The Work of Elders
The term "elder" in the New Testament, is used in two senses: first, to designate an older man as compared to a younger (Romans 9:12, Luke 1:18). Secondly, to designate men who are appointed to a position of authority in a local congregation of the Lord's Church (Acts 20:17,28) . It is in this second sense to which this article is addressed.
For those readers who are not familiar with the term, elders were appointed in every church (Acts 14:23) and had to meet certain qualifications to be selected for this office (1Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). In short, elders were to be older men, not recent converts, who had been married to one wife, with believing children, who ruled their households well, were hospitable, of good reputation, sober, just, holy, full of wisdom, and well versed in the word of God.
There are two words in the New Testament which are used to refer to the office of elders. The first is presbuteros, from which we have the English word presbyter. It is variously translated as elder and presbytery in the NT. The second is episkape, or episcopal. It is rendered bishop and overseer. The words are used interchangeably and, in the New Testament, refer to the same office and work.
The Bible never speaks of a single elder in any New Testament church: the term is always plural. Elders were, by definition, older men. There is no verse or example in the New Testament where women were authorized to direct the work of the church in the office of elder; on the contrary, the Bible forbids women to even teach in an assembly where men are present, or to have authority over a man (1 Cor. 14:34,35).
The work of elders is well defined in the scriptures, but in practice, the application has sometimes been lacking. The verses which define the work of the office of elder are:
To accomplish these duties, an elder of the Lord's church must have these qualities:
The use of the term "flock" brings to mind the metaphor of a shepherd guarding the sheep. Indeed, Peter uses this figure in 1 Peter 5:1-4 where he speaks of Christ being the "chief Shepherd":
It would seem that many think the principal work of elders is to maintain the meeting house, keep and increase the treasury, and keep the pews full. To this end, they seek preaching to please all and offend none. Issues that might stir up the church are to be avoided, and all who come to the meeting-house door are welcomed and accepted as members of the congregation without question.
The wise use of the Lord's money, attention to the physical assets of the congregation, and concern for the attendance are not to be neglected by the eldership, but they are as "tithes of mint and rue" (Lu 11:42). They are important, but not the primary work of the eldership. The proper use of the talents of deacons will assure these needs are met, and the elders will be able to assure that the church is spiritually fed with the gospel, so that error will be condemned, proper application of the principles of the teaching of Christ will be made, and vigilant care of the souls of the weak and spiritual babes is maintained.
In Ephesians 4:11-16, Paul wrote that God had given a number of functions in the local church, including bishops, evangelists, and teachers. He stated that these positions are for perfecting the saints, and edifying the body of Christ, the church. The objective is that all may come to unity of the faith, and full knowledge of Christ. As a result of this growth, Christians will reach the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: They will become mature in the Biblical sense (Matt. 5:48).
When properly fed with the gospel of Christ, children of God will grow up to be mature in Christ. They will no longer be spiritual infants that constantly need care and nurturing, and who need to understand the difference between right and wrong (Heb. 5:11-13). Those young in the faith are always subject to the danger of falling for any false teacher who speaks false doctrine in a pleasant manner (2 Tim. 3:5,6). However, such spiritual babes, when fed with all the gospel, will become "fitly joined together," and learn to spend their time in mutual support, edification, and brotherly love.
All teaching should be done with the objective of increasing the spiritual growth of all members, not the growth of numbers. The teaching of the truth in love may have the immediate effect of lowering the attendance, as those who will not change their lives are driven out by the truth of God's word (1 John 2:19). When the truth is taught, error is exposed and members are properly edified. When attention is given to these things, Paul says that "God will give the increase" (1 Cor. 3:7). The numerical growth may be slower, but the numbers will not fall away at the first sign of controversy, or condemnation of error.
When Christians are constantly fed with spiritual candy, and the wisdom of men, they will become soft and of no use to the Lord. Efforts to make men feel good, and avoid controversy will ultimately destroy a flock. Sooner or later, the wolves will come in, teaching error and false doctrine. Paul says they will have a "form of godliness" and will capture those who have sins in their lives, and who are unable to come to a knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 3:5-7).
