by itself cannot lead us to certainty whether a church should have one elder (a single pastor) or a plurality of elders (a group of elders governing that body).

Fortunately, the evidence from the rest of the New Testament, when carefully considered, gives us the understanding that it is the New Testament pattern for there to be a plurality of elders in every local congregation.

In Acts, elders are always mention in the plural (cf 11:30; 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23; 16:4; 21:18). Here are a few important examples:

In Acts 14:23, we read that as Paul and Barnabas visited the disciples in several cities, they “appointed elders for them in every church.” We do not read that they appointed elders in all the churches. Nor do we read that they appointed “an elder” in every church. But, they appointed “elders” (plural) in “every church” (singular). They appointed a plurality of elders in every congregation.

In the same vein, we read in Acts 20:17 that in Ephesus Paul “called the elders of the church to come to him.” Paul did not call “the elder” of every church. Nor did he call the elders “of the churches.” Rather, he called the “elders” (plural) of “the church” (singular). There was a body of elders in that church.

In James 5:14, James writes, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” Notice, James does not say to call for “the elder” of the church or for the elders of “the churches.” Rather, he refers to “the elders” (plural) of “the church” (singular).

Plurality & Baptist History

The idea of each congregation having a plurality of elders also has roots in baptist history. When the Southern Baptist Convention formed, they elected as their president Dr. William B. Johnson. In 1846, Dr. Johnson wrote a book on local church government [1] in which he concluded, “It is worthy of particular attention, that each church had a plurality of elders…” And, he wrote, “A plurality [of elders] is of great importance for mutual counsel and aid, that the government and edification of the flock may be promoted in the best manner.” Seeing that having a plurality of elders was the biblical model and the best model for caring for a flock, he encouraged churches to follow this pattern.

Benefits of plurality

Not only do I think that having a plurality of elders is the biblical model, I think it is the best for a congregation. While a group of sinners will always have problems, I think there are several benefits to a plurality over a single pastor model. That is also why I wrote in my philosophy of ministry:

From my experiences, both in pastoring alone and in observing a church with a plurality of elders, I feel an elder team holds many advantages, aside from following the pattern of Scripture. It provides accountability, support, counsel, and assistance in the exercise of pastoral duties. It also gives the church permanence in leadership and continuance in ministry that is not upset if the “staff pastor” should be called away. I know my gifts and weaknesses and therefore know that I will minister best as part of a team.

As another author points out, a plurality of elders: rounds out gifts, makes up for deficits, supplements judgment, creates support, prevents unjust criticism, makes leadership more rooted and permanent, ensures continuity, removes tyranny, reminds the congregation to take responsibility for the spiritual growth of its own members. [2]

At this point, we might ask: What Kind of Men are We Looking for to be Elders?

The Elders Are…Called By God.

The Holy Spirit makes men overseers. When we look for elders, we look for men whom God has called to be elders. We can train people ourselves, but we cannot make an elder. In Acts 20:28, Paul says, “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” So, what will these men look like?

The Elders Are a Group of Men Conformed to the Gospel

In this passage in Titus 1:5-9, as well as 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul outlines a loose list of qualifications for elders. Since Matt Sees preached through 1 Timothy before I arrived, I will not take you line by line through the requirements, but I will note that the qualifications for a pastor break down into two basic categories.

Elders are not required to be perfect or to be Supermen. Don Carson points out that these lists are notable only for not being very notable. He means that every quality listed is expected of every believer (except being able to teach and not being a new believer). The standard is not “higher” for elders, so much as this means that elders should live lives that model what every believer should be. Elders must be known for living out what it means to be a Christian.

…in Sound Living

An elder must live a life of godliness, evident even to the surrounding culture. In Titus and 1 Timothy, Paul says that elder must be “above reproach.” He should be “a man of one woman;” that is, his relationships with women should be “above reproach.” An elder should be “sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable” and a man who does not get drunk, get violent, get into quarrels, or love money. He should be a good manager of his household, since he is responsible for overseeing the household of God.

…and Sound Doctrine.

In addition to his living, an elder must have a firm grasp on the essentials of Christian doctrine and be able to communicate them in order to instruct, defend and correct.

In 1 Timothy 3, we are told an overseer must be “able to teach.” Here in Titus 1:9, we are told an elder must “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Elders must be biblically grounded in essential Christian doctrines and the distinctives of their church. This means an elder should be able to explain from Scripture what the Bible teaches on central issues. He must be able to rebuke and correct those who contradict it.

This does not mean they all must be able to preach publicly. There are many ways in which the word is taught—from the pulpit and sitting in a member’s home. However, a man who is not comfortable teaching and defending from Scripture the faith once for all delivered should not be appointed an elder.

