The Elders 
Various Passages
 
By Paul Robison

At a congregation here in Arkansas, an interesting thing took place one year.  There were two members who started some kind of business venture together.  After a few months, things began going sour in this partnership for numerous reasons.  In fact, the two brothers were about ready to take each to court over the issues involved.  But instead of doing that, they asked the elders at the church they attended if they would hear their cases and then make a decision as to what they should do.

Other members could listen in as well, but they agreed that whatever the elders decided would be as binding on them as if they had been in a court of law.  The elders heard the case and made a decision about what each man should do.  One brother followed through, but the other left town and was never heard from again!  It was good to see how these brothers had put confidence in their elders to help them, but it was sad to see that one of them didn't obey, after they had given so much time and effort in trying to work with them both.
 
This sermon tries to answer some questions about elders.  Are they important?  Do they have authority?  How has their leadership been viewed recently in our brotherhood?  How should elders lead?  What should they do?  What would sheep like elders to know?  We often challenge our young men about being preachers.  But do we ever challenge them much about becoming elders?  "This is a faithful saying: 'If a man desires the position of a bishop [or an elder], he desires a noble work'" (1 Timothy 3:1).  Someone has affirmed that men who would be elders must have the desire, the ability, the approachability, and the maturity to serve as examples to the flock (W. Miller).  Let's return now and begin answering some of those questions.
 
Are elders important?  A quick survey of the New Testament will show that the leadership provided by elders was very important in the early church.  We first hear of the elders in Jerusalem in Acts 11, when the church in Antioch sent them some relief funds to help out during a famine.  We see that these leaders made an important decision with regards to evangelism in Acts 15.  Then we see that another contribution was brought to them in Acts 21.  On their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas established churches in five cities, and later they appointed elders in each of them (Acts 14:23).  On his second missionary journey, Paul and Silas established a congregation in Philippi, and just a few years later Paul wrote a letter addressed to the members, along with the deacons and elders (Philippians 1:1).  On his third missionary journey, Paul worked for about three years in the city of Ephesus.  A few years later, when Paul traveled to Jerusalem, he called for the elders of this congregation to meet him in Miletus where he admonished them with the words heard in our reading.  Timothy stayed in Ephesus after Paul left, and later, Paul provided instructions for Timothy about the qualifications, dignity, and work of the elders (1 Timothy 3:1-9; 5:1-19).  Paul left a co-worker named Titus on the island of Crete so that he could strengthen the churches there and appoint elders in every city (Titus 1:5).  James addresses his letter "to the 12 tribes which are of the dispersion" or we might say to the Jewish Christians scattered abroad, and in chapter 5:14, James mentions elders.  Peter addressed his first letter to Christians in five regions, and he also admonished the elders who worked with those members (1 Peter 5:1-4).  "The writer of Hebrews attributes great importance to the overseers of the churches, and he admonished the brethren to obey and to submit to them" (Hebrews 13:17; Needham).

Thus, we can see, from this brief survey, that elders and the leadership they provided was very important to the growth and maturity of the congregations which they served!
 
Do elders have authority?  The answer is "Yes," but their authority is limited in some ways.  We know that Jesus said in Matthew 28:18 that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to Him.  But Jesus also delegated His authority to the apostles.  This is confirmed by the apostle Paul who wrote in 2 Corinthians 13:10: "Therefore I write these things being absent, lest being present I should use sharpness, according to the authority which the Lord has given me for edification and not for destruction."  By the way, the word "authority" in this passage is the same word that Jesus spoke in Matthew.  The apostles then gave this authority to those who were elders.  The precedent for this practice is found in Acts 6:1-6 where some church leaders were delegated authority to perform works of charity.  It is interesting that the apostles allowed the members to select the men to serve, and then they delegated their authority to them by a common gesture used among the Jews, which was laying their hands upon them.  It seems that this practice of selection and appointment became a standard practice in the early church because one of the church leaders who wrote around 95 A.D. said that it had become a rule handed down from the apostles that church officers "should be filled according to the judgment of approved men, with the consent of the whole community" (Clement of Rome quoted by McGarvey).  When the apostle Paul talks with the evangelists Timothy and Titus then about establishing church leaders, it would mean that the congregation would do the selecting, and then they would do the appointing of those leaders by the laying on of their hands.  So elders do have a delegated authority which goes back to Christ Himself, who Peter calls the Chief Shepherd over the church (1 Peter 5:4).  Having said this, however, let's note that an elder's authority also has some limits.  His authority is limited to the realm of faith and not personal opinion, to the sphere of the local congregation and to no church beyond it, to matters of expediency and not matter of obligation, and to decisions made collectively and not personally.  Here's a little further explanation on each of these areas.
 
