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Over the past decade I’ve engaged a wide-range of Christians on the subject of elders. Some, in desperation, want to change dysfunctional church leadership structures. Others have grown tired of side-stepping the biblical teaching on elders. Some long to adopt elder leadership yet realize many of their congregants would resist change. A mission leader told me that elder plurality was a major issue in his region; nationals, unfamiliar with traditions and arguments against elder plurality, saw it in Scripture and wanted to obey.
Christ gave elder leadership to the church for its growth, development, and unity. Yet tradition often tugs stronger than biblical order for those refusing elder leadership. Others have elders but neglect applying biblical standards to them. Paul’s letter to Titus offers great help for both cases (Titus 1:5-9).
First, plural leadership is the norm for every church: “appoint elders in every city as I directed you.” “Elders” is plural and “in every town” is singular. It indicates multiple elders serving each church on Crete (1:5). Each reference to local church elders demonstrates plurality as the New Testament practice (see Acts 14:23; 15:22; 20:17 that show this same pattern of plurality). Paul’s reason for plurality within even small congregations makes sense. It provides accountability, support, and encouragement, increased wisdom, and diversity of gifts to increase ministry effectiveness.
Second, elders are necessary for the proper ordering of the church. Titus was to “put what remained into order” (Titus 1:5). He would begin by appointing “elders in every town.” Elders would engage in the work of ongoing church reformation. What needed reforming? Slick teachers whom Paul called “empty talkers and deceivers,” undermined families “by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach” (vv. 10–11). Elders must correct the false teaching, remove the false teachers, and reiterate the sufficiency of the Gospel. Some Cretan Christians were acting like “Cretans,” not Christians! “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (v. 12); elders must teach the right application of law and gospel to daily life, exemplify Christian living, and lead in discipline when necessary. Still others were turning away from the truth by “devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people,” defiling themselves in mind and conscience (vv. 14–15). Again, the elders must be the means of putting what remained into the order of sound teaching and godly practice.
Third, elders set an example for the church at home, in personal conduct, and in relationships (vv. 6–8). An elder is to be “the husband of one wife,” singularly devoted to his wife, seeking to love her as Christ does the church (Eph. 5:25). His children are to be “faithful” (nasb; pistos seems best translated as “faithful” or “trustworthy,” see 1 Tim. 1:12, 15; 3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11, 13; Titus 1:9; 3:8), “and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.”
In personal conduct, an elder is to be “above reproach” because he is “God’s steward” or manager over God’s flock. He is to be conscientious in conduct with no dangling areas discrediting Christ or the Gospel. Further, “he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered,” so he guards against trampling others with attitude or outbursts. He must not be “a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain,” so he exercises self-restraint in appetites, self-control in responses, and self-discipline in finances (v. 7).
The elder also sets an example in relationships by being “hospitable” through accepting and befriending others; “a lover of good” by affirming what’s best; and “self-controlled” by keeping his head when life comes unraveled. In his dealings with others he is to be “upright,” in his personal piety — “holy,” and in his natural impulses — “disciplined” (v. 8). He keeps in mind that he is an “overseer,” not an owner, a servant not a lord (v. 7). Just as Jesus Christ came not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45), even so must God’s steward be in the church.
Finally, the shepherding role of elders is distinguished from deacons by requiring elders to be able to teach (Titus 1:9; 1 Tim. 3:1–13). Elders must be steadfast in knowing and applying the Word personally: “he must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught.” They live and breathe Gospel, delight in digging into Scripture, and test their grasp of doctrine by the Word. Elders must be committed to doctrinal teaching: “so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine.” Doctrine matters to elders. They recognize “sound doctrine” as the heart of biblical understanding, essential to the vitality of the church. Neglect it, and the church might still have an outward form of Christianity but inwardly dies, breeding all manner of deceit and sin. Elders must be ready and willing to reprove those opposing sound doctrine: “also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Anyone that enjoys confrontation has to be a little demented! Yet when the Gospel is at stake, when the health and unity of the church hangs in the balance, and when someone totters on the brink of spiritual or moral ruin, elders must rise to the challenge. Like a S.W.A.T. team, elders must remain doctrinally alert, ready to engage any that would threaten to divide or damage the body of Christ (Titus 1:9).
As Christ’s gift to the church, elders value character as they focus on the church’s maturity and unity. Whether by denial or misuse, neglecting Christ’s design for elder leadership deprives the church of this priceless asset for its spiritual health.