The Work of Elders Is the "Critical" Matter
by Randy Blackaby
Virtually any study or discussion of church “elders” immediately focuses on the qualifications for this office. Does the person have “believing children,” what does that entail and must all his children be faithful? Is the person “apt or able to teach” and is he a good leader in the home? But when was the last time you heard a significant discussion of the “work” of elders?
Those ordained to be elders certainly need to meet the divine qualifications enumerated in scripture. Yet, it is not unusual to study these qualifications for years, spend months selecting and ordaining men, only to discover the new elders have little idea of what it is they are supposed to do.
It still is not uncommon to find preachers doing the elders’ work, elders doing the deacons’ work and deacons doing nothing. This is both unscriptural and impractical, and any congregation in such a situation suffers.
Other elders see themselves as church money managers, mere decision-makers and administrators. Some have been appointed because they are popular, run secular businesses well or are good at general leadership.
Why Does This Happen?
One great reason for this dilemma is the failure to connect the “qualifications” with the “work.” To be more precise, every qualification is given, not just as a hurdle to be cleared, but also as necessary for carrying out the work of an elder.
It is quickly observable that only a handful of the qualifications are unique to elders. Not every Christian must be a man, husband, father or non-novice. But all the other qualifications are character traits and behaviors to which every Christian is directed to grow.
Thus, what we are looking for in an elder, generally speaking, is a “mature” Christian man with experience in leading a smaller group (his family) to lead a larger group (local congregation).
Most of the qualifications found in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 aren’t to be found in the absolute perfection of men considered for the office. Granted, a person is either a man, father and husband — or not. But the other qualifications require congregational judgment, in light of the work to be undertaken. There are degrees of ability to teach and hospitality and success in guiding one’s house. Being human, the qualifications of temperance and sober-mindedness and loving good, can’t be measured in absolute perfection.
Yet, we need mature men able to do the work of elders, able to set an example of those behaviors and character traits to which every Christian seeks to attain. Thus, we can choose men who have attained a high degree of accomplishment in these qualities.
But What Is The Work Of Elders?
Let’s start answering that question by noticing that elders are not unique to the New Testament church. The Old Testament is full of references to elders. And while there are some differences between the two groups, there also is much similarity.
The first elders are mentioned in Genesis 50:7, during the time Israel was in Egypt. They existed in Moses’ day—even before the giving of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 3:15-16). Notice that the elders served as representatives and were to convey what they learned to the people (Exodus 17:2-6). They were to oversee regulations concerning the cities of refuge, seeing that justice was done (Deuteronomy 19:11-12; Joshua 20:1-4). They served as a court of appeals for cases of levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).
Did you notice the teaching, oversight and judicial functions, the latter dealing with application of God’s law?
While there is no list of qualifications for Old Testament elders, as there is in the New Testament, there are qualifications given, generally, for leaders and judges of Israel. In Exodus 18:21-22 and Deuteronomy 1:13-17 you can observe these were to be able (apt) men, God-fearers, men of truth, haters of covetousness, wise, having understanding, well known among the tribes, known for righteous judgments and men who didn’t show partiality. Sound somewhat familiar?
Work Of Church Elders
Church elders are to “rule” or lead (I Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:7,17). But they also are told not to act as “lords” over the congregation (I Peter 5:1-3). This has led to all sorts of debate among brethren. Those who want considerable executive power exercised by elders emphasize the passages that speak of “ruling.” Those who want to limit or eliminate the exercise of elder power emphasize the “no lording” citation.
So how are we to properly understand what elders are to do? What constitutes their authority and work?
Elders are not to become “masters” of the congregation. That, essentially, is what it means to “lord” over someone. We do not owe elders service. We owe that to Christ. The Bible clearly says there is “one Lord” and that is Jesus (Ephesians 4:5).
But, someone will say, if you strip away that much authority…the right to demand compliance with his directives…the elder really would have no power.
It might seem so at first, but the Bible presents another model of leadership. It is not the rule of superior position. Elders don’t have a right to rule and lead because they are superior to the rest of the congregation but because the congregation has seen in them the maturity and character traits they need to follow.
Jesus is the one who explained this best. Peter and John’s mother asked for her sons positions of prominence and power in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus answered, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).
The Lord described a leadership style carried out by service—by being a servant to others. He modeled it. Jesus actually reversed our concepts of greatness and rank.
We may be able to better understand the type of rule elders are to accomplish by looking at one of the qualifications—the ability to rule his own house well (I Timothy 3:4-5).
Think about it. How does a husband, particularly, and a father exercise authority in the home? Is it merely because of his superior position? Can he justly rule by brute force? No, he has authority, but he exercises it by example, by requests and demands for compliance with God’s law, and by lovingly serving his wife and children.
By the “Gentile model” he seems to have no authority. But by Christ’s model, he has a different but very powerful authority.
