“This examination process is not a popularity contest or church election. It is an assessment of a candidate’s character according to the light of Scripture.” Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership

As we assess Travis Swan as a pastor, what measures should we use? What guidance does the Scripture give to leadership in the church?

Leadership in the New Testament

A survey of the New Testament reveals 1) the structure of church leadership is simple, 2) leaders are evaluated on the basis of character and 3) leaders are formed in relationship with the church.

Simple

We are familiar with organizations being built using complex layers of authority and accountability. In contrast, the New Testament presents an elegant and simple order to the church. It is easy to understand and easy to reproduce. 

Consider the following passages (Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:1-2, 8): “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons…”, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be ... Deacons likewise must be...”

There are two kinds of leaders that are formerly recognized within the church, namely, “overseer/elder/pastor” and “deacon.” A very reasonable question at this point might be, “There are four titles, why do they not represent four offices?” The answer lies in Peter’s words to fellow elders in 1 Peter 5:1-3:

 

So I exhort the elders (the Greek presbuterous here is translated as “elder”) 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: shepherd (the Greek poimanate here is translated as the verb “shepherd”; those that shepherd are poimenas – “shepherds” – or “pastors”) the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight (the Greek episkopountes here is translated as the verb “exercising oversight”; those that oversee are episkopos in the Greek, or “overseers”), not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you ;not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (Commentary added.)

 

We see in this passage that Peter is referring to one group of leaders – the elders – and that these elders “oversee” and “shepherd” (pastor) the flock of God. The terms elder/overseer/pastor are different descriptive terms for the same group of leaders who will give an account for the church (Hebrews 13:7, 17). These terms do not define multiple offices but give definition to one office. This is why you will often here us using the terms “elder” and “pastor” interchangeably. 

In Acts 6, we get further definition for the job description of an elder. Here, in the first church, the important administrative task of providing for the Hellenist widows begins to encroach on the elders’ responsibility to devote themselves “to prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:1-4). The solution was to appoint men who would be officially responsible for addressing the needs in the church with the resources of the church. These men would become the first deacons. 

So, we have this structure of elders and deacons leading the church: The former dedicated to building the church in the truth through their example and teaching, and the later dedicated to the gracious ministry of the church to those in need. When these two offices are operating well, the church – Christ’s body – is full of grace and truth, as was Jesus (John 1:14,17). 

Now, all this does not mean that responsibility cannot be delegated among church members. Indeed, the pastors are given to the church to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:11-12) and Paul admonished his pastoral protégé, Timothy, to take all that he had learned and “entrust [it] to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). Elders and deacons lead so that all might contribute to the glorious, eternal work of the church. 

Character-based

Two passages tower above all the rest of the New Testament regarding the selection of elders: Titus 1:1-9 and 1 Timothy 3:1-13. In these passages, there is an overwhelming emphasis on character as the prerequisite for leading the church. In a book that is flowing with the glories of the Gospel and the person of Jesus Christ and somewhat short on the specifics of application, this practical specificity should speak loudly. Character is the first and most important requirement. 

In relationship with the church

"... 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; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:2–3).

These words express a sincere care for a particular people. The New Testament elder has his life woven into the congregation in a way that allows him to oversee with genuine concern and not as a mercenary. He does not dominate from a distance but is an example up close. The emphasis on character in the New Testament as a prerequisite also indicates an intimacy between the church and her leaders. The church is strengthened when it knows, through personal experience, the character of the leaders.  

“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” (Titus 1:5).

In Crete, churches had been started in towns throughout the country and it was now time for those churches to be complete. So Paul commissioned Titus to go to those churches and appoint elders in each one. This is a critical, final step to becoming an established church. These churches would then have leaders of character who would equip the saints to grow into Christ. By the power of the Spirit and the guidance of the Word, these churches could continue and replicate by themselves. The local development of leadership is a great aid to that process. 

Pastoral Training at Summitview

"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).

"If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task" (1 Timothy 3:1).

"Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15).

"He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it." (Titus 1:9)

Though we firmly believe that the Holy Spirit makes an overseer (Acts 20:28), we do not believe that means the church should not work to train men in all aspects of godliness that are required in elders. A careful examination of 1 Timothy 3 reveals one important distinction in the requirements of elders versus deacons, and that is the ability to teach (1 Timothy 3:2). There is definitely a gift in teaching but the ability to teach and give instruction in sound doctrine can be developed through intentional training. In fact, the New Testament indicates that character can grow as well through the means of mutual encouragement, prayer and devotion to the Scriptures. 

Within Summitview, we have a pastoral training program called Aspire (the name being derived from 1 Timothy 3:1). Aspire is, in many ways, a small group of men who work together to grow in character, love for and service to the church, and sound doctrine. The Aspire program trains men in:

  • The study of sound doctrine and the Scriptures. Through a variety of means we set up discussions that examine what the Scripture says regarding the important issues facing the church. 
  • Actual ministry experience. Each man in Aspire is delegated areas of responsibility in the church and then coached through the process.
  • Love for the church. Every other week the men within Aspire devote themselves to an hour of prayer for the health of the church. 
  • Watching over each other. Every other week the men within Aspire practice intimate, encouraging, confessional, Christ-focused community in groups of three to four with the goal of watching over each other’s life.

Currently, there are more than a dozen men involved in Aspire. Travis Swan has been one of them and has been involved for seven years. It is in this context of intimate relationships and growing responsibility that we begin to see the Holy Spirit making an overseer. The character, genuine concern and fruit become obvious and, at that point, we begin to invite increasing circles to comment on whether they see the same thing. The final group to invite into the process is the entire church. And that is where we are today with Travis. 

I will leave you with a variety of resources that give a more detailed picture of our view of pastoral leadership and our effort to train up new pastors. But the most important resource is the Bible. I would encourage you to read the “Pastoral Epistles” of First and Second Timothy and Titus. Consider if you have any questions regarding the process or Travis himself and feel free to forward those on to us. And please continue to pray for God’s guidance. 

Additional resources

Biblical Eldership by Alexander Strauch (Possibly the definitive work on the subject. It has acted as a guide for us.)
Aspire Curriculum (PDF)
Elder Qualification Test (PDF)
Doctrinal Qualification Test (PDF)

 

(Photo credit: Lee Vary)