Biblical Church Government
By Thomas Taylor
What is an Elder?
What is an Elder and is he Different than a Pastor?
I believe the term Elder is the most misunderstood and wrongly defined titles in the church world today. And because of this misunderstanding of what a biblical Elder is, we have every kind of deviation of church government imaginable far-removed from God’s intent. Many people today use the word “elder” as a type of office that is present in the local church which can be held by laity. However, that is not how the Bible uses the term.
The word Elder in the Bible is the Greek word “presbuteros” where we get the word Presbyterian. Today’s Presbyterians believe in an elder-run church (and parts of other denominations do as well, such as many Baptists). They believe that the Pastor is an Elder as well as certain special members of the laity. So the board of “Elders” oversees the church, not the local pastor as taught in the Bible. The Pastor in an elder-led church is just a teaching Elder but all the “Elders” are “governing elders”, i.e. they control the church together. Sometimes these Elders are called Deacons, like in Baptist churches, yet what they are called is inconsequential; what really matters is that they have the power to make church decisions.
Whenever you find this aberration from the biblical government of the pastor-led church, you find a church that is not very God-led (Jesus is the Chief Shepherd/Pastor and under Him are the earthly Shepherds/Pastors). What you will normally find is a church with exceedingly deep divisions, factions, and strife because everyone is trying to make the decisions and fight for power. And the problem is multiplied exponentially when those in the position of “elder” are not even Christians.
This is not God’s intent for the local church which is why He always appointed a single leader to make the final decisions – a Moses, a Joshua, a David, a Jesus. There must be a way to end any dispute with a final decision and there are only two options: one, a single leader makes the final decision or, two, a democratic vote of a group makes the decision. There is exactly ZERO examples of a group making decisions for the local church in the New Testament other than in selecting deacons. Any and every other final decision for a local assembly was made by a single leader – a local Pastor/Bishop.
Many denominational people believe elder-led is the “right way to have church” because of a democratic mind-set. They see it as a way to keep the Pastor from having too much power. But it really doesn’t matter what man’s logic or reasoning is behind it. The ONLY thing that matters is, who does the Bible say should lead the local church? If the Pastor is the leader, the decision-maker of the local church, then God’s blessing is on that church because that is the only type of church government taught in the Bible (as I will prove).
Some worry that the Pastor having that much power will abuse people with it. Of course, that has happened but does that give us permission to do it our way instead of God’s way? If that Pastor should abuse his power, then two things will happen to keep him check. First, he will have to answer to God for the abuse; if he does not repent, he will be judged. Second, the people will simply leave and go to another church. Also, if our churches were set up biblically, there would be a third measure of accountability. There would be an overseeing Pastor over the local Pastor that would hold him accountable just as Timothy, an overseeing Pastor, held his local Pastors under him accountable (1 Tim 3:1-11; Tit 1:5-16). Ministerial associations and denominational assemblies should appoint an overseeing Pastor over each local Pastor to hold their Pastors accountable in this way. That way the laity of a local congregation have no power over a ministerial office which God ordained any more than a sheep has any power over a shepherd – which obviously would be completely ludicrous.
Thayer’s Definition of “Elder”
1) elder, of age; 2) a term of rank or office…2b) among the Christians, those who presided over the assemblies (or churches) The NT uses the term bishop, elders, and presbyters interchangeably”
I have already proven that the term Bishop is referring to a Pastor in the last post. The Bible uses the term Bishop and Elder interchangeably according to Thayer’s Greek Definitions. An Elder, according to the Bible is the same as a Bishop which is ministry position. Therefore, the office of an Elder is never to be occupied by the laity. For people not called into the ministry to wield a ministry position becomes dangerous to all in that church. A wake of destruction is inevitable in some form or fashion.
An Elder Is The Exact Same As A Pastor
Tit 1:5-8 KJV For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: (6) If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. (7) For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; (8) But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate;
Paul writing to Titus, an overseeing Pastor over the church in Crete, instructs him to ordain Elders in every city. Crete was a very large island that actually had many small cities within it. So Titus is overseeing a very large area and is to appoint Elders. But we see from verse 7 that the term Elder is exchanged for the word Bishop. They are the exact same word in Paul’s mind.
