The apostle Paul gives the following admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13a “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake.” Who are these individuals who labor among us and are over us in the Lord? In the first century, there would have been the apostles; but all those have long since gone. There might be evangelists who go throughout the world spreading the gospel and starting new churches; in the Bible we have individuals such as Timothy and Titus. There are still evangelists today spreading the word and starting churches. Let us then look at the leadership of the local congregation as described in the Bible.
In the Bible we have mention of pastors, shepherds, overseers, bishops, and elders. Let us sort through these names. The word pastor means shepherd – one who watches over, guards and feeds the flock. In a local church, the flock would be the members of the church. Someone needs to be the shepherd over the members to guide them, protect them and instruct them. The word bishop means overseer – one who looks over the affairs of the church. In the Old Testament, an elder would be an older man who was the leader of the family or clan. In the case of the church, elders would be the older, experience men of the congregation who were over the church family.
Now let us look at the account in the book of Acts where the apostle Paul was traveling to Jerusalem and passing near the city of Ephesus. Acts 20:17 “From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church.” Paul didn’t call for the pastor or the bishop or the minister or the evangelist; he called for the elders since they were the leaders of the church in Ephesus. Note how he admonishes the elders in verses 28-31 “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. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.” The apostle Paul tells the elders in Ephesus that the Holy Spirit had made them overseers and shepherds. From this it should be clear that the elders are overseers or bishops; they are also shepherds or pastors. These are all different words describing the same set of people who were leading the local church. The word elders implies that they were older, experienced leaders. The words overseers or bishops implies that the elders oversaw the affairs of the church. The words shepherds or pastors implies that the elders fed and protected the flock. Biblically, there were not multiple “offices” of leadership in the church. There was just one set of leaders called elders who had the duties of being overseers and shepherds.
Also notice that there was not just one elder, but multiple elders in Ephesus. The apostle Paul told Titus 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.” There is a problem when there is just one leader – there is no check and balance; there is no one else to counsel with or arrive at a wise decision. Since the apostle Paul told Titus to appoint elders (plural) in every city, I conclude that there needs to be more than one elder per church.
Despite the variety of leaders in the modern churches, I believe that Christ wants elders to be the leaders in every church. The qualifications for elders/bishops are given in Titus 1:5-9 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7. The problem comes when there are not qualified men to be elders in a congregation. What happens then? The Bible does not specifically address that situation. Someone has to lead; someone has to make decisions for the church; someone has to teach and encourage the congregation. I have noted over the years that when there are not elders, one or more individuals steps forward so that the church without qualified elders can function. These individual(s) may not have the same authority as elders, but they are still leaders. My encouragement is that whoever assumes leadership in the church when there are not qualified elders should do so in humility and love and pray for God’s guidance.
We have additional admonition from the writer of Hebrews. Hebrews 13:7 “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct.” Also verse 17 “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” The elders should be those who “rule” over a congregation. Like shepherds, they watch out for the souls of the congregation because they have to give account to God and they want the members to be successful in their Christian walk. Willingly obey and submit to them.
Now back to the original admonition from the apostle Paul. 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13a “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake.” If you have in your congregation elders who serve as overseers and pastors, esteem them highly. It is not easy being a leader. It is not easy having to make tough decision that not everyone likes. It is not easy providing good edification and instruction. It is not easy guarding the flock from wolves (false teachers). If you do not have elders but leaders none the less, esteem them highly also for their work. All such individuals should be esteemed highly for their work for the Lord. Willingly obey and submit to those who rule over you and watch for your souls.