Studies in the Office and Work of the Ruling Elder
Pastor Chris Strevel
with thanksgiving to God,
to the Session of
Covenant Presbyterian Church.
The Elder in Historical Retrospect
If there exists a list of “sermons never to preach” or “subjects that most people will think utterly irrelevant to their lives,” then it likely includes church government. The modern church has little patience for teaching not directly focused upon self-improvement and personal happiness. Ironically, few doctrines would promote greater happiness and holiness among believers as lively teaching on church government. This is a frequent theme of Scripture, was of special concern to Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, and has often determined the historical development of the church. In Jesus’ household arrangements for his Bride, he reveals his great love and wisdom in providing for our good order and protection. It says a great deal about our maturity in Christ that we not only rejoice to be part of his house but that we also want to be his carefully kept and well-regulated house (1 Tim. 3:15).
Church Government an Inescapable Issue
The average Christian is hardly concerned with church government, but major denominations are still divided along church government lines: Congregational (Baptist, Independent, Non-Denominational), Monarchical (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalian, Anglican), and Presbyterian. Though not typically seen from this perspective, church government is usually the underlying reason the average believer decides or feels forced to leave one congregation and join another. Perhaps church finances were handled suspiciously with no one to intervene. Maybe the pastor became too tyrannical, and no one was able to check his hubris. The leaders of your congregation grew so infatuated with the Seeker-Friendly Movement that believers committed to the strong meat of the word were alienated without recourse. Virtually every separation that occurs within the body of Christ, individually or denominationally, involves church government, or better, the failure of congregations to believe and practice the form of church government sanctioned by the King of the Church, Jesus Christ, and revealed in his law, the Bible. This failure can be official – there are no recognized officers invested with authority to deal with the issues that are causing the trouble – or personal – church leaders or members will not govern meekly or be governed peaceably.
The Oldest Office
The elder or church governor is the most ancient office holder in church government. He is found everywhere in the Bible. The system of church rule by elders is older than Moses. When he returned to Egypt to announce the nation’s deliverance from slavery, he spoke first to the elders (Ex. 3:16). It was to the elders that Moses delivered God’s instructions concerning the Passover (Ex. 12:21). Seventy elders joined Moses on Mount Sinai to enjoy communion with God (Ex. 24:1). More examples might be cited, but these are sufficient to demonstrate that Moses did not create the system of rule by elders; he sanctioned its existence and authority by his frequent recourse to them to deliver the laws of God and provide assistance to him in governing the nation. They in turn instructed the people and governed in terms of God’s law. From the numerous references to the “elders of Israel” in the Pentateuch and throughout the Old Testament, we may conclude that they were typically men of wisdom and experience, elected by each tribe, and responsible for the daily oversight of the lives of God’s people. Even in periods of national turmoil, as in Ezra’s day, one still finds elders on the scene, providing basic spiritual, didactic, and juridical assistance.
The vicissitudes of history did not bring noticeable changes to the institution of the eldership. Jesus frequently interacted with the “elders of Israel,” who continued to function in the synagogue system (Matt. 21:23; Mark 7:3; Luke 7:3). A body of seventy elders represented the entire nation, the Sanhedrin. It is a tragic fact of history and a sober warning for all elders in the church that not only did the elders of Israel increasingly yield more obedience to their traditions than to the law of God, but they also assisted the Pharisees and Sadducees in putting Jesus to death (Matt. 15:2; 16:21; 26:3,59; 27:1; Luke 22:52). For fifteen centuries, through seasons of political slavery, freedom, subjugation, and then annexation, during periods of great spiritual strength to the lowest valley of apostasy from God’s covenant, the professing people of God were governed by elders. They were not preachers, religious professionals, leaders in worship, or dispensers of sacraments. Their fundamental function was to govern the church and to watch over the lives of men so that God’s word and true religion might thrive.
A Continuing Office
The most striking aspect of the New Testament’s teaching on the elder is that his office in the church continues from the Old Testament without comment or drama. The ubiquity of the New Testament elder is evidence that the Lord Jesus Christ through his apostles continued and authorized the practice of church rule by elders. This was not considered strange or novel and did not call for additional revelation. It was simply a fact of revealed religion that was sanctioned by long and uninterrupted usage, acknowledged and confirmed by our Savior, and specifically commanded by his apostles. So that this would not be missed among the new Gentile converts and congregations, Paul made explicit that the apostolic norm is “elders in every congregation” (Acts 14:23; Tit. 1:5).
A Spiritual and Perpetual Office in the Church
The coming of the Wisdom of God into the world certainly shines clearer light upon the personal qualifications required of elders. The inspired qualifications indicate that faith, knowledge, holiness, and experience are absolutely necessary to hold office (1 Tim. 3). Only a spiritually minded man can fulfill a distinctively spiritual office. The New Testament also makes it clear that the qualifications of the elders are Spirit-produced gifts (Rom. 12:8; 1 Cor. 12:28). They are not inherent personal abilities. A man may be an excellent CEO in a corporation but make a poor elder in the local congregation. As Christ is the only Head and King of his church, only he can raise up men with the requisite faith and piety to govern his precious flock. Even with these clarifications, the Bible presents the ruling elder or governor as of divine institution, existing before the giving of the first books of the Old Testament, and of perpetual use in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
That this is the case can be seen from the numerous references to the elder in the New Testament. Every new Gentile congregation practiced the election of elders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). His qualifications are clearly given (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1). The Ephesian and Philippian elders are directly addressed (Acts 20:17; Phil. 1:1). Elders that rule well are identified as worthy of “double honor” (1 Tim. 5:17). Sick believers are commanded to call for the elders to pray with them (James 5:14). The elders of various congregations organized into presbyteries – elders from multiple congregation in a geographical area (1 Tim. 4:14). Elders are to be obeyed (Heb. 13:17). Throughout the New Testament books, the eldership is seen to be universal, perpetual, of divine authority and practical necessity, as the office God has instituted to protect his flock from wolves and to provide oversight for his church.
The Elder on Hard Times
One might think that the consistency and clarity with which the Bible speaks of the office of elder would guarantee its continuation in the church. Alas, this is not the case. Today he is virtually unknown in the majority of evangelical churches, which have opted for a variety of church government paradigms in an effort to facilitate quick growth and encourage lay-leadership. Even within those churches that still retain him, usually Presbyterian and Reformed, he is often ignored, sometimes ridiculed, and not infrequently despised. Many factors account for the demise of the ruling elder, but the first must be that elder-ruled churches often fail to maintain the qualifications required for elders. Unqualified elders will harm the flock and put a very bad taste in the mouths of God’s people. Only marked out for leadership through the Spirit-given gifts and qualifications is it likely that a man will fulfill his office with humility, justice, and love, thus being a blessing to God’s people and encouraging them to bring their lives more fully under Christ’s government. The quickening and faithfulness of the church is inseparable from the quickening and faithfulness of the church’s elders. They are gifted and authorized to protect it from wolves and lovingly lead Christ’s sheep by his own example, exhortations, and courage. These two things are inseparable: a godly eldership and godly congregations. This is so because the Head of the Church will not bless his church until she submits to his Headship, which he exercises through the elders he raises up to protect, teach, and govern his flock.
Two Mistakes about the Ruling Elder
In considering the office of ruling elder, there are two errors that must be avoided. First, it is sometimes suggested that the office of ruling elder was a Scottish invention, or that its practice in Protestant churches possesses more affinity with the Scottish tradition than with biblical authority. It is true that in Scottish Presbyterianism the office of ruling elder reached its historical zenith, at least thus far in the history of Christianity. It is by no means to be accepted, however, that the office originated with the Scots. Ambrose lamented that the purer practice of the church’s government by elders was being replaced with hierarchical tendencies. In his constitutional reforms for the Geneva churches, John Calvin insisted upon the recovery of the ancient apostolic model of ruling elders. He did not see his efforts as creative but as restorative. In the efforts to recovery a more biblical form of church government, the best lights of the Reformation saw themselves as returning to the more primitive and apostolic model.
Hence, it is erroneous to assume that modern defenders of the divine authority and practical necessity of this office are simply partisans of a particularly beloved period of church history. We should humbly learn from the best historical examples of biblically governed churches, but we can never duplicate them in every detail and should not try. It would sufficiently energize the church to recover the principle of the ruling elder. If this might occur by the gracious working of the Holy Spirit, the details could be wisely worked out according to the general principles and examples contained in Scripture.
Second, we should not hold up a mirror for our own practice, finding scriptural justification for it, and then present it as the will of Christ the King. There are undoubtedly aspects of our practice that do not conform to the biblical model. Every humble ruling elder will gladly recognize deficiencies in his life and eldering that require repentance and transformation.
Choice of Ruling Elder Generationally Significant
With so many other concerns justly occupying the attention of Christians everywhere, it may appear very narrow and obtuse to be concerned with church government, to insist upon the eldership as a necessity for the modern church. Most professing believers feel that as long as they love Jesus, everything is fine. This statement, however, immediately raises other important questions. Why do more professing believers not love Jesus more? Why is the church as a whole terribly compromised with secularism, seemingly unable to resist the tide of lawlessness now sweeping in like a flood? And what exactly does it mean to love Jesus? Is it a feeling? Words? Humanitarianism? How can we say that we love him if we do not do the things that he commands and are relatively unconcerned with something as basic as the organization of the church, accountability, and biblical principles of leadership? While I would never make the ruling elder the chief hinge upon which true religion turns, he is most certainly the oil that keeps the hinges turning smoothly. He is the solvent that prevents the rust of doctrinal carelessness and moral compromise from overturning the local congregation. He is not everything, but he is extremely important for our faith and piety, for our family’s preservation and growth in grace, and for the protection and guidance of the local congregation. Hence, amid the many important matters facing the church, the elder’s office and function certainly deserves renewed attention in our day.
Accordingly, a congregation’s selection of its elders is a momentous occasion in its life. The choice will likely determine the course of the church for generations. Local churches and denominations have been ruined because their ruling elders could not withstand the tides of modernity and now secularism, or did not have the spiritual backbone, personally and judicially, to go against doctrinal compromise on the part of pastors and seminaries. It is an appropriate time for current elders to evaluate their lives and practice. Does your heart still burn within you to defend God’s sacred truth and to protect his people? Is your life an example of piety? The congregation must also evaluate its commitments and priorities, with each member endeavoring to walk more closely with God, and seek greater zeal for his glory and gospel. An ungodly people will never be blessed with godly leaders, men of conviction and courage. In the men whom the Lord raises up to govern our congregation, his honor is at stake. The health and welfare of this congregation is at stake. Let us seek the Lord’s blessing and guidance, for as the King of the church, he promises to provide for his people the leadership they need to fulfill the high commission to which he has called us: the discipleship of the nations.
The Ruling Elder in the Local Congregation
The Charismatic Significance of the Ruling Elder
Whenever spiritual gifts are discussed, gifts of government receive little attention. They appear, however, in every major “list” of spiritual gifts found in the New Testament (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:28-31; Eph. 4:11-16). In the fullest treatment of the origin and purpose of spiritual gifts, they are the only gifts specifically mentioned in the immediate context: Ephesians 4:11-16. The point of this passage is found earlier in vv. 7-10. Jesus Christ has ascended to the right hand of the Father, clothed in glory and power, as a reward for his obedience, suffering, and death. As the conquering King, his ascension was accompanied by the dispersion of the spoils of his victory, the spiritual gifts with which he lavished his bride, not only at Pentecost, but throughout the subsequent growth of the church until she reaches the consummation of all things at his final return. The foundational gifts are government gifts, for the exalted Savior continues to rule his church through the various governmental, teaching, and pastoral offices that are bestowed by the greatest gift to the church, the indwelling Holy Spirit.
The Practical Need for the Gift of Government
While the Spirit’s gifts enjoyed by each believer are glorious manifestations of Christ’s life in his church, without the government gifts, the church would be nothing but a collection of individuals enjoying salvation; isolation, individualism, pride, and monasticism would be the inevitable results of such a scheme. Yet our Savior is not simply filling individuals with his Spirit; he is a building a holy temple, a dwelling place of God through the Spirit. While the individual gifts contribute to that end, they must be given direction, a purpose higher than the edification of the individual believer. That purpose is the building of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. The government gifts receive primary emphasis in this passage because they are the means through which the King governs his church and that provides structure for the believer’s individual gifts to function and flower for the glory of God, the building of his church, and the salvation of the world.
The Spirit’s Gifts of Government
The apostles are first for they are the foundation of the church, Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). It is upon the apostles’ life’s work, their unique, authoritative proclamation of the gospel, and the inspired Scriptures they wrote and sanctioned for permanent use in the church that the entire edifice is built throughout every subsequent generation. The prophets were those in the early church through whom the word of God was proclaimed, though I am very willing to include the prophets of the Old Testament. God called them “My servants,” and their writings were not only essential to build up the faith and hope of the godly remnant who lived in their day, but their witness to the coming of the Son of God into the world is absolutely necessary. We have no way to identify Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Prophet, or the seed of Abraham and of the woman without their prior witness. Evangelists were men like Philip who were not tied to any particular location but traveled abroad preaching the word, gathering disciples, and establishing congregations of believers. Pastors, here given the unique title shepherds, are those who guide, oversee, and teach the local congregation. Teachers are those who do not necessarily pastor but are gifted to teach the word of God with clarity and power. These gifts are for the sake of the church, for their goal is to perfect the saints, equipping them for ministry within the course of their daily lives, thus enabling the entire church to experience increase and growth and to function as the dwelling place of God.
These gifts are widely disseminated in the church; only the apostles can be said to possess each gift simultaneously. Peter spoke of himself as an elder (1 Pet. 5:1) and was commissioned to shepherd/pastor Christ’s lambs (John 21:16). Before the institution of the diaconate, the apostles even performed many diaconal functions (Acts 6:1-7), which they gladly yielded so that they could devote themselves to prayer and the preaching of God’s word. The apostolic and prophetic offices are now ceased, for with the passing away of the apostles and the completion of God’s revelation in Scripture, they have completed their foundational, revelational function. The other three gifts are permanent. As the men the Lord raises up to fulfill them are faithful to build upon the one foundation that is laid in Christ Jesus, they are the means by which the Holy Spirit will build the church of Jesus Christ until the end of the world.
The Ruling Elder’s Specific Gift
Church governors or elders are not specifically mentioned in this passage, but they are found in Romans 12:8 and 1 Corinthians 12:28. It is likely that they are mentioned in these two passages rather than in Ephesians 4:11-16 due to the fact that the elders governing gifts are exclusively related to the local congregation, being raised up from within the congregation and focused upon its oversight. Moreover, the offices in Ephesians 4:11-16 are related to the preaching and teaching of the gospel, which is not the primary responsibility or calling of the ruling elder. Whereas an evangelist or pastor might move from one congregation to another, the same is not true of the church governor; his gifts are specifically related to and function within the context of the congregation from which he arises. Said another way, while a congregation may hear a previously unknown evangelist, pastor, or teacher with edification and recognize his gifts, the gift of oversight can only be known over time by those with whom a man closely associates and who have benefited by his leadership.
Moreover, the ruling elder’s office is not primarily didactic. He must be able to teach and explain the gospel and the Scriptures, but he is not called and usually does not possess the unction to preach, at least not in the New Testament sense of the word. While church governors must understand the faith and have exemplary Christian character, it is to the pastors and teachers that the proclamation of the word and the instruction of the congregation is given. The office of ruling elder is primarily governmental and consists in overseeing the doctrine and piety of the congregation, ensuring that discipline is practiced biblically, and providing a biblical organization of the congregation that encourages each believer to use his gift(s) for its edification.
It is important to remember that gifts of government or oversight proceed from the Holy Spirit and are specific for the office of church governor or ruling elder. They consist of more than organizational ability. They relate to the Spirit-produced ability to provide loving, diligent, protective, proactive leadership for the people of God, to govern them according to his word. The presence of such Spirit-gifted men is evidence of his work and power in the local congregation and gives it confidence that the Chief Shepherd is providing for its needs through the undershepherds he raises up in its midst. It is also a reminder to church governors that they have a high calling from the Lord Jesus Christ and must labor to provide for the good of the congregation. To them is owed respect and obedience, not so much in regards to their persons as to their office and calling from the Lord. To treat church governors with indifference, disrespect, or disdain is to insult the Holy Spirit and his marvelous gifts.
