The Elder Led Church

Pastor Noel Sanderson teaches from the Scriptures on an Elder Led Church.

The Elder Led Church

The Bible offers us no exact plan for the organization of a church. This may surprise some as many have been raised in churches with the understanding that their church government tradition is the right one or at least what the Bible teaches. Did a pastor lead the early church or a team of elders led by a gifted leader?

The New Testament Pattern


Most of the New Testament letters were addressed to “elders” or simply ‘leaders’ or ‘overseers’. Apostles, elders and deacons formed the basis of local church leadership. In any church there was always more than one elder. Acts 15:1-32; Acts 14:23; Acts 16:6; Acts 20:17; Acts 21:18; 1 Peter 5:1; 1 Peter 5:5; James 5:14; Revelation 7:11; Revelation 7:13 and Revelation 19:4.

Elders and their Gifts

The pattern of New Testament church government or leadership was built around calling, gift and the anointing of individuals and their roles in an eldership team. “Elder” was not a gift but a leadership function. Each elder would have had a gift that made their eldership effective, such as teacher, prophet, pastor, evangelist, and so on. Evangelist, teacher, prophet, pastor, manager (steward), are gifts of the Holy Spirit given to people and are generally manifested among leaders. It would then be no surprise to find them in an elder team – Acts 13:13.

Elders Minister at Gates

It was this combination of gifted men who heard the directive from God to send Barnabus and Saul out to a wider field of ministry. It is important that elders understand their gifts and serve the church in the area of their gift. Here at Calvary Tabernacle we call that area of ministry a gate. This is not about seniority or title but rather about fulfilling the purpose for which God gave the elder a particular gift.

In the Bible

Nowhere in the Bible does an apostle address local church leadership by addressing a Senior Pastor, or one individual unless that letter is a personal letter such as to Titus, or Timothy. Both Timothy and Titus were addressed only as a “true son”. There is no record of a congregation calling or voting on a leader (pastor). It is important to know this.

In references to leadership meetings in the New Testament, apostles, elders and sometimes prophets are identified as being present. In the scriptures leaders were both called by God and SENT or recognized by existing leaders. Churches tended to RECEIVE leaders sent by other leaders.

A good example of a meeting, which represented the New Testament pattern for church leadership, is found in Acts 15. Two types of gifted leaders are mentioned as being at this council – apostles and elders. There is no mention of pastors, nor is anyone present assigned the title of ‘senior’. If there was any sense of seniority recognized by the apostles and elders present, it would have been by virtue of gift and anointing.

Who is my leader in an elder led church?

There are three parts to the answer.

Jesus. The first is most practical – it is Jesus Christ, the shepherd who lay down His life for us all. John 10:11+14; Psalm 1. The life of a genuine disciple should be marked by a daily, sustained relationship with God. Individual Bible reading and study, prayer and obedience, spiritual maturity and fellowship, these are what together form the basis of being pastored, not a good Sunday sermon every seven days. If Christ is not your primary shepherd / pastor then you are not His sheep and you are not following Him.

Small Groups. The second answer is found in the entire elder team and those in the church who have caring, shepherding and pastoral gifts. The best churches are those in which the people care for people, especially when those who have Holy Spirit anointed gifts of caring, extend that care to their fellow disciples. Care, fellowship and accountability for our lives should first be directed within our Small Groups.

Elders. Elders and others equipped by God to do so are available to provide biblical forms of shepherding where this cannot be done through a small group. The lead elder may not be gifted as a shepherd or ‘pastor’. To be clear, the leader of the elders (the lead elder) is the leader of the group, church or community. This leadership is to be understood in the light of a team of equals, all gifted to serve the church collectively as an association, or council and to give oversight to the church. Some of those elders will be gifted in shepherding or pastoring.

Leading the Leaders

Under a separate document, the role of the leader of the elders has been addressed. Nevertheless, it should be self evident that people need and respond to God anointed leadership and this is true of a team of leaders needing a leader. Paul, Barnabus, James and Peter all stand out in the Bible as first among equals. This is particularly evident in the Jerusalem council and in Antioch.

Some biblical definitions for an Elder Led Church

  • Fellowship: an association of equals committed to a common goal.
  • Peer: a person of the same status as another in an association or council.
  • Collegiate: partnership of equals or an association of equals.
  • Sanhedrin: supreme council.
  • Elders: a council or association of leaders
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