All Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible, 1995 Ed. (NASB95), Published by the Lockman Foundation

How do you view pastors? Do you see them as a special class of Christians, who are separate from the rest of the church, or do you see them as your mature brothers in Christ who are gifted to teach and lead? Do you view them as the managers of the church organization, or do you recognize them as the spiritual fathers and older brothers in your local family of God?

The first view of pastors stems, first of all, from “the clergy/laity” distinction invented by the medieval church, shortly after the Roman Empire adapted Christianity as its state religion under Constantine. This distinction applied the same kind of distinctions that we find among the people of God in the Old Testament. Among most of the population of Israel, there were two groups of people — the commoners, or “laity”, and the priests, or “clergy”. And this exact separation was made barely a couple hundred of years after the body of Christ was established in the mid 1st century. Why the distinction? Because authority over people has a corrupting influence on those who are self-seeking and proud. So the medieval church turned the leaders into priests, through whom the ordinary Christian had to receive God’s special grace, while the ordinary Christian was confined to the position of a 2nd-class citizen in the kingdom of God.

Although most evangelical churches today don’t make such a sharp distinction between clergy and laity by considering the clergymen to be “priests”, this same divisive mentality still pervades most of western evangelical Christianity. First of all, think of the titles that “pastors” carry, the most common of which is “Pastor” itself. But what about the rest of them? Minister, Reverend, Bishop, Elder, and sometimes even Father are all used to mark off men as specially called, educated, and “ordained” leaders who have a completely separate position in God’s kingdom.

Along with carrying titles, most pastors in western Christianity function as the sole or primary administrator of the church “organization”. They often serve, and are viewed as, the manager of the church “business”, with a church salary, a payed staff, an office, and even business hours!

But is this distinction between clergy and laity, or pastors and people, found in the New Testament? Is church leadership under the New Covenant (Lk. 22, etc.) composed of a specially called, and prominently positioned, class of men that are distinct from the assembly itself? According to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, the answer is an emphatic, “NO”. The apostles clearly taught that pastors/elders/bishops are just as much a part of the local assembly as any other member, and are no more important than any other. Two characteristics of New Covenant shepherds that display these truths are their singularity with their flocks, and their selection from their flocks.

The Shepherds’ Singularity with Their Flocks

The first truth that shows us that shepherds/elders are complete spiritual equals with the assemblies that they lead is the spiritual unity of all believers. This is most explicitly taught in Paul’s explanation of why all believers are God’s sons in Galatians 3:26-28, which reads,

“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

In this passage, Paul is saying that God views all believers in the same way when He treats them as His sons and heirs. All ethnic, class, and gender distinctions mean nothing in this respect. Why? Because all believers are treated by God as having the same human status as Christ, and in this way we’re all “one in Christ Jesus”. There’s no room here for God treating one group of believers as more important than another, including elders.

The second truth that shows the equality of elders with their flocks is that they belong to the same body, and each member is essential. Paul first bears this out in his letter to the Romans, chapter 12, and verse 5, where he says,

“For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”

Paul elaborates on the implications of this diversity and unity in 1 Corinthians 12:20-25, where he explains,

“But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.”

In this description of the assembly as a body, Paul makes it clear that no one part of the body is any more important than another. On the contrary, every member of the body needs every other member. The same goes with elders. Even the elders of assemblies need the other members, since they are just as much parts of the same body. Paul ends this imagery by noting that there’s no division in the body, so that every member may receive proper care from another. Applied to elders, this means that they aren’t divided from the body of Christ, but a part of it, and even they need care from the rest of the body.

Finally, Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts highlights the equality of elders with their assemblies when he declares that,

“. . . to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” (Eph. 4:7)

Just as he says that Christ’s body is composed of many different parts which are essential, so here he assures Christians that God’s grace was given “to each one of us”. And what is this grace? As he goes on to say, this grace is the benefit of gifts such as “apostles”, “prophets”, “evangelists”, and “pastors and teachers”, so that the rest of the saints can do “the work of service” (Eph. 4:11-12). In other words, the Lord has given a spiritual gift to every member of His body. So, every Christian is essential in serving his assembly for its upbuilding and growth. This truth has been historically called “the priesthood of all believers”. Every believer is a minister, or servant, of the assembly, just as much as any elder.