The current elders (Session) of this congregation are committed to maintaining biblical oversight of the families the Lord has brought to us. We live in constant awareness of the accounting we will give to the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). We believe the two primary responsibilities of the ruling elder are: (1) to represent the kingship of Jesus Christ through maintaining biblical government and discipline of the church and (2) to provide personal, loving, and diligent oversight for the life and doctrine of the congregation (Acts 15:2,4; 1 Peter 5:1-5). As our body grows in size and maturity, we need additional gifted men to shoulder these responsibilities. We do not prescribe a certain number; we will leave this to the providence of God and the working of the Holy Spirit in our midst. We will consider all qualified men for office. It is our prayer that the Lord Jesus will raise up at least one additional ruling elder. Our sense of need at this time is not due to any diminished interest or effort on the part of the existing elders. Nor do we initiate the call for ruling elder nominations because we feel that other men should have the opportunity to serve in some egalitarian sense. It is rather a growing conviction that the needs of this body require, as the Lord provides, additional men to assist in the noble work of providing consistent and comprehensive oversight for the growth in grace and usefulness of this body, now and into the future.
The Process for the Election of Additional Ruling Elders
The Bible does not prescribe details for the process of electing new elders. What is revealed is that elders were chosen from the congregation (Acts 14:23), according to the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, and ordained to office by the existing authority structures within the congregation, i.e., an apostle in the absence of an already existing body of elders. The prescription of a process for the election of additional ruling elders, therefore, can only be made in accordance with these principles and applied according to the collective wisdom of the church. (1) In this body, the process will begin with the preaching of a series of sermons on the scriptural warrant, nature, qualifications, and duties of the office of ruling elder. (2) Upon the completion of this series, the Session will officially notify the congregation that it is receiving nominations for the office of ruling elder; nominations will be received for approximately thirty days. (3) Only communing members may nominate men to office. Families in the process of becoming members of this body may make nominations for office only if they are admitted to membership by the Session within the time allotted by the Session to receive nominations. (4) The congregation is strongly encouraged to make nominations based upon the personal and doctrinal qualifications revealed in Scripture, together with your personal knowledge and conviction that the man you nominate is qualified to serve. (5) Elders are representatives of the congregation, but they are more importantly Christ’s representatives to you. Therefore, they must be chosen not based upon popularity or personal affinity but according to their fitness for office. Not every believer is qualified/gifted to be an elder. There are many gifts, but one Spirit. None should think himself better than another because he has a particular gift, or less than another because he lacks a particular gift. The body grows as each member does its part (Eph. 4:16).
(6) Because of the high importance of the office of ruling elder, the congregation is strongly encouraged to nominate only those men whose Christian character is well-attested and unimpeachable, whose doctrinal integrity is certain, and whose family evidences his ability to govern men well according to the word of God. (7) The Session will not approve the nomination of a new believer, one who has not been a member of this particular congregation sufficiently long to know the people well, or one who has not already demonstrated his full support of the worship and work of the church – faithful attendance at the stated meetings of the church for worship, prayer, and service; edifying and encouraging engagement in the life of the body; a home (wife and children) that are well-governed. (8) It is our belief that the office of elder is normally for life, for the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable (Rom. 11:29). It may become necessary, due to God’s providence, geographical relocation, or other unforeseen circumstance, for an ordained ruling elder either to excuse himself from the office entirely, which can only occur at the consent of the existing Session, or to seek a temporary release from his responsibilities until his circumstances change. Removal from office by the Session is also possible in the case of grievous sin. (9) The congregation should tender its nominations in writing to the stated clerk of the existing Session.
(10) Upon receiving the nominations, the Session will review them. Those who appear to possess the necessary personal qualifications will be approved for doctrinal and practical training. The length of training will vary depending upon the individual(s) approved by the Session. (11) Men whose nominations are approved will be notified by the Session. Unlike the pastor or minister, in which an internal call to be “a steward of the mysteries of God” is absolutely required, the calling to be a ruling elder rests primarily upon the congregational call to the office. If the gift of government is present, the nominee should prayerfully consider the congregational call and the approval of the Session as strong evidence of God’s calling upon his life. Obviously, there may be personal issues known only to the nominee and his family that may make his compliance with the call impossible. (12) Upon the completion of his training, the approved candidate(s) will be examined by the Session for personal, practical, and doctrinal fitness for the office of ruling elder. (13) To hold any office in this denomination, an officer must subscribe with full agreement and without any mental reservation to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as setting forth the system of doctrine taught in Scripture. (14) The approved candidate(s) will then be presented to the congregation for election to office. Each communing member may cast a vote for the individual(s) he believes best represents his and Christ’s interest in the government and discipline of the church. Those who receive a clear majority of congregational support will be elected to office. (15) A date will then be set for ordination and installation, in which the ruling elder(s)-elect will be formally installed into the eldership of Covenant Presbyterian Church.
It is our prayer that this process will be blessed by the Head of the church, Jesus Christ, with the election of additional ruling elder(s) that he has raised up and through which he intends to bless this body with qualified, vigilant, and exemplary leadership. If you have any questions about the process, you may speak with any current elder.
For Reflection and Clarity
1. What is God teaching us about ourselves through 3,500 years of the elder’s presence and ministry in the church?
2. Why do many if not most church issues (disagreements, splits, departures) involve church government, both on the official and the personal side?
3. What is meant by saying that the office of ruling elder is a spiritual gift?
4. Give three reasons that the gifts of government are vital for the church?
5. What is unique about the ruling elder’s spiritual gift?
6. How is his gift specifically related to the life of the local congregation?
7. What are some reasons that the office of elder has fallen upon hard times?
8. How may its importance and vitality be recovered?
9. Should every believer have a chance at church leadership? Why or why not?
10. How does the election of new ruling elders impact the congregation for generations to come?
The Ruling Elder and Spiritual Liberty
A Divinely Sanctioned Office
One of the most pressing crises facing the church is the issue of authority. Observing the manner in which many believers and congregations live, one might easily conclude that “every man does what is right in his own eyes.” We have corporately lost any practical sense of the authority of Scripture. It is God’s word, of unquestionable authority in everything of which it speaks, and it speaks of everything that is necessary to equip us for every good work (Isa. 8:20; 1 Tim. 3:16,17; 1 Pet. 1:19). It is not surprising that our environment of doctrinal laxity and moral compromise would generate relative indifference toward the government and discipline of the church, treating this also as a matter of personal choice and relative unimportance, if not an outright obstacle to getting things done and spreading the gospel. Nevertheless, if we yield to God’s Word as we should, we shall also recover our conviction that he desires his church to be led and governed through elders. The elder’s office is sanctioned by God for permanent and universal use in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
That this is in fact the case can be seen by the fact that every apostolic-organized congregation was ruled by elders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1). This was not a new practice; elders assisted in the government and discipline of the Old Testament church (Ex. 3:16,18; 12:21; 24:1). They continued functioning in this capacity in the synagogue system of later Judaism (Luke 7:3; Acts 4:5,8,23). The New Testament universally attests to the fact that church governors or ruling elders assisted in the governing of regularly established congregations of believers (Acts 15:2,4,6,22,23; 20:17; 20:17; 22:30). All biblical evidence, therefore, leads to the conclusion that the office of ruling elder is of divine authority, was sanctioned by the apostles as the will of the Head of the Church, our exalted Lord Jesus Christ. Through this office he continues to rule, protect, and provide for his beloved bride.
The Apostolic Model of Liberty under Law
The form of church government will determine the nature and exercise of authority in the church. There are basically three forms of church government. Congregational forms of church government assume that the locus of authority lies in each individual within the congregation; this produces a “democratic tone” within the congregation. Monarchical forms endorse a top-down flow of authority, from the highest level at the “top of the pyramid,” pope or arch-bishop or pastor/CEO, through descending levels of office and authority. In both the Old and New Testament, the church is ruled by the divine King and Head, the living God through his Son, Jesus Christ. Under him, there are no single (monarchical) or multiple (democratic) competitors or substitutes for his authority. He shares the seat of power and ultimate practical authority with none.
Accordingly, within the church he has established a representative form of church government in which the church is ruled under Jesus Christ by elected representatives of the people, who represent the law of the King, Jesus Christ, and the interests of the people. The church is thus neither a democracy nor a monarchy. The spiritual and practical liberties of God’s people are jeopardized by a democracy; it encourages individualism, collectivism, and then to ward off these evils, the rise of the dynamic dictator. In both cases, there is no higher authority than the people themselves or a majority who may and often do err by legalizing practical and doctrinal error. By committing the government and discipline of the church to personally qualified, carefully trained, and mutually accountable men, the people may have confidence that their vital interests and liberties in Christ will be carefully preserved. When abuses arise in a representative form of church government, the people are not in the position of having to abandon the congregation to set up yet another independency. They may appeal to the Session to address their grievances against one or more elders of the church, and finding that remedy ineffectual, may through their Session appeal to presbytery to adjudicate abuses. Such a remedy is not afforded by a democratic form of government, in which there can be no higher appeal than the will of the majority.
A representative or republican form of church government also checks the tyranny of one-man rule, which is institutionalized in monarchical forms of church government and a practical reality in democratic forms. The latter is inevitable for pure democracies simply will not work; one man, usually the pastor or a particularly zealous deacon, will inevitably assume the chief mantle of power and hold all under his sway. In a regularly organized congregation, the New Testament does not authorize ministers/pastors to govern the church alone. Christ has gifted men with the gift of government, i.e., ruling elders, with whom delegated authority from Christ is shared. It is evident from the scriptural requirement of a plurality (more than one) elders in every congregation (Acts 14:23; James 5:14), that Christ hereby protects his flock from the abuses that inevitably result whenever the whole government and discipline of the church is committed to a single man. Though to the minister of the gospel or pastor is committed the ministry of the word and the administration of the sacraments, his authority is balanced and enhanced by the presence of a plurality of church governors, elders, who know and cherish the people, counsel him against implementing policies that they cannot bear, and constantly remind him of the practical concerns of the congregation.
A representative or Presbyterian form of church government also represses the tendency toward clericalism in the church, i.e., the rule of the church by preachers acting solely on their own authority by virtue of their perceived intellectual or academic superiority. This is an explicit danger in monarchical forms of church government. Even the apostles, who were the only church officers with an immediate authority from Christ, so that to hear or read them was to hear or read Christ himself (1 Cor. 14:38; 1 Thess. 2:13), were subject to one another. Peter called himself a “fellow-elder” (1 Pet. 5:1), and the apostles present at the Jerusalem Council exercised a joint authority with the pastors and ruling elders (Acts 15,22-23; 16:4). If the apostles did not practice a monarchical form of church government, then with the cessation of their office, such a form of government is impossible for non-apostles and will prove utterly destructive to the liberties of God’s people when attempted.
A congregation ruled by the minister alone tends toward the elevation of the religiously educated clergy into a position of prominence by which their connection to the congregation is forgotten, arrogance is allowed to flourish, and the sheep are viewed as existing for the pastors, rather than he for them. The existence and authority of ruling elders in every apostolic congregation protects the church from the rise of a priestly caste and firmly establishes a form of government that is directed toward the welfare of the people of God rather than the aggrandizement of the minister. There is thus in biblical church government a constant awareness of the sinful tendencies toward despotism even in the best of pastors. Despite their learning and position, they do not and must not govern the congregation alone, as this inevitably leads to abuse and the loss of the liberties purchased by Christ.
In democratic forms of church government a power struggle is institutionalized. There must be “officers” in this system, either ordained or lay, or the congregation could accomplish nothing. Yet as the people theoretically possess equal authority, suspicion, discontent, and antagonism often result; this explains the presence of independent/democratically organized churches on every corner. Monarchical forms fare little better, for the people are so far removed from positions of power as to be disconnected from their leaders and without any recourse to remedy abuses. Submission or departure is their only recourse. At least the Reformation of the church so checked this abuse that one can now leave rather than be burned!
The lack of remedy for abuses is not the case in representative/Presbyterian forms of church government. Because the elders are chosen by the congregation, arise from it, and exercise authority within the flock, rubbing shoulders with them, receiving constant input from them, and enjoying regular fellowship with them, the tendency is for the elders and the people to be warmly attached and directly involved in the government of the church, without a power struggle. For the people select their rulers, who are assumed to have unity of heart and life with them. The people may therefore confidently approach their rulers for counsel, comfort, and correction. Accordingly, a representative form of government is not only commanded by Scripture, but it also strongly enforces the principle that the authority within the local congregation is exercised for the good of the people, is motivated by love, and is intimately known by the congregation. This will result, however, only as the elders and the people are regularly involved with one another’s lives in fellowship, hospitality, and worship.
A Return to Monarchy Unavailing
The fragmentation of the church, the loss of Reformation vitality, and the dominance of personality cults throughout Evangelicalism lead some to suggest that we have misread the biblical data. Or, we have failed to read the data in the light of historical realities. The church is under attack everywhere, and therefore the church needs greater visible unity. This would require a more hierarchical form of church government. Except under strong, more centralized leadership, men, even believers, are not likely to give up their religious independency, which the Reformation unintentionally institutionalized. To give a unified witness to the world, the church must be more outwardly unified in worship, doctrine, and government. Perhaps the Roman Catholic Church finally failed and became irreformably opposed to the gospel and word of God, but we need to recover the ideal – the Holy Catholic Church, all of Christendom united under gradations of ecclesiastical authority, with uniformity of worship and doctrine.
Against this, of course, is the historical fact that any return to Rome or even Eastern Orthodoxy requires the resumption of burdensome, non-commanded, and gospel obscuring ceremonies. Rome has not changed, other than to become more liberal, more anti-Christian, and self-professedly irreformable (Vatican I, 1870), though praise God without the arm of the civil government to enforce its mad schemes. Whatever good one may identify as having come from a homogenous church under a settled leadership, these cultural benefits are far outweighed by the simple fact that to return to Rome, we shall have to give up the gospel of our Savior. It is better to live faithfully under the form of government instituted by Christ and his disciples, as the earliest church fathers and later the Reformers attempted to do. This may for the time being put us in the cultural backwaters and force us to bear the cross of ecclesiastical division. We must possess our souls in patience, for God and time are on the side of truth. This does not mean that we should reject legitimate expression of the church where we find them or refuse to conform our form of church government as closely as possible to what is revealed Scripture. The more men nullify and make a mockery of God’s law, the more devoted we must be to his commandments (Ps. 119:126-127).
The Spread of the Gospel
One of the decided practical advantages of the apostolic model of churches governed by elders is the division of labor it creates between pastors and ruling elders. In some Presbyterian denominations the titles “teaching” and “ruling” elders are still retained, a wise appellation that captures the heart of the similarity and the fundamental difference between them. Both are elders and share the one office of government, overseers of the congregation, broadly considered. Ministers of the gospel have the additional calling and gift of being “stewards of the mystery of God” (1 Cor. 4:1), heralds of the good news of Jesus Christ. It is impossible, however, to conceive of one pastor sufficiently performing all the teaching and oversight responsibility of a congregation of any significant size. Accordingly, the King of the church has instituted both pastors and governors, or ministers and ruling elders. The pastor thus has assistance in overseeing the government and discipline of the congregation. This division of labor supplies not only the important plurality of eldership taught throughout the New Testament but also affords the minister of the word greater freedom to pursue his preaching and teaching labors with greater concentration and to greater effect. It also holds him accountable to a body of men with whom he shares the same delegated, servant authority from Jesus Christ. In this way, the oversight, shepherding needs of the congregation can be met while allowing for the forward progress of the preaching of the gospel, the power of God unto salvation.
For Reflection and Clarity
1. What is the connection between the authority of Scripture and church government?
2. Show from Scripture that the office of ruling elder is of divine authority.
3. What are three typical forms of church government?
4. What are the theological and practical problems with monarchical forms? Congregational forms?
5. How does a representative form best preserve the liberties of God’s people?
6. Why is the spread of the gospel best supported by the division of labor between pastors and ruling elders?
7. What is clericalism, and how does a representative form of government guard against it?
8. Why is a power struggle institutionalized in Congregational/Independent forms of church government?
9. How is “power” actually shared between people and officers in a representative form?
10. Why does the Headship of Jesus Christ refute all forms of Monarchical forms of government?
11. Which office was the closest to having this kind of authority, but how did it actually operate against a Monarchical form of government?
A Distinct Ruling Office
The Elder is a ruler or church governor (1 Cor. 12:28; Rom. 12:8).
