By Dorval L. McClister
Christ is the chief shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4) over the saints with the bishops and deacons (Phil. 1:1).
Elders In Every Church
The eldership of the local church is always a subject of discussion. Problems arise, decisions must be made, and the elders are the men upon whom much responsibility rests in trying to solve problems, uphold truth, and keep unity among those who comprise the local congregation.
These articles are designed as an aid in the study of selecting elders and in getting acquainted with their work and their problems. I have chosen this title, SHEPHERD STAFFS, simply because the contents of the book relate primarily to the work of elders. As a preacher and as one who also serves as an elder, I have experienced the difference between preaching a sermon directed toward a particular problem and the literal application of the sermon to the problem. Experience is a great teacher. Serving as a preacher may not make you a better elder, but serving as an elder will make you a better preacher.
I have not written this material as a source of advice to elders or anyone else, nor as a source of infallible information upon the subjects discussed. However, as elders of the church there comes a time when both sides of a matter must be weighed carefully and on the bottom line a decision made. If something can be gleaned from these pages which will give you a better understanding of the topics discussed, then the effort will have accomplished its purpose.
What Is An Elder?
The word elder carries a dual meaning in the New Testament Scriptures. The word may have reference primarily to an older person, hence an elder or older. The word is also used. to designate a special work or function of certain men within the church. The Greek word presburteros is the word from which we get the word elder, or the idea of an older person, one advanced in age. These were the heads, rulers, and leaders of the tribes and families of Israel portrayed in the Old Testament (Num. 11:16; Deut. 27:1). This concept is carried over into the New Testament in such passages as 1 Timothy 5:17. The work of an elder in the church in described by another word, episkopos, and is translated “bishop” in 1 Timothy 3:1, and “overseer” in Acts 20:28. The word “bishop” is not a title, but rather describes the work as that of an overseer. A plurality of men is required by the New Testament Scriptures to oversee the local congregation. Paul ordained elders in every church (Acts 14:23), and instructed Titus to ordain elders in every city (Titus 1:5). The work of elders is also described as the work of shepherds or pastors (Eph. 4:11). These are not titles of preachers, nor do they describe the work of an evangelist. Elders are older men who have the abilities (qualifications) to oversee, lead, guide, and shepherd the local church. In the New Testament church Christ is the chief shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4) over the saints with the bishops and deacons (Phil. 1:1).
Elders In Every Church
The church at Philippi was complete in its organization, being comprised of saints, bishops and deacons (Phil. 1:1). Paul and Barnabas ordained elders in every church (Acts 14:23). There is something seriously lacking in a local congregation which does not produce men who are qualified to serve as elders. This may be due to a lack of teaching and preaching on the subject, or in some cases men who have the qualifications just do not desire the office of a bishop. They are often reluctant to take the position of leadership because they fear the usual criticisms that are heaped upon the elders, or they may have seen godly elders abused and slandered by members of the church. It does require a great amount of courage to stand up against error, apathy, hypocrisy, unbelief, and every other evil that enters in among God’s people. But a strong, united eldership can conquer these foes and maintain the doctrinal and moral purity that is required within the church. If you meet the qualifications for serving as an elder, let it be known that you desire the work and that you are willing to give your strength and your talents in this service. If there are no elders in the local church where you worship, then begin to encourage men of the congregation to strive for this important work.
Authority Of Elders
The eldership of a local congregation is not a legislative body. Elders make no laws. The New Testament is the law of the Lord in the church, and elders are required to carry out or apply that law without addition to it or subtraction from it. Yet some have reached the conclusion that elders serve only as .examples for others and have no right to make scriptural demands that require others to comply. The Hebrew writer says, “Obey them that have the rule over you and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account” (Heb. 13:17). Peter says, “Feed (shepherd or pastor) the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof . . .” (1 Pet. 5:2). Elders have the authority to rule and take the oversight. Elders are authorized overseers (Acts 20:28) of the local church, and members are to submit to elders in the application of God’s Law. The authority of elders is the authority to demand compliance to the laws of Christ within the church. Elders may become corrupt and abuse their responsibilities, and in such cases they are to be rebuked before all (1 Tim. 5:20). Sermons dealing with the relationship of the elders to the flock ought to be preached often, and members of the church ought to understand that elders have the authority to demand that they conduct themselves as is becoming the gospel of Christ.