1 Peter 5:1-4 KJV The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: (2) Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; (3) Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. (4) And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.
Peter says he is an Elder. This either means he also did some Pastoring along with his other roles in the Church or he meant the word Elder in a more general sense in that he, as an Apostle, oversaw the whole Church. I believe the latter to be the more likely case because true Apostles tend to have a role that oversees large segments of the Body of Christ which Peter certainly did at this time. So Peter was probably not specifically a Pastor over a single gathering of believers but he held a function in the Body of Christ like that of a Pastor because of the oversight function.
But in these verses, we see Peter clearly associating the role of Elder with that of Pastoring. This person is to feed the flock of God – a clear reference to Shepherding. The Elder takes oversight over the flock like a Shepherd. Notice also reference to Jesus being the Chief Shepherd. All this proves the context to be talking about the role of the Pastor and the Pastor alone – NEVER the laity.
The Great Misunderstanding
Believers today, even ministers, think of an Elder as a laity position. But if people would simply study they would find out that the early church did not operate like we do today. They would discover why the term Elder means the same as Pastor in the New Testament as I’ve proven above. The great misunderstanding comes in at the places of the New Testament that mention the term Elder in the plural (such Titus 1: 5, where Titus is to ordain Elders, plural, in every city.) Also verses such as these:
Act 14:23 ESV And when they (Paul and Barnabas) had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
Act 20:17 ESV Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him
Act 21:18 KJV And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present.
Jas 5:14 KJV Is any sick among you? 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:
We see the word “Elders” and think there were multiple Elders in a church…which is right! So this is interpreted, originally with the Calvinist Reformers which are today’s Presbyterians and many Baptists, to mean today’s churches should have multiple Elders. But because of the great misunderstanding, they have changed the meaning of the word Elder from being a Pastor to being a high-level laity position. So what is the misunderstanding? They don’t know what a church was in the days of the early Church when the New Testament was written!
With our modern lenses, we see the word “church” to be referring to a gathering of believers under one roof. But that is far removed from what it means in the days of the early Church. When you see “church” in your New Testament, it was referring to all believers in a particular city. There were many gatherings of believers, usually in houses, throughout any given city. These gatherings were not called churches; only the entire city was called a church. Therefore, it makes sense that many Elders=Pastors were needed to oversee these gatherings.
When Paul and Barnabas were appointing Elders for every church, they were appointing Pastors over all the gatherings throughout a city (notice Acts 14:21 proves the context is talking about multiple churches, therefore multiple “Elders for them in every church”). When Paul called for the Elders of the church, he was calling a ministry meeting together of just the Pastors. They were the leaders of the gatherings of believers. This is why Timothy and Titus were instructed by Paul to ordain multiple Elders/Bishops/Pastors in their respective cities. One overseeing Pastor could not manage all the various meetings throughout a city. The concept of a plurality of Elders to run a single church today, under the same roof, is either gross ignorance of the Bible or deception. A single Pastor governed a single gathering of believers as it should be today, unless the local church has grown too large for him to manage by himself. Then he can ordain additional Pastors under him.
The False-Teaching That An Elder Can Be A Laity Position
This gross misunderstanding of what an Elder is, which is a Pastor – a full-time ministry role, has been in the Church since the time of the reformers. Like so many false doctrines that have crippled the Church since the Reformation period, this one has gained so much ground in our churches across all denominations that people accept it without thought – even ministers. It is the fault of the believers, the ministers in particular today, who fall for this false-teaching that an Elder is a laity position because people don’t study! This false doctrine affects the government of the local churches. If we get this wrong, our local churches will be governed by laity and not those called by God and anointed for the purpose of governing the local church – the Pastor. Our churches will be carnal, divided, and confused. They will be powerless and aimless because there is no single leader. That is exactly where every single church is that is governed by laity, whether those laity are called “Elders” or “Deacons”. Lives are at stake and people are going to hell but the Pastor is too busy fighting against the laity to govern his church instead of fulfilling his call. This should not be. Dear Body of Christ, it is time to get back to the Bible and do things right. The time is short. If you are in a church run by laity, get out now! I know that means many of our denominational churches will be abandoned. But the question is, is it right to obey God’s Word or should we continue to follow what we’ve always known which is man’s doctrine?