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
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
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
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
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"
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!