Godly Leaders – Part 1: Why Do We Need Elders?

Intro: Godly Leaders – Our study through 1st Timothy brings us to chapter 3. In 1 Timothy 3 the apostle provides Timothy with the qualifications, or characteristics, of an episkopos(ep-is’-kop-os) and a diakonos (dee-ak’-on-os). We will learn some things the Bible teaches about each of these servants. I want to begin today with a more specific look at the episkopos (bishop). 1 Tim 3:1 This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work.

I hope to spread our study over a few lessons as we consider several scriptures on the subject. Some of the questions we will consider in these lessons are…

  • What is the character of the work of godly leaders?
  • What are the qualifications of those who do the work?
  • What are some of the obstacles to the work?

3 Biblical terms for the same persons (work). While the religious world has misdefined and misapplied these designations, the New Testament uses 3 separate words to describe the same leader in the church…

  • Bishop (episkopos) sometimes translated overseer, one who superintends.
  • Elder (presbuteros) one who is older, a senior or experienced person
  • Pastor (poimen) literally denotes a shepherd, one who tends flocks.

There are two places in the NT where we can easily see the equivalent of these term:

  • Acts 20:17 From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders (presbuteros) of the church. 28-29 – Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (episkopos), to shepherd (poimaino) 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.
  • 1 Peter 5:1-3 The elders (presbuteros) who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd (poimaino) the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers (episkopos), not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock;

We will use these terms interchangeably in our lessons.

I. The Biblical Mandate for OverseersDoes this church need elders or overseers? I would assume that we would all answer yes. But the question might be why does this church need elders?

A. There are decisions to be made and things need to get done…We might answer that this church needs elders because things run more smoothly with elders; things get done. This is true. Churches typically operate with business meetings in the absence of elders, and that arrangement is not as productive, and at time less peaceful than elders. We need elders because decisions have to be made and someone needs to make them. But is that the real reason a church should appoint elders?

B. A church needs to be scripturally organized…We might also answer that this church should have elders because a church without elders and deacons is not scripturally organized. God designed the local church to have human leadership, and without them we are less than what God designed us to be. There is no question that God commanded the appointment of elders in the churches of the NT.

1. Paul and Barnabas in Asia Minor

a. Acts 14:21-23And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.” 23 So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

b. 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 —

2. The NT records the presence of elders in local churches in Jerusalem and Judea (Acts 11; 15), Ephesus (Acts 20) and Philippi (Phil 1) Peter identifies himself as an elder in 1 Peter 5.

3. Even the appearance of the qualifications of elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 imply the command to appoint men to the work of leading the church. God does not leave the organization of the church to us. There is a scriptural mandate for elders and deacons.

C. But does this fully answer our question of “why does this church need elders”? I am going to suggest that the reason goes deeper than the utilitarian need to have someone to make decisions for the group, or any need to properly fill in an organizational chart or put names on a letterhead. We certainly need elders or bishops because God commands us to appoint qualified men to the work, but why does God command it? Why does God say we need elders?

II. Overseers are Jesus’ Gift to His Church… In Ephesian 4 Paul is urging the church to walk worthy of the calling of the gospel message and to maintain the unity provided to them by the Spirit of God. This unity or oneness of God’s church is created by the Spirit of God through revelation of truth (we do not create the unity – we maintain it) – Paul characterizes this unity in a list of fundamental truths in v. 4-6 (“ones” – There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

A. How could the church keep this unity? Paul tells us that Jesus has provided for this task by providing grace “given according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (4:7) What is this grace Jesus gave His church? Eph 4:11 – And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers,

1. Paul tells the Ephesian church that God has provided “grace” in the form of “gifts”. These gifts are identified in verse 11 –

a. Apostles (The special ambassadors of Christ, chosen by Him. (inspired teachers)

b. Prophets: Those who speak the words of God through inspiration. These were first two were foundational – provided once for all time; Eph. 2

c. Evangelists: preachers of good news

d. Pastors: Shepherds of the flock; also called elders & bishops (overseers).

e. Teachers: Instructors of the word (men & women)

f. All of these “gifts” (or functioning people) have a common arena of work – they are all revealers or teachers of the word of God. God’s provision for the church to do its work is the word. But notice that in the list are pastors (elders, overseers). What is the purpose of these “gifts”?