We do not follow the world’s standards in selecting our leaders.

We are not Israel looking to have a king “like the nations do.” We are like God, looking not on outward appearances, but on the heart.

Therefore elders are not simply successful businessmen, older men, long-time, involved members or nice guys.

Rather, elders must:

§ Embrace and be skilled in teaching/defending the central aspects of the Christian Faith and the Doctrinal Distinctives of the Congregation.

§ Live out the Christian faith in all areas of life.

§ And, as we shall see, Love the congregation. At a minimum, this means that they attend the stated meetings of the church, they disciple younger believers, and they serve selflessly.

The Elders are…Set Apart By the Congregation.

We should note that have a plurality of elders is not a negation of congregationalism. The congregation remains the final court of appeals in the matters we mentioned. Therefore, my preaching that a plurality of elders is the biblical model does not mean that we will have one. That decision is left up to you. I will present (at a later date) some suggestions for how to implement this. But until the congregation says that we will do this, we won’t make this change.

However, there is a tension that must be recognized. The New Testament speaks of elders as leaders with spiritual authority over the congregation. We read that they are to “rebuke, admonish, rule, and exhort.”

However, while congregationalism stands, the church has certain responsibilities in how they respond to their pastors. The church must:

…disobey them when they contradict the Gospel. In Galatians 1, the congregation is held responsible for not rejecting false teachers. Pastors are never to be followed blindly.
…recognize their elders as gifts from God. In Ephesians 4:11, we are told that Christ “gave” the church pastor-teachers. They are gifts from God to equip and build up the church and should be received as such. If we ever find ourselves believing that our pastors are not gifts from Christ, we should remove them or remove ourselves.
(We should also be encouraged by this too. If ever we find ourselves without qualified men, we should ask Christ to give us some. HE gives pastors to the church! Therefore, we can and should ask for them.)

…give them heartfelt trust as their leaders and teachers.
Christians should honor, respect and highly esteem their pastors. In 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, Paul writes, “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.”

Likewise, when their leadership is biblical, Christians are told to submit to their leaders. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.”

Likewise, the elders must recognize that the church belongs to God, not to them. In Acts 20:28, Paul tells the Ephesian elders to “care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”

This means that the pastor must treat the church like a bride—not his bride, but the bride of Christ of whom he has been made a steward and is accountable for. We have all seen situations in which pastors have used churches as vehicles of self-promotion and stepping-stones in a career plan. This is unacceptable and abhorrent.

This also means that the elders are not free to do whatever they want with the church. The church belongs to God, and therefore God has the final say. Therefore, a pastor must lead as God has led. He cannot say more than what God has said. And, he cannot say less than what God has instructed him to say in the Bible.

The Elders…Oversee and Pastor the Local Church by Teaching, Ruling, Caring for and Equipping the Saints.

The function of the elders is to oversee and pastor the church (1 Timothy 3:1; Acts 20:28; Eph 4:11; Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4). Acts 20:28 says they are to “care for the church.” This means that they give spiritual oversight to the congregation and its members and teach them God’s Word.

Ephesians 4:11-12 says that they are given “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ.”

1 Timothy 5:17 speaks of the elders “ruling.” This word “rule” refers to a “soft” kind of ruling, not that of a monarch or dictator. It refers to someone who directs or leads.

Teaching is the primary means through which all the duties are carried out. Their oversight and ruling are not done through unilateral commands, but through authoritatively “declaring, exhorting, rebuking, teaching, admonishing, correcting and preaching” from the word of God (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:9; 2:5; 1 Thess 5:12-13; 2 Tim 2:24-25; 4:1-2).

Elders Oversee and Shepherd…As Loving and Humble Examples of Jesus Christ.

In all of these things, elders must serve as examples of Christ, who is the chief Shepherd.

1 Peter 5:1-4 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

Jesus Christ lovingly and humbly served as a shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep. He died on a cross for their sins, in their place before being raised from the dead in glory. So elders, while they do not die for the sins of their people, patiently, lovingly and humbly must be willing to bear the burdens of the congregation. They must lay down their lives for the church in this world, so that they can receive an unfading crown of glory in the next.

If you are an unbeliever, do not put your hope in a pastor. He is only an example—and an imperfect one at that. He cannot save you. Put your hope in the chief Shepherd, who is also the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.

If you are a pastor or believe that God has called you to be one, look to Christ first and foremost as the example of how to love His sheep.

If you are a church member—let us begin to consider how we might go about instituting a plurality of elders in our congregation. I will propose more at a later time, with opportunity for discussion. But, for now, let us begin with earnest prayer that Christ would bring and call and prepare elders to give to Northbrook for our upbuilding and His glory.