Church Government

T. Ernest Wilson, USA

Part 3 of 8 of the series The Church in the Pastoral Epistles

It is evident that at the close of Paul’s life he was particularly concerned about leadership in the church. The function of elders is barely mentioned in his earlier Epistles, but in the Pastoral Epistles it is strongly emphasised. Four main passages deal with the subject; see 1 Tim. 3. 1-7; 5. 1; 5. 17-20; Titus 1. 5-9. To these might be added his address to the elders of the assembly at Ephesus given at Miletus, Acts 20. 17-38. There was already a group of recognised elders at Ephesus before Timothy was sent there, but one of the objects of leaving Titus at Crete was that he might appoint elders in every city, Titus 1. 5. Apparently the question of elders had been neglected up to this time.

The question might be asked, “How are elders appointed today?” Paul answers this in Acts 20. In addressing the Ephesian elders he says, “Take heed unto yourselves and to all the flock, in the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers”, 20. 28 R.V. Only the Holy Ghost can make an overseer. He is called by God, who has created the desire in his heart. Such a man will already be doing the work, and the responsibility of the local church is to recognise what God has already done and to set the man apart for this work.

There are two forms of departure from God’s arrangement which are in evidence today. Firstly, there is the episcopal hierarchy, the general characteristics of which are followed by Rome and much of Christendom. Most commentators admit that in apostolic days “bishop” and “presbyter or elder” were synonymous terms and that neither has any connection with the ministers or offices of modern clerisy. Men justify the present hierarchy by the “doctrine of development” and not by the teaching or example of Scripture. Secondly, the other extreme occurs where there is no recognised eldership, the argument being that since there are no apostles today to ordain elders, therefore there can be none. A business meeting is introduced to take the place of the deliberations of God-appointed elders and anyone who has a care for the assembly is said to be free to attend this meeting. The first form of unscriptural government is a form of dictatorship, whilst the second form of departure is virtually a kind of democracy. Neither form is condoned nor recognised in the teaching of Paul.

The New Testament envisages a plurality of elders recognised by the assembly as leaders, shepherds and guides. Paul uses three words to describe such men:

  1. Elder (presbuteros). This is a word describing the man himself. He is characterised by spiritual maturity.
  2. Overseer (episcopos). The word emphasises the place he has among the saints and generally indicates his responsibility. He exercises spiritual authority.
  3. Shepherd (poimen) This figuratively anticipates his chief exercise. He displays spiritual capacity to feed, lead and tend the flock of God.

All three words describe from different viewpoints the same individual, and indicate the various functions which he has in caring for the people of God. His work is essentially spiritual.

Paul, in these pastoral letters, gives instructions as to the qualifications, responsibilities and compensations of an elder, indicating also what Timothy’s attitude to them should be.

Comparing the lists of qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy and Titus there are some twenty-three items which may be considered conveniently in four distinct categories. In these the man is portrayed in the personal, the domestic, the church and the world contexts of his life and witness. These give us a standard by which the aspirant for eldership can test himself. It may be felt that no one could perfectly fulfil all the qualifications, but here is God’s standard and it is the Biblical standard to aim at. In 1 Timothy, nine of the qualities mentioned have to do with his personal life, four with his home life, one with his church life and one with his relation to the world outside. Moral characteristics are emphasised in I Timothy. The personal and the family life must be of a high order. Failure here disqualifies a man for leadership in the church. His reputation in the world outside must also be taken into account; any inconsistency here debars him from eldership. Apt to teach does not necessarily mean that he is “a platform man”. However he should have a profound knowledge of the Word of God, and be able to open up the Scriptures to feed as well as lead the flock. He must be capable of giving sound Scriptural counsel to all. Doctrinal considerations and ability in spiritual things are more prominent in Titus 1.

The responsibility which rests on elders is a heavy one. Like Jacob, they will often spend sleepless nights out of concern for those in their charge. When discipline has to be exercised it should be done with a broken heart and a weeping eye, as the priest when eating the sin offering in the holy place. Elders are not only leaders; they are to be examples and models of well-balanced discretion. If they go astray, either in doctrine or behaviour, the flock is liable to follow their lead into by-path meadow, Acts 20. 30; Isa. 9. 16.

Timothy is instructed to “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine”, 1 Tim. 5. 17. It is very likely that Paul is here thinking of material help. Shepherds who spend and have been spent in the service of others should not be allowed to suffer need. Most of this very necessary and valuable work is done as unto the Lord with no thought of reward, cf. 1 Pet. 5. 2, but the saints who are alert will recognise the circumstances and minister to the Lord and to His servant of their material things, cf. Gal. 6. 6.

Finally, there is the elder’s compensation. He often receives this in the present - his joy of seeing the people of God walk in truth, 2 John 4; 3 John 4. But the supreme joy will be when the Chief Shepherd shall appear. Then all faithful undershepherds will receive that crown of glory that fadeth not away, 1 Pet. 5. 4.