Oversight & Accountability
The Bible recognizes and regulates the need for leadership and authority in society, in the home and in the church. It speaks to the issue of church government. The controversy, however, has always been over exactly whom did God intend to have the authority to lead the church. There have been several answers given, even by those of us who believe in the autonomy of the local church. Some have said the authority rests in a singular local church pastor. Others say the church is properly led by a plurality of godly pastors or elders. Still others say the authority of the church is in its membership. Who is right? Who should make the important decisions in the life of the church; the pastor, an elder team or the congregation?
Before we try to answer that question, there are a few important truths to keep in mind:
- The Son of God
Any discussion on church government must begin with recognition of the clear teaching that Christ is the head of the church (Ephesians 5:23,24). This is not a figurehead position. Christ is actively involved in His church! (Matt 16:18, Rev 1:12,13,20) As a result, His is the only true authority. His will is what we all want to be done in the church. His commands are the ones we joyfully follow. His glory is why the church exists. Ultimately it could be said, “Everything rises and falls on Christ!” The role of every church leader therefore is to discern the will of Christ for His church.
- The Word of God
The answer to the question of church government must come from the Word of God. This seems almost too obvious to mention but unfortunately much of the way the church operates today is a result of tradition, or pragmatism, or church growth studies and methodology, rather than the result of an inductive examination of the Word itself, which alone reveals to us the will of Christ, the head of the church. So who should make the important decisions in the life of the church; the pastor, an elder team or the congregation? I believe the biblical evidence points clearly to a team of elders as responsible for leading the church.
Let’s discuss this under two headings. First, Biblical Principles, where we will briefly examine four clear guidelines for structuring a biblical form of elder church government. Second, Practical Considerations, where we will answer six questions on the details of how these guidelines work themselves out in the life of the church.
- Elders are responsible for the oversight of the church.
There are three terms for church leaders that are used interchangeably in the New Testament. The word elder (Gr. = presbuteros) is the most common biblical term used of church leaders. The word overseer or bishop (Gr. = episkopos) is also used for the same office. The third word is pastor or shepherd (Gr. = poimen). While pastor is the most common term used today for church leaders, it is the least used in the Bible. All three terms are used to speak of the same office. Elder emphasizes the man’s mature character, overseer emphasizes his function and pastor emphasizes his careful watch over the flock God has assigned him.
There are 2 passages where all 3 terms appear in the same text and demonstrate their interchangeable nature:
In Acts 20:17-28 Paul addresses the elders (v. 17) of the church in Ephesus and tells them that the Holy Spirit has made them overseers (v. 28) to shepherd (v. 28) the church of God.
In I Peter 5:1-3, Peter exhorts the elders (v. 1) to shepherd (v. 2) the flock of God among you, exercising oversight (v. 2). The qualifications for overseer in I Timothy 3:1-7 are essentially identical to the qualifications for elder in Titus 1:6-9. In the Titus passage Paul uses both of these terms to refer to the same office. In verse 5 they are called elder and in verse 7 they are called overseer.
When we examine the use of these 3 titles in the Bible a clear picture emerges of the leadership and authority of elders in the church. In I Timothy 5:17 we read, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor.” The word for rule (Gr. = proistemi) literally means to stand first and has the idea of general oversight. It is used three other times to speak of the ruling responsibility of elders in the church (I Timothy 3:4,5; I Thessalonians 5:12). Peter warns elders (I Peter 5:2-5) that they are not to rule harshly or oppressively which strongly suggests that they having ruling authority and function in the churches to which Peter is writing. Although Hebrews 13:17 does not use the specific terms for the office of elder, certainly the author has this in mind when he writes, “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” There are of course other important duties given to the office of elder but the purpose of this article is to show those passages that clearly indicate how Christ has given elders the responsibility and authority in the local church. These 2 great duties are not given to just one pastor ideally, nor to deacons, nor the entire congregation. God has given these serious tasks to the elders.
- There should be a team of elders leading every church.
As Luke records the history of Paul’s church planting ministry, he carefully recounts how from beginning these men where deeply concerned with the appointment of elders (plural) in every church. Acts 14:23 is part of a short summary statement of the things that mattered to Paul and first missionary journey, “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” Their ministry of planting and strengthening churches was not complete without the appointment of elders within each local church. Notice the plurality of elders while the sphere of their leadership is a singular local church. There are 6 other New Testament passages where this pattern is clear:
Acts 20.17 “And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church”
Philippians 1:1 “Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons”
1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 “But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another” (Who else but elders could Paul be speaking of as discharging these duties in the church at Thessalonica?)