Comparing a Father and an Elder
A father teaches his son how to change the oil in the car, not merely by commanding his son to do the job, but by showing him how, doing it with him. Likewise, he teaches him moral standards by teaching him God’s word and by modeling those standards.
A father can’t do his job if he merely sits in an office and writes directives, acting as some sort of board of directors for the family.
A father doesn’t do his job aloof from or separate from his family. He can’t isolate himself from them and lead by Christ’s model. Leadership, you see, isn’t synonymous with mere “decision making.”
If that isn’t clear enough from the family qualifications, it certainly becomes clear in his description as a “shepherd.” Shepherds never did their jobs in “shepherd meetings.” They did it among the flock, living with them, feeding them, protecting them, sacrificing for them.
The Congregation Plays a Big Role
No husband can “make” his wife obey his rule by physical force. If he tries, he’ll find himself involved in sin. A husband’s successful rule and leadership in the home requires the “deference” of his wife, that is, her agreement to be led by him in accordance with God’s will.
It is no different in the Lord’s church. As godly women agree to give deference to the leadership of their husbands—when they marry them—so a congregation agrees to give deference to elders—when they ordain (appoint) them.
Deference involves submitting or yielding to the judgment, will or opinion of another. Listen to the demands of scripture. “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls…” (Hebrews 13:17).
When you take deference and combine it with the leader’s appeal to God’s word as the uniting, guiding force, you get the result all leadership is designed to achieve—oneness and unity of purpose and action.
The early disciples were able to achieve this “one accord” (Acts 1:14; 2:1; 2:46; 15:25). Decisions were made in such a way that the whole congregation was pleased (Acts 15:22). The Apostle Paul appealed for such like-mindedness (I Corinthians 1:10).
Again, as we try to understand how elders lead, observe two elements that are involved:
- Elders who know God’s word and have developed the ability within their families and through other parts of their lives to persuade others with love to do what is right.
- A congregation willing to listen and be persuaded to do what is right by mature, godly men.
If you remove the first criteria, you won’t have a congregation of one accord. In fact, you won’t even have a congregation that knows what is going on.
If you remove the second criteria, then you have a congregation with an attitude that says “you can’t make me do that” and thus you have a divided church.
What We Learn of the Work of Elders from Their Designations
The most common term for leaders of the local congregation is elder. It demonstrates a principle found in both covenants, that maturity should be reasonably respected, honored and deferred to by the less mature. This principle holds even when we aren’t talking about the office of elder. Younger Christians in general are directed to defer to older Christians (I Timothy 5:1; I Peter 5:5).
In age and maturity (especially spiritual age) there should be wisdom and knowledge (Job 12:12; Leviticus 19:32). Elders of ancient Israel served as counselors to kings. Today in the church, elders should be our counselors.
Church leaders also are called bishops or overseers. This implies they are to superintend, guard and oversee. But what are they to superintend, guard and oversee? The treasury? The building? Or souls?
Maybe all the answers are correct. But watching for the well being of souls is the priority as Hebrews 13:17 illustrates. The verb forms of the word for overseers illustrate this also. The Greek word episkeptomai means “to look at, examine, inspect, have oversight, care for, go see, visit with help” (cf. James 1:27; Matthew 25:36). The word episkopeo means “look at, take care, see to it” (cf. Hebrews 12:15; I Peter 5:2).
Thus, we can conclude that for an overseer to oversee he must be deeply concerned about the flock, visit the flock in times of distress, see to it that souls are cared for, and, obviously, he must be willing to get involved in the lives of those he oversees.
Leaders also are referred to in scripture as pastors or shepherds. The terms are used figuratively to relate the physical job of shepherding to the spiritual one of being an elder. A good shepherd supplies needs and gives comfort (Psalm 23). Examine also Isaiah 40:11. Jesus described himself as the “good shepherd” (John 10:11-16).
So, what do we learn about the work of elders from this description? He must have intimate knowledge of the flock. He knows them, thus he must spend time with them. They respect him and listen to him. One of his chief concerns involves the wayward of his flock (Matthew 18:12-14). The shepherd feeds and protects the flock. And now we see why God requires a shepherd to be “able to teach.”
Finally, church leaders are called stewards (Titus 1:7). The word refers to a manager. A steward in former days was a slave or servant put in charge of the household or property of his master. He had responsibility and accountability for things that belonged to another (Hebrews 13:17). He had authority, but only to the degree that he acted in his master’s behalf and for his master’s purposes.
Let us see that elders are responsible to do much more than make decisions. In fact, there is little evidence in scripture that they made decisions independently. Rather, they lead as they use God’s word, their spiritual maturity and their experience to persuade. Knowledge of God’s word is their critical tool. They must be able to use it correctly — and have a willingness to watch for, correct and rescue those who err.
And, because of their age, knowledge, responsibility and accountability, the flock of God is to respect and listen to them — as long as they are faithful to God’s word.