Are not churches failing today because those who are older are not assuming the responsibility of elders?
The Work Of Elders:
A Much Needed Ministry
Privately, church leaders will lament that much of what the Church should be doing remains undone because those who should be functioning as elders are not doing so. Why not? Apathy, of course, is one reason, but there is also ignorance. Men, not knowing that they could be elders or what elders are to do, just leave their job to someone else, thereby inadvertently creating a one-man ministry.
The purpose of this article is twofold: to set forth, in part, what Scripture teaches about elders and their ministry; and to help eliminate misunderstandings resulting from the usage-changed meanings of words in the relevant Scriptures.
Who Is An Elder?
An elder is a man who has, to a significant extent, the qualifications which the apostle Paul set forth to both Timothy and Titus (1 Tim. 3:2-7; Ti. 1:6-9). Among them are the following: he must desire to do this work; he must not only be of good character but also have a good reputation; he must be discreet, gentle, and in charge of his family; he must know and be able to rightly apply the Word; he must not be insistent on his own way or be quarrelsome; he should not be a new convert no matter how intelligent, how popular, or how prominent he may be. Obviously no one meets these qualifications perfectly, but they are the scriptural criteria for deciding who the elders are.
Elders (presbuteroi1) are spiritually mature men (not women2). Their function is described by the verb episkopeo whose corresponding noun is translated by either “bishop” or “overseer.” The task of overseer is also pictured in Scripture by the word poimen, meaning a “pastor,” or “shepherd” of a flock. Scripturally speaking, all elders are pastors or shepherds, not just “preachers.” That elders, pastors, bishops, shepherds, overseers are all the same people can be seen quite clearly in 1 Peter 5:1-2: “To the elders among you … Be shepherds (pastors) of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers (bishops).”
How Do Men Become Elders?
Scripture says that the apostles “ordained elders in every church” (Acts 14:23 KJV) and that Paul told Titus to “ordain elders in every city” (Ti. 1:5). The word “ordained” may lead some to think that they took a man who was not qualified and made an elder out of him. What they actually did was identify or point out the men who were already qualified to be elders so that the church would know who the elders were.
Today, we do not need apostles or their representatives to tell us who our elders are. As previously noted, we have Scripture (1 Tim. 3:27; Ti. 1:5-9) to give us the criteria for deciding, and the Spirit to guide us in that decision. Some churches use these Scriptures and decide in a formal, collective way who their elders are; other churches operate informally, trusting that each person will recognize who the elders are by their qualifications and service.
The crucial thing is not how the elders are designated, but that no desiring, qualified brother is by-passed, that all the spiritually mature, scripturally qualified brethren help with the shepherding, and that the people recognize them as their leaders.
What Are Elders To Do?
Scripture wisely does not list the duties of elders. They are to do whatever is meant by the words of the Bible translated “oversee” or “rule.” The elder is not to be a “boss” (1 Pet. 5:3), but that does not mean that Christians are free to do their own thing. Scripture says, “Obey your leaders,” and then explains, “for they watch over your souls as those that shall give account” (Heb. 13:17 jnd). Since they will give account for what those of the flock do, how Christians in their care conduct themselves certainly is their business!
Some Examples Of The Work Of Elders
- Elders are to help those in distress. The sick are to call for the elders to pray for their physical and spiritual healing (Jas. 5:14-15). We are all to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2), but because true elders have spiritual wisdom and maturity, they have a special responsibility to do so.The Lord Jesus suggests that elders are to help a person who feels wronged by another (Mt. 18:6). For example, when there is marital discord, spousal, child or parental abuse, or even quarreling – and when the matter cannot be resolved by the parties themselves – the offended one is told to go to the offender and “take one or two others along.” Whom should they take? Obviously, true elders, whose spiritual wisdom and maturity is respected by all.
Elders also have a responsibility to help a believer who is having a spiritual problem: “If a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual (elders especially), restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1 NASB). Because people are to bring to elders private matters, some of which they may even be ashamed, elders must be “discreet, decorous” (1 Tim. 3:2 JND). They must be able to keep their mouths shut, and be decorous in behavior – that is, not coming on strong, not being judgmental, but desiring to be helpful. Who would seek help from one who cannot maintain confidentiality or is unsympathetic!
- Elders should oversee the financial affairs of the church. The church at Antioch collected money “and sent it to the elders” as a “contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea” (Acts 11:29-30). Also, the Sunday collection was instituted in the Galatian churches and in Corinth to provide for such contributions (1 Cor. 16:1). No individual should make decisions about how the money is to be used for the Lord, either in theory or in practice. Elders together should decide.
- Elders are responsible for spiritual matters in the church. The elders at Ephesus were told, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God … Savage wolves will come in among you … and from among your own selves men will arise … Therefore be on the alert” (Acts 20:17,28-31 NASB). the term “savage wolves” pictures people biting and devouring. This biting and devouring often arises within a church. Because of their legal spirit, the Galatians were warned, “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Gal. 5:15 NIV). This legal spirit is more prevalent among conservative Christians, and it is particularly destructive to young Christians. Unfortunately, elders are often part of the problem. Then Paul’s warning to elders applies: “Be on guard for yourselves!”
- Elders are to provide leadership. Unfortunately, the King James Version speaks of elders “ruling,” which seems to imply “bossing.” But Scripture tells elders to “shepherd the flock of God amongyou … not … lording it over those allotted to your charge” (1 Pet. 5:2-3 NASB). The word translated “rule” (proistemi) actually means “to attend to or lead with care and diligence” – that is, seeing what needs to be done, bringing it to the attention of the church with suitable suggestions or options, and having those appropriate for doing the tasks chosen by the church, not by the elders (Acts 6:3; 11:30; 15:23; 1 Cor. 16:3).
- Elders are to prepare elders. Elders are also responsible for involving younger men in the affairs of the church to prepare them to become elders. If elders fail in this responsibility, the departure of existing leaders can leave the church without human leadership. And young men should seek responsibility.Scripture says, “If anyone aspires to exercise oversight, he desires a good work” (1 Tim. 3:1 JND). The King James Version reads “desire the office of a bishop.” However, the young reader should not be scared off by the words “office” and “bishop.” These words are used to translate just one word (episkope) which means simply to be an overseer.
Worthy Of Double Honor
Being an elder (a shepherd, a pastor) and exercising oversight (bishop work) is not easy, and that is why God says, “The elders who rule well should be considered worthy of double honor” (1 Tim. 5:17NASB). Are not churches failing in their witness today because those who are older are not assuming the responsibility as elders who rule well?
The work of elders is a much needed ministry. Pray for those in your church who are or should be doing this important work.
1. Whenever the meaning of a Greek word is referred to in this article, the information was obtained from the Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words; W. E. Vine; Oliphants, 1964.
2. The feminine form of the word refers to women. They can do privately many of the things men are to do publicly, but they are not presbuteroi (elders) as Scripture uses the term.
By Alan Crosby
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org