To understand the biblical importance of ruling elders in the church, it is pertinent for us to recognise the necessity, nature and duties of ruling elders.
Necessity of Ruling Elders
In the apostolic times, when the Gospel spread through Judaea, Samaria, Asia Minor and in other regions, churches were formed. Their proper spiritual and administrative care became a great concern to the apostles. Paul then wrote to Titus regarding what should be done for the proper management of the church – “that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee” (Titus 1:5).
The apostolic instruction is that the appointment of elders as church officers who oversee her affairs and ministries is vital to an orderly, well-managed church. The ordaining of elders is an imperative. It is on no account to be omitted. Paul’s counsel was that Titus would go through city by city (wherever there was a church) and ordain a body of elders in each congregation (cf. 1 Timothy 3, where Paul also mentioned the appointment of deacons, who are to be assistants to the elders). The elders, then, are to rule and organise the church.
The basic biblical pattern for the proper organisation of a local church is that elders (plural in number) ought to be ordained from within the congregation, in accordance with the biblical requirements of abilities and standards of behaviour. This is corroborated by Acts 14:23 – “And when they (Paul and Barnabas) had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.”
Nature of Ruling Elders
Spiritually Pious Men
Elders ought to be men of sound moral and spiritual character. Their qualifications are plainly laid down in the Word of God, as attested to by Titus 1:6-9 – “(being) blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; but a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.”
A similar requirement of irreproachable conduct is also given in 1 Timothy 3:2- 7. “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (for if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”
The passages quoted above lay special emphasis upon high morals and sound spiritual abilities and character. So, every man who is considered for the office of eldership ought to be blameless in life and steadfast in the faith. He should be a man of wisdom and discretion. Neither wealth nor social position can qualify a man to be a ruler in God’s house. Holiness must characterise his pursuit of life so that he may be an example to the flock. Devotion to God – piety – should characterise every ruling elder. He must be a godly, spirituallyminded man. His piety is an indication of the measure of his strength. All his duties require godliness, without which all his skills and capabilities are of little use in the governing of the church. If he is truly godly, then he will truly influence the church for the glory of God. It is the elders’ godly influence that is instrumental in directing the proper conduct of the church.
Capable and Competent Men
Though piety is indispensable, it is not the only qualification. Not every church member who is devout is qualified to be an elder of the church. A candidate to the office of eldership must also be a man of intelligence, practical wisdom, experience and no mean administrative capacity. The best and wisest godly men in the congregation should be selected. From time to time, the Board of Elders will have to deal with matters of utmost gravity and grapple with perplexing problems. In such situations, the ablest of minds and the most knowledgeable of men are to be found among the rulers of the church. It goes without saying that men who lack excellent mental capacity would not be able to handle such duties. Thus, we should thank God for capable men whom God gives to us in the church leadership. In the same vein, we must also pray for more competent men for the eldership.
The apostle Paul also insisted that an elder should be “apt to teach”. This is not necessarily a reference to public and official instruction, for ruling elders are not those who are called to labour in the Word as teaching elders (cf. 1 Timothy 5:17). What this means is that there must, however, be present in them the ability to communicate and defend sound doctrines of the Bible. Elders must take every opportunity available to them to increase in the knowledge of God’s Word. They should be diligent and faithful students of God’s Word so that they may teach in the Bible class, and guide worshippers and inquirers in the wisdom of God’s Word.
Elders who are “apt to teach” ought to have the competence and purposefulness to teach true doctrine and to refute false doctrine. Hence Paul’s instruction to the Ephesian elders: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For … grievous wolves (shall) enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also … shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:28-30). This role of the elders is of vast importance in preventing the church from departing from the truth of God’s Word and in defending the church against errors of all kinds that will creep in through false teachers!