It also must be pointed out that elders oversee only the flock of God which is among them (1 Pet. 5:2). Elders of the local church have no say in any matters which involve another congregation. Their rule and oversight begins and ends with the local congregation. When congregations enter into cooperations by combining their resources and functioning through a sponsoring church arrangement, and where elders of one congregation oversee the work of other congregations, then there are elders over elders and results in the formation of an unscriptural organization. This is the erroneous foundation upon which all sponsoring church type of organizations rests. Elders have no biblical authority to form sponsoring church organizations in which funds from other congregations are collected and spent at the discretion of the elders of one church. The sponsoring church arrangement simply places many congregations under the oversight of one eldership, and the elders of a local congregation ought to have sufficient wisdom to see the unscriptural scheme and reject it.
Selecting Men To Serve
Men are to be selected from within the congregation to serve as elders. This is a place and a work designed for men, not women, as the qualifications set forth in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 clearly show. It is not the intent of this discussion to enter into lengthy definitions of all the qualifications set forth in these passages. You may read these passages and determine the characteristics demanded. However, based upon my personal experience, I would like to discuss some thoughts which I believe to be important and which are sometimes overlooked in the selection of men who are to serve as elders.
One such thought has to do with the question of how old one should be before he is to be considered as elder material. Here is where the idea of elder, or older, comes into focus. While the New Testament does not set a definite age, it does imply the exclusion of younger men. The idea of elder, or older men, implies wisdom, knowledge, and spiritual maturity and stability. Sometimes a man is considered or expresses his desire for the work of an elder because he has children who have been baptized. He may be a man of thirty-five who has been a member for ten or fifteen years and has a twelve year old son and a ten year old daughter. During the past year the son and daughter were baptized, so now he has believing children. The conclusion is often stated that if a man is old enough to have believing children, then he is old enough to serve as an elder. This, I believe, requires some serious thought. We must realize that the crucial test in raising children is that period between the ages of 12 and 17. It will be during this period when his ability to rule his own house will be seen.
Another thing to notice with younger men is, although having young children who have been baptized, does he show laxity with his children? Are they allowed to miss services of the church to attend ball games, social functions, camping trips, etc.? These thoughts are not set forth as picking with a fine-toothed comb, but rather to cause those who select men to serve as elders to look for stability and spiritual wisdom in the one selected. A man of thirty-five may qualify to serve, but a fifty year old man will present a much broader view of his life, convictions, and ability to serve than a man much younger.
A covetous man is not fit in character to serve as an elder. Not covetous of course means not a lover of material things, but the word has an application in many realms.’A man may covet power, position, esteem, and opportunity. Some men seek power and position as a boss, and a man who holds such a position in the secular world will often make a poor elder. He will have a tendency to be harsh and demanding and will become dominant unless checked occasionally. Another characteristic of covetousness is stinginess. If a man is stingy with his own money in regards to the needs of himself and of his family, he will probably be the same in regards to the money in the treasury. If he has a good job and a big bank account and hates the idea of spending his money, it will be difficult for him to spend freely the money collected for preaching the gospel and assisting needy saints. He will have a tendency toward maintaining a big bank account at all times and will panic when the funds get below a thousand dollars.
Does The Man Have Time To Be An Elder?
This is an important question cause being an elder in the church requires much time. ~ he must work six or seven days each week (and all the overtime also) he will not have the time to serve as an elder. He may be sufficiently qualified in the other areas, but if he does not have the time to perform the work he will be useless as an elder. Take this thought into consideration before you announce your desire for the work and office of a bishop.
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 5, pp. 135-136
March 3, 1983