While attending a sacred music concert, I received an insightful lesson in ecclesiology.1 As I walked into the main foyer of the church where the concert was being held, I immediately noticed the photographs and names of the senior pastor and his staff arranged in a pyramid within a glass encasement. The senior pastor’s photograph was at the top, his three associate pastors’ photographs were below, and the rest of the church staff’s photographs completed the base of the pyramid. As I walked further into the building and down a side hall, I saw another glass encasement that contained the photographs and names of the church elders. I immediately thought, What a superb illustration of how the church elders have been pushed aside to a scarcely visible position in the church! This is quite different from the New Testament model of eldership.
My first encounter with church elders occurred when I was a young teenager preparing for confirmation. During confirmation class, I told the minister about my conversion to Christ, which had taken place the previous summer at a Bible camp. He was so intrigued by my youthful, exuberant testimony of Christ that he asked me to share my story with the church elders. So I met with the elders and told them about my new relationship with Jesus Christ. They sat speechless, looking totally puzzled. I was saddened by their response because I realized that they didn’t understand what I was saying. That experience left me with little confidence in the elders or the church.
My next encounter with church elders, however, was altogether different. While attending college away from home, I was invited to a church that taught and practiced authentic biblical eldership. The elders of this church took seriously the New Testament commands for elders to be biblically qualified and to actively pastor the flock of God. They provided strong leadership, loving pastoral care and discipline, sound Bible teaching, and humble, sacrificial examples of Christian living. As a result, they were highly esteemed by the church. The inspiring example of these men first awakened in me a positive interest in the subject of church eldership.
Later, while attending seminary, my growing interest in eldership was vigorously challenged. During a class on church polity,2 which stubbornly resisted any notion of an elder-led church, I asked the professor, “But what do you do with all the scriptural texts on elders?”
He quickly responded, “Numbers of texts on elders mean nothing!”
I thought, but didn’t have the nerve to express it publicly, Well, what does mean something? Your nonexistent texts on clerics? This and other similar experiences served only to stir my increasing conviction that eldership was a biblically sound doctrine that most churches either ignored or misinterpreted.
Several years later, I was preparing a series of sermons on the doctrine of the Church. When I came to the subject of eldership, I was shocked to discover that there was no full-length book on the subject. There were small booklets, journal articles, and chapters within books, but no thorough treatment of the subject from an expository viewpoint. This lack of exposition was hardly believable, especially when I considered the elders’ primary role as leaders in the first churches and the number of scriptural texts devoted to elders. It finally ignited my desire to write on the subject of eldership.
I don’t believe any doctrine of Holy Scripture should be neglected or defined out of existence. Yet this is precisely what many churches have done to the biblical doctrine of eldership. Even among churches that claim to practice eldership, elders have been reduced to being short term lay church board members, which is quite contrary to the New Testament model of pastoral eldership. Although such churches may have an eldership, it is not a biblical eldership.
Literally tens of thousands of churches worldwide practice some form of eldership because they believe it to be a biblical teaching.3 Unfortunately, because the advocates of eldership have been so terribly delinquent in adequately articulating this doctrine, a great deal of confusion and unbiblical thinking surrounds the topic among most elder-led churches. There are persistent, crippling misconceptions about eldership that hinder churches from practicing authentic biblical eldership. This subject is too important to the local church to be bogged down in confusion and error.
To help remedy this appalling confusion over eldership, I wrote Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership. This book was aimed primarily at churches that practice eldership but may misconstrue its true biblical Christian character and mandate. This booklet briefly summarizes Biblical Eldership. Hopefully it will whet your appetite to read the entire book; but more important, it will motivate you to study further the biblical teaching on eldership. Precious truths, no doubt, still await discovery.
1 Ecclesiology is the doctrine of the church.
2 Polity means the form of government of a church, its organizational structure.
3 Presbyterian churches, Reformed churches, Churches of Christ, Christian Churches, Brethren churches, and numerous Baptist, charismatic, and independent churches practice some form of eldership.