A Crucial Role
Leaders play a crucial role in any church, and we’ll refer to them as pastors and elders interchangeably because that’s what the Bible does (see Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5, 7; 1 Pet. 5:1–2). Your ability to do your job as a church member depends on pastors or elders doing their jobs. Your job is to be a priest-king. Jesus tasked you with watching over the what and the who of the gospel, as well as extending the gospel’s dominion throughout the earth by making disciples. But what is a pastor’s job?
As churches emerge from COVID-19, it’s as important as ever before that we know the answer to that question because of the impact the COVID-19 quarantines had on trust inside of churches—trust among members and trust toward leaders. We’ll think about this more in a moment, but part of building trust back up is knowing exactly what a pastor’s job is. The short description of a pastor’s job is that he is to equip you to do your job.
We learn this in Ephesians 4:11–16. The apostle Paul tells us that Jesus has given a number of gifts to his church, including pastors (v. 11). Then he tells us why Jesus gave churches this gift: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (v. 12). The pastor’s job is to equip the saints to do their job. They teach us how to minister to one another, to this end:
Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (vv. 15–16)
Each part of the body has work to do. We all participate in the project of building up the body in love. And pastors teach and train us for this work.
The weekly church gathering, then, is a time of job training. It allows those in the office of pastor to equip those in the office of member to know the gospel, to live by the gospel, to protect the church’s gospel witness, and to extend the gospel’s reach into one another’s lives and among outsiders. If Jesus tasks members with affirming and building up one another in the gospel, he tasks pastors with training them to do this. If the pastors don’t do their jobs well, neither will the members.
Elders’ job + members’ job = Jesus’s discipleship program
When you put the pastor’s job together with the members’ job, what do you get? Jesus’s discipleship program. This is not a program you can purchase from a Christian bookstore, a boxed package that comes with a teacher’s manual, a student’s guide, and posters for the Sunday school classroom wall. It’s right there in Ephesians 4.
Equipping by Teaching
A pastor’s or elder’s ministry of equipping centers on his teaching and his life. We encounter the formula in Paul’s instruction to Timothy: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16).
Let’s take each in turn. One of the main things that sets elders apart from members is that they must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). That doesn’t mean an elder must step into the pulpit, stand in front of a thousand people, and enthrall them with his wisdom and wit. It means that if you’re struggling to understand the Bible or how to handle a tough life situation, you know you can stop by his house and ask him for help, and you’ll get a biblical answer. You trust that, when he opens the Bible, he doesn’t say crazy things from it. He provides you with a faithful understanding of it. He teaches “what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1).
Some Sunday afternoon, read through the entirety of Paul’s three letters to two pastors, Timothy and Titus, and underline every reference to teaching. Your hand might get tired. To pick just one: Paul says in his second letter to Timothy that Timothy must hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that he has heard from Paul (2 Tim. 1:13). What he has heard from Paul he should commit to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also (2:2). He is to be diligent in correctly teaching the word of truth (v. 15). He is to avoid empty speech that deviates from the truth (vv. 16, 18). And he must teach and instruct only as God would have him teach, knowing that repentance will lead to a knowledge of the truth (vv. 24–25). Paul concludes by commanding Timothy to persist in preaching the Word, correcting, rebuking, and encouraging with great patience (4:2).
The picture Paul provides for both Timothy and Titus is the slow, patient, day-to-day, repetitious work of seeking to grow people in godliness. An elder doesn’t force but teaches, because a forced act of godliness is no godliness at all. A godly act is willfully chosen from a regenerate, new covenant heart.
When elders teach, the congregation begins to serve and do good works. A wonderful picture of this pattern occurs in Acts 16, when Paul and his companions show up for the first time in Philippi. Paul teaches a group of women, including one named Lydia. “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul,” we read (v. 14). He baptizes her. Then she says to Paul and his companions, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” Luke, who is writing this account, concludes, “And she prevailed upon us” (v. 15). So Paul preaches, Lydia gets saved, and then she immediately gets to work showing hospitality!
Equipping by Setting an Example
Elders don’t only teach. They also must set an example for the flock in their lives. “I exhort the elders among you,” Peter teaches, “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Pet. 5:1–2). How do they do that, Peter? By “being examples,” he answers (v. 3).
An elder works by calling people to imitate his ways. So says Paul to the Corinthians: “I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4:16–17).
Sometimes Christians are surprised when they search for an elder’s job description in the Bible, only to discover that the authors are more systematic in describing an elder’s character (1 Tim. 3:2–7; Titus 1:6–9). Also interesting is the fact that these descriptions of an elder’s character point to attributes that should characterize every Christian—being sober-minded, selfcontrolled, respectable, hospitable, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money, and so forth. Shouldn’t every Christian aspire to those things? The only exceptions are “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2) and “not a recent convert” (v. 6). Folks might wonder why Paul doesn’t require, well, something more extraordinary of elders, such as “demonstrated track record in leading large organizations,” “started seven orphanages,” or “spearheaded a revival leading to the conversion of hundreds.” The reason, it would seem, takes us right back to the idea of an elder being an example. Other than being able to teach, his life should be something that other Christians can copy.
Elders do not constitute a separate “class” of Christians, like the division between aristocrats and common folk, or between medieval priests and laypeople. Fundamentally, an elder is a Christian and a member of the church who has been set apart because his character is exemplary and he is able to teach.
The difference between an elder and a member, though formally designated by a title, is largely a difference of maturity, not class.
Like a parent with a child, the elder constantly works to call the member up and into maturity. It is a distinct office, to be sure. And not every mature Christian qualifies. Yet the point remains: an elder strives to duplicate himself insofar as he imitates Christ (see 1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1).
Speaking figuratively, he demonstrates how to use the hammer and saw, then places the tools into the member’s hands. He plays the piano scale or swings the golf club, then asks the member to repeat what he has done.
To be a pastor/elder, you might say, makes one’s whole life an exercise in show-and-tell. You remember show-and-tell. You would bring a toy to class, tell your classmates about it, and show it to them. You might let them handle it and see how it worked.
Such is a pastor or elder’s life. He says to his church, “Let me teach you the way of the cross. Now watch me walk it. Here’s how you endure suffering. Here’s how you love your children. Here’s how you share the gospel. Here’s what generosity and justice look like. Let me show you how to be valiant for the truth and tender toward brokenness.”
What is our job as members in relation to our elders? The author of Hebrews lays it out succinctly: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (13:7).
This article is adapted from Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ Is Essential by Collin Hansen and Jonathan Leeman.