November 28, 2023


Barry Cooper

How should a local church be organized? Does everyone in any given church have the same role, or do particular people have particular responsibilities? Today, Barry Cooper explores what Scripture says about leadership in the local church.


As part of my ongoing and self-appointed role to educate the public (especially the great American public) about football—sorry, soccer—it’s important to say that for a football team to function well, each player is supposed to play a particular role.

A striker’s role is to score goals, a center-back is there to defend, and a winger’s job is to run down the wing and cross the ball to the other players. The team only does well when these roles are taken seriously.

To give another example, the goalkeeper is the only one on the team who should use his hands. If he neglects to use them, that puts the team at a great disadvantage. On the other hand—ha, hand; I did a little hand-related joke there—On the other hand if other team members start picking the ball up, it would very quickly be game over because they’d all get sent off.

Yes, there are some things that everyone is free to do at any time: for example, feigning injury and rolling around in front of the referee. But generally, particular responsibilities are given to particular players, and it’s important for the health of the team that each person carries out their given role well.

Well, what does the Bible say about how a local church should be organized? Does everyone in any given church have the same role, or do particular people have particular responsibilities that others don’t have?

In the New Testament, only two specific roles or offices are mentioned: elder and deacon. Elders are also referred to in Scripture as “pastors” or “overseers”, or as “bishops” if you’re using old-fashioned English.

The New Testament seems to use the word elder, pastor, and overseer interchangeably; passages such as 1 Peter chapter 5 verses 1–2 and Titus chapter 1 verses 5–7 treat these differently named roles as one and the same. So why does Scripture use three different words when it’s only talking about one particular office? Because each of those words—elder, pastor, overseer—emphasize a different aspect of this person’s job description.

The word elder comes from the synagogue and the local village and implies that this person has particular wisdom and maturity.

An elder is also a pastor. The word pastor has a Latin root meaning “shepherd,” so there’s also the sense of protecting, nurturing, and directing the flock.

An elder is also an overseer. For a church to thrive, there needs to be someone who has oversight. In other words, someone who exercises authority. In a similar way, soccer teams have managers—people who are entrusted with oversight of team selection and strategy, who decide (for example) when to bring a certain player off the pitch or bring another one on. Again, the exercise of this kind of authority or oversight is an essential part of any successful team—and every healthy church.

So, according to the New Testament, what are the qualifications for being an elder?

Well, no academic qualifications are listed. A seminary education isn’t essential, and there’s no minimum IQ. There’s no requirement that an elder be particularly charismatic, no particular Myers–Briggs type is specified, and there’s no mention of needing to be “a terrific vision-caster.” What is essential and nonnegotiable is the content of an elder’s character.

This is 1 Timothy chapter 3, verses 1 to 7. The Apostle Paul writes:

An overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 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? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

Now note that an elder must be  “able to teach,” meaning he should have not only knowledge of God’s Word but the ability to communicate that knowledge clearly to others. Interestingly, that qualification and the qualification that an elder must be “not a recent convert” are the only things unique to the office of elder. All of the other character qualities required of elders are elsewhere in the New Testament required of all believers.

In that sense, an elder is simply one who faithfully demonstrates in his own life all the qualities expected of every believer. Like the captain of a football team, he exemplifies what the whole team are supposed to be about and leads by example.