Every religious body associated with Christianity agrees that Christ is “the head of the church” (Ephesians 5:23; cf. Ephesians 1:22; Colossians 1:18); however, not every religious body associated with Christianity agrees on the form of governance that He authorized for the local church. Some employ a hierarchical structure of individual church leaders while others employ a hierarchical structure of church councils. The congregations associated with the Churches of Christ are considered unique because they appoint elders in the local congregation and believe that such leaders are the only biblically authorized form of church government under the headship of Christ. What is the basis for such a form of church government?

The Churches of Christ possess elders because elders were appointed in each congregation during the first century. A pattern of such appointments is evident in the work of Paul. During the second phase of their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in local congregations. Acts 14:21 tells us that “when they had preached the gospel to [Derbe] and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch.” Congregations were established in these towns during the first phase of their missionary journey, and they returned to these congregations not only for the purpose of “strengthening” and “encouraging” them, but also to “[appoint] elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:22-23). 

But this was not the only time Paul was involved in the appointment of elders. Paul commissioned Titus to remain on the island of Crete in order to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5), and even provided a list of qualifications upon which Titus should base his selections (Titus 1:6-9). In similar fashion, Paul instructed Timothy to “remain in Ephesus” (1 Timothy 1:3) in order to minister to that congregation, and one of Timothy’s responsibilities was to appoint elders based on the list of qualifications that Paul provided (1 Timothy 3:1-7). Timothy obviously succeeded in this task because Paul met with those elders en route to Jerusalem at the close of his third missionary journey (Acts 20:17). Based on Paul’s example and instructions, we can deduce that during the first century elders were appointed in every congregation of the Lord’s church where there were qualified men.

The Churches of Christ possess elders because the eldership is the highest form of church leadership identified in Scripture. To be fair, “elder” is not the only title in Scripture that is associated with church leaders. In fact, there are three terms that Scripture utilizes in reference to church leaders.

  • The first term is “elder,” which in the context of a church leader appears in Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23; 16:4; 20:17; 1 Timothy 5:17, 19; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; and 1 Peter 5:1, 5. It derived from the Greek word presbuteros, which is sometimes transliterated into English as “presbyter.” Thus, “elder” and “presbyter” can be used interchangeably, and both terms refer to one who is older or one who is mature.
  • The second term is “overseer,” which in the context of a church leader appears in Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1-2; and Titus 1:7. It derived from the Greek word episkopos, which was translated into Old English as “bishop.” Thus, “overseer” and “bishop” can be used interchangeably, and both terms refer to one who is a supervisor or who exercises oversight.
  • The third term is “shepherd,” which in the the context of a church leader appears as a noun in Ephesians 4:11 and as a verb in Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2. It derived from the Greek word poimen, which was translated into Latin as “pastor.” Thus, “shepherd” and “pastor” can be used interchangeably, and both terms refer to one who assumes the responsibilities of nurturing and protecting a flock.

It is evident that Scripture utilizes three different terms in reference to church leaders, but are these terms referring to three different groups of leaders? Notice how Paul used these terms. In Acts 20:17, Paul “sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.” The verses that follow present his instructions to these “elders.” Of particular interest is Acts 17:28 where he said to them, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (NIV). Paul not only referred to the leaders of the church in Ephesus as “elders” but also as “overseers” and “shepherds,” and these are the same individuals that Paul commissioned Timothy to appoint!

Paul is not the only one to use such titles interchangeably. In 1 Peter 5:1-2, Peter wrote, “So I exhort the elders 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 flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you.” Here Peter instructed the “elders” to “shepherd the flock” and exercise “oversight.” In this passage, he utilized the verb form of the Greek words for “shepherd” and “overseer.” Peter, who identifies himself as a “fellow elder,” indicated that the responsibilities of elders is found in their function as shepherds and overseers. Like Paul, he used these terms interchangeably. 

Based on the interchangeable use of these terms in Scritpure, it is apparent that the “elders/presbyters,” “overseers/bishops,” and “shepherds/pastors” are all references to the same position of leadership in the church and not different levels of leadership.

The Churches of Christ possess elders because such a form of congregational leadership is the only way to achieve congregational autonomy. Autonomy refers to self-governance, independence, or freedom from external control. In the context of the church, autonomy does not refer to our freedom from Christ’s headship, but to each congregation’s self-governance through the appointment of elders. It is worth noting that Peter instructed his fellow elders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:2). In this instruction, Peter limited the scope of an eldership’s responsibility and authority to the congregation in which they were appointed. This means that while all Christians are subject to Christ’s leadership not all Christians are subject to a particular eldership’s leadership. That is why the author of Hebrews instructed his readers to “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:17), and why Paul instructed the Christians in Thessalonica to “respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you” (1 Thessalonains 5:12). In each of these passages, the instructions apply to the relationship between a believer and the leadership at his or her local congregation.