There are two offices in the New Testament: elders and deacons. Elders are more important because they lead the church. The Greek word for elders is "presbuteros", which means older person or someone who is more experienced. The New Testament defines the role of the elder in the church. An understanding of eldership is vital to a true understanding of the church. (For more on deacons ).

The elder has two similar and inseparable functions.

  • Building Relationships
  • Formation of Character (making disciples).

Building Relationships

The first function of the elder is to build relationships among church members. Just as the shepherd keeps his flock together, so the elder will work to build up the whole body of believers. A church is a group of believers who have been bound together in a closely-knit unity (Fellowship). It is the responsibility of the elders to take a group of disciples, and build strong relationships between them. In this way the whole body is joined together, and grows and builds itself up in love (see power pairs).

This aspect of the elder’s work is clearly demonstrated in Paul’s letters. A large part of them is devoted to building relationships. Paul is not just concerned about teaching doctrine, he also teaches the believers how to relate to each other. And often a whole chapter is given to strengthening his own relationship with the church.Elders who are pastor/teachers will take most of the responsibility for establishing unity in the church. Prophets tend to be more concerned about holiness than unity. They often have an abrasive aspect to their character, which can cause division. Evangelists are usually too busy seeking the lost to be concerned about unity. Most of the burden for building relationships will fall on elders who have a pastoral calling.

Making Disciples

The main function of the elder is the formation of Christian character. Every Christian should be in a relationship with an elder who can help them to grow to full Christian maturity, as measured by the stature of Christ. The elder does this by teaching the Word, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, binding up the broken-hearted, and releasing those who are captives of Satan. At the same time he must warn those who wander from the true way. In Titus 2:15, Paul sums this up in three words: teach, encourage, rebuke. This is the work of the elder (see teaching).

Another expression for this role is "making disciples". Every person who becomes a Christian must be discipled so that they grow to maturity. The heart of discipling is the relationship with an elder whose life can be modelled by the disciple. Discipleship means learning to be a Christian by following the example of elder, within a disciple/teacher relationship. The disciple learns the truths of the Christian faith in a way that is relevant to his life. The elder discipling would correct the disciple, if he goes wrong. An important part of the elder’s role will be to support the disciple in continuous prayer. In all their work, elders will work in a very close partnership with the Holy Spirit.

The first stage of discipling will be very intense. The new Christian will be quickly taught the basics of the Christian life. They will have lots of questions. Some may need deliverance or healing. They will be taught to read the scriptures and to pray. The elder will teach them how to experience the gifts of the Spirit and move in his anointing. The most important thing they learn will be to hear God speak. This will allow the Spirit to work in their life. He will do most of the work.

The elder/disciple relationship should quickly become less intense. The basic things should be covered within the first few weeks of their being a Christian. From then on it will be a matter of watching from close by. The elders may still need to answer an occasional question. The disciple may need an odd warning: "Have you prayed about that" or "What is God saying about that". Prayer covering should soon become the most important part of discipleship.

Elders must be careful not to dominate the lives of those whom they are discipling. It is very easy for young Christians to become too dependent on their elders. Instead each Christian should be taught to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Then by reading the Bible and following the leading of the Spirit he will be able to grow on his own (I John 2:27). The elder will then only need to watch from the distance, giving encouragement and correcting mistakes. The aim is for each Christian to grow to a level of maturity where he can walk in the Spirit, and not be too dependent on an elder.

Part of discipling is to release the believer into his ministry. The New Testament teaches that every believer has a ministry, or area of service to God. About a year after becoming a Christian, the elder should start guiding the disciple towards a ministry of his own. The elder must identify their gifts and calling and equip them for service in the ministry to which God has called them. For example, a potential pastor may start to assist with discipling even newer Christians.

Jesus Example

The best example of an elder is the ministry of Jesus to his disciples. He chose twelve men and worked with them for three years (Mark 3:14). By living in close proximity with them for three years, he developed a strong relationship with them. Each one of them was given individual attention. Jesus taught and trained them so that they would grow to maturity. They submitted to him and carried out all his instructions. He had complete authority over them. In this way he formed their lives into a likeness of his own. At the same time he built strong relationships between the twelve. He prepared them to work as a unit once he was gone. In three years, they were ready to go on without him. Every elder should follow this pattern.

The true test of the quality of a church is what has happened to a person who became a Christian in the church three years earlier. If they are not functioning in a ministry (Jesus disciples were) then there is something wrong with the discipling of the elders. Is there a development path for the new Christian? Can they expect to be functioning in a ministry within three years? In a quality church this would be normal. (People who come to Christianity with severe problems may take longer to grow to maturity, but they should be on the same path).

Jesus Commission

The commission Jesus gave to his followers is to make disciples (Matt 28:10). He did not tell us to build a church; he will do that. He did not tell us to win people for him, that is only the first step. He told us to make disciples. Discipling is not optional. Yet discipling is a neglected role in the many churches. Many new Christians are not discipled, so they do not grow to maturity or develop into their own ministry. Many church leaders were not discipled themselves, so they do not know how to disciple others. This breakdown of discipleship is seriously weakening the church. Jesus intends all Christians,

…to built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:13).

