the weblog of Alan Knox

Teaching and the responsibility of elders

Posted by on Jun 11, 2009 in elders, scripture, spiritual gifts | 12 comments

In this series, I’m examining the relationships between leaders (elders) and teaching. Primarily, I hope to answer the following questions, “Does Scripture say that an elder’s primary responsibility is teaching?” and “Does Scripture say that the primary corporate teacher in the church is an elder (elders)?”

In one of my previous posts (“Teaching and the spiritual gift of teaching“), I concluded that there is a difference between teaching and the spiritual gift of teaching, just as there is a difference between giving and the spiritual gift of giving and just as there is a different between exhortation and the spiritual gift of exhortation. In the next post, (“Teaching and the responsibility of all believers“) I concluded that all believers have the responsibility of teaching. In the final post, I will examine teaching and the responsibility of elders.

First, if we agree that elders are believers and followers of Jesus Christ, then they already have the responsibility of teaching, per my previous post. Several questions remain however: 1) Do elders have more scriptural responsibility to teach? 2) Is the primary function of elders to teach? 3) Is the elder (elders) the primary teacher of the church according to Scripture?

Next, let’s look at the scriptural connections between elders and teaching. 1 Timothy 3:2 is one of the most direct connections between Christian leaders and teaching (here the leader is called a bishop or overseer or caretaker). In this passage, Paul says that the elder should be “able to teach”. The description does not mean that the elder has to have the gift of teaching, or that the elder primarily teaches. Instead, assuming that all believers have the responsibility to teach, the elder has shown that he can and does carry out that responsibility.

In a similar passage in Titus, Paul does not say that elders should be able to teach, but are those who are faithful to what they have been taught (Titus 1:9). In this case, Paul does not emphasize that the elder teaches, but that the elder faithfully lives according to what he has been taught. If faithfulness includes teaching (which I believe it does), then this means that the elder also teaches.

In 1 Timothy 5:17, Paul exhorts his readers (through Timothy) to doubly honor those elders who lead well and work hard in the word and in teaching. Thus, we should honor those elders who lead and teach well, as we should honor anyone who leads and teaches well (for example, see 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 where Paul says to highly esteem anyone who works hard, leads, and admonishes – elders are not mentioned in this passage, though they would certainly be included if they are doing those things).

In this passages, Paul does not command elders to teach, nor does he say that teaching is the primary function of elders, nor does he say that elders are the primary teachers of the church. Instead, elders are to teach (as are other believers), elders who teach should be honored (as should others who teach).

Notice, however, that these passage are not directed at elders. Instead, they are directed at others in order to help them recognize who should be elders.

There are two passages in Scripture which are directed to elders. In Acts 20, Paul calls for the elders from Ephesus and speaks to them together. He reminds them of how he taught from house to house (20:20). He instructs them:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. (Acts 20:28 ESV)

So, Paul’s specific instruction to elders here is “to care for the church” (to pastor or shepherd the church). Paul does not include “teaching” in his instruction, although he obviously expects them to follow his example of teaching which he gave in Acts 20:20.

Similarly, in 1 Peter 5:1-3, Peter also directly addresses elders. He also commands them to “shepherd” or “care for” the church (called “the flock of God” by Peter). Following this command, he lists several contrasting descriptions of how elders are to care for the flock (i.e. not by compulsion but willingly). Teaching is not included in Peter’s direct address to elders either.

So, according to Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5, the primary responsibility of elders is to care for (“shepherd”) the church. While it could be argued that shepherding and teaching are the same thing, Ephesians 4:11 seems to distinguish between them, though there may be some relationship between the two. The reason that Paul wants the elders to care for the church is that he knows that others will attempt to lead them away from Christ. Teaching would certainly be necessary to care for the church, but not only teaching. Many other functions are necessary for the type of care that Paul commands.

In Ephesians 4:11, the spiritual gift of teaching (and spiritually-gifted teachers) is included among other gifted individuals (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors). While these could be elders – and while pastors/teachers are sometimes equated with elders – there is nothing in the passage to limit the spiritually gifted pastors/teachers to elders. In fact, the passage indicates that all gifted pastors/teachers (whether they are elders or not) are given by Christ to the church in order to equip the church to do the work of service.

In conclusion, we’ve seen that teaching is distinct from the spiritual gift of teaching. We’ve also seen that all believers are responsible for teaching, even though all believers do not have the spiritual gift of teaching. We’ve seen that elders (being believers and followers of Jesus themselves) should teach, and they should not be recognized as elders until they demonstrate their obedience in carrying out this responsibility (which, by the way, assumes that they are teaching before they are recognized as elders). We’ve also seen that both Paul and Peter command elders to care for (or “shepherd”) the church. While this may include teaching, it is not synonymous with teaching.

So, to answer our questions: 1) Should elders teach? Yes, all followers of Jesus should teach. 2) Is the primary function of elders teaching? No, their primary function is caring for people. 3) Should elders be the primary teachers in the church? That would depend upon whether or not the elders have the spiritual gift of teaching. But, by accepting the responsibility of being recognized as an elder, elders also accept the responsibility of caring for (or “shepherding”) the church (yes, even if they are not spiritually gifted “shepherds”).