Elders who have the opportunity (yet refuse for the sake of numbers in attendance) to teach the flock to repent of moral sins, and who will not permit (for the sake of the feelings of those who are good friends) teaching and preaching on the specific errors of false doctrines among the churches, will stand condemned with the wolves and those whom they deceived in the Day of Judgment.
The care and concern for the souls of the congregation is a never-ending task for the eldership. There is constant watching and exhortation for the weak, lest they slip. The congregation must be taught and encouraged to "bear one another's burdens" (Gal. 6:1,2). A well thought out Bible teaching program is necessary, otherwise instruction might be limited to just the basic principles, and members will not be given opportunity to grow and become teachers in their own right. (Heb 5:12). Elders are commanded to visit the sick, and to make prayer over them (James 5:14). The need for multiple elders is manifest in the care of souls in the local church, as no one man could do it all.
Given the different personalities among a congregation, wise elders may, in some cases, seek mature members to assist in this work. They can be of value when their spiritual experience will help the weak and discouraged. This needs to be done carefully, as all such assistance must limit itself to instruction of the Word of God, and it's application. Many times such assistance must involve the greatest discretion, as a situation can be made worse by inclusion of one who is not thoroughly grounded in the Bible, and has not demonstrated an ability to keep such matters confidential.
A word of caution: many times marriage problems, and resultant sinful behaviors are among the situations elders will face. All who are involved should limit themselves to being a good listener, and make proper scriptural applications to the situation from the Word of God. They should never take the role of a marriage counselor or other professional social worker. If the need is indicated for this service, a professional should be sought. If one of the elders, or a member is such a licensed professional, well and good, but their work should be separate and apart from the work of elders in this regard.
This duty is the most difficult part of the elder's work, but we dare not neglect it. For the sake of precious souls, we must do our best "to restore such a one" who has fallen (Gal 6:1).
The requirement to "rule" and "take the oversight" refers to a third responsibility of the eldership. The local congregation of the Lord's church is the only expression of organization in the New Testament. Each local congregation is autonomous in its function; there is no larger organized function directing the work of the Church which Christ built (Matt. 16:18). As in any such organization, there are decisions to be made as to the use of buildings and other assets, use of the treasury in the support of evangelists, and matters of benevolence among the congregation. Wise elders will not make such decisions in secret, but make their decisions known to the church. They will seek out the cares and concerns of the congregation. Business meetings of the men are one tool in achieving this. Other methods include informal contact with all the men who are heads of families, and widows, and other women who have no husband.
In all these things, elders have only the authority to make such decisions as related to items which are expedients to the work of the church. Their authority to make such decisions is also limited by the Holy Spirit to the local congregation over which they have been given oversight (Acts 20:28). They do not have authority, under any circumstances, to make such decisions for another congregation.
In the performance of this duty, there is no Biblical authority for elders to limit the teaching and preaching of the full counsel of the truth of God so as to avoid controversy (Acts 20:27), or to introduce innovations in the work and worship not authorized by the Bible.
While all may freely come to the assembly to worship (1 Cor. 14:23), elders have a responsibility to examine those who wish to join themselves in membership to the congregation before they are accepted into the flock (Acts 9:26). Failure to meet this responsibility may result in a wolf in sheep's clothing coming among them (Matt. 7:15). If Christians who have been involved in sinful practices are permitted to join the flock without proper repentance and confession, their sin will become the leaven that "leavens the whole lump" (1 Cor. 5:6). That is, the influence of their sin will spread and cause great damage to the work.
Unless elders have full knowledge of the faith and ability of a new member, they err greatly if they allow such a one to teach a class they do not attend. Otherwise, they have no opportunity to know if false doctrine is being taught. More than one congregation of the Lord's church has been badly damaged when elders allow a new member to teach the high school class immediately after he has joined himself to the flock. In this critical transitional class between the child and the adult, an improper choice of teacher can destroy the faith of a young Christian for life.
To feed the flock, watch for souls, and take the oversight, elders must have two qualities. The first is a good working knowledge of the Bible. Secondly, he must be able to read a passage from the word of God, and to make a proper application of it. This is not to require that all elders be able to preach a sermon from the pulpit, although this is a useful skill to any eldership. However, the requirement "apt to teach" does imply that every elder should be able to teach what the Bible says in some public forum, be it class or pulpit.