His authority is limited to matters of faith and not personal opinion. 

We saw in our reading how Paul instructed and warned the elders of Ephesus with these words: "So now, brethren, I commend you go God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among those who are sanctified" (Acts 20:32).  "The elders to whom Paul spoke were to submit to the authority of God's Word in feeding, and warning, and building up the flock.  In Titus 1:9, elders are admonished "to exhort by sound doctrine and to convict those false teachers who were making contradictions" (Needham).  These passages show that their work is thus shown to be in the realm of faith.  God's Word and scriptural teaching, not their personal opinions, are what they use to guide and to feed the flock.  His authority is limited to the local congregation, and not beyond it.  While it is true that the elders in Jerusalem did make a decision that affected some other churches, this example seems to be the exception, rather than the rule.  Almost every time that elders are mentioned again in the New Testament, their work is associated with the local congregation with whom they worked.  They are never told to use their authority beyond that sphere of the local group which they were to oversee.  His authority is limited to matters of expediency and not obligation.  "They have no authority to make laws and bind them on the church where God has not spoken.  Neither do they have the authority to change obligations which the Lord has revealed. ... For example, they do not have the authority to decide that praying is not necessary for worship nor to determine that we should use Coke and fried chicken for the Lord's Supper.  They do have authority, however, in matters of expediency.  An expedient is something apt and suitable and advantageous to accomplish the end in view.  We are to assemble for worship on Sundays (an obligation), but the times and the place for our gathering together has been determined by our elders (these are expedients).  Christ taught that immersion in water is necessary for salvation (an obligation).  Now we could do that in a pond or a river here in this area, but our elders decided that the expedient of an indoor baptistery would be advantageous to accomplish that purpose.  The elders know that the Bible commands preaching as a part of worship, and they suggested as an expedient to accomplish that purpose--the use of this projector and screen so that our members who are hard of hearing could gain something from the written message, which they could more easily understand.  An elder's authority is also limited to decisions made collectively and not personally.  It is interesting that in the New Testament, congregations are overseen always by a group of elders, and not just one elder.  Our elders are very conscientious about the decisions they make as a group and their own personal preferences on a matter. 

They sort of work by this rule of thumb: "Everybody always can have his say, but nobody will always get his way."  "They realize that they have no pontifical, dictatorial, or tyrannical authority as a group.  Any elder who thinks it should be that way is not following his Chief Shepherd" (Needham)!  So, yes, elders have authority, but it’s a tempered authority designed for a specific purpose.
 
How has their leadership been viewed recently in our brotherhood? 

In the late 70s, the role and authority of elders began to be questioned in several of our brotherhood journals.  One brother who wrote a book on elders in 1980 put it this way: "The view is currently popular that elders are to function like a board of directors of a corporation, usually to meet in closed-door sessions, to decide policies for the church, and to hand down high level decisions that unquestionably must be followed.  But this modern illusion of elders [has no] Scriptural support" (W. Miller).  Three cultural factors contributed to this questioning: there was the general spirit of rebellion against all authority in America; the corporate world was stressing leadership which did more listening before making decisions; a younger generation wanted religion to move in a more emotional direction (D. Miller).  In 1998, one brother identified four different views of church leadership that were held in our brotherhood. 

The first advocated that the preacher had all the power, and the elders were simply his “yes” men (this model was adopted by the discipling movement which originated in Boston).  The second approach saw the elders as a governing board who acted without any input from anyone else.  The third approach saw the elders as a governing board, but they would not act until they had some input from others in the congregation.
The fourth approach advocated that the congregation had all the power through a majority vote, and the elders were “yes” men to whatever the group sanctioned (Yeakley).  In 2001, one preacher mistakenly wrote this opinion:  “We need flexible men and women in leadership roles who can think creatively.  And we certainly don't need insecure people who can't trust others to have motives and abilities as good as their own, who need to micromanage others, ... or who think their personal insights are better than those of the larger fellowship of which they are a part.  Until we get the leadership issue better in hand, there isn't much that can be done to make churches healthier ...” (Shelly, Wineskins, Jan-Feb 2001).  One brother predicts that the tensions towards leadership that we are experiencing right now will be repeated again in about 9 years (Yeakley).
 
Now with our trend to turn elders only into "yes" men, the next question becomes even more important.  According to the New Testament, how should elders lead?  There are at least three ways.  First of all, they lead by the spiritual example of their personal lives.  "A church will never exceed the level of spirituality that is modeled for them by their leaders. 
It is [important for elders] to realize the importance of [their] personal examples.  Peter exhorts shepherds to be an example to the flock (1 Peter 5:3).  An elder's ... character is to be a model which can be imitated.  In his spiritual life, he is a pattern for all [the members] to follow. ... This means that his personal life is above criticism.  His life is lived on such spiritual plane that he is considered 'blameless' (1 Timothy 3:2).  There is not to be an area in his life that an insider or outsider can point to and say: 'He is a good man in most areas, but ..."  An elder is [also] to be seen by the community in a favorable light.  He must be well thought of by outsiders (1 Timothy 3:7). ... His conduct is a positive witness to the influence of Jesus in his life.  The reputation of his character allows him to have a good standing with outsiders [because they know that he is honest, dependable, and kind]. ... His life is a walking advertisement for the Lord's church.  He leads by his life as well as his lips" (Hartman). So they lead by the example of their spiritual lives.
 
Secondly, they lead by being a spiritual leader in their homes.  1 Timothy 3:4 tells us that elders should preside over their households well.  "This means that he, and not his wife, is the spiritual leader in the family" (Ibid.).  He uses his influence to cause others to follow Christ.  He has learned to rule over his family in a caring and gracious way.  He has learned how to deal with each member of his family individually.  He has learned to listen to, to respect, and to discipline his children.  He has helped his family to develop a willingness to follow Jesus through his own example.  His children have seen the Lord in his actions as well as his words.  As young people, his children have displayed a seriousness, dignity, and holiness.  They are clearly counter-cultural; the faith of their father has made such an impression on their lives that they choose to live godly lives, rather than being shaped by the local school crowd.  "An elder is sexually faithful to his wife in both mind and body.   He is blameless in his morality and is devoted to his wife alone.  He can be trusted to deal with other women without becoming physically or emotionally tangled.  He can talk with the flock at all hours of the day, and there is no doubt about his character or integrity.  God wants a shepherd to 'qualify' himself by the quality of spiritual leadership that he exercises in his own family. ... That family's spirituality, example, and dedication will influence the entire church.  An elder's words before a congregation will either be strengthened or weakened by the behavior of his family in the community" (Ibid.).  They lead by the spiritual example of their personal lives and they lead by the being a spiritual leader in their homes. 
 
And thirdly, they lead by shepherding the flock.  "It can be a challenge for those who grow up in a culture that stresses independence and self-initiative to think in terms of submitting to their spiritual leaders. ... The members are to look to the example of its spiritual shepherds for leadership in the same way that sheep look to a shepherd for their physical needs.  The church is to follow the leadership of their elders, just as sheep follow the instructions of their shepherds. ... In the same way that Jesus looked after His sheep, the elders are to tend the flock (1 Peter 5:2).  They are charged with the loving care (leading, feeding, guarding) and guidance of the church.  Their responsibility and assignment is to take care of and to train the flock.  Because they are the shepherds, Peter instructs them not to abuse their position [by lording themselves over the flock] (1 Peter 5:3).  Paul says that they are to equip the saints in order to bring about maturity (Ephesians 4:11-16).  They are to assume the responsibility of leadership willingly and eagerly.  So, we have seen they lead by the spiritual example of their personal lives, they lead by being a spiritual leader in their homes, and they lead by shepherding the flock.  One preacher noted this trend in 2004: "Many elderships are becoming more increasingly aware of the magnitude of [the shepherding] responsibility.  More and more time is being spent in prayer and visitation of the sheep than in 'decision making.'  More elderships are defining their leadership in terms of tending and caring for the sheep under their oversight.  They are delegating the day to day physical matters to those whom God has equipped to do these tasks. 
This relief from physical matters has allowed elders to concentrate more on the priority of shepherding and tending to spiritual matters" (Hartman).
 
The next question is: What should elders do?  One of our brothers gave this good answer (since this statement is long, it is on the slide): "As elders or one advanced in life, the authority of the government of the congregation rests upon them; as bishops or overseers, the management and the superintendence of the affairs and interests of the congregation are entrusted to them; as pastors and teachers, they exercise a shepherd's watch-care over the congregation, feeding, tending, guiding, watching lest any should go astray, going after the erring, endeavoring to reclaim and restore them, guarding and protecting them against false teachers" (Roberson quoted by Needham).  That's long, but it is a really good summary.  Many members think that all the elders do is meet to make decisions.  In fact, we often hear prayers: "Be with our elders and bless them in the decisions they make."  This is not a bad prayer, but decision-making is NOT the elders' primary role.  Elders are called to shepherd, to be alert, to be aware, to be responsive, to be diligent in the Word, to be equipping and maturing the saints.  It is very interesting again how America's corporate culture affects our leadership.  So often elders meetings are so filled with agendas, minutes, and votes, that we forget the elders of the New Testament never voted on anything (you can't find a single example)!  Maybe we should start praying that our elders will be faithful to their charge, will love the flock, will become equippers for ministry, will have courage to be involved, will be more committed to the most holy faith and the timeless truths that it teaches!  "The writer of Hebrews offered practical advice when he called upon Christians to understand that elders "watch out for our souls" [in a culture where souls have almost been forgotten].  Hebrews 13: 17 exhorts us: "Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive [As we've already noted, that's pretty hard of us Americans to do.  Why submit?], for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account [the elders know that a day of reckoning is coming.  Now notice this admonition to us as sheep.]  Let them do so with joy, and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you."  Elders love, teach, train, and guard the flock.  Let's obey, submit, and work under them for our own good!
 
A final question is: "What would sheep like elders to show?"  The answer comes from one who was a sheep, then became a preacher, and then became an elder.  He gives this answer: "Continue to show us those same qualifications you have for being an elder.  Model for us what we need to be and do.  Let us see you 'walk by faith, not by sight' (2 Corinthians 5:7).  Lead us to greener pastures of outreach and service.  Feed us on a balanced diet of the Word.  Call us by name (John 10:3).  Communicate with us openly, honestly, and in a timely manner.  Let us see your success in raising your family.  Let us see the attitudes of Christ in all your words and actions.  Tend us with equality and impartiality.  Show us God's love.  Guard us from those who are enemies of the most holy faith" (Turner).
 
As we saw in the introduction, elders can't work miracles, but they are very important and have a tempered authority.  Recently, their authority has been disrespected and downgraded by some.  They should lead by the spiritual example of their personal lives, by their being a spiritual leader in their homes, and by shepherding the flock.  Elders love, teach, train, and guard the flock, and we want them to continue to guide us and to show us the way.  What a “noble work” indeed is that of an elder! 
Jesus the Messiah is the Chief Shepherd to whom we all look and ultimately to whom we all will give an account of what we have done in our lives.  If Jesus is not your shepherd today, won't you submit to Him by becoming his sheep?  Be added to His faithful flock by taking up His challenge to be His disciple.  That discipleship begins when one is immersed in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).  Perhaps you've not been a good sheep and you've mistrusted your shepherds here.  Now is a great time to confess that wrong and to resubmit to following their guidance.  Come to the Chief Shepherd now!