What is an Elder?

What is the crying need of our age? When Jesus looked out at the masses, He was moved with compassion for them, “because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). The crying need in Jesus’ day remains the crying need of ours: shepherd-hearted leaders1. Or, as the Bible calls them, elders. Continue reading as we seek to define what an elder is.

So, what’s an elder?

Jesus’ statement was not a novel thought; through the Old Testament prophets we know that one of God’s core grievances was with the irresponsible shepherds who neglected or abused His people. Through Ezekiel, God bellowed: “Thus says the Lord God to the shepherds: ‘Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? … Behold, I am against the shepherds …’” (Ezekiel 34:2, 10).

True to His gracious nature, in the wake of this repeated judgment, He also gave a recurring promise: “I will give you shepherds according to My heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding” (Jeremiah 3:15).

What’s so special about shepherds?

Of course, in our Western world, the concept of the shepherd is largely lost on us2. To the Hebrew mind, a shepherd was akin to a parent. And God’s desire is always to be a “father of the fatherless”, to “set the solitary into family” (Psalm 68:5, 6). The crying need of our day is not first and foremost leaders with a fully developed skill-set and a toolbox full of gifts … but parent-leaders who reveal the Father-heart of God.

To a Hebrew, community was essentially family (not an organization) and leadership fundamentally parenthood (not directorship). Thus, the word “elder” is essentially a parent-leader not a “member of a board of grumpy old men” or a position in the church hierarchy. (See our article, Hebrew Thinking Vs. Greek Thinking).

Let’s look at a few Biblical passages so that you can rest in the knowledge that I’m not teaching from the Book of Mormon.

Peter used the words, “elder,” “shepherd” and “overseer” to refer to the same person: “The elders [Greek: presbuteros] who are among you … Shepherd [Greek: poimen] the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers [Greek: episcopos] … being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1-3). Paul did the same in Acts 20:17, 28: “he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders [Greek: presbuteros] of the church … Therefore take heed … to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [Greek: episcopos], to shepherd [Greek: poimen] the church…”.

Furthermore, the word “overseer” [Greek: episcopos] is translated, rather unfortunately, “bishop” in 1 Timothy 3:1 (NKJV)3. Therefore these four words all refer to the same leadership role. One possible way to distinguish between these words is as follows:

elder – role – “who they are”

overseer (bishop) – function – “what they do”

shepherd – ministry – “how they do it”

The importance of this concept in the New Testament cannot be questioned. Once an apostolic team has birthed a new spiritual community, their intentional goal is to help nurture the new work into a self-governing family and essential to this aim is the identification and appointment of parent leaders called “elders” (Acts 14:21-23).

Having stressed that an “elder” is a parent-leader, let’s now look at two key thoughts that will, I hope, bring further clarity to the role of an elder.

First, the issue of an elder’s relationship with his spiritual family.

On the two occasions that Paul and Peter spoke directly to elders, they not only used the same descriptive words (i.e. shepherd, oversee) but they also used a very important term that speaks volumes of the elder’s role.

Paul urged: “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). Peter wrote: “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers” (1 Peter 5:2).

This word “among” [Greek: en] stresses a close and fixed proximity of relationship. Thus elders are leaders who serve as parents “among”—not “over”—their spiritual family. Elders are not a distant board of decision-makers removed from the close proximity of living “among” their people.

Peter seems to underscore just this point. He reminds the elders to shepherd the flock not as “lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). The word “example” [Greek: tupos] refers to a mould or template: a mould from which all else is shaped; a template from which all else is cut. It is an unusually strong word speaking of the Christ-like character of the elder as a standard to be upheld for all believers. The question elders should regularly ask of themselves is this: “If every believer lived like me, how would we be doing?”

We are exhorted to honour our elders, “considering the outcome of their conduct” (Hebrews 13:7). Thus, elders live “among” their flock, “under observation,” so to speak, so that the moral force of their Christ-like character provokes their people to godliness. It is in these close, covenant relationships that the value of integrity is imprinted within the lives of each member of the church family.

Second, the issue of character and gifting.

Eldership is not a spiritual gift that a few select people have, rather it is a leadership role that all should aspire to. In other words, every believer should nurture that holy desire to be entrusted with the privilege and responsibility of being a spiritual parent, regardless of their spiritual gifting or even their other ministry passions. An elder’s spiritual gifts will determine and influence how they approach the overseeing of their flock.

This is an important thought and worth me stressing again. Being an “elder” is not a spiritual gift, it is a parent-leadership role. While an elder’s spiritual gifts will influence how they parent-lead, the defining qualifications for being an elder are all character-based (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Even the phrase, “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2) does not refer to the gift to teach but refers to “the way a father instructs his son;” again, stressing the necessity of a father’s heart and mature character.

Having stressed the necessity of character repeatedly, I don’t think these lists are intended to impose some “exacting standard” against which people ought to strive. Rather it is my opinion that they represent the fruit of a mature life, a heart healed and perfected by the Spirit of God.

Though the word “elder” implies age, this must be understood in terms of spiritual maturity not natural years of age. The value of elders being married and having children contributes importantly towards life experience and maturity but is surely a guiding principle, rather than a binding law (1 Timothy 3:2, 4). Paul appointed elders within new church plants, leaning on relatively young believers to serve as elders. This does not negate the fact that an elder must not be “a novice” (1 Timothy 3:6), but does challenge us to be open to equip those who “set their heart on being an overseer” (1 Timothy 3:1 NIV).