Should elders teach? Yes. Should other believers teach? Yes. Aren’t there certain contexts where Scripture says elders should teach? No, Scripture does not make that distinction. Isn’t it okay for only elders to teach? Not if we follow Scripture and allow (and encourage) all believers to teach.

Now, a good follow-up study would be to consider various methods and types of teaching that we see in Scripture. Perhaps it would be encouraging to other believers if we recognize that a 5 minute teaching can be just as important and helpful as a 30-45 minute teaching, or that a discussion can be just as important and helpful as a monologue.


Short series on teaching and the spiritual gift of teaching:


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 6-11-2009

    Could you just stop posting new stuff already? I’m trying to get caught up here and you’re making that quite difficult. 😉

    Fascinating topics Alan, thank you. I look forward to sitting down and reading each word.

  2. 6-11-2009


    You said
    But, by accepting the responsibility of being recognized as an elder, elders also accept the responsibility of caring for (or “shepherding”) the church (yes, even if they are not spiritually gifted “shepherds”).

    Agreed, but then would it not be correct to say that they should not have been offered that responsability if they are not spiritually gifted to “shepherd”?

  3. 6-11-2009


    I look forward to reading your response.


    I think it means that they should not be recognized as an elder if they are not shepherding (“caring for”) people. I don’t think Scripture says they must have the spiritual gift of shepherding.


  4. 6-11-2009


    I came across your website while studying “leitourgounton”. I was fascinated by your study and insight. I will continue to read.

    Your link between Church and edification is interesting to me. Funny, but, edify from its Latin roots in part means to erect a house or temple. Edify is the process of building a spiritual house; a spiritual temple. I would interchange the words edify and deify. Somehow a mysterious synergy happens when believers gather. We are changed, fill with the Holy Spirit.
    For those of us who have tried to balance the intellectual doctrinal pursuit of Christ and his true Church with the miraculous and regenerative work of the Holy Spirit, knowledge for the most part
    becomes secondary to revelation; although revelation is not acquired as is knowledge; it is given. Lord have mercy.

    Its fine and good if I know, but do I commune? Wow, and the Lord’s prayer makes it clear we cannot commune alone, an island to ourselves. So Church, the gathering, is the medium. It’s Pentecost, and I too must wait in the upper room for the infilling; praying with those of the like mind; waiting. When that miraculous infilling happened Peter immerged as the spokesman. He gave to the people what he had received from Jesus himself. That to me is what an elder is. He gives what he has received; Jesus himself, the revelation of the Son. Elders are not teachers, I would agree, how can one teach you about Christ? Christ is not knowledge, he is a man, the only begotten, not made. An elder must give you revelation. THis is a mystery. Christ is alive, the Word made flesh. An elder must feed you. Remember Jesus’ instruction to Peter “Feed my Lambs.” What was he to feed them? Christ himself. Not saying that knowledge is bad, absolutely not, but man is not just a mind, he has been set aflame with a spirit. An Elder is the keeper of the spiritual sheep, keeper of the flame,shepherd of my soul.

    Peter was martyred; an upside down crucifixion. He was a true elder;he laid down his life for the sheep, he gave his word, his life, his portion of our Lord to us. In the modern world, I tried to find an elder that was following in the footsteps of the apostles, all of which were martyred save one. Teaching is not the first and foremost criteria when understanding the vocation of an elder. He must have something to feed you, and that something is Christ himself. He may be a very learned man, an eloquent teacher, but does he feed you?
    Which brings me to a connection between the Elder and the Church. It seems to me that all the Apostles (elders)
    were determined to edify, determined to deify, determined to bulid the spiritual house, individually and corporately. It is also my opinion that whatever they determined was a hinderance they band together to protect the sheep from it.
    They seemed to be of one mind on the core issues, they trusted one another, they prayed together, they genuinely cared for the living and the dead, they focused on heaven their true home, they encouraged each other in faith and morals, they accepted doctrinal revelation on the basis of authority, and most importantly they
    broke bread together, they ate of our Lord together, they communed, they were One. To me, that is Church; the One, Holy, Catholic(I mean universal), and Apostolic Church. The Lord told Peter that he would bulid his church upon the rock, on Peter himself, I don’t think so. He built it upon Peter’s vocation, an Elder, filled with Pentecost, commissioned by our Lord.
    Thank you for your posts. I would love to hear your opinions. Thanks again.

  5. 6-11-2009


    Thank you for the truths you have expressed in these excellent articles.

    I hope they become widely read and understood.

  6. 6-11-2009

    In discussing this post with others, it was pointed out that Paul instructs Timothy to preach in 2 Timothy 4:2. However, every believer should preach, correct, rebuke and encourage…right?

    I read this blog daily. It has helped to rid my mind of “baggage” or traditions that have laid hold in my mind relating to ecclesiology. Praise God for your understanding that your sharing with your brethren!!!

