In ancient times, elders referred to the older men who were the leaders of the people. As older men, they had the experience and respect of the people. The term “elder” eventually came to be applied to the older men who governed, whether it was to govern the local synagogue or to rule over all of Israel. In the time of Jesus, the Sanhedrin council was made up of elders of the people to include the chief priests; they ruled over the Jews under the Roman authorities.
When the early church was established, it was natural for the local church to also be overseen and ruled by the elders within the church. 1 Timothy 5:17 “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.” When the early church needed to decide if circumcision was to be bound on the Gentiles, it was the apostles and Jerusalem church elders who met to make a decision on the matter (Acts 15:6). Elders were appointed in every church during Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 14:23). When the apostle Paul left Titus in Crete, he later wrote in Titus 1:5 “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you.” When Paul was on his way to Jerusalem for the last time, he stopped at Miletus and called for the elders of the church in Ephesus to meet with him (Acts 20:17). The elders were the leaders and rulers of each local church.
The Bible teaches us that the elders of a church have two basic but related functions to perform: to be overseers and shepherds. The word overseer means the same as the word bishop and the word shepherd means the same as the word pastor. When the apostle Paul met with the Ephesian elders, he charged them as follows. Acts 20:28 “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” The apostle Peter gave elders a similar charge in 1 Peter 5:2 “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly.” To be an overseer implies a person who has oversight over others; in other words, a person with supervisory responsibilities. The one over the flock is the shepherd. A shepherd is one who tends sheep. A shepherd provides his sheep with good food and drink. He leads them in the direction they should go. When a sheep goes astray, the shepherd finds the sheep and brings it back to the flock. When a sheep is sick or injured, the shepherd seeks to heal and restore it. The shepherd protects the sheep from danger or thieves. In other words, the shepherd is responsible for the wellbeing of the sheep. In a Christian context, the sheep would be the members of the church. The elders are therefore responsible for the wellbeing of the members of the church.
You don’t want just anyone being an elder and sharing responsibility for the members of the church. The apostle Paul gave the qualifications for an elder to both the evangelists Timothy and Titus. Here is what he wrote to Titus in Titus 1:6-9 “If a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.” I don’t choose at this time to go in detail over the qualifications of an elder. However, in summary, an elder should not have any major character flaws but be a true Christian. He must have a faithful family where he has learned and demonstrated his ability to lead. He must have a good understanding of the word of God so that he can teach the church members and defend against false doctrine.
In ancient times, multiple elders ruled together; during the time of Jesus, the Sanhedrin Council had 71 elders. Multiple elders were appointed in the early church – see Acts 14:23; Acts 15:4; Acts 20:17; Titus 1:5. Instead of being led by elders, many churches today are led by a single pastor or a main pastor. Other churches are led by an evangelist or a minister – neither of which are described in the Bible as having oversight or shepherd responsibilities in the church. Some churches are led by a priest – such an individual is not prescribed for the church. I believe that the church today should be led by multiple, qualified elders.
A problem in many churches today is that there are not multiple individuals who are qualified as elders. What does a church do when there are not qualified elders? This situation is not specifically addressed in the Bible. Faithful Christians continue to assemble, worship God, and edify each other without elders. But having elders to shepherd and have oversight is God’s plan and is much better. Older men should make themselves qualified, if possible. Parents should train their sons to one day be elders. Young men should seek to become qualified as elders in the future. My encouragement to you is to develop qualified elders in your congregation.