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October 1976 · Vol. 5 No. 4 · pp. 22–23 

Thesis Abstracts: The Roles of the Elders in Church Leadership

Marvin L. Warkentin

THE THESIS AND PROCEDURE. The stated thesis is: a congregation with an active eldership will perform more effectively its biblical functions of training in discipleship, congregational care, and mission in the world than will a congregation without an active eldership.

The procedure adopted for this thesis was first to do a biblical study of the eldership. Upon the basis of the results, an instrument was prepared to probe three congregations in depth to determine the relationship between elders’ performance and a congregation’s performance.

THE BIBLICAL BASIS OF ELDERSHIP. Elders (or bishops) are the wise and discerning of the congregation. Although they may be physically older, it is more important to view them as spiritually mature. Appointed to their position, they are charged with overseeing the functions of training in discipleship, congregational care, and mission in the world. For this they are accorded a measure of respect.

They are not part of a rigid structure, but they take their appointed positions with an attitude of service rather than status and position. As servants they may do any function that another member of the congregation does, although there may be specialization according to ability and/or charisma granted them. But ministry is the task of all believers, and the elders are the primary movers of the congregation to ministry.

In their corporate wisdom the elders may designate a spokesman, or head, from within their number. The leading elder, sometimes designated the bishop, holds office by virtue of his election by the elders and the approval of the congregation. The leading elder holds office because he has shown himself first to be a servant. He may be putting a greater portion of his time, even all his time, into ministry with the flock. He likely has gifts of preaching and teaching that require time for their cultivation. As the leading elder he is part of the multiple leadership that emerges from the community.

A STUDY IN THE LIVING CHURCH. Questions in the instrument were of two kinds. Assessment questions sought to measure the known activity of all these groups within the congregation which engage in discipling and congregational care. Performance questions sought to objectively measure individual performance in discipling, congregational care, and mission.

The responses from these questions were used to determine the comparative levels of ministry by three congregations. Comparative levels of elder performance were also derived.

An interesting twist appeared in the results. Church B showed high elder performance and high congregational performance. But, relative to other churches, the congregation gave a low assessment to her elders and to her congregational ministry. Perhaps the congregation was unaware what the elders were doing. And, despite high individual performance by many people, there was little sense of a corporate congregational ministry.

Church A presented almost the opposite stance by giving high {23} assessment values for elders and for the ministry of congregational care, discipling and missions. The performance value for elders was high, but it was low for the other members of the church.

Church C gave a middle assessment value for elders but a high assessment value for ministry of congregational care, discipling and missions. The congregation received a high value for elder performance but a low performance value for ministry.

With these mixed results, the thesis was not supported.

CONCLUSIONS. The biblical basis for eldership remains sufficient in itself to promote an elder form of leadership even though the empirical data from three congregations was insufficient to support the thesis. An “official eldership” does not insure a “functioning eldership,” but a clearly identified eldership may strengthen the eldership functions.

Marvin Warkentin (M. Div., ’76)
Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary

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