This does not happen by apostles directing clusters of churches, or prophets speaking anointed words at conferences, or by pastors leading anointed worship services. Christians well only grow up to the fullness of Christ, if they are discipled by elders in the same way that Jesus disciples the twelve.

Oversight

Even mature Christians need to be in a relationship with an elder. The word "oversight" describes the nature of this relationship well, because the elder watches over them. In the New Testament, elders are often referred to as overseers. Oversight is not a different role, but are one and the same ministry as eldership. In Titus 1:6,7, the words "elder" and overseer are used interchangeably to describe this ministry.

Paul described the role of the elders of the church in Ephesus.

From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church….. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood (Acts 20:17,28).

The Holy Spirit had made them overseers of a flock. Paul challenged them to guard their flock. They do this by watching over them to see that they continue to grow and do not come to harm. Mature Christians do not need to be closely discipled; they just need someone to watch over them, who will only act if they come under severe attack or things go wrong. Jesus bought them with his blood, so they must not be allowed to slip away.

The word translated as overseer is "episkopos". "Skopos" means "watcher" and "epi" means "around", so "episkopos" describes watching over or around. Elders "watch over" or "oversee" the disciples that God has placed under them. Some versions of the Bible translate the word "episkopos" as bishop. This is misleading as it makes it sound lie an administrative or management position. Overseeing is not controlling, but watching over mature people to see that they remain safe.

Peter also challenged elders to exercise "oversight" (verb) in their role as shepherds and elders of God’s flock. They do this by serving and setting an example, not by ruling and bossing.

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers--not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock (1 Pet 1:1-3).

The use of the word overseer tells about the nature of elder’s role. Mostly they just watch over their people with out doing anything. Our enemy is prowling around, looking for someone to snare, so all Christians need an elder watching over them.Every Christian will be submitted to an elder, but it must not be "heavy-handed" control. Submission is really just willingness by a believer to allow a more mature Christians to speak into their life, by being teachable and willing to accept correction.

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you (He 13:7,17).

Submission must always be voluntary. Disciples should be free to leave at any time, if they do not accept the authority of the elders. Eldership should not be controlling; it is for protection and development. The elder’s goal is to see them grow to a level of maturity, where they are not dependent on an elder.

The pattern of relationships

Each church member will be submitted to one of the elders in particular and to all in general. Each elder will be accountable for some of the church members, but all elders will be able to speak into the life of any member. This will not be a very formal process. When a new member joins, one of the elders will say to another, "You look after this one" or "I’ll take this one". Quite often, some of the discipling will be done by other mature members of the body. The elder responsible will just watch from a distance.

The elder would not necessarily hold a special meeting with those for whom he is responsible. Discipling would take place through regular contact during the normal meetings of the church. The elder would also meet with each one individually when this was necessary. An elder is not the leader of a group, but a person who has a strong relationship with a number of people in the church. Discipling does not take place in a special group meeting, but within strong personal relationships in any situation. For example, the best place to disciple an evangelist is out in the world sharing the gospel together.

Each church should be led by a number of elders. Jesus managed to disciple eleven men successfully, so it is unlikely that elder can disciple more than ten men. And where the men have wives and children, ten may be too many. Each elder should only have responsibility for discipling five to ten men and their families. He would help them grow to Christian maturity. Elders will be very focused, so their people will grow very fast. When elders are spread too thin, the danger is that people will not grow.

For the church to be victorious, quality discipling must be restored to the church. Every elder should take a few disciples and teach and pray and lead them by example, until they grow to maturity. These disciples will then be able to become elders, discipling a new group of disciples. This is geometric growth. True multiplication through discipling by elders is the key to the victory of the church.

Many Christians are looking for a revival, but..... why should God entrust us with more of his children, if we are not ready to disciple them? If they come in to the Kingdom but fall away, getting them back will be much harder. He might be waiting for the church to take discipling seriously before he sends revival.

The three stages in the development of character are:

  1. The emerging leader submits to discipline from without. 
  2. He establishes discipline within. 
  3. He is permitted to establish discipline for others. 

This is the order of character development: one submits to discipline first. Then, in that context, internal discipline is built. Once internal discipline is in place, God permits him ­ and man trusts him ­ to lead others. This order cannot be reversed. Internal discipline must be in place in the leader before he can effectively lead others, and his own external discipline must be in place before he can build true inward discipline. Thus, if one does not truly submit himself to another, he should never be trusted with true leadership responsibility.

Furthermore, please notice that the three stages are cumulative. They are not sequential in the sense of giving up one when moving to the next. They do not replace each other. The healthy leader maintains both his submission to others and his internal self-discipline while he leads others (M Webber - The Role of Discipline in Forming Character).