Throughout the history of the church, office holders within the church have sometimes manifested the desire to take over responsibilities not specifically delegated to them. It is well known, for example, that the early church soon lost any distinctive diaconal office due to the grasping of the deacons for the authority of pastors and bishops. There is a similar effort underway in our day to blend the distinctive preaching and governing gifts and functions so that the ruling elder is permitted to perform all the duties of the teaching elder, i.e., preaching, administration of sacraments, etc. Whatever the motivations of specific individuals may be, the glory of the office of ruling elder will not be restored by turning him into a pastor, an office for which he lacks divine authorization and often the gifts.
The testimony of Scripture is firmly against this transformation, as the distinction has always existed between the “elders of Israel” and “my servants the prophets,” whose role as preachers of God’s word is now carried forward by ministers of the gospel. The same distinction is found in the New Testament, which recognizes the elders that “rule well” and elders that “labor in the word and doctrine” (1 Tim. 5:17). The former description applies to both ruling and teaching elders (a title used for the pastor to distinguish his gift and function as a minister of the gospel); the latter can only apply to the church’s pastors and teachers. The glory and office of the ruling elder is his calling and giftedness as a church governor. In his office, authority, and function as an elder, he is on par with the ministers of the gospel (Acts 15). We must say without hesitation that there is only one office of elder. The ruling elder, however, holds the position of church governor exclusively. The New Testament and our Confession of Faith maintain a distinction between ministers of the gospel and church governors or elders. This is sometimes called the “three office view,” teaching elder, ruling elder, and deacon, as against the two-office view, elders, whether teaching or ruling, and deacons. To the degree that “three office” obscures the single office and calling of the eldership to oversee the life and doctrine of the congregation, it should be used sparingly. Both pastors and ruling elders share this single office as elders of the congregation. To the degree that it distinguishes the additional function of the preaching of the gospel, it can be helpful.
The Bible distinguishes between teaching and ruling elders.
Important Scriptural arguments are correctly used to defend the distinction between teaching and ruling elders. (1) The Old Testament elders were governors of the church, distinct from the priests and Levites, who took care of the temple and officiated over the worship and sacraments (Deut. 31:9,10). This division of labor or office was evident in Israel during the time of New Testament events (Matt. 16:21; 21:23; Acts 4:5,23). (2) “Presbyter” or “elder is the broad New Testament title for men who exercise rule in the church. Apostles, ministers of the gospel, and church governors are jointly termed “presbyters” or “elders” because they share commonly in the government and oversight of the church (1 Pet. 5:1; Acts 20:17; Rom. 12:8). Ruling elders are presbyters in the sense of being rulers in the church, but this does not mean they possess all the duties and offices of others who are also called presbyters. If this were the case, since Peter, an apostle, called himself an elder (1 Pet. 5:1), it would follow that all who are elders are also apostles. This proves too much and is completely opposed to the Bible’s plain teaching. “Presbyters” may possess additional gifts and responsibilities, as apostles and ministers of the gospel. Philip the Evangelist was also chosen to be a deacon (Acts 6:5; 8:5), but this does not mean that the other deacons possessed this office or that all Evangelists were also deacons. Because of the broad sense of the word “presbyter,” the nature and duties of the ruling elder cannot be derived from the word alone but from the texts that spell out their respective duties.
(3) The New Testament pastor or minister of the gospel is a presbyter or ruler in the church. He also possesses the additional gift and function of being a pastor and teacher. 1 Timothy 5:17 makes the distinction between those who rule well, which applies equally to all elders, and those presbyters who have the additional calling to labor in the word and doctrine. Nowhere in Scripture are church governors given this responsibility. To the pastor or minister of the gospel is committed the preaching of God’s word and the administration of the sacraments. Ruling elders do not share this additional function, though they must be men of doctrinal integrity, able to lead and teach the congregation. (4) The distinction between these two offices may be seen in Romans 12:4-8. In this passage, Paul celebrates the unity of the body of Christ as well as the diversity of functions and gifts each member possesses. pra/xij, praxis (v. 4), carries the sense of work, function, or activity; it is sometimes translated office. Paul’s point, therefore, is to establish that different members have different functions or offices in the church. Paul divides these gifts into two categories: prophecy and ministry. Prophetic gifts are especially teaching and exhortation, which two offices correspond in the normal organization of the continuing church to the teachers and pastors mentioned in Ephesians 4:11. Ministry gifts are divided into leadership and mercy, which correspond to the office of ruling elder and deacon, as the writers of our Confession interpret the two descriptions.
(5) Because the New Testament writers tend to use the word “presbyter” and “elder” and “bishop” indiscriminately, this has led some to conclude there is no real difference between pastors (teaching elders) and church governors (ruling elders). Therefore, all elders may preach and administer the sacraments. Such an order would go against the manner in which the Old Testament church was governed. It also fails to recognize that within the single office or title of “elder” there may be a diversity of gifts and callings, though all “elders” share the gift and responsibility of ruling or governing the church. As we have seen, elders were the appointed representatives of the people whose sole duty was to oversee the doctrine and piety of the people. The priests and Levites, who functionally correspond to the New Testament pastor and teacher, ministered in the tabernacle and later the temple, had the responsibility of instruction, and oversaw the worship and sacraments of the people. The New Testament sets forth a similar distinction of gifts, responsibility, and function. Both pastors and ruling elders are presbyters, and they have the ruling office and function in common. Hence, within a given passage, when presbyter is used, it may refer either to both officers or to only one of them, depending upon the context.
The ruling elder is a governing officer in the local congregation, an office he shares with its ministers and teachers. He sits with them in equal authority upon the local church Session and participates with them in the governing duties at the Presbytery and Synodical assemblies. He is not a preacher or teacher, except in the more limited sense as he is required to instruct the congregation concerning the doctrine and morals of the word of God.
The elder governs by the appointment of the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps another reason for the modern attempt to make all elders functionally and officially equivalent is the failure to see that the gift of leadership or government in the church is a fundamentally spiritual gift. It is true that horror stories in Reformed congregation exist pertaining to the failures and atrocities perpetrated by ruling elders. Nonetheless the Bible is clear that the Holy Spirit raises up governors in and for the church (1 Cor. 12:28; Acts 20:28). Only the Holy Spirit can make men faithful overseers of the life and doctrine of God’s people, and the importance of this gift is everywhere attested in Scripture and practically demonstrated the world over in the lives of God’s people. It should also make ruling elders appreciative of their gifts without desiring to usurp an authority and function with which they have been entrusted and gifted. The biblical fact that the Holy Spirit alone calls and equips men to bear rule in the church of our Savior renders the modern idea of term limitations or a rotational system of eldership unbiblical and potentially dangerous. It fosters the notion that every one should have the opportunity to serve in this capacity, even though the Holy Spirit clearly does not bestow this gift upon every believer but only upon those whom he would have serve as undershepherds.
The elder governs at the command of Jesus Christ.
Our age hates the notion of authority. The spirit of radical autonomy and individualism continues to manifest itself in the “spiritual libertinism” that characterizes many professing believers. It is common and tragic to be confronted by a professing friend of Christ who claims for himself the right to serve as his own prophet, priest, and king. Yet we need not fear the authority of the ruling elder or governor. (1) The elder’s authority is always dedicated to the preservation of Christ’s exclusive Headship (1 Pet. 5:4). He does not possess a creative but a delegated authority. The ruling elder must always approach and fulfill his office in self-conscious submission to Jesus Christ and the desire to lead in such a way that believers are led to greater faithfulness to Jesus Christ. (2) The elder’s authority is always defined by and limited to Scripture. He is not above the word. His authority is thus ministerial rather than magisterial. And because he rules in conjunction with other ruling elders and the pastor of the congregation, his views, desires, and interpretations of Scripture are held in balance and check by the collective wisdom of the other men whom the Spirit has raised up to govern the church. (3) The elder’s authority, nonetheless, is real. He opens and shuts heaven through the exercise of discipline within the church, subject to the approval of Jesus Christ, in accordance with the word of God. And as such, the elder’s authority must be obeyed (Matt. 18:15-22; Heb. 13:17). To disobey an elder’s biblical command is to reject the authority of Christ and to despise the gifts of the Spirit.
The elder governs as a servant and example (1 Pet. 5:1-5).
It is likely that the modern disdain for the office and authority of the ruling elder is closely related to his failure to exercise his authority in a biblical fashion. Peter gives three admonitions to ruling elders, which, if followed, would not only ameliorate the fear associated with his authority but also make the ruling elder respected by the church. (1) The elder must not tyrannize over the congregation, i.e., “lord it over the flock.” We must be careful here, for in our day any exercise of authority is felt to be tyranny. If an elder tells a church member that he may not divorce his wife except in the case of adultery, he is likely to be ridden out on a rail, when all he is doing is quoting our Lawgiver. This only demonstrates the degree to which individualism and radical relativism has infiltrated the churches of the Lord Jesus Christ. To “lord it over the flock” means to carry and exercise authority with arrogance, pomposity, and censoriousness, to dictate every detail of the lives of God’s people, even in matters of relative indifference, and to mandate absolute submission with respect to the elder’s personal preference and practice. This is an abuse of authority and should be remedied by the Session of the church.
(2) The elder must lead as a servant-shepherd. Biblical “shepherding” is always associated with tenderness, patience, love, and sacrifice. A servant/shepherd gives his life for the sheep, manifests willingness to bear their burdens, and exercises a loving vigilance for their welfare. A servant does not demand the “highest seats at the feast” but is content with the lowest, to govern without fanfare, to lead without ostentation, and to speak without arrogance. The model is the Lord Jesus Christ, the Chief and Good Shepherd, who did not come to be served but to serve. The elder must always remember that the congregation does not exist to give him office and respect; he has been given office for the sake of the flock of Christ.
(3) The elder must demonstrate a consistent and effective personal example. Authority in the church is never coercive, in the sense that the people of God should be threatened, cowed, and brow-beaten into submission. Legitimate biblical authority is exercised persuasively (2 Cor. 5:11; 10:1; Gal. 1:10). Nothing more adorns the office and facilitates the exercise of the ruling elder’s office as his own example of godliness and love, the example of his family, and his whole-hearted commitment to the word of God. When these three exhortations are followed, the people of God have nothing to fear but everything to gain from the faithful exercise of the authority that has been delegated to the ruling elder through the King of the church, Jesus Christ.
For Reflection and Clarity
1. In what ways does Scripture distinguish between preachers and elders?
2. What is the danger of the phrase “three office view?” How can it be useful?
3. How many officers of elder exist in the church?
4. What do all elders share in common?
5. Summarize the biblical arguments for the distinction between the teaching elder (pastor) and the ruling elder.
6. Why it is important to stress that only the Holy Spirit can raise up ruling elders?
7. What is the nature of the ruling elder’s authority? What are the safeguards upon it?
8. Summarize Peter’s description of the work and piety of the elder in 1 Peter 5:1-5.
9. How is “servant authority” very different from the world’s conception of authority?
10. How do Peter’s directives to elders take sin and weakness into account?
11. Why must the ruling elder exercise his authority tenderly and patiently?
A Fundamentally Spiritual Office:
The Gifts and Qualifications for the Ruling Elder
The Gift of Ruling
The mention of “government” or “rule” generates decidedly negative feelings. This is understandable, for sinners are skittish about authority and accountability. We often lack credible, principled, courageous leadership in society, the church, and the family. We continually hear of scandal and corruption, witness blind partisanship in the corridors of political power, and experience firsthand the ruin of our nation through blatant disregard for the rule of law in all branches of government. Disdain and distrust toward government and its leaders are rampant throughout the land, especially among men who read and think for themselves, understand even a smattering of our nation’s history, and appreciate leaders who ignore the next election in order to stand for the present right. Church leaders have fared little better. Pastoral infidelity, doctrinal compromise, backroom schemes, and the undermining of God’s word and authority over us by ecclesiastical bureaucracy have created justified suspicion and concern among the flock of God. Poor family leadership is the poison fountain of the three, for the family is the cradle of society and the first altar of the future church. A significant number of fathers abuse and abandon their families, ignore the pleas of their wives for leadership and provision, and are utterly addicted to work, entertainment, and sports. Boys grow up without any example of principled, loving leadership; girls grow up without protection and headship.
Within the church, the tragic loss of leadership and godly rule will be remedied, the authority of the Bible recovered, and the honor of the King of the church restored only through a return to a view of government that recognizes that the ability to rule is a gift from the Holy Spirit of God. This is one of the mighty works of the Holy Spirit in the church. He is the divine source of spiritual gifts within the congregation (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-11; Heb. 2:4). His gifts of government provide the personal, loving, and authoritative structure for the body of Christ. They are the means through which the Head of the church rules his people on earth and God’s holy and living temple is equipped for service, beautified, and zealous in promoting his glory and honor. With respect to the ruling elder or church governor, his primary gift is the ability to bear rule, to govern the people of God, and to exercise loving, servant leadership in the church. Because in our day a “leader” is someone who appears to possess personal charisma, the gift of gab, a pretty face, or simply someone who is willing to be the boss, we must make explicit what is meant by the gifts of ruling and government (Rom. 12:8; 1 Cor. 12:28).
First, however, we must understand the nature of spiritual gifts in general. They are given for the edification of the body of Christ, not simply for the personal fulfillment or joy of the individual possessor (1 Cor. 14:12). Spiritual gifts will manifest themselves; the Holy Spirit is not an impotent gift-giver. Each believer is baptized into one Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13); hence, each believer possesses some facet of the Spirit’s gifting, which is Christ’s victory and power spread throughout his body. This is one reason why church membership is never a spectator sport, consisting of attending church on Sunday morning to hear a sermon out of obligation or fear of censure. Body life is participatory, enriching, giving, serving, and others-oriented.
Spiritual gifts are not elitist, concerned exclusively with preaching and teaching, or white-collar spirituality. They manifest themselves in a wide array of functions within the body: mercy, giving, hospitality, encouragement, exhortation, and service. The presence of the Spirit’s gifts is the sign of Christ’s victorious rule in heaven and his efficacious presence in his church on earth. We must avoid two extremes with respect to spiritual gifts. On the one hand, individualism can lead to selfishness and misdirection concerning their use and significance. On the other hand, spiritual sterility can produce indifference and neglect of spiritual gifts. They are real, tangible, visibly expressed; they are given to every believer for the profit of the entire body. Every spiritual gift, therefore, is the result of the Spirit’s work in the believer and in the church, is designed to promote the building up of the body of Christ, and must be exercised diligently. They are love-gifts and victory-tokens of the Lord of glory (Eph. 4:8).
The gift of rule or government is particularly related to the office of ruling elder (Rom. 12:8; 1 Cor. 12:28; Acts 20:27,28). There are certain attributes and fruits of the ruling gift that will be evident in the lives of the men whom the Holy Spirit raises up to govern the local congregation. There is, of course, the desire to watch over, lead, and protect the body of Christ; the Holy Spirit gives some believing men a strong desire to serve in the office of bishop or elder (1 Tim. 3:1). If this desire is from the Holy Spirit, it will be sincere, without personal self-interest, accompanied by a passion for the good of the church and concern for the sheep that consumes the life. Some measure of the Savior’s attitude toward the sheep and house of God will be evident in an elder’s life: a zeal for his Father’s house, a desire to see the flock gathered up and protected (John 2:17; Luke 13:34).
To this desire must be added exemplified wisdom, the ability and track record of applying the principles of God’s word to the vast array of doctrinal and ethical concerns of God’s people. A man who lacks wisdom cannot be a good leader in the church. He must also possess experience, which includes a experience as a disciple of Jesus Christ, experience in the congregation that he would lead, and experience in leading men. A new elder, of course, will not have had official experience in this capacity within the church, but he must have demonstrated it is in his own life and family, and informally in the congregation through standing for the truth and encouraging God’s people in holiness and faithfulness. The gift of rule within the church will be accompanied by patience. While the people of God are his elect, holy and beloved, they are also sheep, which means among other things that they are prone to wander and require correction and guidance. A good ruling elder must be simultaneously firm and loving, resisting the temptation to respond to recalcitrant sheep with harshness, viewing a present confrontation in terms of future holiness and restored faithfulness and fellowship.