1 Timothy 5:17 “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (This verse is part of Paul’s instruction to Timothy, which he was to pass on to the church in Ephesus.)
Titus 1:5 “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you might set in order what remains, and appoint elders in every city as I directed you”
James 5:14 “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord”
There are an additional 8 passages that refer to the office of elders in the plural form but may possibly link them with more than one local congregation. So these texts provide no support for either plurality or singularity of leadership for the local church (Acts 11:30; 15:2,4,6,22,23; 16:4; 21:18; 1 Timothy 4:14; 1 Peter 5:1,2; Eph 4:11; Hebrews 13:7,17,24).
There are only 3 passages where the terms for the office of elder appear in the singular form (1 Timothy 3:1,2; 5:19; Titus 1:7). Two of these passages refer to the examination of individual elders as to their qualifications for the office and the 3rd is how to handle an accusation made against an elder, There is nothing in these verses that contradicts the overwhelming evidence from Scripture that the church is to be led by a plurality of godly elders.
- Elders must be spiritually qualified
Paul lists at great length the qualifications for elders to serve in the church. There are 2 significant lists of character traits needed for a man to serve as an elder. They are found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and in Titus 1:5-9. Space does not permit a full examination of them but it is important to say that elders are spiritual examples to the flock. These standards are essential considerations in selecting elders. The New Testament gives more instruction on qualifications of elders than on any other aspect of church government. Alexander Strauch says, “Proper qualification is a scriptural imperative, objective requirement, moral obligation, indispensable standard, and absolute necessity for those who would serve as leaders in the church” (p. 76, Biblical Eldership). Wayne Grudem writes, “Those who are choosing elders in churches today would do well to look carefully at candidates in the light of these qualifications, and to look for those character traits and patterns of godly living rather than worldly achievement, fame, or success. Especially in churches in western industrial societies, there seems to be a tendency to think that success in the world of business (or law, or medicine, or government) is an indication of suitability for the office of elder, but this is not the teaching of the New Testament” (p. 916, Systematic Theology).
Included in these qualifications is a heartfelt desire for the work and a sense of God’s call on his life (1 Timothy 3:1). When you study them you will see that they speak of humble servants of Christ who sacrificially and lovingly shepherd the church. When a man aspires to this role and also meets the Biblical qualifications, we then recognize these as the calling of God upon his life.
- An elder led approach.
It is assumed that church members will read all the Bible passages that clearly give the responsibility for the oversight of the church to the elders. It will be their deepest desire to please Christ and obey his Word. But submitting is not always easy for us. Therefore there is a direct word to church congregations in Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” In another passage Paul speaks of the love and respect that should be in the church for the ones given oversight responsibility: “But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:12,13). The Bible is clear that the church of Christ is to be led by an official oversight body made up of godly men called elders who meet the strict standards of Scripture and lovingly shepherd the flock.
We realize these 4 principles or guidelines raise a lot of questions. There are many decisions to be made by each local church about how to apply these principles in the government of the church. But there is great reward for the hard work of structuring a church according to biblical standards. Be assured, your elders at Sandbox have labored hard in the Scriptures to understand and implement Scriptural principles.
- How are elders chosen?
At Sandbox Church, we typically reserve the eldership search and oversight to the elders already serving. Although practical (who else would better pick than those who are already serving in this capacity?), we feel this is also very Biblical. Acts 14.23, Titus 1.5, & 2 Timothy 2.2 indicate that it was the apostles and other elders that were ascribed with the responsibility to raise up elders from within the church. As shepherds of the flock with responsibility for the care of souls (Hebrews 13:17), we tend to have a pretty good understanding of who is ready to serve in this capacity. Therefore elders of the church are to seek out, disciple, raise up, and appoint other elders.