A final point emphasizes the equality of elder with their flocks. In almost every letter of the New Testament, there’s no specific mention of elders in the introduction, nor is there any specific instruction given to them. Instead, most letters are simply addressed to whole assemblies, saints, or brethren, and no instruction is given to the elders as a separate group. The one exception to the first fact is Paul’s description of the Philippians, which only serves to prove my point:

“. . . To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons . . .” (Php. 1:1b)

So, if elders are spiritual equals with their assemblies, then what makes them different? According to the example and teaching of the apostles, one of the essential characteristics that differentiates them from the rest of the assembly is that they’re selected to be elders. But this selection also serves to reinforce the fact that they ought to be, in the case of established assemblies, members of that assembly already.

The Selection of Homegrown Shepherds

The basis for the need of naturally-raised elders in assemblies comes from one of the essential elements of Christianity — discipleship. And discipleship is most authoritatively and concisely commanded in the Lord’s Great Commission, found in Matthew 28:18-20:

“And Jesus came up and spoke to them [the apostles], saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.'”

The heart of the Great Commission is the decree to “make disciples”. And what does this mean? In basic terms, it means to teach them to obey Jesus, just as you obey Jesus. And what will happen if you strive to obey Jesus? You’ll increasingly become more like Him. And there’s almost no other role as a Christian in which discipleship has more power and importance than in the role of an elder.

This being the case, from a basic understanding of what elders do, we can understand that elders are to teach disciples to obey Jesus. But why do we usually go little farther than that in their discipleship work? Why wouldn’t we believe that not only are they to disciple their assemblies as a whole, but also to disciple individual Christians, and to teach them to imitate themselves as they imitate Christ (1 Cor. 11:1)? The answer is that most of western Christianity has given over the main responsibility of personal discipleship in pastoral work to Bible colleges and seminaries. When a Christian man has a great desire to become an elder, what do churches usually do? They don’t usually let a current elder know, so that he can disciple the man, and train him. They usually urge that man to enroll in a Bible college, or a seminary, apart from his assembly.

But this isn’t what we see in the New Testament. In the New Testament, both the example and the instructions — based on discipleship among the assembly — show us that the practice of the apostles and the early church was to train potential elders from within the local assembly, so that they would later become elders of that assembly.

But how do we know if a brother is growing in the direction of being qualified to be an elder? One of the clearest signs of this is that he expresses an interest in filling that role to the intensity that Paul describes in 1 Timothy 3:1:

“. . . if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.”

What should be noted about Paul’s description of this “office of overseer”, is that it’s not merely a position, but a work. So the man described isn’t just looking for a respected position, but a painful work. And what does Paul tell Timothy about potential overseers? That they first “aspire”, and then “desire” to do this work. The Greek word translated “aspires” literally means “to reach out”, so Paul’s not speaking of mild interest, but of a striving to become an overseer. More than that, he goes on to further describe this aspiration as a “desire” to do the work. This longing after the position should be present in any man that an elder or assembly is considering as a future elder.

Along with aspiring and desiring to oversee an assembly, the man must be spiritually mature and gifted to teach and lead, as is specifically outlined in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. But for our purposes in this article, let’s skip the evaluation process of potential elders, and move on to the organic nature of how the early Christians prepared and selected their elders.