Hence, he must have vision, which is a clear understanding of God’s will and destiny for the church in this life and the next. Such a vision is under-girded and directed by faith and knowledge of God’s word and promises, a certain persuasion that what God has promised he will also perform. The gift of rule or government will be accompanied with some measure of boldness. A ruling elder will be confronted with disobedient sheep, hard-headedness, and sometimes outright rebellion. He must be willing, able, and zealous to confront, reprove, and rebuke with longsuffering (2 Tim. 4:2). A good leader, therefore, cannot be ultimately concerned with pleasing men, keeping friends, and building popularity. His foremost concern is for the wellbeing of the flock that has been entrusted to his shepherding and the glory of Jesus Christ. He must, therefore, be a man of truth, absolutely dedicated to the authority, inspiration, and all-sufficiency of Scripture. Wayward believers frequently manifest the tendency to believe the Bible applies to everyone but themselves. The faithful elder must possess such an inward persuasion of the truth of God’s word that he never allows the sinner to define himself and his own actions or seek subtle ways to avoid the claims of God upon his life. All of this must be done with tenderness. The Chief Shepherd displayed practical tenderness toward sinners. His yoke is easy and his burden is light; a bruised reed he does not break and smoking flax he does not quench. He rebuked Peter strongly but also declared his intention to pray for him, thus giving him beforehand a promise to prevent despair and to encourage reflection and repentance. Tenderness is not softness; it is love that desires to do good, coupled with patience that sees the long-term goal, motivated by compassion for Christ’s sheep, and always guided by his word carefully applied to the particular situation.
REVISE OR DELETEThe attributes of the ruling gift do not receive adequate attention. befitting them, especially when one considers the pervasive presence of the ruling elder in biblical church government and the prevailing weakness of the church in our day. It is not that our day is so much worse than previous periods, but we compound the weakness by ignoring the Spirit’s gift of government or rule in the church. We should humbly recognize our need to be governed and praise Christ our Head for providing us with faithful shepherds. We must ask the Lord to raise up godly rulers and watchmen in his church! Never should we presume to elevate pastors and elders that lack these inspired fruits and qualifications for being servant-rulers. Any sincere desire to be governed by Christ through elders will require us to make war against our desire to live as we please and to prefer church leaders who will allow us to do so and even support him in his twisted view of freedom in Christ. And while these gifts of leadership are important in other spheres of authority such as the civil government and the home, they are absolutely critical in the church, for it is the primary seat of the rule of Jesus Christ among men. Those who stand and represent his authority must manifest the gift of rule and its attributes. The safety, security, growth, happiness, holiness, and usefulness of the body of Christ require this gift. Let us pray that the Head and Savior of the church will again visit us by his Spirit and instill these gifts and graces in the lives of his undershepherds.
The Qualifications for Elder
Leaving no doubt as to the critical importance of godly leadership in the local congregation, the New Testament contains two passages outlining the personal qualifications necessary for elders in the church of Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-8). These qualifications pertain primarily to the ruling office in the church, an office shared by pastors and ruling elders. These are the mind of Christ, the Head and Savior of the church. God in his mercy has taken great pains to outline the character of reliable, trustworthy, and competent leadership. When we see so many unqualified pastors and ruling elders in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, the absence of church discipline in many congregations, and the reigning confusion respecting critical doctrinal and moral issues in our day, the fault is our own. The Holy Spirit has been pleased not only to bestow the gift of rule and government upon the church, he has also described its personal fruit in the lives of men qualified to bear that rule. We neglect his guidance to our shame and continued weakness. It is time to recover them. Christian congregations must select only elders that manifest these fruits and leaders must seek the full expression of these traits in their lives.
The force of these qualifications is often blunted by the frequently heard comment that “all believers should have these qualities (fruits).” This is undoubtedly true, but it is beside the point. The fact is that not all believers do possess them, or at least not to the degree required in an elder. He must possess them. It is not sufficient for him to make an effort toward a godly life; he must possess actual holiness. The congregation must see in their elders our Savior’s life, power, and glory. The elder’s godliness will encourage the congregation that faith in Jesus Christ is no wispy dream or human tradition but that his word indwelling transforms. God’s people need the hope, encouragement, and help of a godly example. And the Lord demands it in his elders, for the church is his dwelling place. What the Lord said to Moses about his priests, “I will be sanctified in them that come near to me” (Lev. 10:3; Ex. 19:22), must be said of his elders. He must be sanctified, feared, love, and served. It is true of all believers that “without holiness, no man will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14), yet the elders of his church must especially reverence him through holy lives. They must fight against the sins in their lives and families. They must deny themselves and draw from Jesus Christ the fruits of righteousness (Phil. 1:11). After many years of serving the congregation as elders, they must keep coming back to these qualifications and draw near to Jesus Christ to possess them. While pastors and ruling elders are far, far from perfect, their progress in Christian discipleship must be such that their doctrinal understanding, personal integrity, and ruling abilities qualify them for positions of God-ordained leadership in the church. This is not to say that they indicate a holiness or sanctification hierarchy in the church. It does recognize that God marks out godly leadership by granting them a degree of personal qualification that is observable and unquestionable.
The qualifications given by Paul to the churches of Jesus Christ emphasize the necessity of (1) personal godliness in the pastor and ruling elder. He must be blameless; his life, private and public, must not be marked by any infamous or notorious sin that would undermine his authority and ability to lead the flock. If he would serve God with a pure heart, his conscious must not condemn him of private and habitual sins that will undermine his vitality and courage. Blamelessness is evidence of consistency in walking with Jesus Christ, the living Vine, wisdom in keeping oneself unspotted from the world, experience in resisting temptation, and discipline in the duties of piety that strengthen holiness. The importance of blamelessness is evidenced by the fact that it is listed first in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Determining blamelessness requires that the congregation knows the man under consideration, his daily walk, his public dealings and words, and his holiness.
The elder must be temperate, vigilant, circumspect, and watchful. The word (nhfa,lioj) sometimes means “one abstaining from wine or at least from its immoderate use;” the implication is that the elder must be free from anything in his life that impairs his ability for spiritual sobriety, alertness, and readiness for service to Jesus Christ. He must be sober, which means that the elder must be self-controlled, reflective, a man of deliberate action. The ruling elder must not be a man ruled by his passions but by the Spirit of God according to the word. This necessarily implies a serious approach to life that is opposed to giddiness, frivolousness, and shallowness. It does not mean morose or joyless. He must lead an orderly life, of good behavior. This quality indicates a disciplined life in submission to God’s word. This is critical for effective rule and good government, which requires principled personal living and the ability to bring those principles to bear consistently and patiently into the lives of Christ’s sheep. He must be hospitable; the ruling elder must not only have the desire and ability to be hospitable, but it must also be his regular practice to have others into his home for purposes of fellowship, friendship, and oversight. He must be self-controlled with respect to wine. This is more than “not a drunkard,” which is applicable to every believer. The language is more specific; he must not be a man who guzzles wine uncontrollably or incessantly, as this is evidence of his lack of self-control. We should not go beyond Scripture and prohibit the elder’s moderate enjoyment of wine; the emphasis is on the manner of his consumption and the quality of his life. One whose judgment is impaired by any substance cannot effectively and soberly lead the people of God.
Coming to the way he treats others and responds to private offenses, the elder must not be a striker, or pugnacious. He cannot be a violent man, given to outbursts of temper or possessed of a contentious spirit. He will have many occasions in which his self-mastery will be tested, especially when dealing with stubborn sheep. He must instead be peaceable, able to bear patiently with the injuries and faults of others, confronting and correcting them while maintaining a gentle, encouraging disposition. In his personal business, the ruling elder must be financially content, free from greed and covetousness, the love of money, or the desire to seek office in the church as a way to increase his personal wealth or business prospects. The importance of the elder’s freedom from greed is highlighted by the repetition of this qualification in both Pauline lists and again in 1 Peter 5. He must be mature; the elder may not be a new convert. Men who are suddenly and early elevated to office may fall into pride and the condemnation of the devil, i.e., the judgment of God passed upon Satan for his hubris. Experience in the Christian walk brings with it exposure to the challenges of living for Jesus Christ, humility, and a consuming conviction of personal dependence upon him; this is essential for godly leadership. The ruling elder must be holy, set apart to God, his word, service, and people; he must have a moral life that is consistent with a profession of faith in the gospel and exemplary for believers in purity and righteousness. He must have a good reputation; to the degree that the pastor or elder is known by the world, he must be recognized as a man of high moral conviction and consistent godly practice. While the world is often opposed to the church and casts reproach upon it, the elder’s life must nevertheless be highly esteemed by unbelievers as an example of goodness, integrity, and love for the truth.
The qualifications for office also emphasize (2) the godliness of the elder’s family. He must have a well-managed family. The elder must demonstrate the ability to govern in the church by his success in governing well in his own home. God’s preparation of a man for leadership in the church is evidenced by the quality of leadership in his own home. Good home governance entails the Christian education of his family in the doctrines and practices of the Christian faith, regular family worship, the correction of faults within his family, and sound domestic decisions in accordance with the Bible. By this qualification the Holy Spirit establishes the inseparable connection between soundly governed Christian homes and wisely governed congregations. He must be raising believing children. The elder must have children who are in submission to his governance and attend to the faith with reverence and honor. This does not mean that the congregation must have infallible assurance that the elder’s children are regenerate, but they must not be disobedient to their father, indifferent to the faith, or known as rebels in doctrine and life. This would apply to children living at home under the elder’s direct authority. The pastor or elder must have a godly wife, which is defined as a wife who is temperate, self-controlled in speech, and willing to support him in the duties and challenges associated with his office. While no home is perfect, great harm has been done to the church by elevating to positions of leadership men whose wives and children do not bear significant evidence of submission and obedience to their husbands and fathers, love for the Lord Jesus, and commitment to his church.
Elder qualifications also include (3) the governing abilities required for his office. He must be able to rule justly. As the ruling elder is primarily a governor or ruler in the church, he must be just. Justice is not a feeling; it is the ability to arrive at an equitable decision based upon the revelation of God in Scripture applied wisely to the circumstances and individuals involved in a particular situation. It is implied that he must not show favoritism in judgment. An elder cannot be just if he is ignorant of the law of God, inexperienced in relating to men of different circumstances, personalities, and needs, or unable to make the connection between God’s word and practice. He must be able to exhort and convince. While “apt to teach” applies more specifically to the pastor, it applies at least generally to the ruling elder, who will have many opportunities, in public and private, to exhort and convince the congregation in the doctrines and duties of the Christian faith. He must hold fast to the word of truth with sincerity and understanding. The elder must be a man who understands God’s word, is able to instruct the people in it, and has the ability to provide encouragement unto obedience. He must also be able to manage well. The elder is a manager or overseer of the flock of God, and as a good shepherd, he must have the ability to manage the various gifts and resources of the congregation, meet its needs, provide for its spiritual and temporal welfare, and equip the saints for the work of ministry and the building up of the body.
It is certain that no pastor or ruling elder ever has or will manifest these traits in perfection, and it would be unfair for the congregation to interpret and apply them in that fashion. Nevertheless, through union with Jesus Christ, they are the personal work of the Spirit’s power and grace in the lives of men whom he raises up to lead the congregation. Hence, while these inspired qualifications do not authorize us to reject or bypass an imperfect man, one who possesses greater strength in some areas than in others, they do establish an infallible and divinely imposed standard for eldership in the church. If they are lacking in a man’s life, he is neither gifted nor called to serve as an elder in the church. Where they are present, whether in potential or existing leadership, they must be stirred up and increased through dependence upon the Lord Jesus Christ, walking in the Spirit, and concerted prayer on the part of the entire church. To the degree that Jesus Christ raises up men with these graces, she will be careful guarded, strengthened in holiness, and equipped to pursue the fulfillment of God’s glorious plan for the church – to be his dwelling place, the perfected bride of the Savior, and the gospel institution through which the nations will be discipled to Jesus Christ.
For Reflection and Clarity
1. What is the connection between the ascension and reign of Christ and spiritual gifts?
2. Why must spiritual gifts be viewed in this broader kingdom context?
3. Why did the Holy Spirit give the gift of government to the church? Where in Scripture do we learn of this gift?
4. What are some of the practical evidences that a man possesses the gift of government?
5. Evaluate yourself. Do you have the gift of government? Ask a close, mature Christian man to evaluate you for their presence.
6. What aspect of the gift of government do you lack or have only slightly? If you desire to be an elder or are an elder already, how must this be remedied? Develop a plan, humanly speaking, to grow in this area – be sure to make closer fellowship with Christ through his word and prayer the central aspect of your plan.
7. Define every office qualification. Repeat the evaluation in #5.
8. Why are the qualifications important for the elder himself? For the people of God?
The Goal of Ruling in the Church of Jesus
Recognizing the divine authority, Spirit-giftedness, and inspired qualifications of the institution of eldership in the church is necessary if we are to be persuaded that church-rule by congregationally elected elders is indeed of divine warrant and should be practiced universally in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is also necessary to consider the purpose of this institution, the goal for which God has established church-rule by elders and to which they should press with faithfulness and zeal. Why does God not simply call men into the fellowship of the gospel as individuals, or Christian families, or disconnected pockets of fellowshipping believers? Does not the introduction of concepts such as authority, government, and rule open the door to the abuse of authority and disagreement between fellow-believers, undermine the priesthood of all believers, and inevitably fragment the church?
If the government of the church by elders is indeed the ancient, divinely sanctioned model of church government, and if it is of such paramount importance, why is it so rarely practiced today, and even where it is, with such small signs of success? The basic answer lies in the very nature of the church as a body of believers, under the authority of one Head and Savior, Jesus Christ, with a biblically instituted government designed to promote the spiritual, temporal, and eternal interest of the sheep for whom Jesus Christ laid down his life. It is the will of our Savior that his people be governed in this fashion; no other model has his sanction or can expect his blessing. He is the exalted Head; through his word and the example of the apostles he has given clear and pervasive biblical indication that church-rule by elders is the universal, permanent, and heaven-blessed model by which he would organize believers into one body under his headship.
The fact that the elder institution raises concerns in our egalitarian age is largely due to the pervasive ignorance of the English Bible, a tendency to study the Bible with a proof-texting mentality that ignores the structure or system revealed therein, and the almost total indifference that exists to the biblical government and discipline of the church. To these should certainly be added the many incidents, past and present, of abuse of authority and dereliction of duty among pastor and elders, both in teaching and practicing the principles of biblical church government. We must, however, lay aside our objections and submit to our King. Motivation to do this, confidence in the wisdom of his provision for the church, and the recovery of biblical eldership require a proper understanding of the goal and limits of rule and authority in the church.
The authority of the ruling elder is for spiritual and moral ends.
Once ordained, the ruling elder is not left to his own wisdom, feelings, or experience to determine the goal, function, and limits of his authority and office. All scriptural evidence testifies that the primary goal of his labor is the promotion of the peace and purity of the congregation through his oversight, guidance, exhortation, and example. He is never to institute a regime of terror in which everything must correspond to his preferences and practices. The Bible alone must guide him – not his private interpretations, but within the accountability structure provided by multiple, elected elders, and considering the interpretive testimony of the church down through the ages. Where doctrine and piety are involved, there his influence is to be found. Where the peace and purity of the church are at issue, he is an alert soldier at his post, warning of danger and gathering the troops under the protection of God’s word and prayer. Where a wandering sheep requires correction and recovery, he is on the scene administering reproof, rebuke, and instruction with all humility. Whatever can be done proactively to strengthen the body, harness and use its gifts and abilities, assist and organize God’s people for works of service and outreach, and disciple its members to avoid the sins that dishonor the Savior and bring untold misery to the body, the ruling elder is active and involved.
It is one of the secrets of the universe that everything in life eventually touches upon theology and piety. Consider the issue of personal finance. It would be overstepping the legitimate authority of the elder to dictate the level of spending of a given family, or the kind of car it purchases, or the size of its home, or the length of its vacation. It is necessary, however, for an elder to insist upon practicing biblical principles of finance: tithing, saving, avoidance of unnecessary debt, and living within one’s means. It is with the principle of Christian living and the substance of sound doctrine that the elder is concerned. He may leave the outworking of specific details in the believer’s life to the progressive sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and personal preferences. The ruling elder must focus upon those beliefs and practices that tend toward the strengthening, usefulness, and protection of the body.
