Are Non-Staff Elders Biblical?

by Jonathan Leeman December 1, 2016

A reader recently emailed:

I am semi-familiar with your ministry, my pastor, more so. I am wondering, as we are discussing eldership in our church, why or where do you find the term “lay elder,” specifically clergy and laity? Where do you find the terms and ideas in Scripture? This will help me in our discussions.

I once met a man who didn’t like the language of “lay elder” because he thought it invoked the medieval Roman Catholic distinction between clergy and laity. I appreciate the sensitivity, but perhaps he was a bit too sensitive?

No, the term “lay elder” is not in the Bible. These days, most people use the term “lay elder” just to make a distinction between staff and non-staff elders, which is another way of saying “unpaid” versus “paid elders.”

Keep in mind, all the references to actual elders in Scripture occur in the plural (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2,4,6,22,23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; 1 Tim. 4:14; 5:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1, 5). Yet it’s difficult to imagine all the elders of these churches being in the full-time employ of the church.

First, Paul suggests that “double honor” (which refers to payment) is owed to those whose work is preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 5:17–18; cf. 1 Cor. 9:14). Plus, the citizens of the first-century Mediterranean economies probably couldn’t afford that many paid pastors. Christians were often despised and marginalized. There was no big church building on the street corner with a staff of eleven, where a receptionist answered the phone, “First Baptist Antioch, can I help you?” Most elders, I assume, would have made their living elsewhere, perhaps even as slaves. They would be what some today call “lay elders.” (I personally use the language of “lay elder” or “non-staff elder,” probably more the latter.)

Finally, I’d say, there is simply no biblical requirement to pay an elder or pastor. So why not get more hands for the harvest, especially if the men are qualified and doing the work!

This post is adapted from a 9Marks Mailbag column.