The most important instruction that applies discipleship to elders, at least in a general sense, is found in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, in verse 2 of chapter 2. Paul gives Timothy this charge there:

“The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

According to 1 Timothy, Paul had commissioned Timothy to serve as an overseer of the assembly in Ephesus, and so we can assume that Timothy was serving in that same leadership role when Paul wrote 2 Timothy to him. Hence, Paul isn’t simply referring to any men when he tells Timothy to entrust his learning from Paul with them. Rather, he’s talking about men who were skilled at teaching, so that they could “teach others”. Therefore, in this one verse, we see the principle of Christian teachers passing on their learning to other teachers, so that they can teach others. It’s a chain of apostolic teaching that ought to be practiced by every elder in Christ’s body. But of course, such teaching shouldn’t be alone, but should be accompanied by a worthy example of leadership to follow. This is clearly described in the New Testament’s teaching on discipleship, particularly in the Gospels; and in several of Paul’s letters, including Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Titus.

When an assembly in the early church had discipled a man whom they considered to be mature enough, and spiritually-gifted, to serve as an elder, that man was then appointed by current leaders. But in every case, this appointment of elders is never of men who come from outside the assembly, but from within. Two accounts in Acts, and Paul’s instruction in Titus, give evidence for this.

First, in Paul’s parting word to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28, he recounts their selection in this way:

“‘Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers . . .”

In this command, Paul notes both whom made them overseers, and where. First, it was ultimately the Holy Spirit, and not any man, who made them overseers. In other words, He is the Person who trained, equipped, and empowered them to be overseers. But secondly, Paul doesn’t say they were made overseers over the flock, but among the flock. The first implication of this statement is that they were once non-elders in that flock. And the second implication is that they served, not as rulers, but as friends and servants of the flock, working right alongside the rest of the assembly.

The second passage in Acts that shows us elders in the early church were selected from among the assembly is Luke’s narrative in Acts 14:23, which says,

“When they [Barnabas and Paul] had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting . . .”

Here, we read not that the apostles appointed elders to every assembly, but in every assembly. The implication is clearly that these elders were already members of the assembly. Note also that they appointed multiple elders for the disciples in every assembly, so each community had more than one. Finally, note the preparation for these appointments — they had “prayed with fasting”, taking great care to seek the Lord’s direction and enablement in this process. They wanted to make sure who the Holy Spirit had chosen for the eldership, and to have Him enable the process to happen.

The last clear passage on the appointment of elders is found in Paul’s letter to his apostolic representative, Titus, in which he explains,

“For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you . . .” (Tit. 1:5)

Here again, we see someone serving as a missionary being instructed to “appoint elders in every city”. And according to most of the descriptions of assemblies in the New Testament, most cities were home to only one assembly of Christians. Hence, Paul is telling Titus to appoint more than one elder in every city, and not to every city. At least most of these elders would have been current members of the assembly in the city that they called home.

Having looked over these descriptions of elder appointment, one important question arises. How were the assemblies involved in the selection process? Did the assembly give their opinion of the elder candidates, or were they left out of the process? We can’t know for sure, but what we do know is that the final decision was made by apostles, or an authoritative representative, who was serving in the role of an overseer. From this example, and the absence of any description of a congregation voting on the appointment of an elder, it seems clear that what is most consistent with the example of the early church is leaving the final selection of elders up to the current elders. If the elders are being faithful to Scripture according to their consciences, this will lead to the best leaders being raised up.

Your Elders/Pastors are Brothers, and Future Elders are with You

So, what are the takeaways from the equality of Christian elders with assemblies, and the New Testament example of homegrown elders? First, you shouldn’t primarily view your elder/elders as your leaders, but as your brothers. To be sure, they are your leaders, but at the most basic level, they are your brothers in God’s family. Therefore, you should love them as such.

Second, seeing how the early church raised up their elders from within their assemblies, how are you seeking to help godly men — young or old — to be as qualified as possible to become elders? Are you paying attention to the spiritual growth of the men in your assembly, especially those who are young? Are you open to ways in which you can help these men be discipled, mentored, and taught, in the hope that they’ll eventually become able and mature enough to serve as elders?

For the sake of the Lord’s name and glory, please help your elders however you can, and look out for potential elders to either work alongside them, or to take their place.