He should, for instance, insist that each family provide a Christian, non-secular education in some form for its covenant youth; it would be beyond the scope of his authority to insist that this be done in the home rather than in the qualified Christian school, or vice versa. Everything the elder says and does with respect to the people of God must be dedicated to preserving them in the truth of God’s word. He must encourage the congregation to faithfulness, pointing it to Jesus Christ as the source of all grace and power, and exemplifying in his life the holiness without which no man will see the Lord. This is as far as his authority goes. He cannot dictate in matters of personal preference, non-essential elements of daily living, or matters in which Christ has left the conscience free, e.g., food and drink. His authority is strictly limited to the revealed will of the Chief Shepherd in Scripture. It is held in conjunction with other elders to whom he is immediately accountable, and cannot further bind men than Christ does in his word. If God’s people recognize that this is the goal and limit of his authority, they will gladly submit to his authority, as Scripture commands (Heb. 13:17). Mutual submission in the Lord means that elders and people alike are seeking the same goals: purity in life and doctrine, wisdom in living for Christ in the world, the salvation of the nations, and everlasting blessedness in the presence of the Triune God.
The authority of the ruling elder, therefore, is strictly limited by Scripture. It is a ministerial, delegated authority, held in strict trust for which a final accounting will be made to the Lord Jesus, the Chief Shepherd. This means that the ruling elder (or pastor) is not a source of authority in his own person, to promote his personal ideas and preferences of what is good and useful for the church, or to “’lord it over the flock” as an unfeeling tyrant. God’s people may certainly ask him how his decisions, ruling, and overseeing are in accordance with Scripture (Acts 17:11; 1 Thess. 5:21). There is a court of appeals in a biblically organized church to which request for outside oversight can be made in the cases of real or suspected abuse. To the degree, however, that his decisions, counsel, and requests are in accordance with Scripture, lovingly and patiently applied, the congregation should obey him. There is no autonomy in the church for anyone. Church governors and pastors are under the authority of Christ and the Word; the people of God are under the authority of their rulers who are under the authority of Christ. This is the mandated authority structure of Scripture. It is preserved and sanctified when the people recognize the important role they play in selecting their leaders. They must choose in accordance with the divinely revealed government gifts and personal qualifications. To the extent that they show submission to the Holy Spirit in this important liberty, they will enjoy the blessing of protective, humble, and godly leaders to whom it will be a joy to submit, under whose oversight they will grow in grace, knowledge, and usefulness.
The work of the ruling elder is to promote and protect the interests of the church.
The work of the ruling elder is work (1 Tim. 3:1). It is a noble task; it is also a laborious one. We see this in our Savior: his constant efforts to meet with and instruct the people; his careful, personal, and compassionate attention to their needs and relief of their sufferings; his continual openness to being approached by them with concerns and questions, needs and desires. We see this in the apostles; Paul set an example for all pastors and elders by his “laboring” for the good of the sheep (Acts 20:35). “Laboring” is the Greek word kopia,w (kopiao), which means “to grow weary, tired, and exhausted in working.” Our apostle set this example for the ruling elders of the Ephesian congregation. His leadership labors were a model for theirs. Anyone holding or seeking the office of pastor or ruling elder must never expect or even desire an easy life, to be heralded for his position without entering willingly and fully into its demands. Rather, faithful pastors and ruling elders can expect to be tired, constantly active, faced with many burdens and trials, with hardly a moment to themselves. This is the burden as well as the privilege of church leadership, of serving the Bride of Jesus Christ. Too many leaders in the church, past and present, have occupied leadership positions without exerting the effort that the office demands. The people of God have been the worse for it. Occasional breaks should be sought and enjoyed, for even our Savior in the days of his flesh sought temporary respite for prayer and refreshment (Mark 6:31-32; Luke 9:10). Yet, the tenor of the church leader’s life is one of attention to duty to the point of weariness. The grand motivation for this life is the example of our Savior, the promise of his presence and power, and the desire for his approbation upon a faithful life of diligent service to his precious flock.
Pursuance of this work involves several important duties and principles. (1) The ruling elder must constantly interact with God’s people for the purpose of seeking, encouraging, and promoting their growth in grace. He is more than a good friend or big brother to the congregation; he is Christ’s representative, an under-shepherd, an overseer. Hence, he must regularly be involved with God’s people, for it is with their eternal interests that he is passionately concerned. This is one reason that hospitality is such an important aspect of the ruling elder’s ministry. It is especially necessary in our atomistic age, in which it is common, unless measures are taken to prevent it, for a believer or family to go for weeks and months at a time without seeing another believer in the congregation or hearing a word from his elder except for a brief greeting or conversation on Sunday morning.
Elders must also pursue visitation with the families under their care. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, but a regular system of household visitation is to be preferred, for it enables him to observe and fellowship with the people in their homes, in which he can listen and relate to them familiarly, like Jesus and Paul did. The ruling elder must also avail himself of every worship and fellowship gathering of the church, not only as an example to the congregation of the importance of “meeting together” (Heb. 10:23-24) but also as providing regular opportunities for interaction. It is highly unlikely that the institution of the eldership will be effective if the elder himself is frequently absent from stated meetings of the church, unfamiliar with the needs and desires of the people, and perceived as removed from their lives. A shepherd knows his sheep by name, and this applies directly to the pastors and ruling elders. From the oldest to the youngest, rich and poor, with those in whose presence he is comfortable or uncomfortable, he must know and be involved in the lives of all. In each of these settings, his goal is to engage God’s people in meaningful conversation about their doings and progress in the faith. He must be bold and easy in seeking and promoting their closer communion with Jesus Christ, by his words and by his example. They must see in him humble, sincere, and earnest interest in their walk with Jesus Christ.
(2) The ruling elder must lovingly, patiently, and humbly correct the faults of God’s people. Our age lauds individualism, universal tolerance, and the spirit of non-judgmental acceptance of men regardless of their beliefs and practices. Our cultural rebellion is decidedly opposed to the life of the Christian congregation. Accountability is the warp and woof of body life in Christ’s flock (Gal. 6:1-2). One Lord, one faith, and one baptism places each believer on the one path of Christian discipleship, in which all are engaged in the same battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil, seek the same life through union and communion with Jesus Christ, and are unified in their commitment to God’s word. Our heavenly Father has placed us in a body to emphasize our mutual dependence upon one another to achieve these ends. Ruling elders and pastors have the official duty to protect and oversee the congregation, thus enabling, protecting, and encouraging every believer and Christian family to pursue them with earnestness and faithfulness.
In our common pursuit of holiness, confrontation is absolutely necessary, for none of us will arrive at perfection in this life. Sin will manifest itself in the lives of every believer. We can approach sin in one of two ways. We can ignore it, hope it will go away, or chalk it up to personal issues with which we should not get involved, or we can approach it according to Christ’s will in Scripture: confrontation, rebuke, and reproof (2 Tim. 4:2). And while neither the pastor nor the ruling elders of a congregation are authorized by Jesus Christ to lord it over the congregation or engage in moral nitpicking, they are absolutely charged with the duty of confronting the sins of God’s people, exhorting them to repentance, and encouraging them to obey the word of God. No congregation can be strong and godly without confrontation, vigilant oversight, and rebuke of the wayward. The ruling elder’s correction is not limited to gross moral violations, offenses like child abuse or adultery to which even common sense urges his response. It also extends to doctrine, for truth leads to practice. The assumption is that God has given “the faith once for all to the saints” (Jude 3): a final, authoritative, comprehensive, and sufficiently clear revelation of his truth. Believers are not free to pick and choose what they wish to believe or to disbelieve. The unity in the truth for which Jesus prayed requires developing, Spirit-led, and elder-overseen understanding, application, and obedience to God’s revealed will. It is the duty and responsibility of the ruling elder to encourage and enforce congregation-wide commitment to the doctrines and practices of Scripture. We are thus led to see one reason for the present weakness and irrelevance of many Christians and churches. We have institutionalized autonomy, moral and doctrinal relativism. This hellish poison has permeated our thinking and relationships. Instead of going from strength to strength, we move from weakness to weakness.
(3) The ruling elder must engage in regular, earnest prayer for the congregation. Since men may plant and water Jesus’ gospel but God alone gives the increase (1 Cor. 3:7), ruling elders are placed in the position of total dependence upon the blessing and power of God. Eldering, like life, is not formulaic. You can have the right principles, labor to disciple and exhort in terms of them, and lovingly confront those who are not walking faithfully in doctrine or practice. Fruitful eldering however, requires an additional component: the blessing of God. All of Paul’s letters include personal pleas for prayer. Again, his example is determinative. Every effort undertaken by the leaders of the church must be supported by fervent, personal and corporate, believing prayer. This is especially true in matters pertaining to confrontation of sin in the congregation, the practice of discipline, the undertaking of new ministries within the body, and the continual blessing of God upon the preaching of his word, which provides the strong meat through which a healthy congregation grows. Prayer is the means by which we dig up the treasures that are set forth to us in the word. Holiness is such a treasure, as are unity in the truth, purity in doctrine and morals, preservation from wolves, corporate usefulness in fulfilling the great commission, the training of ministers, elders, teachers, and missionaries. By incontrovertible implication, the ruling elder must be given to prayer. It is through prayer that the citadel of hell is stormed, straying sheep brought back into the fold, and God’s blessing obtained upon the preached word, and wisdom secured to live for God.
(4) The ruling elder must lead the congregation toward a more consistent, apostolic faith in doctrine, fellowship, and outreach. One of the great challenges facing the eldership in American churches is the duty of leading the congregation through the many pitfalls associated with evangelicalism, especially its tendency toward the corruption of worship, its watering down of the claims of Christ, and its misunderstanding of the nature, methods, and goals of local and world discipleship. Yet these three things, worship, discipleship, and evangelism are determinative responsibilities for the church. It is imperative for the ruling elder to be thoroughly versed and personally committed to the Bible’s teaching on these points.
He must, for example, know why the Seeker-Friendly movement is terribly misguided at best, blatant idolatry at worst. He must understand that God alone defines the means by which we are to reach the lost, the preaching of his word, and the church is not free to formulate “better” methods deemed more relevant in our shallow age. He must be committed to the Regulative Principle of Worship, not only because it is closely related to the beloved Reformation tradition in which it was recovered after centuries of neglect, but also and primarily because if we do not worship God as he commands, we cannot expect his blessing upon anything else we might undertake. Worship is the heart and soul of the church, and if it is corrupted, misdirected, and subjected to the whims of professional worship cheerleaders that are ignorant of the Bible, it will bring multi-generational weakness and God’s chastening.
The ruling elder must also be committed to full-orbed discipleship, in which God’s people are carefully and consistently instructed in the doctrines and duties of our faith. He must see through the intrinsic mysticism, feel-good religiosity, and mountain-top seeking piety of a shallow and distracted age in which God’s people are largely ignorant of many central doctrines and duties of Scripture. Not so the ruling elder; he must be committed to laboring for mature, knowledgeable, and faithful sheep whose diet is the solid meat of the word, not pabulum. The ruling elder must also labor to organize God’s people for outreach into the world, true gospel outreach. A central aspect of this is encouragement and training in the methods for defending the Christian faith, encouragement of the missionary spirit in God’s people, and actual organization toward training and sending of Christian pastors and missionaries. These are three critical goals toward which the church is in desperate need for bold, principled, and earnest leadership. A return to the Bible in these three areas alone would effect a reformation of unbelievable proportions.
It is impossible to summarize the full work of the ruling elder. Whatever may be done to promote the peace and purity, strength and usefulness of the church, now and into the future, is his domain. The work of the ruling elder is so vital that Paul encouraged his “double salary” (1 Tim. 5:17). As important as are the preaching and teaching committed to the pastors of the church, the ruling elder’s governing work is equally essential, so much so that no church is regularly organized that lacks his vital presence and energetic activity. He is in touch with the people constantly as an authorized deputy of the Pastor and Bishop of our Souls, Jesus Christ. He beats off the attack of wolves, whether springing up from within the congregation or attacking it from without. He knows and loves, nurtures and exhorts the people of God in everything that tends toward their growth in grace. It is the duty of earnest believers everywhere to seek the resurrection of his office. The church will be greatly strengthened and better protected as the ruling elder again takes his place beside Christian pastors as the overseer and governor of the people of God. More importantly, our Savior will be glorified through obedience to his word, and the dwelling place of God will be beautified!
For Reflection and Clarity
1. How does the way a church is governed and organized reflect upon the Headship of Jesus Christ?
2. What are some ways that church leaders have undermined the confidence of God’s people in the very notion of church authority?
3. How may pastors and ruling elders begin to remedy these bad feelings?
4. Distinguish ministerial from magisterial authority.
5. Using finances as an example, to what degree would an elder have a legitimate authority?
6. When must an elder be obeyed?
7. What bearing does Acts 20:35 have upon the way the elder pursues his work?
8. What is his motivation to work in this way?
9. What must be the conscious aim of the elder in his interactions with God’s people?
10. Why is it necessary for him to practice regular hospitality?
11. Develop a brief “agenda” for a household visit.
12. Why must an elder confront sin? Write out an example of a biblical, tender, yet firm, rebuke for gossip.
13. Why must the elder be given to prayer?
14. What are the dangers associated with Evangelicalism against which the elder must guard his own thinking and warn the congregation?
The Ruling Elder in Practice
The Pauline Model for Faithful Eldership in the Local Congregation
One of the most memorable addresses in Acts is Paul’s passionate and highly personal meeting with the elders of the Ephesian congregation. Paul spent two years in Ephesus, and the duration of his stay in this important Asian city enabled him to function practically as their pastor. In addition to using Ephesus as a base for the evangelization of Asia (Acts 19:10), he trained a body of pastors and elders, who with the help of Timothy would eventually lead the mother congregation and its variously positioned sister churches. The quality of the foundation Paul laid is evident from Jesus’ slightly later commendation of the congregation as full of gospel works, patience in adversity, and doctrinal orthodoxy (Rev. 2:2).
The tenderness of Paul’s meeting recorded in Acts 20, especially the elders’ lamentation upon being told that Paul would never see them again, indicates a close personal relationship with Paul, forged in the fires of adversity and sweetened through shared fellowship and gospel labors. Throughout his writings Paul expresses deep affection and attachment to his close friends and fellow-laborers. Their steadfastness often proved a tremendous encouragement in his darkest hours. While in Miletus, a maritime city about thirty-five miles from Ephesus, Paul sent a message to the Ephesian elders expressing his desire to meet with them. The intimacy with which Paul describes his relationship and activity with them indicates a continuing love and interest in their lives and labors. It pained Paul to think he would never see them again on earth. While loving sentiment colors this interchange, Paul reminded them that their task was vital. He hearkened back to his own life and labors among them, of the difficulties he encountered, of the great persecutions he faced, and of the challenges that now lay before them to continue the good work he and they together had begun. It is Scripture’s most moving and relevant passage on practical church government and the duties of the elder.
This passage is immediately pertinent for today’s church for one fundamental reason; it provides authoritative and practical insight from the apostle to the Gentiles for the God-ordained functioning of the elder in the life of the local congregation (v. 35). It is not a warm suggestion, a historical vignette, or a Lucan myth. It is an apostolic example, which remains normative for the church to the end of the world (Eph. 2:20; Jude 3; Rev. 21:12,14). We may not feel the same degree of intensity described by Paul, for he had fought with “wild beasts” at Ephesus (1 Cor. 15:52), an indication of the tenacity of the opposition mounted against him in his efforts to plant the gospel in that city. One of the reasons that pastors and elders lack passion for Christ’s precious Bride is that we have encountered little opposition. We rarely meet howling wolves but sleepy professors. The church is another commodity in a consumer-driven culture, competing for members with new programs and paradigms. If some interest in God’s truth survives, however slight and feeble, it is often thought that spirituality can be pursued with minimal involvement in the church, either the family or the individual being a sufficient cloister in which to pursue God.
Strikingly different is the apostolic attitude toward the church. Their age was far worse and more dangerous than ours, but the apostles did not in an effort to survive or win converts disregard the authority and God-given functions of the church. In all of Paul’s letters, the Spirit of Christ reveals the church’s proper government for her protection, preservation, and growth. Paul’s exhortations to the Ephesians elders proceed from a man who views the church as the precious flock for which Christ shed his blood. The church is faced with innumerable enemies from within and without. She requires the vigilance and sacrifice of qualified, gifted, and proactive pastors and elders. When believers begin to take seriously our war against the world, the flesh, and the devil, think biblically again, and value the church as the Bride of the exalted, reigning Christ, they will inevitably give serious consideration to the office and function of the ruling elder. That time is coming, for the enemies of God are mounting and rushing in like a flood. Secularism desires no détente with the church. It endorses no program by which the church may safely and freely prosecute its duties of world discipleship, proclamation of the word, the education of its members, and the worship of the living God. It desires to crush biblical Christianity no less than did apostate Judaism and pagan Rome. Against such a dedicated enemy, modern models of body life are of absolutely no value. Pietistic retreat, seeker-friendly giddiness, or traditional rituals are completely impotent to stand in the breach and turn back the forces of Satan aligned against the church. The only remedy is for the people of God to seek the means Jesus Christ, the King of the church, has ordained, provided, and blessed for the preservation and victory of his gospel. At the heart of his program in the local church is a biblically functioning eldership.
