Biblical Eldership

First of all it should be mentioned that the idea of leadership by elders is not new. Down through the ages various reformation movements have inclined in that direction. The Presbyterian Church derives its name from its form of church government, leadership by elders (Gk presbuteroi). The pastor is called a "teaching elder" and the other elders are called "ruling elders" and are chosen by the congregation. In practice the system is similar to a Baptist church where they are called deacons instead of elders. The teaching elder would have theological education and would do the bulk of the teaching and preaching. The clergy-laity system is kept intact. Frankly, there is no basis for such a division in Scripture. All elders are on the same footing. Even the apostle Peter when working with local leadership called himself a "fellow elder" (I Peter 5:1 NKJ). All elders are to be teaching elders; "apt to teach" (1 Tim. 3:2) is a qualification for the elder.

A current teaching is similar to that of the Presbyterian Church where a teaching elder in an assembly has a salary and is supported like the pastor is in many churches. The terms may be different but the work is much the same.

Certainly the local flock needs to be fed but is it true that men who make their living are unable to study the Word and feed the flock? Must all elders who teach be "free of the burden of providing for their families through outside employment?" May I suggest that the Scripture teaches the opposite? The norm for the elders of an assembly is to have employment, to study the Word and to share the responsibilities of shepherding the flock. Paul gave a moving charge to the elders of the church at Ephesus: "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....You yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities and for those who were with me. I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’" (Acts 20:28, 34, 35)

There were times when Paul worked at his trade and there were times when he was completely supported by the gifts of God’s people. But here he says he labored to give them an example. He does not encourage them to appoint one man to be their teaching elder and to support him. Quite the opposite! He urges them to have employment and he states that all of them are responsible to shepherd the flock.

1 Tim. 5:17 has been horribly misused to support the clergy system. Paul was a rational, consistent thinker. "Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine" (1 Tim. 5:17). What does he teach here? The Greek word time is always used of value, respect or honor in other places. It is never used of a wage or salary. Paul here teaches that all elders should have respect but those who rule well and especially those who work hard at teaching should be accorded more respect. The ox received his food for his work; the elder should receive honor for his labor. If the word time means money all elders are to be paid; those who teach often and those who rule well should get twice as much. Really? Is that the Biblical teaching on elders? Is that the way an assembly should function.

Some assert in connection with this passage that in addition to receiving respect this honor includes financial support. But where is the proof for this. There are verses that apply to those men who felt called of God to give up employment to spend their time preaching and teaching the Word. The sphere of labor for these men reached out beyond the local church and at times would involve some travel. This is the pattern seen in the Acts as the Gospel spread. These men called themselves "servants of the Lord" and looked to the Lord to provide for their support through His people. They were never hired or salaried, but lived lives of faith. There are thousands serving God in this same way today.

If elders are hired and wages agreed upon, then they can also be terminated or fired. Wages imply a financial agreement, a contract. Is this the New Testament pattern?

Although Lenski is a Lutheran and believes in a salaried ministry, he makes this statement: "It is generally assumed that the elders were paid for their services in the apostolic churches. We are convinced that this assumption is not tenable. The probability is that none of them were paid. The elders of the synagogues were not paid or salaried. Each synagogue had a number of elders, too many to have a payroll that would be large enough to support them. The apostolic congregations imitated the synagogue in this respect. Our passage speaks of ‘twofold honor,’ not of twofold financial pay or salary" (Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus and Philemon, p. 683). Hendriksen agrees with this view (I-II Timothy and Titus, p. 280).

Full-time workers should live lives of faith, depending on the Lord to provide their needs through His people. They may feel called to do a pioneer work and stay much of the time in one place. They may feel called to more of an itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching and travel much of the time. Each worker must determine the Lord’s mind for himself. But none were salaried in New Testament days. Thousands still serve the Lord around the world in such a simple pathway of faith. It is interesting to note that the Mormon churches flourish with no salaried workers in their churches, a rebuke to many who insist on a professional clergy.