The Calling of an Elder

David gave this talk as a one-off message at the Kings Arms Church (Bedford) in 2013. Click here to download the audio version.


Paul and Barnabas had been sent out from the Antioch church to preach the gospel in other places and start churches there. They go to Lystra and Iconium and preach the gospel there, although this causes trouble and forces them to flee. However, Paul and Barnabas recognised these new churches needed establishing by two things:

  • Taught them that we enter the Kingdom through many difficulties.
  • Appointed “elders” in each church.

What Was Local Church Leadership in New Testament Times?

Three words are used to describe those with governmental leadership responsibilities in the New Testament:

  • Elder (Presbuteros) – The word for elder comes from a Jewish background, with the elders of the town being seen as those of maturity. This is not synonymous with age (as seen with Timothy) but 1 Timothy 3:6 suggests that they were not to be a ‘Neophyte’, a term for one recently baptised. Ephesus was a mature church and a base for the whole region and so it was necessary to have mature elders in place. By contrast, in Crete where new churches were appointing elders Paul does not give that qualification. As more churches were planted and multiplied, the essential thing was that they had ceased from their former life; no longer violent, angry, drunk but were respected within the community.
  • Overseer (Episkopos) – This was the recognised secular term describing a manager or senior city official. It was not a religious word. The word “bishop” comes from this Greek word but it is only ever used in the Bible to describe leaders of a local congregation. Overseer denotes their ability, given by God (Acts 20:28), to make them overseers. This means they had the requisite gifts and anointing to govern, lead and make good decisions.
  • Shepherd or Pastor (Poimen) – This word is usually used in its verbal form, ‘do shepherding’ and is only used as a noun of anyone other than Jesus in Ephesians 4:11. Shepherd denotes both their function and the manner of their function. In the Old Testament, shepherd was a general word for leader and implies giving direction as well as care.

These three words are quite evidently used to describe the same people, all three being used together in Acts 20:

“From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church… Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”

The Function of an Elder

  • To Rule, Lead, Manage (1 Timothy 5:7)
  • To Teach (1 Timothy 3:2) – In Titus this is correcting wrong doctrine, but that does not mean that all elders are public teachers.
  • To Shepherd (Acts 20:28) – Elders have to care for their church as well as direct them.
  • To Pray for the Sick (James 5:14)

Character Qualifications

Certain character qualifications are given as essential for eldership, these are listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.

It should be noted that ‘Above reproach’ does not mean sinless, but that people could not bring accusations against them, as shown in the other qualifications such as ‘not drunk’ and ‘hospitable’.

Also, it is important to say that this character list does not mean that all who have such godly characteristics should be elders; it is a basic description of Christian godliness to which all should aspire. Rather, it is saying that those who have the anointing and citing for eldership must be examined (by the apostle or delegate) to see whether they have such character.

How are Elders Recognised?

To be recognised as an Elder they need:

  • The Call/Anointing of God (Acts 20)
  • Recognition by Existing Elders and Apostolic Ministry (Acts 14:23) – This is expressed through laying on of hands.
  • Received by the People (Acts 14:23) – “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church.”
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