The Example of a Faithful Pastor (vv. 18-27, 33-35)
The reader of Paul’s epistles will recall how frequently he called upon the churches to follow his example (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Thess. 3:7,9; 2 Tim. 1:13). He was conscious throughout his life that the apostolic calling consists of more than words. As important as his preaching and teaching were as the apostolic rule for the churches, he was aware that his example also defined gospel practice, not because Paul had already attained or was perfect (Phil. 3:12) but because he was following after Christ with what can only be described as special, personal, and defining grace. The apostles were the only ones who could say this with absolute, unquestionable authority, for they were the foundational pillars, with Christ being the chief cornerstone, upon which the entire superstructure of the temple of God, the church, is built.
In his address to the Ephesian elders, his pastoral example established a standard and pattern of ministry for them within the body. This does not mean that they could have written down everything Paul said and did, learning how to be a good elder from a book. There are certainly defined duties, many of which Paul mentions, but there are personal factors, gifts, and traits that cannot be learned from books. They can be seen in Paul’s example, a significant portion of which he summarized for them. We should note, for example, that as a faithful servant of Jesus Christ, apostle to the Gentiles, and functioning pastor in the Ephesian congregation, he manifested tremendous humility and emotion (v. 19). Paul did not approach shepherding believers as a religious professional or a detached scholar. He sought to persuade them humbly of the truth of God with patience and humility. In other words, the fruits of the gospel were evident in his proclamation and instruction in the gospel. He carried on this work fearlessly (v. 20), keeping back nothing that was profitable to the congregation, regardless of any fear that they might initially receive his instruction negatively. Humility and boldness are frequently joined in the men whom God raises up and gifts for leadership in the church. As humility is brokenness and lowliness before God in saving awareness of personal sin and sovereign grace, it produces courage in speaking God’s truth to others. When men fear God, they do not fear men.
Paul also manifested great selflessness. Verse 24 describes his attitude as he faced and overcame the opposition of Jewish leaders; it is descriptive of his entire course. Apart from the unique life of our Savior, few men have manifested a greater degree of self-disinterestedness in serving the him and his church. Paul’s labors, sacrifices, persecutions, deprivations, and bodily infirmities were his daily cross. Yet he did not count his life “dear” or important to himself but cast all personal concerns and needs aside that he might finish his course with joy. True joy is found in forgetting self, serving God, and giving oneself for the good of others. The most joy for pastors and elders is often the fruit of committing oneself happily to his “project sheep.” Rather than viewing them as minister obstacles, the true servant of Christ will view them as the ministry itself. Who else did Jesus come to find and save but the weak, halt, and blind? Paul’s practice of selflessness is particularly compelling in the light of his poverty; he “coveted no man’s silver, gold, or apparel” (v. 34). He engaged in manual labor to provide for his and his associates’ needs (v. 35). While Paul felt very strongly that the local congregation should financially support its pastor and likely at least some of its elders (1 Cor. 9:7-14; 1 Tim. 5:17-18), he personally did not demand this.
This is explained on several grounds. First, as the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul was unwilling to demand his rightful support in order to avoid any charge or suspicion that he was a religious mercenary, with which the world then as now is filled. This was of critical concern to Paul because he was preaching the gospel in these regions for the first time and wished to separate biblical faith and the Christian ministry from the cadre of religious hucksters, like Simon Magus, who had impoverished the local citizens while enriching themselves. Second, in congregations where his authority was questioned due to schism, false apostles, and heretics, he could hardly demand financial support without further dividing the congregations. Third, his overriding passion was to “preach the gospel free of charge” (1 Cor. 9:18); he made himself the servant of all that he might gain all for Christ. Paul took a legitimate measure of personal satisfaction in knowing that even if Christian congregations did not fulfill their God-given duty of providing financial support toward him, he would fulfill his duty of serving and caring for them. He sought no earthly reward but the approbation of the Chief Shepherd. Clearly, Paul saw himself in a unique position, personally and apostolically, in the founding days of the church. Many of his congregations did support him, and he commended and thanked them profusely. He would never, however, allow money or the lack thereof to prevent him from his fulfilling his assigned ministry, even if it required greater sacrifice and weariness on his part.
There was also intensity in Paul’s pastoral ministry that flowed from his conviction of the seriousness of the matters Christ commissioned him to address. “Free from the blood of all men” recalls the Lord’s warning to Ezekiel (3:17-21; 33:1-9), in which he told the prophet that if he refused to fulfill his calling by warning men of sin and commanding them to repent, God would require their blood at his hand. Hence, it is not dramatic hyperbole to identify a certain fear in Paul’s pastoral ministry (v. 26) – not the fear of failure, of men, or of personal rejection, but the fear of God, trepidation at the thought of such an incredible responsibility, reverence for God’s glory and word, and trembling before the momentous issues with which the gospel is concerned. Fervency in preaching and teaching, pastoral counseling, and congregational oversight flows from intense, personal awareness of the eternal consequences of human response to the word of God. The loss of such a spirit among many pastors and elders can only be attributed to the declension of personal religion in their own lives, the modern spirit of relativism that recasts the Christian faith as one religion among many or as a religion of humanity, and the failure to recognize that man’s historical choices follow him into eternity. Positively there is also the recognition that one’s fellowman, and especially believers toward whom we ought to cherish the deepest affection will be happy and holy only to the degree that they walk with the Savior.
Paul’s pastoral labors were therefore pursued tirelessly; he preached publicly and went from house to house, confronting, exhorting, and encouraging each man with the glories of the gospel and duties of discipleship. The lives of faithful pastors, elders, missionaries, and teachers have powerfully testified to the truth that when God gives the gifts, calling, and personal character to serve his church, it is accompanied by a Pauline willingness “to spend and be spent” for the sake of the church (2 Cor. 12:15). This is the meaning of “laboring” in v. 35: to work to the point of exhaustion. The motivation is the glory of God in Christ, the furtherance of our Savior’s kingdom, and the good of the church, which cannot survive under the leadership of lazy, indifferent, and ease-loving men.
In addition to the personal attributes of Paul’s pastoral example, his address to the Ephesian elders emphasizes the centrality of God’s word in his labors. Paul’s public and private shepherding was based upon his commitment to God’s word as providing the food of the soul and the practical authority for every area of life. Church or body life is strengthened, deepened, and directed by congregation-wide commitment to the proclamation and practice of God’s word. This is seen in a variety of powerful ways. He begins by reminding them that his constant practice was to “keep back nothing that was profitable” (v. 20). Publicly and in regular home meetings Paul’s pastoral ministry consisted of teaching and applying God’s word. This is further clarified in verse 27 by the phrase “the whole counsel of God.” Paul was not a rider of hobby-horses, a miner of Scripture for platitudes and principles, or an advocate of “follow these three steps for feeling good about yourself and God.” His teaching ministry was systematic, comprehensive, and Scripture-directed. We might call this today expository or exegetical. Paul labored in Scripture, the Old Testament at that time, showing its relationship to the person and work of Jesus Christ, inculcating its moral system, proving and teaching its doctrinal precepts, developing a truly Christian and Biblical view of God, man, and the world. He knew that the sheep required solid meat not strained milk. He also understood that the flock would never be protected from the ferocity and cunning of wolves by avoiding unpleasant doctrines or refusing to confront personal sin. He did not endeavor to popularize God’s word or make it palatable to lost men in order to avoid the discipline of the cross.
Paul’s preaching and teaching centered on several leading truths. The first is “repentance toward God and faith toward Jesus Christ” (v. 21). The apostles were commissioned to “preach the gospel of repentance and remission of sins” (Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38). Repentance is the definitive turning from sin and Satan to God and holiness (1 Thess. 1:9). The grace of repentance may be given simultaneous with regeneration (Acts 11:18). It also includes the progressive turning to God in the course of Christian discipleship, which in the course of a two-year ministry in Ephesus, Paul had ample opportunity to encourage. The Christian life is a continual turning to God; the more light he bestows through the Spirit operating in and by the word, the more repentance leading to righteousness will ensue in the faithful believer’s life. Faith toward Jesus Christ includes the initial God-given trust by which the sinner receives and rests upon Jesus Christ alone for righteousness, reconciliation, and forgiveness. It is also a life-long exercise of dependence and growing focus upon the Savior; faith, like repentance, is the hallmark of the Christian gospel and disciple. His entire life is the process of living by faith in the promises of God and intercession of the Son of God.
For Paul faith and repentance were not one time events in a person’s life, a single, sufficient experience. His “preaching of the kingdom of God” (v. 25) indicates that faith and repentance are connected initially and progressively to the establishment of the rule of God and his law in the hearts of men and the life and ministry of the Christian congregation. God rules among us when we recognize his glory, submit to his rule, and commit to walking before him in humility and reverence. This is the daily pursuit of joyful living under God’s authority and blessing. To do this, then, it is necessary to know “the whole counsel of God” (v. 27), for God’s kingdom extends to every area of life: beyond personal piety to defending the faith, laboring for the salvation of the lost, training one’s family in godliness, and seeking the glory of God in one’s calling and efforts to disciple those around us. The progressive realization of faith and repentance were established and developed under Paul’s loving, careful, and patient oversight through constant attention to the word of God. While the church is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3;15), her corporate piety and existence must remain closely tied to and constantly fed by the word if she is to grow in her commitment and be used by God to extend the knowledge of his glory and salvation to the ends of the earth.
Paul’s example strongly rebukes the modern attitude of professionalism, emotional detachment, carelessness, and love of ease that characterize the work of some pastors and elders. Personal sins and cultural influences, lack of conviction and intense self-absorption are pariahs to faithful eldership. Historically and eternally, nothing matters more than the glory of God in the confrontation of men with the claims of Christ and the filling of the earth with his praise! Real enemies are dedicated to the destruction of the Christian faith. The sheep are not self-sufficient, able to lead themselves. Living the Christian life is not a matter of personal sentiment, self-directed faith, or monastic spirituality. Christ Jesus has ordained and raised up leadership in the church to guide and protect his precious flock. God is living; his word is true. Conviction of the certainty of these realities will lead to the revival of biblical pastoring and eldering in the church.
For Reflection and Clarity
1. What are the biblical ways that church leaders (pastors and elders) can foster a tender, loving relationship between themselves? Why is this necessary?
2. What explains the intensity of Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders? Do you have something of this fervency about Christ and his people?
3. Explain the close relationship between humility and boldness?
4. Why is selflessness necessary in an elder? How may we obtain this incredible grace?
5. Why did Paul refuse to demand his right of financial support? Is his example binding?
6. How can elders be free from the blood of men? Have you thought about this warning in connection to the work of elders and especially pastors?
7. Why is household visitation a necessary work of the elder?
8. What is the “whole counsel of God?” What is preaching, actually? Expository preaching?
9. Define repentance and faith. How are these the heart of the gospel?
10. Distinguish definitive from progressive repentance.
11. Why are elders tempted to be emotionally detached from God’s people?
12. As you undertake or continue in the office of elder, are you committed to following Paul’s example?
The Three Incentives to Faithful Eldership (vv. 28-30)
Incentive is important to the Christian life. Unless we are acquainted with the encouragements God gives us, we will soon lose heart to “contend earnestly” and “resist sin unto blood.” Jesus described the relationship between incentive and faithfulness in this fashion: “Where a man’s treasure is, there will his heart be also” (Matt. 6:21). What a man loves, he will pursue. His goals determine the course of his life. Paul provided powerful incentives to the Ephesian elders. His departure and the thought of never seeing their beloved friend, brother, and pastor again filled their hearts with deep grief (vv. 36-38). The temptation would be for them to think, “Well, now we are alone.” This might lead to despair and a sense of hopelessness. They were relatively recent converts to the faith and now faced the hostility of the Roman world, the temptations of the flesh, and the threats of sin within the congregation without their beloved leader. Yet Paul had no delusions about their need of him. He had not created the Ephesian elders; the Holy Spirit had. They were not alone. The church did not belong to Paul but to the risen Christ. Paul recognized that the presence of no single man, even an apostle, was necessary for the church to continue vibrant, faithful, and victorious. Accordingly, he provides the Ephesian elder with three powerful incentives to faithfulness in their office, incentives that every generation of elders will find encouraging, motivating, and challenging: (1) their divine appointment; (2) the love of God for the church; (3) the imminent danger of wolves.
The Bible, the Old and New Testaments, by the command and practice of the apostles, sets forth the government of the church through elders. It is only upon this foundation that we can appreciate the first incentive Paul provides to the Ephesian elders. Paul reminds them that “the Holy Spirit has made them overseers in the flock” (v. 28). While Paul was certainly involved in training men and the congregation recognized them formally through election into office, it must also be said that the Holy Spirit gifted and called them to leadership. Spirit-called and gifted leaders are not of human origin; government in the church is not like leadership in a social club, with no authority beyond personal influence and the willingness of the members to listen and follow. Pastors and elders are raised up by the Holy Spirit, who is the immediate, personal, and universal presence of Jesus Christ in the church. Elders must remember this, especially in seasons of trial, rebellion, and self-doubt. It will give them courage and boldness. It should also motivate prayerful dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit in every phase of their oversight duties. Effectual instruction, teaching, and discipline are the work of the Holy Spirit, and his blessing and power must be constantly sought.
Paul further reminds them (v. 28) that “God has purchased the church with his own blood.” While this text is one of the clearly attested and direct ascriptions of the title “God” to Jesus Christ, it also serves to remind elders of the preciousness of the flock that they are called to shepherd. It is true that “sheep” often act as anything but precious or the beloved of God. They are God’s precious lambs, and elders must not forget it. It will motivate faithful eldering. They are called upon to lead, protect, and provide for the very men, woman, and young people for whom Jesus Christ shed his precious blood. Since it is the will of our Savior that not one of the sheep for which he gave his blood will be lost (John 10:28-29), the elder receives great encouragement that his work will be effectual in their lives, for it is the means the Lord and Savior of the church has ordained to secure his people on earth and finally bring them to heaven. Elders must always avoid the sinful, arrogant tendency to think the church belongs to them, to treat God’s people impatiently or tyrannically, or to lay upon them heavy burdens not commanded by the Chief Shepherd. The sheep belong to him; they have been purchased by his precious blood. This is the glorious truth faithful elders must always bear in mind as they undertake their duties. Because Jesus gave himself for his sheep, pastors and elders can be certain that he will enable them to watch over faithfully those whom he so passionately, sacrificially, and efficaciously loves.
While trusting the blessing of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Ghost, Paul recognized the dangers facing his beloved Ephesians. He warned of “grievous wolves entering into the congregation, not sparing the flock” (v. 29) – which indeed occurred, to which 1 and 2 Timothy bear witness. Paul knew the Ephesian elders would be in the thick of a battle for the purity of the gospel. By calling such enemies “wolves” Paul warns the Ephesian elders of the ferocity of Christ’s enemies, their intention to destroy the church of God, and the danger of giving them any quarter. The shepherds of God’s flock must be as vigilant as any earthly shepherd watching his sheep for the first signs of an intruder. The implication of the forewarning is that Ephesian elders must begin now protecting the flock by identifying signs of their approach, strengthening the believers through solid instruction in the word of God, and protecting them through vigilant oversight of doctrine and piety.
But the enemy will also enter from within the congregation and even from the ranks of would-be teachers and rulers of the congregation (v. 30). Alas, whether it is the trinitarian heresies of the early church, the gross abuses and heresies of the Roman papacy, or the liberalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the church’s greatest threat has often sprung from within, by the influence of false doctrine and practice of her professing friends and leaders. In only a few years from the date of Paul’s present address, the fledgling church would be shaken through false asceticism, an early form of feminism, and immorality. Paul had faced such errors already, especially in Corinth, and in God’s providence lived sufficiently long to write some of his most memorable letters (Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus) against them. The Ephesian elders can expect the enemies of Christ to take root within the church. They will be fueled by arrogance and the ambition of domination; they will create division within the church.