All elders must be able to discern when error is being taught, and have the skills necessary to show from the Bible how the false teaching is wrong (Titus 1:9). It is in fulfilling this need that a good eldership will function as a "team." Where one may not be able to immediately refute a false doctrine, the combined study of all may be presented by the one who is best skilled in public teaching.
The selection of an evangelist is crucial to the work of an eldership in spiritual growth and edification of a congregation. Elders must always be vigilant that not only is the whole truth of God being taught, but that proper application of that truth is made to the issues and sins in the flock. It is only by kind and patient application of the truth that spiritual babes in Christ are able to grow up and become mature Christians. Failing to teach and nurture such spiritual infants will result in their probable loss when the storms of conflict and error come.
Elders must be ready to rebuke and discipline those of the flock who become rebellious and will not take encouragement or correction. 1 Corinthians 5:5 and 1 Thessalonians 3:6 require such action in the case of one who takes part in public sin to the hurt of the local congregation. There are times when such sins are ignored for the sake of "peace." Invariably, such refusal to act will result in more than one soul being lost.
Finally, an elder must remember that he is an "ensample" or example to the flock. If an elder engages in sinful behavior, how can he teach the truth, encourage the weak, and keep the flock as he should? 1 Timothy 5:19,20 requires that elders are to be publicly called to account by the other elders or the evangelist, if they are guilty of public sin and will not repent.
A man who has the potential to be an elder is under obligation to develop himself to have the qualities an elder needs. If he refuses, he becomes like the unfaithful servant who buried his talent in the ground (Matt. 25:24,ff). His refusal to use the ability God had given him led to his being cast into outer darkness where there was "weeping and gnashing of teeth." Paul said that one who desires to be an elder "desireth a good work" (1Tim. 3:1). It is important that we be fruitful in every good work (Col 1:10).
In this day and time, it has become the view of many that the eldership is a hindrance to the teaching of God's word. Preference is expressed for a business meeting arrangement where all of the members (both men and women) meet to determine the work of the congregation, and decide issues of doctrinal concern.
Congregations of the Lord's church may use the business meeting arrangement of men who are heads of households for a short time, until men become qualified to be elders. It becomes direct rebellion to the will of God if this arrangement continues year after year.
Paul and Barnabas ordained elders in every church where they preached the gospel (Acts 14:23). The maximum time that could have elapsed between the start of a work and the time they appointed elders was about two years. Why could they have appointed elders so quickly, yet some churches today never have elders? Of course, Paul was able to lay hands on men and fill them with the Holy Spirit to know the word of God immediately. But knowing the word then is equivalent to being educated in the Bible today. There is not a hint in the Scriptures that elders were miraculously qualified by the laying on of hands.
Too often, men who are qualified are rejected for some minor quibble by men or women who will never be qualified. These wish to maintain the business meeting arrangement, as they have the ability through political skill to dominate and control the affairs of the church. If they accepted elders, they would no longer have such control. I knew of a church that once had elders. They were growing and supporting a number of preachers in many places. Through circumstances beyond their control (due to a modern Diotrephes, 2 Jn. 19), the eldership was dissolved, and the business meeting arrangement came in.
Those who reject the eldership need to consider this: if any church in the New Testament did not need elders, it should have been the church in Jerusalem. They had apostles to teach and strengthen it, and they had deacons to wait on tables. (Acts 6:2) Yet after a few short years, they also had elders, and the elders are mentioned as acting with the apostles in the meeting that took place in Acts 15.
In many places, there is a greater need for godly elders than for the evangelist, yet many think that a good evangelist will substitute for elders. We need to keep in mind that God's arrangement is to have elders in every church. This is not impossible if we dedicate our efforts helping good men become qualified. God will provide what we need if we work and pray to that end. (James 1:5,ff)
To use the metaphor of the shepherd and his sheep, elders must always remember that the sheep are entrusted to their stewardship and care for a short time. We must always remain vigilant for those precious souls. To encourage and train the weak, to teach the strong to help others, and develop the next generation of teachers, evangelists, and elders is one of the finest and most awesome responsibilities a Christian can have on this earth.
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