It is imperative as we plant churches around the world that we think carefully and biblically about the leadership of the church. The Bible is clear that God has delegated pastors or elders to lead his church. Scripture uses the word “elder” and “pastor” interchangeably. The Greek word presbuteros is actually translated to elder, pastor, or bishop in the New Testament—meaning that all three words in English refer to the same office.
Appointing biblically qualified elders to lead churches is important in any context for at least three reasons. First, God primarily shepherds his people through elders. Second, God uses elders to maintain church health. And third, elder leadership is the model we see displayed in Scripture for the spread of the gospel.
God Shepherds His People through Elders
Throughout the Bible, we see that God relates to his people like a shepherd caring for his flock (Ps. 23, Ps. 100:3). We also see that the way he cares for his flock is through the ministry of under-shepherds whom he appoints to lead his people.
In the Old Testament, God rebuked the leaders for not shepherding his people well. Since the leaders cared only for themselves, God promised that he would shepherd his people himself (Ezek. 34:15), foreshadowing Jesus. Jesus identified himself as the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep, goes before them, and leads them (John 10). As the Good Shepherd, Jesus would eventually lay down his life for his sheep.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus primarily shepherded his disciples. He called them out of the world with the words “Follow me,” and he modeled for them the servant leadership of a shepherd by declaring, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:28) During the three years of his ministry, Jesus prepared his disciples to be his representatives to shepherd his people—the church.
Jesus began the New Testament pattern of appointing under-shepherds just after his resurrection. He commanded one of his disciples, Simon Peter, to tend and feed his sheep. (John 21) Years later, Peter would exhort the elders of the churches scattered throughout Asia Minor to “shepherd the flock of God” among them (1 Pet. 5:2).
God Uses Elders to Maintain Church Health
The responsibilities of elders include caring for the flock, feeding the flock, protecting the flock, and leading the flock. Caring for the flock involves watching over them and guiding them. Scripture says that elders must give an account to God for the sheep he has entrusted to their care (Heb. 13:17).
Elders feed the flock by proclaiming the whole counsel of God’s Word (Acts 20:27). Furthermore, elders protect the flock from false teachers that will divide the church (Acts 20:29–31). Elders exercise discernment and are able to confront error with courage because they walk closely with God and are well-trained to accurately handle his Word. They also lead the flock by being examples of Christlikeness (1 Tim. 3). If these four responsibilities aren’t carried out faithfully, a church inevitably fails.
Elder Leadership is the Model in Scripture for the Spread of the Gospel
In Romans 15:19, Paul stated that he fulfilled the ministry of the gospel from Jerusalem all the way to Illyricum. How could he make such an audacious claim? Certainly there were people in that broad geographical area who had not heard the gospel message yet.
To make sense of this, we need to see that Paul’s mission strategy was to plant churches in key cities and raise up elders in each of those churches who could then carry out the work of the ministry. Paul would move on to proclaim Jesus where he has not been named before (Rom. 15:20). Paul knew that he couldn’t reach all the Gentile world himself. Thus, he planted churches led by pastors he had developed and appointed. From these churches, the gospel radiated out to all parts of the world (1 Thess. 1:8).
In Acts 20, on his way to Jerusalem, Paul stopped and checked on several of these churches. One might think he would stop at Ephesus where he spent three years of his mission work. But due to time constraints, he sailed past Ephesus and called for the elders of the church there to meet him in Miletus. Paul then delivered one of the greatest charges to church leaders ever given.
But the important point is, that because Paul didn’t have time to visit the church, he visited the elders. In other words, as the elders go, so goes the church. Therefore, in mission work, we must always be seeking to raise up biblically sound elders who carry on the work of leading the church in their community. We will not see the gospel proclaimed in all nations unless we employ this strategy.
What if There are No Biblically Qualified Elders to Lead a Church?
Many young church plants cannot immediately identify biblically qualified elders. This is especially true in the mission field where we are planting churches in cross-cultural settings. Ideally, the hope is that there is at least one man (the main church planter) who has been raised up and is biblically qualified to be an elder. However, in many cases he may not have other elders ready. Even in these cases, it’s important that he have others who can provide him with accountability and wise counsel.
Nevertheless, it’s important for the church planter to immediately pursue developing men who have shown qualities of spiritual leadership so elders may rise up. Hebrews 13:7 tells us that leaders will be followed by people who will listen to their words, follow their example of life, and imitate their faith.
Therefore, we must busy ourselves equipping men with sound doctrine that centers on the gospel. We must walk with men over a period of time and pour into them as Jesus did with his own disciples. We must train men to have an eternal perspective, to put their faith in God alone, and will inspire others to do the same.
Sound missiological practice in cross-cultural church planting springs from sound ecclesiology. For the sake of completing the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20), it’s imperative that we embrace a proper view of church leaders and their true calling as shepherds who selflessly and courageously lead, feed, care for, and protect the flock of God.
Afshin Ziafat earned a masters of divinity from Southwestern Seminary and is the pastor of Providence Church in Frisco, Texas. He helped launch Vertical Bible Study at Baylor University and regularly travels to the Middle East to train Iranian pastors. He is married to Meredith, and they have two daughters, Elyse and Ansley. Follow Afshin @afshinziafat.