Spiritual gifts are tools for service given to believers at the time of conversion. As divine enablements, they are essential for ministry within the body of Christ and are given by the Holy Spirit according to His sovereign will. Although there is disagreement among Christians about this subject, most would agree that it’s a healthy sign when the people in a local church have some interest in the gifts and are discovering areas where they are gifted to serve, as well as areas where they ought to let others take the lead.
Since elders are stewards (Titus 1:7), it is important for them to understand and place sufficient value, not only on the believers, but also on the gifts they possess which God has provided for the smooth running of the local work. However, before elders can effectively cultivate the gifts of others, they must have some appreciation of their own giftedness.
With that in mind, I would like to think through in a series of articles the relationship of elders to spiritual gifts in three areas: 1) The personal gifts of individual elders, 2) Gifts within the group or board of elders collectively, and 3) The attitude of elders toward gifts in the local assembly and in the body of Christ overall.
Elders and their gifts
In considering the giftedness of the individual elder, I Corinthians 12 is clear that every elder has at least one spiritual gift, and that no one has all the gifts. A question is often asked: “Are there gifts that a man must have to be an elder?” A careful search of passages which list the qualifications of elders (I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-10) will show that for church leaders, the emphasis is clearly on the moral and character qualities of the man and his family rather than on special gifts or abilities. On this basis, it has often been stated that there are no spiritual gifts required for positions of leadership within the church.
Elder as teacher?
Two possible exceptions to this sweeping conclusion should be considered at this point. Some hold that the phrase in I Timothy 3:2 “apt to teach” (“able to teach” NIV, NASB) and in Acts 20:28 the command “feed” (“shepherd” NASB) the flock of God…” imply that elders must possess the spiritual gifts of teacher or pastor respectively. Without lengthy digression at this point, we will consider briefly the strength of this view point.
The Greek word didaktikon, rendered “apt to teach,” is an adjective used only here and in II Timothy 2:24 of the servant of the Lord. It is different from the word didaskalos, a noun meaning “a teacher” as found in Ephesians 4:11 and I Corinthians11:28. Paul employs a word of description rather than the name of a specific gift which he had already mentioned in earlier writings.
Further, in I Timothy 5:17, he refers to some within the eldership who are worthy to be regarded in a special way as ones “who labor in the word and doctrine.” For these reasons it is unlikely that Paul is including within the list of qualifications for elders the possession of the specific spiritual gift of “teacher.”
He is saying that all elders must be ready and willing to share their knowledge of spiritual truth whenever the need arises in the course of their work. In other words, not all elders are teachers by gift, but all must be able to speak with wisdom about spiritual truth.
Elder as pastor?
As for feeding or shepherding the flock (Acts 20:28), it has become so ordinary a thing to refer to elders as shepherds, that many consider the words to be all but synonyms. We’ll look at this subject in greater detail later, but for now it will be sufficient to notice there are only two nouns used in the New Testament to describe the spiritual leaders of the church:
presbuteros–elder (Acts 14:23)
episkopos–overseer (or, bishop) (Phil. 1:1)
Elders are certainly engaged in feeding and shepherding God’s flock, and so, in a general and collective sense, there is no harm in referring to them as shepherds (Grk: poimen). But strictly speaking, there is no reference to any church leader in the New Testament as a poimen (pastor, shepherd). In fact, the word is found only three times in the church epistles, twice referring to the Lord Jesus (Heb 13:20; I Peter 2:25).
In its only other occurrence (Eph 4:11) the expression “pastors and teachers” has been understood as describing either separate individuals or two gifts residing in the same person. The important thing to note here is that it is given, not in the context of church officials, but in the section on gifts given to men (4:7-10).
And so it can be said with confidence that although elders feed and care for sheep (i.e., do shepherding work), no Scriptures requires an elder to have the spiritual gift of “shepherd” or “pastor.” This should not seem incredible if we think of other spiritual gifts like faith or giving (I Cor. 12:9; Rom. 12:8) that are constantly exercised by elders but not necessarily special gifts they possess.
We can draw two conclusions that serve as a foundation to build on: 1) Every elder, as a Christian, has at least one spiritual gift. 2) No particular gift is a requirement for eldership.
To put this in another way, an elder (for that matter any believer) may “do the work of an evangelist” (II Tim. 4:5) without being an evangelist by gift. He might be “apt (or able) to teach” without being a teacher by gift, and he might “feed (or shepherd) the flock of God” without being a pastor by gift.
The reasons why these distinctions are very important will come into greater clarity when we consider part two of this series: “The gifts of the Spirit within the group or board of elders collectively.”
Finally, how wonderful is the truth that any brother in the Christian church who has a desire (I Timothy 3:1), and is qualified in his personal and family character can do elder work and not be disqualified from recognition by the congregation simply because he lacks a particular spiritual gift!