  7. 6-12-2009


    Since Peter was not an elder at the time that Jesus made the statement about building the church, I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant. Instead, I think Jesus meant he was building his church on Peter as a believer, since Peter had just professed Christ. The important part of Jesus statement is that Peter had not learned this from men, but directly from God. Jesus builds his church with all those to whom God has revealed himself.

    Aussie John,

    Thank you for the encouragement.


    Yes, I think we all have the responsibility of “preaching”, although I don’t think the word translated “preach” in 2 Tim 4:2 means the same thing as our word “preach” today. Instead, it simply means “proclaim”. So, yes, we should all proclaim the gospel.

    I’m glad this blog has been helpful to you. Please, continue to comment. I’d love to learn from you as well.


  8. 6-12-2009

    Thank you for your response. It was great to hear your comments.

    I do believe the church is built upon the confession of faith. However, the proclamation of the Gospel came from the Twelve, and that is how we received and believed as Gentiles, the faith, handed down to us, preserved. So, in the purest since, upon Jesus the rock and foundation, I believe the church was built upon those Twelve men. Why do you say that Peter was not an elder at the time? When did he become an elder? How do you interpret Mark 3:14? Mind you, I interchange the words elder and bishop. Am I correct in doing this? Also, Jesus gives the job of preaching and healing the sick to the twelve. Proclamation and healing are what I call revelation.
    Also, a very good friend of mine is considering home church. This is hard for me to understand, not because of the location, but because of the place of an elder. Doesn’t an elder have to be appointed? Your insight would be helpful.


  9. 6-12-2009


    In Mark 3:14 (and other places in Scripture), Peter is identified as an apostle, not a bishop or an elder. Yes, I think it is safe to conclude that bishops (overseers/caretakers) and elders were one and the same, but I don’t think its safe to assume the same thing about apostles. It seems that apostles were “sent” to travel from place to place, while elders/bishops were intended to stay in one place. Perhaps Peter identifies himself as an elder in 1 Peter 5:1 either because of his age (a play on words) or because he was no longer traveling from place to place.

    “Home churches” – really church that meet in any location – can recognize mature believers as elders. However, the church exists even before the church recognizes elders. Notice that there were already churches when Paul and Barnabas helped them recognize elders in Acts 14:23. Leadership (elders/bishop) do not make a group of believers a church.


  10. 6-12-2009

    My question about Mark 3:14 was the word ‘appoint’. Are you saying that none of the Twelve became bishops?

    Where is it in scripture that the church “recognized mature believers”? I thought they appointed elders not recognized elders. Appoint means they elected them by the stretching forth of the hand. Who does this for the leaders of a home church?
    Also, it seems that those churches did exist before an elder was appointed because the faith was spreading so rapidly not because a group of people wanted to start their own gathering. I am sure new gatherings happened out of necessity not doctrinal differences. Natural progression goes from a group of believers without an elder, but in desperate need of one, to a group of believers in communion with Jerusalem through the appointment of an elder. That is why it was so important for the elder to be doctrinally sound. All leadership were held to the same doctrinal and moral standards, preaching the same Christ. Who’s requirements did they follow when appointing elders? Paul, and where did he receive the faith and appointment after his conversion but from the Twelve.
    Also, some of the apostles stayed in one place. James was the bishop of Jeruselem, Peter the bishop of Antioch and later Rome.
    I find no scriptural basis for leaving a congregation of believers, recognizing yourself, no matter how mature you are in the faith, as an elder and then asking that group of people to follow your interpretations and guidance without the laying on of hands by another elder. However, I do find in scripture warnings against following such men.
    I guess I believe that this arose from the belief that all an elder does is teach. No longer do men see the office of elder as a vocation, an appointment. If you can teach you must be an elder. I don’t buy it. An elder is not just a teacher. He is a shepherd, after the order of Jesus himself, caring for his sheep. He has been “appointed”, and that calling is irrevocable. No true shepherd would seperate the body of Christ. We know this from scripture also. If all we do is recognize the mature among us and then make them elders, what do we do with the laying on of hands? Recognition seems to be a precurser to appointment. Recognition came through prayer and fasting, and I am not sure if the congregation was involved in this process or not. However, when it came to the ordination only an elder (bishop) had that authority.

    Concerning the Apostles being the first bishops how would you interpret Acts 1:20? I believe the Apostles were the first bishops. However, I do not believe that the laying on of hands made men Apostles, it made them elders/bishops. The church is built upon the apostles and prophets with ‘Jesus Christ Himself being the cornerstone’.Eph.2:20. If in fact a group of people are gathering in Jesus name, why wouldn’t the natural progression be to appoint an elder to oversee that gathering? And who will appoint the elder? Thank you for your time.

  11. 7-1-2009

    Who appointed the elders in the book of Revelation?

  12. 7-1-2009


    Scripture doesn’t tell us who appointed the elders mentioned in the book of Revelation. Given the genre of the book (prophecy and apocalypse), the “elders” may not be elders at all.

    Who do you think appointed the elders in the book of Revelation?