At Sandbox, we have a 6 month minimum elder-in-training observation time for a man who we believe is a likely candidate for eldership. This trial period allows this man to attend elder meetings and get a feel for what it is like to serve the church in this capacity. This also allows the current elders to observe how he handles himself and others in specific situations. A man who is an “elder-in-training” is not guaranteed eldership, nor is 6 months the appointed time in which he would “graduate” and be ordained. This is a minimum timeframe to allow us to examine him first hand and test him in this very important duty and possible calling on his life. The elder-in-training is given limited authority and acts mostly as an observer but may add counsel as well.
Although the elders take the lead in evaluating an aspiring elder’s qualifications, opportunity is given for the congregation to express any questions or doubts about a candidate. These should be expressed within his examination period. Input from the church is very important. Our elders are available for discussion and a visit by anyone who has a concern to share. After the examination time period and answering of questions, an ordination service is held along with an affirmation and celebration by the church membership.
Congregational meetings are generally not the time and place to work through issues. Should they have concerns, members should seek to give input to the current elders prior to such meetings. This gives careful thought, prayer and personal attention to the issues. This also eliminates most misunderstandings and provides for open communication between the leaders and the congregation. All the work of communicating, explaining, and answering of questions should be done well in advance so that the congregational meeting is a time of affirmation and a celebration of the spirit of unity in the church.
- Should elders have terms?
Once an elder is affirmed by the congregation and set apart for this task he continues in his work as long as he desires the work and meets the qualifications. Besides these, there is no terms given in Scripture for elders.
- What if the elders can’t agree?
The elder team should always strive for unanimity. At Sandbox, we strive to always use language that promotes unity, commencing our decision statements with phrases like “The elders at Sandbox have decided…”. If there are several elders who have concerns about moving forward on something, this is a signal to slow down to give more prayer and thought to the decision. Even if there is only one elder who has concerns, we slow down the process to give more prayer and thought to the issue involved. If, after a prolonged time and several meetings, there is still only one person opposed then he will typically defer to the unanimity of his fellow elders. However this is brought about as an elder-team decision, and must be respected as such by the dissenting elder. Remember there is no room for personal agendas. The goal is to discern the will of Christ for His church and communicate as one in Him.
- To whom are the elders accountable?
It is an important role of each elder to be humble and approachable with the congregation and their concerns. While each elder is ultimately accountable to God (Hebrews 13:17) there are also 3 other levels of accountability: personal, fellow elders, and congregation.
- What does the congregation decide?
There is one regular scheduled congregational meeting each year. We ask the congregation to affirm two things; the annual budget and all the spiritual leaders for the coming year. Both the budget and list of leaders is given to the church and opportunities are provided to ask questions and share concerns. Sometimes small group meetings with the elders are available for anyone who wanted to come with a question prior to the meeting. Our annual meeting is like a wedding ceremony. All the work was done prior to the event – the counseling, the prayer and the discussions. The meeting, like a wedding, should be an opportunity to celebrate what has already been decided – in this case, by the elders & affirmed by the church family. The elders may decide to have other church meetings or even take church votes or surveys. They may appoint a congregational task force for important issues. The Bible prescribes another office known as “deacons” (Gr. = servants). These are assigned by the elders to cultivate ministry teams to better minister and serve our congregation and the community. Deacons are limited in authority, getting their direction and responsibilities from the elders, but are vital to the health of the local body and should be held in respect by the congregation. The qualifications for deacons is found also in 1 Timothy 3.8-13. The elders and deacons should understand each of their roles and responsibilities accordingly and not attempt to thwart God’s system and organization for His church. Communication is key!
- Do elders and the preaching pastor have equal authority?
The preaching pastor is one of the elders and therefore part of the team. He has no more authority than other elders. However, as John MacArthur writes, “That does not eliminate the unique role of a special leader. Within the framework of elders’ ministries there will be great diversity as each exercises his unique gifts. Some will demonstrate special giftedness in the areas of administration or service; others will evidence stronger gifts of teaching, exhortation, or other abilities. Some will be highly visible; others will function in the background. All are within the plan of God for the church.” (p. 27, Answering the Key Questions About Elders) The lead preaching pastor is typically referred to as “first among equals” within the elder team. This promotes that he is one of the elders, equal in authority, yet specific in function within the church.
In conclusion, our conduct in the church in regard to this matter of leadership and authority will also communicate to a watching world something of how we relate to one another and to our God. May we recognize and respect the godly authority Christ has placed in His church – for our churches’ health & for God’s glory.