P. G. Damsteegt is professor of the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary at Andrews University.

Floyd Bresee is a former Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference. 

The New Testament mentions two church offices those of the elder and the deacon. The importance of these offices is underscored by the high moral and spiritual requirements set for those who would fill them. The church recognized the sacredness of the calling to leadership through ordination, the laying on of the hands (Acts 6: 6; 13: 2, 3; 1 Tim. 4: 14; 5: 22).


The "elders" (Greek, presbuteros) or "bishops" (episkopos) were the most important officers of the church. The term elder means older one, implying dignity and respect. His position was similar to that of the one who had supervision of the synagogue. The term bishop means "overseer." Paul used these terms interchangeably, equating elders with overseers or bishops (Acts 20:17,28; Titus 1:5,7).

Those who held this position supervised the newly formed churches. Elder referred to the status or rank of the office, while bishop denoted the duty or responsibility of the office─"overseer." Since the apostles also called themselves elders (1 Peter 5: 1; 2 John 1; 3 John 1), it is apparent that there were both local elders and itinerant elders, or elders at large. But both kinds of elder functioned as shepherds of the congregations.


To qualify for the office of elder a person must be "above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to much wine, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil's trap" (1 Tim. 3:1-7 NIV; cf. Titus 1:5-9).

Before appointment to the office, therefore, the candidate must have demonstrated leadership ability in his/her home. "The family of the one suggested for office should be considered. Are they in subjection? Can the man rule his own house with honor? What character have his children? Will they do honor to the father's influence? If he has no tact, wisdom, or power of godliness at home, in managing his own family, it is safe to conclude that the same defects will be carried into the church, and the same unsanctified management will be seen there. The candidate, if married, should demonstrate leadership in the home before being trusted with the responsibility of the leadership of God's household," (1 Tim. 3:15, NIV).

Because of the importance of the office Paul charged, "Do not lay hands on anyone hastily" (1 Tim. 5:22).


An elder is first and foremost a spiritual leader. He is chosen "to shepherd the church of God" (Acts 20:28). His/her responsibilities include supporting weak members (Acts 20:35), admonishing the wayward (1 Thess. 5:12), and being alert for teachings that would create divisions (Acts 20:29-31). Elders must model the Christian lifestyle (Heb. 13:7; 1 Peter 5:3) and set examples of liberality (Acts 20:35).


To a large extent, effective church leadership depends on the loyalty of the membership. Paul encourages believers to respect their leaders and to "Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work" (1 Thess. 5:13, NIV). "The elders who direct the affairs of the church well," he said, "are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching" (1 Tim. 5:17, NIV).

Scripture makes clear the need to respect church leadership: "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account" (Heb. 13:17, NIV; cf. 1 Peter 5: 5).

When members make it difficult for the leaders to perform their God-assigned responsibilities, both will experience grief and miss the joy of God's prosperity.

Believers are encouraged to observe the leaders' Christlike lifestyles. "Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith" (Heb. 13:7, NIV). They should pay no attention to gossip. Paul warned, "Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses" (I Tim. 5:19).


Election to the office of elder does not in itself qualify one as an elder. Ordination is required before an elder has authority to function in that office. During the interim between election and ordination, the elected elder may function as church leader but not administer the ordinances of the church.

The ordination service is only performed by an ordained minister with credentials from the local conference. It may be a courtesy to invite a visiting ordained minister to assist in the ordination, but only on the specific request of the local conference officers would the visiting ordained minister conduct the ordination.

The sacred rite of ordination should be simply performed in the presence of the church, and may include a brief outline of the office of elder, the qualities required, and the principal duties the elder will be authorized to perform for the church. After the exhortation, the minister, assisted by their ordained ministers and/or local ordained elders who are participating in the service, will ordain the elder by prayer and the laying on of hands.

Having once been ordained as a church elder, ordination is not required again upon reelection to office as an elder, or upon election as elder of another church, provided that good and regular standing in the church has been maintained.


In a case where the conference committee assigns an ordained minister to labor as a pastor of a church, he should be considered as the ranking officer, and the local elder as his assistant. Their work is closely related; they should therefore work together harmoniously. The minister should not gather to himself all lines of responsibility, but should share these with the local elder and other officers. The minister serving the church regularly as pastor acts as the chairman of the church board. There may be circumstances, however, when it would be advisable for the elder to act in this capacity. The pastoral work of the church should be shared by both. The elder should, in counsel with the minister, carry much of the pastoral responsibility, visiting the church members, ministering to the sick, and encouraging those who are disheartened. Too much emphasis cannot be placed on this part of an elder's work, who as an undershepherd should exercise a constant vigilance over the flock. If the appointed pastor is a licensed minister, the local church or churches that he/she serves should elect him/her as an elder.

Because the pastor is appointed to the position in the local church by the conference, he/she serves the church as a conference worker, and is responsible to the conference committee, yet he/she maintains a sympathetic and cooperative relation to and works in harmony with all the plans and policies of the local church.

P. G. Damsteegt is professor of the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary at Andrews University. W. Floyd Bresee is pastor, administrator, and former Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference.