So, as many of your know, today is the last Sunday in our “Distinctives” series. We’ve been looking at five core elements that make Covenant Shreveport…Covenant Shreveport. And, today, we come to the last, and I would also say the least on this list, the fact that we are elder-led. That’s not to imply that this is unimportant, but when you consider the core elements we’ve talked about leading up to this (Missionary Family, Modern Liturgical, Gospel-Centered, Discipleship-Focused), our governance structure can seem to pale a bit in comparison. Yet, the New Testament actually talks a great deal about how the church should be led. And, so today I really only have two questions to answer:
- What does the Bible say?
- What does that mean to us?
I want to be humble and generous as we approach this topic today though, because, I don’t want to imply that we’ve got it all figured out and there are no problems whatsoever. And, that is true of every church no matter what their leadership structure is. No matter the form in which a church is being led, it is still being led by sinners in need of a savior. So, our goal in claiming a particular mode of governance or leadership structure is to do two things:
- Be faithful to the example of Scripture as we understand it.
- Respond to an American cultural model that tends to emphasize and elevate figureheads and secular corporate structures.
We also simply don’t have time today to do a full exposition of everything the New Testament says about this topic, nor can we dig into the myriad of interpretations. So, we’re primarily going to focus on one text that is a good overview, Titus 1.
So, here is our distinctive: We are “Elder Led.” Here’s what we mean by this:
“Covenant Shreveport is led by a plurality of pastor/elders who each operate within their individual gifting to give leadership to an area of focus within the church. These leaders operate as peers within the organizational structure embracing a horizontal or “out front” leadership model rather than a “top down” model. As such, Covenant does not have a singular “Senior Pastor” or “Lead Pastor,” but, instead, a pastoral team that leads and teaches.”
So, with that in mind, let’s look at our text.
4 To Titus, my true child in a common faith:
Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.
5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
So, again, our goal today is not really to examine other churches and how they do things. I think that there is room for there to be some variety in how these things are accomplished or organized or named in the church as long as the “role” of eldership is being faithfully administered. Here’s what I mean: as we look at today’s text, we see Paul counseling his pupil Titus to appoint elders (emphasis on the plural there) in every town under his charge. But, where are we?
So, if you remember from a few weeks ago when we looked at the missionary journeys of Paul, and we said that in the book of Acts, we see Paul embarking on three missionary journeys. His third journey ultimately ends with his imprisonment, and he is taken to Rome to stand trial before Nero. It is believed, though, that Paul was ultimately released and that he embarked on at least one more missionary journey that took him to Spain, which was a stated destination in the book of Romans, and also perhaps to the Greek island of Crete where he and his associate Titus went from town to town strengthening the local church and appointing elders. Talbot School of Theology professor, Dr. Kenneth Berding also thinks that Paul and Titus also probably planted some of these churches. Paul ultimately leaves Crete, but writes this letter to Titus to provide counsel and further instruction. The big problem on Crete at the time was false teaching, so building a strong eldership among the churches was a defense against false gospels that were proliferating.
But, where does this whole elder thing come from? Not surprisingly, like many things for the early church, the source is Judaism. If you read the Old Testament you will repeatedly encounter two things:
- There is an extreme respect for the age and experience of older male patriarchs.
- In every tribe and community, the older respected men made up an eldership that held sway.
It goes without saying that we live in a very different kind of culture today. We live in a youth obsessed culture where older people “retire” and go away once they hit a certain age. Sadly, this is also true in many churches where the input of senior adults is often unwelcome by younger leadership and where it is believed that the church will be rendered irrelevant or ineffective if older adults play a vital leadership role.
In the New Testament view, though, it isn’t simply age that qualifies one for eldership, but rather an exhibition of spiritual, emotional and personal maturity. In fact, Paul gives us a couple of lists of qualifications for elders so as to drive home the fact that this is not a position one steps into based solely on one’s age. We saw some of this here in Titus. Look back at verse 6:
6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
You’ll notice that Paul uses this phrase “above reproach” on a couple of instances. That phrase doesn’t mean “without sin,” it simply means that no one can make an accusation about the person. Often that Greek word will be translated as “blameless.” In other words, the first step in evaluating a person is to consider whether they are controversial or scandalous or if anyone in the community would bring an accusation against them. And, so Paul gives us some examples here at the end of verse 6 of what he means. A man who is above reproach will probably not have multiple wives, the early Christian church came out strongly against the practice of polygamy and also divorce for convenience. He will probably have children who are followers of Jesus. He and his children will probably not be guilty of the charge of debauchery or insubordination.
So, notice this. When Paul gives counsel on what to look for in an elder, here is what he says: look at his family. For Paul, the family is a barometer of spiritual health. Particularly in this culture that had a much stronger view of male headship than our culture does today, the respect of a man was measured by the behavior of his family. And, an insubordinate child could bring great shame to a family. Here’s Eugene Peterson in The Message:
“Is this man well-thought-of? Is he committed to his wife? Are his children believers? Do they respect him and stay out of trouble?”
Paul goes on in verse 7:
7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.
In other words, this is a man who acts the right way. He is self-controlled…he’s not in it for himself. Again, Eugene Peterson: It’s important that a church leader, responsible for the affairs in God’s house, be looked up to—not pushy, not short-tempered, not a drunk, not a bully, not money-hungry. He must welcome people, be helpful, wise, fair, reverent, have a good grip on himself.
This is the kind of person you want leading a church.
Finally, Paul says an elder must know and be able to teach the gospel, and also have the ability to rebuke those who would contradict it. So, elders play a vital teaching and correction role. They are the protectors of the church, and they protect it by faithfully teaching the gospel and by faithfully dealing with anyone who would claim something counter to the gospel.
So, here’s a big takeaway: it seems to be the example of Scripture that this mantle should never fall solely on one man, but rather on a group of men. And, yes, I think that the example of Scripture is that this is a male role. That would certainly have been true in the Jewish context and all of the language surrounding eldership is gendered male. Now, the same thing could be said of the other office established by the early church, deacons, however, there is Scriptural precedent for the fact that there were female deacons, such as Phoebe in the book of Romans. But, with elders we don’t have such a precedent, neither in the Bible nor in the history of the early church.
So, is a pastor the same thing as an elder? Yes and no. There are three Greek words that relate to this office in the New Testament.
Presbuteros is the most frequently found and is normally translated as elder. Episkopos is also normally translated elder, but also sometimes as overseer, and those two words seem to be used interchangeably to refer to the same office, that of a teaching/overseer. So, our text today is a case in point.
5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders (presbuteros) in every town
7 For an overseer (episkopos), as God’s steward, must be above reproach.
The word “poimen” is most often translated as “shepherd.” However, in one place, in Ephesians 4, we will sometimes see it translated as “pastor” because it is clearly denoting a gift given to the church. The King James says it this way:
11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;
12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:
So, in the original language the words pastor and teacher appear to be linked which means that since elders are teachers, at least some of them are probably pastors too.
So, why does this matter so much to us? Well, our experience has been that the church is simply healthier when we follow the Biblical example.
- If the full weight of spiritual and organizational leadership does not fall on one person.
- If there are a variety of giftings at work within the senior leadership
This requires a great deal of humility because it is a plurality rather than one person giving directives, but humility seems to be the example of Jesus. This also requires a group of men to seek the Lord’s will together, rather than one man being able to claim to have special insight from God. In other words, I think this is a guard against spiritual manipulation.
At the end of the day, the Lord has given us an incredible privilege to be called together under his banner as his church, and if we take it seriously, we should be primarily looking to Scripture for our cues.