What Is An Elder?

by Daniel Rieke


In this first post of a 3-part series on elders and deacons, we want to examine the first of two local church offices outlined in Scripture. We’ll spend two posts looking at the topic of elders and one post on deacons.

In this post, we’ll briefly look at 5 primary questions about elders from Scripture:

  1. What does an elder do?
  2. Why should churches have elders?
  3. How many elders should a local church have?
  4. How do the elders relate to the congregation according to Scripture?
  5. Why does a theology of elders matter to the rest of the congregation?

What does an elder* do?

  • Guide - elders labor to ensure that their congregation is growing spiritually and being fed with healthy doctrine from the Word of God, stewarding the spiritual authority they've been given from God (1 Timothy 5:17, Hebrews 13:17)
  • Shepherd – elders are called to lovingly shepherd their people, using their spiritual authority to gently care for the congregation (1 Peter 5:1-5)
  • Pray – elders pray for their congregation (Acts 6:1-7, also James 5:14-16)
  • Teach – elders are called to preach the Word of God (Acts 6:1-7, Acts 20:28-32, 1 Timothy 3:1-7 – not listed for deacons) 
  • Protect – fight wolves through teaching (Acts 20:28-32) 
  • Model – elders strive to live as an example for the church of how to follow Jesus passionately (Hebrews 13:7, 1 Timothy 3:2)

* the New Testament uses the terms: pastor/elder/overseer interchangeably

Why should churches have elders?

In addition to the benefits listed above, local churches should have elders because the New Testament says that they should. Paul makes sure elders are appointed in every church (Titus 1:5, Acts 14:23) and speaks of elders as gifts to churches given by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:8, 11; Acts 20:28).

How many elders should a local church have?

Based on Acts 14:23 and James 5:14, both of which refer to “elders” (plural) in every church, we believe that every local church should be led by a plurality of elders (i.e. more than one). Not only does this seem to fit the model given in the New Testament, but it also makes practical sense as having a group of pastors/elders leading a church will benefit the congregation as there will be more shepherds caring for the church and seeking to facilitate deep discipleship and growth in Christ.

How do the elders relate to the congregation according to Scripture?

Here are a few summarizing statements about how elders relate to the congregation at Hope Church, based on what we see in Scripture:

  • Elders will be men who meet the biblical qualifications set forth in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9).
  • There will be a plurality of elders in our church (Acts 14:23; James 5:14).
  • Elders are the spiritual authority over the congregation (1 Pet 5:1-5; Heb. 13:17; Acts 20:28).
  • The church is called to follow the lead of the elders except in cases where the elders are teaching heresy (Gal 1:2,6-9; 2 Tim 4:3-4) or walking in unrepentant sin (1 Tim 5:19-20).
  • The church members vote to affirm new members and new elder nominees who have been vetted and nominated by the current elder body.
  • The church body is called to remove heretical elders from leadership. If elders stop preaching the gospel, they need to be removed (Gal. 1:2, 6-9).
  • Hope Church covenant members, under the direction and leadership of the elders, are called to exercise church discipline on unrepentantly sinning members (Matt. 18:17, 1 Cor. 5:2, 5, 13; 2 Cor. 2:6).

Why does a theology of elders matter to the rest of the congregation?

In his final instructions to the Ephesian elders, Paul told them this: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29 ESV)

Having a good theology of elders (and having elders in our church polity in general) is vital for the protection and health of a congregation. If a church elects unqualified shepherds, wolves will likely attack the sheep and thereby diminish discipleship. If a church elects biblically qualified men who love the Bible and want to lead the church biblically, then the congregation can expect to be loved deeply, faithfully taught the Word of God and spiritually shepherded for the glory of God!

In our next post in this series, we will examine who can be elders and what good elders do.


Some helpful resources on the topic of elders:

Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons by Thabiti Anyabwile

A Display of God’s Glory by Mark Dever

Biblical Eldership by Alexander Strauch