Absent Elders are not Elders
Donald P Ames
For several years I have noted a growing practice that I feel weeds some attention focused on it. We have too many "elders" today who have been appointed to oversee and feed the local flock of God who have absolutely no contact, or very little at best, with the local congregation and thus are totally unable to function as God would desire for them to function. They are often men of ability and influence, and no one doubts but what they may do and have done a lot of good-when they are home. But, they cannot function as true elders because they cannot fulfill the obligations God has placed upon elders. In my opinion, such men ought to be honest with themselves, and if they cannot do the work expected of them, to resign! It would not be a reflection against their ability or teaching or work, but would stand as a tribute to their honest evaluation of their responsibility and ability to function in so important a work as that of an elder over the local flock of God.
Elders have a responsibility to feed the flock of God "among them" (Acts 14:23, 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2). How can they properly determine the quality feed needed or what is being fed the flock when they are not present and have very little contact with the saints themselves? I am not-affirming they must be present locally every Sunday, as they may have close contact and working relations during the week as well. But we do have "elders" who are hardly present any Sunday, and have very little contact with the members during the week either.
We often rebuke the liberals for one set of elders trying to oversee two different congregations, and used to heavily criticize the Herald of Truth for their "traveling elders" who went about the U. S. promoting and begging for their organization. But what is the difference in that and appointing elders who are never home "among" the flock of God anyway? How can one effectively oversee and feed the flock of God among them when they are not among them; when they have virtually no contact with the local church except once a month to be present at he business meeting-and sometimes not even that often? Is there really any difference in effect? Whether it be due to working in another area, preaching, visiting or whatever, absent elders cannot truly oversee and determine the proper feed needed by the local flock of God without being "among" them. Thus the importance of the local situation demands the elders be with those who are present, and "among them." If an elder finds he cannot be present and has little local contact, he is doing God a disservice in continuing to oversee a flock he is no longer "among."
A second duty of elders is to be examples to the local flock, as seen in 1 Pet. 5:3. Now, obviously, if they are going to serve as examples to the flock, it follows they are going to have to be seen by the flock! They are to be held up as a "model" to the flock, to set the example in teaching, doctrine, living, etc. They are to be known by those in the community in that they portray good influence among them as well (1 Tim. 3:7). Can a "usually absent elder" fulfill these qualifications?
Can weak and unfaithful members be encouraged to faithful attendance by an elder who is not there to encourage and set the example? Are they even aware he is attending when he is normally absent (some do not!)? Does not his absence say other things have a greater priority? Can young people be admonished to look up to elders who are never present or in attendance in Bible classes as truly being leaders in the local congregation? Do they not come to feel other things are allowed to have a priority, and all God requires is that we be sure to be present once a month to make the business meeting? What do they have to show them otherwise?
Not only does the responsibility of being an elder require one to know the flock of God by being "among them," but to be an example to that flock of what God would have them do. Elders cannot serve as examples of the flock when they cannot be seen by the local flock! Many today are indeed poor "examples" in this point.
"Watch For Souls"
Again, in Heb. 13:17, we are admonished to "obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who would give an account." To watch over the souls of others is a grave responsibility. Those who do so properly do so as if they "would give an account" - as if they were personally held liable for them! This requires elders who care, who realize the importance of each soul, and who want to do something about wayward souls. Thus, it requires that they be present to "watch" for those souls! Many elders today feel all there is to being elders is attending a business meeting once a month and determine what they are going to spend a little money for. They prefer to "let the preacher do the rest." I am not excusing the preacher from his responsibility, but likewise, true elders cannot shirk theirs either. This is one reason we have so much problem with "preacheritis" in churches today and a lack of true leadership by the elders within the local congregation. When problems arise, everyone turns to the preacher. Elders have abdicated their responsibility!
If an elder is gone all month pursuing his secular work, gone every week preaching, incapacitated in bed for months on end, or traveling about the nation on a begging campaign for some project or organization, how can he "watch" for souls in need of guidance and strengthening? If he had to actually give an account for each lost soul, would it make any difference in his willingness to serve? (We will you know - Gal. 6:1, Acts 20:26-27, Ezek. 3:16-20, etc.). If a shepherd spends all his time chasing the wolf farther and farther away down the valley and over hills from where the flock is feeding, who is going to tend and shepherd the flock left behind as an easy prey while he is gone? Who will be on hand to stop false men who arise among them, speaking false doctrine to draw away disciples after them (Acts 20:30)? Who will seek the strays?
Brethren, this is not an indictment against elders. We have many dedicated and faithful elders, and I admire and thank God for every one of them. But, let us be honest in our evaluation of the work God has designed for them and in the men we have selected for that work, that we might have elders who can truly serve as God would have them do. Then we would find the local flock growing, unfaithful members being restored, preachers left free to preach, and elders who are recognized as the spiritual leaders of the flock of God. The church would be stronger, in many cases internal strife would cease, and young people would grow to respect and seek to pattern themselves after those dedicated to the important work of saving souls. Indeed, to seek the office of an elder is a "fine work" (1. Tim. 3:1). Now, let us be sure we fulfill it as God requires of us (1 Pet. 5:1-4).
Truth Magazine, XX:5, p. 10-11