Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary defines elders in Christian Churches as those “who, being raised up and qualified by the work of the Holy Spirit, were appointed to have the spiritual care of, and to exercise oversight over, the churches” (Vine’s 195).
Two important distinctions concerning the role of an elder is evidenced through this definition. First, an elder is to engage in the spiritual care of the church. Secondly, an elder is to “exercise oversight over” or govern the church.
A plethora of New Testament evidence affirms Vine’s definition. The role of an elder includes providing spiritual care by teaching and governing the church.
The first role of an elder involves providing spiritual care by teaching the church. 1 Timothy establishes an elder’s qualifications to include “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:7). Similiar affirmations are found in Titus saying an elder, “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” (1:9).
Three important notes concerning this passage:
(1) An elder is to first hold firm conviction of truth
(2) An elder is to give instruction in sound doctrine
(3) An elder is to rebuke those who contradict it
In Ephesians 4:11, we find Christ gifting the church with apostles, prophets, evangelists, and “the shepherds and teachers.” William Barclay says this “double phrase” describes one set of people (Barclay 147). These men are the local “elders” of the church engaging in their roles of both teaching and governing the people. If these terms are meant exclusively, perhaps one set of elders are those that Paul describes as “worthy of double honor” for laboring in the preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17). Grudem notes “Paul seems to imply that there is a special group of elders who labor in preaching and teaching” (Systematic Theology 915).
One of the primary functions for the elder includes teaching his flock. Paul gives an apt warning to Timothy saying, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).
The elder provides spiritual care to the church by teaching and assuring close watch is kept on “the teaching” (1 Timothy 4:16). Elders provide watch over the souls of their flock because they will one day “give an account” (Hebrews 13:17). The salvation of both the elder and the flock is dependent on truth being sought, truth being taught, and error being rebuked.
A qualified elder in the eyes of God and man, appointed by the church, is also called to govern and manage the church. The required task of managing his own household well is a prerequisite for the aspiring elder because of its proving ground for the caring of God’s church. As 1 Timothy 3:4-5 says, “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?”
This mandate to “manage” or “care” for God’s church finds an additional synonym in 1 Timothy 5:17, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”
The function of an elder includes the command to manage, care, and rule the people well.
1 Peter 5:2-5 uses similar terminology concerning this role of governing the people of God, comparing the elders to shepherds.
“Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory. Likewise you that are younger be subject to the elders.”
A shepherd is to rule the flock, not domineering “but being examples to the flock” and governing the flock with care and tenderness.
Hebrews 13:17 states “obey your leaders and submit to them.” Again, we find a mandate for the function or role of the elder to include managing, ruling, and caring for the flock of God entrusted to their charge.