This third incentive is far removed from the popular idea that the church under the apostles was a veritable Garden of Eden. There is absolutely no attempt on the part of Paul or the other New Testament writers to represent the church in this fashion. Paul’s warning against wolves indicates that God’s people and their leaders from the earliest days of the church have been besieged by enemies and tempted to depart from the doctrine and practice of the “faith once for all given to the saints” (Jude 3). This is hardly surprising. While Satan regularly attempts frontal assaults upon the peace and purity of the church through pagan philosophies, immorality, and persecution, his most effective weapons have always been less outwardly hideous: wolves in sheep’s clothing, professing friends of God who cloak their insidious errors under the veil of “truth.” We see this in our day. What is the Seeker-Friendly perversion of the gospel other than heresy under the excuse of relevance? What is the Word of Faith movement other than the age old attempt for man to be God under the guise of “faith” and the “Holy Spirit?” What is the older liberalism, which has almost completed the dismantling of once faithful Protestant denominations, other than the attempt to undermine the authority of God’s word under the age-old guise of “science, relevance, and the religion of humanity?” What is the Auburn Avenue Theology but an unsophisticated Romish sacramentalism combined with Judaistic aberrations ostensibly justified by shouting “covenant, covenant” very loudly?
These errors have shipwrecked the faith of countless millions, often with scared, ill-equipped, or lazy pastors and elders looking on the conflict without sounding the alarm, beating off the wolves through the sword of the Spirit, or protecting the church through vigilance, exposure of error, and whole-hearted prayer for the intervention of the King and only Defender of the church. In our day Paul’s wolf siren serves as a life-and-death reminder of the need for pastors and elders to rise up and protect God’s flock. They must do so without rest or fear, confident that as they perform their duties, the Lord Jesus Christ will bless them to expose and resist the enemies of God and truth. His weapons are divinely empowered, and he calls elders to wield them faithfully for the defense and victory of the church.
The Duties of Faithful Eldership (vv. 28,31)
In the light of these dangers, pastors and elders, for Paul is undoubtedly addressing both, must watch vigilantly over themselves and over the flock of God (v. 28). The emphasis is first upon self-vigilance and government; the rulers of the church must pastor and govern themselves by the word of God, laboring to bring their own thoughts and lives into greater and increasing submission to Jesus Christ. Only spiritually minded, sober, dedicated disciples of Jesus Christ are able by the power and calling of Jesus Christ to preserve his people from error and to establish purity in their congregations. The verb translated “give heed” is imperative; a solemn charge has been committed to the elders which they are to fulfill with zeal, hard work, intelligence, and understanding. Giving heed to the flock implies constant vigilance over the welfare of Christ’s lambs; intimacy, involvement, personal concern, and wisdom are included in this charge. In v. 31 Paul adds the specific command “watch.” The imperative verb is modified by a reminder of Paul’s example; his three years of vigilance, constant warning, and passionate calls to faithfulness are the model for pastors and elders.
He also commands them to feed the flock of God. It is the same command given to Peter in John 21 and refers to the giving of solid food, i.e., the preaching and teaching of God’s word to his church. Paul does not feel it is necessary in the present context to flesh out the nature, extent, and focus of “giving heed,” “watching,” and “feeding.” The Ephesians elders were sufficiently instructed by Paul’s example to understand that this includes the whole range of counseling, instructional, disciplinary, and personal modeling measures that church leaders can take to encourage faithfulness to God’s word and holiness of life. His instructions are broad because the duties are comprehensive. The verb forms are imperative because the church is precious to Jesus Christ, and many enemies are dedicated to her destruction. The plea is emotional because the enemies are real and the issues eternal. The primary instrument of protection is the word because it alone is the bread of life, the power of God unto salvation. Accordingly, when modern leaders treat the church and Christian living as a cute game or engage in religious marketing, believe that Satan can be thwarted with entertainment forms and watered down teaching, and refuse to participate in the hard work of preparation for public proclamation of the word, prayerful vigilance over the entire flock, and private exhortation, they manifest their departure from the biblical norm of biblical eldership. For the sake of their own lives, God’s people must depart from them. We are facing a real enemy, within and without, dedicated to our destruction. Nothing but determined and dedicated opposition can succeed in preserving the people of God and advancing the kingdom of Jesus Christ against the gates of hell.
The Divine Empowerment of Faithful Eldership (v. 32)
As Paul concludes his address, he turned their attention to the living God who promises to give them strength. As believers can become too inward, self and sin-focused, pastors and elders can do the same. Sin and Satan are not the ultimate realities; persecutions, perils, heresies, schisms, and congregational sins are not the ultimate realities. God – his power, promises, and purposes – is the glory and presence that must consume the thoughts and devotions of church leaders. It is only in the light of what God has promised and what God is doing that we can begin to address the concrete details of life, including the tremendous struggle in which the church is historically engaged to make the nations Christ’s disciples.
“To commend you to God” (v. 32) implies that Paul’s concerns about the future are more than offset by the promise of God’s power, his keeping and preserving power. “Commend” is an old Greek verb (paratithemai), meaning “to place beside, to deposit with;” Paul uses it with respect to handing Timothy over to God, and Timothy in turn training new leaders and depositing with them the apostolic doctrine (1 Tim. 1:18; 2 Tim. 2:2). As the Ephesian elders face a dangerous future, they are to turn their thoughts continually to God and his power; he is their keeper, rock, and refuge. Since God has determined that not one of Christ’s sheep will be lost (John 10:29), preserves their inheritance by his power (1 Pet. 1:5), and continually works his purposes in their lives (Phil. 1:6), the elder has an abiding source and cause for encouragement and confidence in his work. It is not a hopeless task to which he has been called. It is an office and function filled with promise and hope, for his faithfulness is one vital means God has ordained to fulfill his saving, preserving, and conquering purposes in the world.
This confidence should never be allowed to produce laziness or presumption; it must motivate faithfulness. Pastors and elders can confidently engage in their work with fervor, love, and confidence in God’s protection and strength. This consolation remains an unspeakably powerful motivation to faithfulness in our day, for admittedly the weakness of the church and the seeming influence of secularism within the church can discourage even the most optimistic. Yet it remains forever true that there is only one power in this world, one directing purpose, one certain reality – the intention of God to preserve all those for whom Christ died and to build his Son’s church victorious over the gates of hell. Like the soldier who finds courage to advance by seeing his courageous captain raise the battle standard, the leaders of the church must continually see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, look unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, and depend upon his faithfulness to fulfill his promises.
Paul also commended them “to the word of his grace.” The phrase is instrumental; it is through the means of the preaching of God’s word of grace that the elders will be preserved, thus enabling them to accomplish their governing, shepherding, and watching duties. The preaching of God’s word of grace preserves the church from one generation to the next, until the end of the world. We can never hear God’s word preached too much. The public and private teaching of God’s word was Paul’s constant focus. The word of God must determine, guide, and support the elder in the totality of his work. “Of grace” reminds us that God’s word is supremely the revelation of his undeserved kindness and goodness to sinners through his Son. God’s word does not, therefore, fulfill a primarily negative function; it is positive in its message, tendency, fruitfulness, and personal relevance. The whole counsel of God is intended for directing man to his greatest good in God, for reminding him of God’s loving kindness in salvation through Jesus Christ, and in encouraging him to lead a blessed life through obedience.
To the degree that elders maintain allegiance to God’s word of grace, defend the word against the attacks of the outside wolves of false philosophy, immorality, and compromise, and defend the word of God against the attacks of the inside wolves of heresy, schism, false doctrine, and impiety, God will preserve both them and the church. There can be no safety for the church or victory in the world, however, if God’s word is ignored, displaced, and twisted, if its central doctrines are not regularly, lovingly, and practically proclaimed and applied. The elders’ great hope and confidence, therefore, of being preserved and fruitful in his office leading to the salvation and defense of Christ’s precious flock, is centered upon God’s word of grace. It is the means God has ordained and blesses – no other. In our day it is obvious that the church’s weakness, doctrinal indifference, and moral compromise are related to the loss of leadership commitment to the power, authority, and sufficiency of God’s word. Only by recovering these can the church be strengthened, relevant, and blessed by God to pursue holiness in her members and the glory of God in the world.
Some Final Characteristics of Faithful Eldership (vv. 33-38)
The conclusion of Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders is not a “manual of eldering,” but it does indicate several characteristics of faithful eldership. They were exemplified in Paul’s life and ministry and must now be pursued by the Ephesian elders in their lives and ministry. He mentioned selfless service (vv. 33-34); the elder must serve without regard to the praise, reward, and recognition of men. He has his eye constantly and exclusively on the prize of Christ’s approval (1 Pet. 5:4). He called them to sacrificial labor (v. 35); the elder must work hard, spending and being spent for the welfare of the congregation. He encouraged supportive ministry (v. 35); the elder must especially know and help the weak. There will always be sheep in the body requiring special attention, and the elder must never begrudge attending to them. This is completely opposed to the oft heard comment by some church leaders mocking the “problem sheep,” or “high maintenance believers.” It may very well be that those who seem to have everything together are also in need of greater attention, but they do not seek it or are indifferent to their real condition. All believers, especially the weaker must remember Jesus’ compelling statement: “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” And, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but the sick” (Matt. 9:13; Luke 5:31). In both instances the “righteous” and the “healthy” think they are doing fine, but they are in fact blind to their real condition. The tone of Paul’s closing statement was tender (vv. 36-38), as if to exemplify in his own demeanor the tone with which their entire oversight ministry must be pursued. He knelt and prayed with them, embraced them, and identified with their sorrow at his departure and the statement that he would never see them again. Elders must always remember that the greater the tenderness they manifest toward the people of God, the more willing the sheep will usually be to receive their oversight, teaching, and correction. Harsh words and an unloving spirit make a poor shepherd.
For Reflection and Clarity
1. Explain the three incentives for faithful eldership.
2. What must the impact upon the life and service of the elder who once takes into his soul the idea that the “Holy Spirit has made him an overseer?”
3. Why must the elder constantly remember that the church does not belong to him?
4. What are some of the wolves against which a vigilant elder must contend in our day?
5. Contrast Paul’s serious view of the church and of the eldership to today’s attitudes?
6. How can elders encourage a more biblical and serious attitude – without having a negative attitude?
7. Why must the weak receive the elder’s special attention? In what sense are all believers weak?
8. What encouragements does the elder have that his work will be effectual?
9. What enables the elder to be a stabilizing influence in the congregation?
10. What is the elder’s power and how does he obtain it?
A Critical Reformation:
The Challenges of Biblical Eldership
Most of the men, families, and institutions of the West have made their choice: Enlightenment blindness and Satan’s lie over God’s word; statism and tyranny over God’s law; and consumerist materialism and kitsch over God’s cultural blessing through submission to Christ the King of heaven and earth. One of the few undecided issues in the West is whether the church of the Lord Jesus Christ will recover en masse its commitment to the word of God and with this commitment also recover courage, servant leadership, obedience and suffering, and light to lead men out of the twilight of skepticism into the dawn of the Redeemer’s blessed kingdom. If there is any hope for the West, it will come through the Redeemer in Zion. No answers are to be found to the crises facing us from the politicians, social demagogues, or academics, most of whom in their blindness have embraced this system of thought. Only in the Bible are there answers, albeit challenging ones, to the many problems that confront us. As the church alone is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), she alone can bring light and peace to the nations. To her alone is committed the duty of proclaiming light to those that sin in darkness, liberty to moral slaves, and wisdom in place of the bankruptcy of philosophy set free from the authority of God’s word.
The folly of secularism is an opportunity for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ to do what she has so often done in periods of societal collapse – save the world from destruction by preaching repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ. She has done this in the past. Irish believers preserved gospel light, literacy, and liberty after the sacking of Rome in 410 A.D. King Alfred established justice in England through application of God’s law. Protestants in Europe stood against the religious and civil tyranny of Rome. While these efforts have not always been lasting or consistently biblical, each has contributed in no small way to the preservation and advancement of learning and science, morality and justice, education and domestic peace – and more importantly, to the growth of the kingdom and church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is time for the church to rise again and assume its duty toward God and man. The hour is not too late. God works when his enemies make void his law, if his people respond by obeying him with greater faith and earnestness (Psalm 119:126). At the most fundamental level of needed reformation, the local church and the lives of God’s people, the ruling elder will play a pivotal role should God be pleased to hear our pleas and work for the vindication and advancement of the kingdom of his beloved Son. And he will.
Our individual, congregational, and denominational response to the challenges facing the visible catholic church in this nation will determine the nature of its existence and its relationship to the broader culture for generations to come. While conservative Protestant churches in the United States represent the largest remaining strongholds of Augustinian, Calvinistic, creedal Christianity in the West, most of them have forgotten or are trying to forget their heritage and have little idea of the stakes involved in our battle against secularism or the sacrifice required to be faithful. If apostate European governments provide any indication of what is in store for us, we can expect increasing judicial efforts to silence gospel preaching and evangelism in public, define what is acceptable and unacceptable ethical preaching in the pulpits, and bring the church’s finances and practices under closer bureaucratic scrutiny. Unless the Lord of hosts is pleased to give us undeserved respite, the next decades will likely bring challenges to the church’s intrinsic identity as an institutionally separate and independent institution, a divine institution free from government control. Those remaining churches that practice biblical discipline will face civil suits from disgruntled members who feel they have been discriminated against for “authentic personal decisions.”
None of this even considers attempts to control home education and Christian schooling, much of which local congregations sponsor and support. If the United Nations succeeds in gaining control of “religious affairs,” we can expect government mandated acceptance of multiculturalism in the churches and Christian educational institutions, especially in areas of sexuality, religious “discrimination” in hiring and firing, and a host of other regulations designed to establish the desired world hegemony thought necessary to ensure peace and control religious extremism. None of this moves me much, for the church is strongest when the Lord places her in the crucible of affliction. We should rather laugh than fear the secularists, for they are a pathetic shadow of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the Roman emperors, and Roman Catholic inquisitors.
Yet, these issues are a leadership challenge for Bible-believing churches. Honesty compels us to ask if God’s people can expect boldness and leadership in an hour of trial from pastors and elders that have already capitulated to the idols of relevance, popularity, non-covenantal, non-word directed spirituality, and television attention spans. When concrete answers to difficult problems and challenges are absolutely required, and when those answers may commit the church to a life or death stand, can we really trust men whose idea of solid meat is “three jokes, a story, and a poem,” or equally atrocious, a Holy Spirit pep rally? In such an hour, “church for children” will be exposed in all its infantile banality and destructive rejection of biblical religion.
The leadership crisis is no less pressing for Reformed churches, which are often paralyzed by infighting and foolish attempts to make the worship and cultural trappings of one beloved past period the benchmark of orthodoxy. The church will not be preserved or the world converted to biblical faith by signing the Solemn League and Covenant again, or wearing head-coverings, or refusing to play instruments in worship, or using “thee” and “thou” in public prayer, or waving the St. Andrews Cross. I do not mean to impugn those of sincere conviction and love for our Savior, but the battle we are facing is well beyond an intramural debate concerning disagreement over the application of principles that we already hold in common but differ as to application. These issues certainly call for honest debate and loving dialogue, but if the handwriting on the wall is becoming clearer, a time is rapidly approaching and perhaps already here in which these issues will of necessity be laid aside for something of far more pressing significance: the survival of apostolic Christianity in the United States. Secondary issues are certainly nothing to divide over and further diminish our ability to present a united front.
It is my belief that in such times the God-fearing ruling elder will become again a very important individual in the congregation and in the world – not because he has all the answers or is perfect – but because the people of God will need wise and principled leadership from men they can respect, follow, and trust. The beautiful irony of trying times is that they are the very means God typically uses to lead his people to seek a return to biblical Christianity – doctrinally, ethically, and governmentally – as their only protection. It has happened repeatedly. One marvels at the doctrinal and moral treatises produced during periods of great persecution. When the pressure mounts, the Bible is opened in homes and churches again. Christian hearts yearn for the truth, seeking to be led more surely by the living God. The voice of God thunders again from his throne in the church, the pulpit. In preparation for such times, it is critical that we understand the challenges facing the ruling elder and how a return to the Bible in this key area may foster the revival or at least the preservation of the church in our day.