2. Verse 12for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, The original prepositional phrases tell us that Paul is describing one primary purpose connected to two corollary results. This is not obvious in some English translations because they translate all 3 phrases with the preposition “for” (KJV, NKJV)

a. “for the equipping of the saints” – The first preposition in the verse is pros; this is a primary preposition that points backward to the giving of the gifts. The gifts (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers) are given for the primary purpose of “equipping the saints” – What are the saints to be equipped to do?

b. The next two prepositional phrases [“For the work of ministry”; “for the edifying of the body of Christ”] – contain a different the preposition- eis (ice). In both cases, they describe the objective of the previous action – equipping the saints. Christians need to be equipped so they can serve (work of ministry) in order to build up (edify) the body of Christ. Notice the NIV translation and the Holman Christian translation

“to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (NIV)

“for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ” (HCSB)

c. So, as we apply this to our discussion and question –Why do we need elders here? – The same reason every church of Christ needs overseers – Pastors are one of the vital, God-given resources for equipping every Christian in the congregation to serve and edify the other Christian in the congregation.

d. The value of godly leaders to this church is relational, not merely organizational. There is work to do there are and decisions to be made, but elders are not appointed just to make the decisions, or to do the work themselves.Positively stated, they are appointed to teach and qualify every Christian in the church to do the work that needs to be done.

B. We need elders in this church because of us, all of us. We need to become what God intends us to be, and we are not there yet. Ironically, appointing elders is many times viewed as evidence that a church has arrived. We have elders and deacons. We are now just what God wants us to be. Organizationally complete. But elders are given to work on us – make us what God wants us to be.

1. We need overseers to lead us to be servants. We are not serving enough. We need to be equipped for the work of ministry.

2. We need overseers to help make us stronger.We are not strong enough. We are not bringing enough people to the Lord.We need to be equipped for the building up of the body of Christ.

C. We need elders in this church because of them. Sheep need shepherds because there are wolves and lions. One of the duties of a shepherd is to watch out for the enemies of the flock. We need overseers to watch for our souls.Heb 13:1717 Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account.

1. In Acts 20 Paul is returning to Jerusalem, but he is concerned about the church at Ephesus where he had worked for 3 years. He knew God had other plans for him and that he would not be seeing them again. What should he do to help them remain faithful to their calling?

a. He asks the elders of the church there to meet him on the way, in Miletus. There is much to learn about the work of elders in this short discourse. Paul does not impart some spiritual gift on them, or work a miracle to strengthen their faith.

b. Paul begins by rehearsing before them his own work in their behalf.

He had taught them day and night; publicly and in their own homes;

He had made known the whole counsel of God – did not hide anything from them.

They have been taught the truth. He had given them everything they needed.

c. He gives them this charge… 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.

• Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock –other translations say “keep watch” (NIV); “Be on guard” (HCSB); “Pay careful attention” (ESV) . Paul was not an alarmist. He was a realist. He knew that perilous times were coming when people would not endure sound doctrine, but would seek a message that would tickle their ears. He even foretold that these wolves would arrive from within the ranks of the elders themselves! (v. 29-30)

• “ Shepherd the church of God”  We get the picture. Paul wanted these elders to act like real shepherds and protect the flock. He knew that the life of the flock was in many ways dependent on the vigilance of the shepherds.

• v. 32 … I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. Paul points these elders back to the word of God’s grace. It is this message that will build up the church and protect it from the wolves. We need elders who are committed to the word of God – able to teach and convict the gainsayer.

d. Notice how Paul concludes this powerful and passionate admonition in v. 35I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” What important last words can you leave with those who are leaders of the church – the strongest among the saints? Support the weak; give to others. That impresses me. The job of an elder is to help the weak, watch out for their souls, build them up, train them to serve others… They are not called to command or bully or coerce. They are not appointed to be lords, but servants. This is why we need elders.

Conclusion: Jesus felt compassion toward the crowd that clamored to see Him on the shores of Galilee in Mark 6. He saw them as sheep without a shepherd (v. 34) so he began to teach them. God intended His flock to have shepherds who would teach the word. Shepherds who would care about the sheep that were weak or wondering in the wilderness. In another lesson we will consider the heart and the work of the shepherd and make some applications to the need for godly leaders.

1 Peter 2:22-25 – “Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth”; 23 who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness — by whose stripes you were healed. 25 For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.