Another important lesson we derive from Paul’s requirements for eldership is this: it takes an apostolic team to affirm and appoint elders (see Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). This provides a vital, outside (objective) check-and-balance to the equation. Elders are not self-appointed men who solicit “votes” in a self-promotion drive for leadership. Rather as a potential elder matures in a spiritual community and their parenthood becomes evident to all, one of the roles of an apostolic team is to affirm this threefold witness4 and, through the necessary process, appoint the elder as a parent-leader of the spiritual family.

In answer to the crying need of His day, Jesus urged His disciples to “pray the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into His harvest” (Matthew 9:38). I’m convinced Jesus is still urging us to do the same today.


1 Many people state leadership is the crying need of our age but, in my opinion, we don’t just lack leadership, we lack shepherd-hearted leadership. Jesus’ urged us to “pray the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers” and here is the kicker – in context, He was imploring us to pray, not for missionaries or evangelists, but shepherds. Of course, we need missionaries and evangelists but the crying need of every age is for shepherd-hearted leaders.

2 The word shepherd has lost much of its original meaning in our modern world today … simply, because our Western sheep farmer is so distinctly different from the Hebrew shepherd. Two immediate differences stand out.

Firstly, the way each view the sheep is very different. While the Western farmer uses his sheep for commercial purposes, the Hebrew shepherd considered his sheep as part of his family’s heritage. The Hebrew shepherd loved his sheep and would literally give his life for his sheep (John 10:11). In contrast, the Western farmer uses his sheep completely for economic gain; for the wool they grow and the meat they provide. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this; he is a businessman after all. But we will never fully understand “shepherding” until we grasp the heart of a Hebrew shepherd.

For example, with our concept of Western sheep farming, we cannot fully embrace Jesus’ teaching about the shepherd who would search high and low to find a missing sheep. If a sheep farmer was taking his hundred sheep the 100 kilometre trip down to the city market and along the way hit a pot-hole, and unbeknownst to him, one of his sheep went flying off the back … what would he do at market? In finding that there were only ninety-nine, do you really think he is going to turn around and attempt to find the poor ‘ol sheepy who was bumped out? No way! He would simply up the price on the ninety-nine or fire the person who did not strap the sheep down properly!

To “shepherd the flock” then refers to tending the people, not merely engineering the programs the people attend.  Parent-elders are to intimately know the people they serve. Jesus explained that the shepherd “calls his own sheep by name and leads them” (John 10:3). To know the name of a person Biblically is to know their character and their personhood. As the wisdom writer urged: “know the state of your flocks, and attend to your herds” (Proverbs 27:23).

The second difference lies in the way each leads the sheep. The Western farmer uses sheep dogs to drive the sheep in the direction that he wants them to go. This is distinctly different from how the Hebrew shepherd works. Jesus said, using the Hebrew shepherd as an analogy, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27). The Hebrew shepherd did not use sheep dogs; he taught his sheep the sound of his voice. Through hours the shepherd spent tending to their needs, nurturing and feeding them, the sheep – yes, these dumb … really dumb animals – grew accustomed to the sound of his voice. Then at his call, the sheep would follow his lead. Again this is a telling picture of how an elder is to lead his flock.

People are not “ministry objects” to be used for our ministerial advancement, or “guinea pigs” on which we can spiritually experiment. Neither are people to be driven to achieve our ends. Rather they are “the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” entrusted to a parent-elder’s care (Acts 20:28). Then, in keeping with the “Chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4), the elder is to shepherd his people with love, leading them to “green pastures” and “beside still waters” (Psalm 23:2).

3 The translation of the Greek word episcopos as “bishop” and the use of the word ““position” (or “office” in the KJV) in 1 Timothy 3:1 – “If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a noble work” – is unfortunate and betrays the bias of the translators. As mentioned above the word episcopos means, “to oversee” and relates to a function. The word “position” was added at the privilege of the translators – it does not even appear in the original Greek. They drew from the clerical worldview that dominated the seventeen century, clutching from the air so to speak to match Paul’s instructions to the institutional church of their day.

Thus, Paul’s instruction is often seen incorrectly as a call to an elite group of people to serve in a clerical position of the church hierarchy. However it is, in my opinion, just the opposite of what Paul had in mind here. This verse could be translated, “If anyone desires to be a spiritual parent…”. Thus Paul invited everyone to aspire to be a spiritual parent. It has nothing to do with clerical positions and everything to do with the selfless, holy desire to reveal the Father-heart of God in the context of responsible relationships.

4 The value of a threefold witness is a principle repeated over and over again in Scripture, for example: “a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12). Firstly, the potential leader should sense a witness in their own heart that God’s hand is upon their appointment. A person should never be cajoled into taking responsibility when they do not have peace in their own heart. Secondly, there needs to be a witness in the community that will benefit from the appointment of the potential leader. We’re not advocating some “papal appointment”; the spiritual family ought to witness who their spiritual parents are. Thirdly, there ought to be a witness within the apostolic team seeking to appoint the potential leader. Taking heed of this counsel will avoid (1) self-promoting agendas within a spiritual community and (2) any type of “denominational control” over the spiritual family.