What is the Role of Elders?

Stan Cox
Fort Worth, Texas

In our last article, we discussed the first of three questions concerning the office and authority of elder. The question answered was, "Who are elders?" Remember that Charles Holt and other writers for The Examiner magazine believe that the term signifies any older Christian. They deny that the office of an elder exists. That discussion naturally leads us to the next question . . . What is the role of elders?

As I initially began preparation for my presentation at the "Truth and Freedom Forum," I thought I would get a representative quote from The Examiner to contrast our positions concerning the role of elders. It became obvious that it would be impossible to so do. They don't believe the work exists. They don't accept that elders are anything other than older Christians, therefore they can't delineate a specific role for them. Of course, the New Testament can, and it does. Let us quickly read some passages which define the role of the elder in the local congregation.

First, Acts 20:28-31, "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. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears." This is a record of Paul's instructions to the elders of the church at Ephesus, as he met with them in Miletus. Here he tells them to shepherd the church of God. The extent of their authority in this matter is also indicated as he instructs them to take heed to all the flock among which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers. They were also exhorted here to watch and protect the flock,

Another passage which is helpful in defining the elder's role is 1 Peter 5. Begin in verse 1. "The elders 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 the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by constraint but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away." Once again the terms "shepherd" and "oversee" appear, as well as the instruction to be examples to the flock. Titus, chapter 1, beginning with verse 7, "For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict. For there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision." Of course, this is a list of qualifications, but contained in the list is at least a partial description of the elder's work: To serve as a steward of God; To hold fast the faithful word as he has been taught. To exhort and convict those who contradict; the insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers. Titus 1:13 says to, "Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith." Contained in the list of qualifications found in 1 Timothy 3, is the explanation that elders must be able to rule their own house well, and then he indicates the reason why in verse 5: "for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?" So we can see here that God expects elders to "take care of the church of God."

Finally, 1 Timothy 5:17. Here Paul states, "Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine." This is another very simple statement. That elders are to rule. Those who rule well are even to be supported materially as they labor, which is another sore spot with Holt and his group. But again Paul is clear in his statement. God expects elders to rule in the local church.

The Examiner writers use misrepresentations, and untrue statements in an attempt to gain sympathy for their ungodly cause. Representative of this is the following quote from the January 1989 issue, this time from the pen of Dusty Owens. He falsely attacks godly men serving and doing the work of elders by saying the following:

"The majority of those called 'elders' are 'apt' not to teach instead of being able to teach the word. Most cannot 'convict the gainsayer,' as is required of them (Tit. 1:9). But, have no fear, they will take care of these little inadequacies by bringing in the professional preacher, who has been to one of 'our schools' and who is properly trained and is qualified for this kind of work. It matters not that God placed these responsibilities upon the shepherds, they will discharge them by proxy! They will hire someone to do their work for them while they busy themselves looking after things like bank accounts, church buildings and parking lots (and don't forget the thermostats and door locks)."(1) This is what I mean when I say that these writers for The Examiner are vindictive and deceitful. What I have just quoted is simply not true. It does not describe the hundreds and hundreds of godly men that serve their God in this capacity. It is not representative of the position that I and brethren throughout the world take concerning the need for men to serve in the work of oversight. And to say the concept of the Lord's church and the work of elders which I described leads to such practices is to say something totally false! Now once again, I don't know Dusty Owens personally, and I do not know his motive or his heart, but one thing I do know is that when he states that most elders make up a "glorified finance committee,"(2) he is accusing godly men everywhere of something that is simply not so!

I have simply shown, from the scriptures cited, that God has given certain qualified, appointed men an important work to do. This work is in the realm of spiritual oversight and care for the local congregation. Holt and his followers deny this to be true. In our next article we will deal with the question, "Do elders have authority? "


1. The Work of Shepherding," The Examiner, Vol. IV, No. 1 (January, 1989), p. 7.

2. Ibid.

Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 8, pp. 229-230
April 16, 1992