Elders: who are they and what do they do?


This past Sunday our church overwhelmingly voted to set aside both Harlen Davis and Ed Sanderlin as elders / pastors at Union View, bringing the total number of elders to four. One question I’ve received several times is, “What do men in this position do?” Another way to put it would be to ask, “What are the expectations, outside of the general qualifications given in 1 Timothy and Titus, for our elders / pastors?” Or to put it even more simply, “What is their job?” While the specific details of a job description may change from elder to elder, especially regarding paid elders, there is a general job description that we draw from Scripture. To get that description we draw largely from the biblical language used for leaders of a local church.

Elder, Overseer, and Pastor

The three main words used to describe leaders of a local church are elder, overseer, and shepherd (we get the word ‘pastor’ from shepherd—more on that below). Here’s a quick breakdown of each of those words:

  • Elder (presbuteros in Greek): The word elder has two general meanings. 1) a man advanced in age (an equivalent english phrase would be senior adult), and 2) an official leader of a church. Context helps us see which meaning we should use, as every senior saint is not an official leader of a church, nor is every leader of a church a senior saint.
  • Overseer (episkopos in Greek): Overseer means what you think it would: someone engaged in oversight and supervision. (Some translations use the word bishop instead of overseer.)
  • Shepherd (poimen in Greek): Shepherd means someone who serves as a guardian. The Latin word for shepherd is pastor, and as a tradition of sorts we’ve taken to calling church leaders pastors rather than shepherds.

Some church traditions believe that these three words refer to three different offices (positions in the church). In those churches some men would be elders, others overseers, and still others pastors. At Union View, however, we believe the consistent witness of Scripture is that these three terms refer to one office. More specifically, we believe the Bible uses the word Elder as the normal title for the leaders of a church while the words overseer and shepherd normally function as descriptors of what men in that role are expected to do. Here are three biblical examples that lead us to think this way.

Titus 1:5–7 (ESV)

5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.

Notice that Paul is instructing Titus on the qualifications that should mark the life of an Elder in verses 5 – 6. Then in verse 7 he says, “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.” The logical connection is that men set aside as elders were overseers. That’s why the word “For” is there; to make sure we know Paul is talking about the same group of people, the same office.

Acts 20:17 – 18, 28 (ESV)

17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18 And when they came to him, he said to them… 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

In Acts 20 Paul is saying his final farewell to the leaders of the Ephesian church. He sends for the elders in verse 17 and then charges them with responsibilities in verse 28; namely, as God ordained overseers to shepherd the church. This is an important passage because Paul uses elder, overseer, and shepherd (as a verb here) to refer to the same group of men. There is no distinction between the three, as if only some men were elders while others were overseers or pastors. The elders of the church were Spirit made overseers who were expected to shepherd the flock. Here’s one more example for good measure.

Peter 5:1–2 (ESV)

1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly.

Here Peter is exhorting the leaders of the church, the elders. Like Paul, when Peter gives his expectations for these men he uses the word shepherd and overseer. Both words are used as verbs in verse two. (“Exercising oversight” translates one greek word, the verbal form of overseer.) Again, there is no indication that elder, overseer, and shepherd refer to different positions. To the contrary, elders were expected to be both overseers and shepherds.

We could work through other examples, but these three effectively establish the consistent witness of Scripture. Church leaders were called elders, and they were expected to oversee and shepherd the church.

Why does this matter?

It’s important to understand the biblical language for church leaders for two reasons. First, it explains why the elders, overseers, and pastors are one group of men at Union View. Eric, Ed, Harlen, and myself as a group are the elders / overseer / pastors at Union View.

Second, and finally getting back to our main question, it helps explain what an Elder’s job is. Elders are expected to exercise oversight in the church. They manage the church. They provide vision, maintain the day to day responsibilities directly or through delegation, establish the structure of ministries, and a hundred other things that are involved in managing a local body of Christ. It’s important to note that all of this overseeing is not about an organization. It’s about people. In Hebrews 13:17 Christian’s are told that their leaders are keeping watch over their souls. Every drop of oversight an Elder exercises should be for the good of the souls under his care.

Elders are also expected to shepherd the members of their church. In doing this, elders take their cues from Jesus, the chief Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4). Shepherding is a broad word rich in imagery. Shepherds care for the flock, tend the flock, feed the flock, defend the flock, and lead the flock. They do all of this knowing that the flock is not ultimately theirs. Elders are merely servants who have the honor to tend the sheep of the King. There are two primary tools an Elder uses when he shepherds: Scripture and Prayer. And so a good Elder will labor over the sheep through diligent study and application of the word and fervent prayer.

Those two, overseeing and shepherding, are the foundation for every elder’s job description, whether lay or paid. We oversee and we shepherd, and we will be eternally grateful for the opportunity (1 Pet. 5:4).

For more information on how we structure our Elders click HERE.