Leadership Challenges Faced by the Ruling Elder
In his Office
Within the course of fulfilling his God-ordained office in the local congregation, there are four ways the ruling elder must endeavor to provide leadership. First, he must endeavor to provide oversight in an anti-authoritarian church culture that displays a marked tendency toward autonomy and stubborn resistance against the practical authority of the ordained elder. Even among professing Presbyterians, everyone loves “church rule by elders” until it touches upon their lives, involves their correction, and requires their submission. Nonetheless, the ruling elder must not allow his office to be despised or neglected. Biblical leadership in our day involves the assertion of leadership, calling God’s people to submit to the authority structure he has ordained within the church.
Second, because of the neglect of the office, it is necessary for the ruling elder to encourage respect among God’s people for his office and duties. Ignorance of the divine warrant, functions, and qualifications for the office is weakening the doctrinal purity and practical holiness of the church. Ruling elders must formally and informally, out of love for Christ and zeal for his flock, engage in a re-education program within the local congregation, not to promote themselves but the peace and purity of the congregation through submission to our Savior’s governmental will for his church. Third, ruling elders must assist the pastor in the government and discipline of the church. The days of inactive eldering and allowance of the church to run in a Baptistic, “the pastor is everything” manner must end. The Lord Jesus will withhold his blessing unless we are governed biblically. Fourth, as leadership involves sacrifice and service, the ruling elder must labor diligently to fulfill his responsibilities, even amid the many other responsibilities of his life. He must be a man of energy, discipline and zeal.
In His Personal Life
Similar challenges exist for the ruling elder in his personal life. First, God’s people require a personal example of godliness that is free from hypocrisy and pretension. Weakness in holiness undermines the gospel and the strength of the congregation. Second, the ruling elder must maintain high standards of personal piety through saturation in Scripture, fervency in prayer, and discipline in pursing fellowship with Jesus Christ. Effective, zealous, and courageous leadership results from walking closely with the living Christ. Third, he needs to test all opinions, whether espoused by the pastor, other elders, or members of the congregation, by Scripture. The ruling elder should manifest no doctrinal eccentricities or the influence of false doctrine in his life. This inevitably scatters the sheep and gives the decided impression that it is perfectly acceptable for God’s people to believe and practice whatever they wish or follow the latest and greatest spiritual fads. Fourth, he must labor constantly to train his family in the ways of the Lord. His authority and influence will be greatly curtailed by a wayward, worldly, and carelessly governed family. While one of the qualifications of his office is the proven ability to govern his own house well, this ability is critical to encourage congregational respect and submission to his leadership. The more the elder submits to the authority of Jesus Christ in his life, the more the Lord will exert his sanctifying influence in the lives of his family, confirm the transforming power of the gospel, and sanction his legitimate authority in the local congregation.
In His Congregation
The leadership of the elder is needed to preserve apostolic doctrine in an age of compromise (1 Tim. 1:3,10; 3:15; 4:6). Of pressing importance is vigilance against the devastating effect of pluralism with its tendency toward religious and ethical relativism, personal autonomy, and the failure to pursue life-wide obedience to God. Abandonment of strong, biblical, doctrinal preaching has produced a generation of immature believers who are easy prey for every passing religious fad dreamed up by evangelical marketers. Knowledge and commitment to the word of God are the only cure for the spiritual disease of pop-evangelicalism. The elder must also provide proactive, comprehensive oversight designed to return God’s people to the practice of biblical holiness, especially in the areas of making full use of the Lord’s Day in rest and worship, practicing regular hospitality as a concrete expression of congregational love, and sharing the faith with friends and neighbors. God’s people require immediate reform in these areas.
There is also the need of the ruling elder’s moral direction in specific ethical questions that are troubling God’s people: finance, child-raising, genetic research, biblical models of civil government, the believer’s relationship to the world, and making biblical decisions regarding entertainment. His leadership in the local congregation is also required for encouraging piety, prayer, love, and a truly Christian spirit among God’s people. Efforts should be made in establishing regional prayer meetings and Bible classes for geographically separated believers, providing good Christian literature for the people of God, encouraging a servant spirit and mission interest among covenant youth, and practicing regular household visitation for purposes of encouragement and oversight. Strengthening the local congregation will lead to stronger homes and families, the diffusion of gospel light into the community through encouraging God’s people to “let their light shine before men,” and the broader equipping of the saints for the work of ministry within the body of Christ.
Key Battlegrounds of Biblical Eldership
The declension of piety in western churches has resulted in a church environment in which many basic biblical duties are practiced and fundamental biblical doctrines believed by only a slim minority. Church discipline, the regulative principle of worship, and Christian education come immediately to mind. In the course of the ruling elder’s ministry in the local congregation, he will find it necessary to confront the ignorant and stubborn in these and other areas, as well as to encourage believers who are valiantly holding biblical faith in these areas in the face of church-wide ridicule and family rejection. It is neither a pleasant nor an easy task. Many professing believers are dominated by the spirit of autonomy and self-directed spirituality, i.e., “I feel like this is what God wants me to do; therefore, it is what God wants me to do.” Others feel burned out, tired of hearing their family members accuse them of belonging to a cult simply because they are members of a church that actually stands for something rather than belonging to a “cute church with a beat.”
It is hardly to be wondered that diligent elders in Reformed congregations sometimes feel like moving targets and objects of hatred. They are resisted, their efforts unappreciated, and their labors to move the congregation more toward apostolic Christianity unheeded. The issues below are not secondary matters of personal preference, for as was mentioned above the ruling elder’s authority is strictly delineated in Scripture. This is not a time to be “majoring on the minors,” engaging in a legalistic, compound spirituality, or trying to resurrect a past epoch of the church as providing all the answers. Moreover, the elder is not a legislator, for Christ is the only King and Lawgiver. The themes discussed below are areas in which the gospel and bride of Christ are under serious attack by wolves within and without the congregation, thus calling for special and immediate attention by faithful ruling elders throughout the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is not the whole truth or even most of it to say that children are our future. Beyond being our future, which they certainly are, they belong to God. Children are his heritage; Jesus claims the children of believers as his own, heirs of his kingdom (Matt. 19:14). Accordingly, fulfilling our biblical responsibility toward them is not a matter of sentimental feelings or fear for our future or even the future of the church. It is a matter of bringing them up according to God’s command, in his nurture and admonition, by life-wide, daily, loving instruction in God’s word (Eph. 6:4; Deut. 6:6-9). This duty touches upon one key and very contested areas of elder responsibility: education. Though home and Christian school institutions increase daily, the vast majority of professing Christian parents utilizes government education. As it now exists in the United States, government education is unbiblical, dangerous, and an enemy of God. Government education is controlled by the federal bureaucracy and a cartel of educators, all of whom are held tightly in the grips of secularist pluralism. The goals, standards, and motives of secularism are atheistic, anti-Christian, and antagonistic to the kingdom of our Savior.
It matters not that a local school system may be touted as providing a quality education, for the goal of education is not high performance on a battery of standardized tests but covenant faithfulness. It matters not that some of the teachers are professing believers, for they must generally hold to the prescribed curricula or face termination. Beyond this, biblical education has the positive goal of raising young people committed to God’s covenant, is ruled by the comprehensive standard of Scripture, and is motivated by the desire to train children to fear the Lord that they might serve him in the totality of their beings in every walk of life. The responsibility of covenant education, therefore, cannot be fulfilled in present-day government schools.
The ruling elder plays a key role in this area: (1) by encouraging Christian parents to shoulder their biblical responsibilities; (2) by endeavoring to assist the congregation by organizing educational assistance programs for parents; (3) by shepherding young people to live in terms of God’s covenant and engage themselves diligently in life preparation; (4) by warning parents of the anti-Christian philosophy of secularist education; (5) by realizing that the education of covenant children is directly tied to the future strength and stability of Christian families and, therefore, of the congregation. The faithful elder will encounter opposition in many congregations; parents make all manner of excuses to avoid their God-given responsibility. Even home schooling families will require encouragement to remain faithful to their task and avoid the tendency to think that the duty of providing covenant education to their children is completed satisfactorily simply because their children are not in government schools. Ruling elders (and pastors) must set the example by their own withdrawal from secularist institutions and diligence in training their children.
This is a second key battleground in which the ruling elder must raise the standard of faithfulness to the word of God. The Bible prepares us for the fact that discipline is unpleasant for those experiencing it (Heb. 12:11). Yet of all the directives given to us by our Savior, few are more motivated by love, not only for the individual but also for the larger body of believers. Church discipline reminds us that obedience to God and his appointed church leaders is serious. It promotes the honor of Jesus Christ, the peace and purity of believers, and congregational zeal in watching over one another. In our day of personal self-sufficiency and dangerous anonymity, church discipline introduces a much-needed accountability within the church. Practiced lovingly and patiently, it institutionalizes resistance to arrogance, encourages boldness in defending the truth of God, and wages war against human autonomy in favor of submission to Jesus Christ. Elders must take the lead in re-instituting the practice of biblical church discipline. It may be painful initially, especially in congregations in which it has not been practiced consistently and biblically. It will require careful explanation of the Bible’s teaching on the subject, patience in answering questions, consistency in application, and openness in allowing for congregational input. Church discipline is not the imposition of an unloving tyranny over the hearts and lives of God’s people but an expression of zealous concern for Christ’s flock, dedication to preserving them from sin, and above all elder-allegiance to the supreme authority of Christ and his word.
Elders must be ready for resistance – to be characterized as unloving and harsh, to be intentionally misunderstood in order for certain individuals to engage in self-justification, and to have some members leave the church. They must avoid the temptation in such instances to draw back; they have the sanction of the exalted King of the church, Jesus Christ, and the practice of the apostles as their unassailable foundation. They must at the same time refuse to respond in kind, returning evil for evil, or reviling when reviled. Faithful leadership in the practice of church discipline is one critical way elders bear the discipline of the cross – by it they give public testimony to their commitment to live and govern in terms of God’s word even if the whole world is against them.
Our Savior’s teaching that “an evil tree brings forth evil fruit” is nowhere more evident than in the area of congregational worship (Matt. 7:17-18). The past several generations have operated under the belief that the primary purpose of worship is to reach the lost. Not only is this a false operating principle, but it has also led to the adoption of worship models and practices that lack any warrant from Scripture, either directly, by a divinely authorized example, or by necessary deduction from a clear biblical principle. American churches are going through a revolution in worship theory and practice, a radical reorientation of congregational worship around the pragmatic philosophy that the end justifies the means. In this case both the end and the means are contrary to God’s revealed will. The salvation of the lost is certainly one goal of worship, but it is not the primary goal, which is the glory of God. The glory of God – his highness, holiness, and love – is celebrated through biblical worship, proclaimed through the preaching of the word, and spread over the world through believers who are equipped for works of ministry, including the important service of discipleship. The goal of reaching out to the lost must never trump God’s revealed will in Scripture.
Not only does it exceed the authority of the church to determine acceptable/unacceptable worship, but practically speaking “what you win the lost with is what you will win them to.” Elders who endeavor to lead their congregations by the worship principles and practices of Scripture often face tremendous opposition. This is true even in Reformed churches, which are experiencing an identity crisis of historical proportions. The words of Jesus Christ must guide, comfort, and embolden faithful elders: “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7-8). The context of this declaration is Jesus’ condemnation of a host of man-made rites deemed necessary to serve God acceptably. Jesus soundly rejects them. God does not accept worship that originates in the mind of man, however sincere or successful man esteems them to be (Col. 2:23). As Samuel once told Saul, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” If we are to expect the Lord to protect and bless his people, we must turn away from idolatry – this is what non-biblically warranted worship is – idolatry: the attempt to worship God by methods he has not sanctioned in his word. This is a principle from which biblical eldership cannot back down if he expects to have the power and sanction of God upon his life and ministry. It is his responsibility to turn the sheep away from idolatry and toward purity of worship.
The Law of God
Of similar significance is the ongoing battle within the church concerning the authority of God’s law in the life of the believer, as the standard of personal and public morality. While our nation was founded by men who believed in the practical authority of God’s law, churches have gradually turned away from God’s law in favor of mystical forms of piety, a “Spirit-ethic,” a “New Testament ethic,” a Dispensational dichotomy between the Old and New Testaments, or in more recent times, “What would Jesus do?” Each of these lacks any warrant from Scripture. In both Old and New Testaments, man’s sole guiding authority is everywhere presented as God’s law, revealed throughout Scripture, summarized in the Ten Commandments, and applied in a variety of contexts by our Savior and his apostles (Matt. 5:17-19; Luke 10:26; Rom. 7:12; 1 Cor. 9:8; 14:34; Eph. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:18; 1 John 1:5; Rev. 14:12). The elder must remember Isaiah’s warning to the leaders of Judah: “To the law and to the prophets; if they speak not according to his word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20). It is exceedingly important for the elder to recognize, practice, articulate, inculcate, and model submission to God’s law, out of love for Jesus (John 14:15). No matter what else professing believers may attempt or feel, there is no obedience to God apart from submission to his law (1 John 5:3). Yet, autonomy, unbelief, and worldly fear have led her away from yielding to God’s law as the standard of a devout and holy life. This is a vital aspect of Christian doctrine, practice, and witness for God’s glory and truth in the world. Elders must zealously attempt to bring the beliefs and practices of God’s people in line with Scripture, the teaching of our Savior and the apostles, and the best of church history.
These are not the only battlegrounds ruling elders face or battles they must wage. They are, however, four critical areas that touch upon a wide array of other errors of doctrine and practice that are besetting the modern church. For example, a return to more biblical views on education would encourage fathers to fulfill their instruction responsibilities (Gen. 18:25), encourage withdrawal from the “youth frenzy” by which many congregations are turned upside down in order to cater to the supposed needs of young people, and lead to the renewal of catechetical efforts for the solid instruction of covenant youth. A renewed emphasis on biblical worship would resurrect the passionate emphasis upon the preached word. It would result in the abandonment of shallow triviality masquerading as worship and and renew our ancient enthusiasm for singing solid hymns and songs rather than the ditties that have more in common with mystical pietism and the worship of the believer’s feelings about God rather than God himself. Biblical teaching on God’s law would enable believers to evaluate the issues of our day with greater clarity, to defend the faith with authority and certainty, and reject pseudo-conservatism as lacking any objectivity and hope for the future of our nation and western culture. These are but a few examples of why it is critical for the elder to address these issues within the local congregation. These issues will determine the church’s soul in the next generation – will we continue being led down the primrose path of immaturity, youth-group worship services, and pretended relevance or will we walk the tried and true path of strength, holiness, and apostolic, biblical religion?
Strengthening the Eldership
This has been a very brief survey of some of the challenges facing the elder. He has many important responsibilities that he has been called to assume by the calling and gifts of the Holy Spirit, the revealed will of Jesus Christ, and the assent/selection of his local congregation. The weight of his office and the need of the hour require assistance. It is entirely appropriate and necessary to consider some ways he can be encouraged and strengthened in his role as overseer. First, the local church Session needs to be better utilized in the following areas: fellowship among the leadership of the church in order to encourage cooperation, fraternity, and a unified sense of purpose. Second, Session members must hold one another accountable to God’s truth, which prevents eccentricity and imbalance, provides checks and balances, and allows for necessary confrontation between pastors and elders. Third, the elders must constantly encourage one another to fulfill their duties, which encouragement requires workable divisions of labor, enforced deadlines for completing important church projects, and clearly defined responsibilities. Fourth, the elders must be men of the Book and utilize some of their meeting and other times for corporate Bible study, which produces leadership submission to God’s word, growing consensus in controversial and difficult issues, constant renewal and vitality in serving Jesus Christ. Fifth, corporate, elder prayer must permeate the entire work of the eldership, for this enforces leadership dependence upon God to build his church against the gates of hell rather than dependence upon the arm of the flesh, human wisdom, and cute schemes. These brief suggestions would strengthen church leadership, encourage confidence and boldness among elders, and instill a sense of vision and purpose that attractively filters down into the lives of believers who need similar encouragement to remain faithful to God in trying times.
Within the hearts of sober minded, godly Christians there is a growing sense that significant events are transpiring in our day, decisions and movements that will powerfully shape our churches and this nation for generations to come. The Lord of hosts is working out his purposes; he alone knows their full meaning. What he has shown us, however, is that we are never to despair, live in fear, or doubt his wise providence. One important component of our obedience to him and faith in Jesus Christ is to resurrect a central aspect of church life: the role and leadership of the elder. While he is only one part of the world equation, he is, by the will of Jesus Christ, a critical component in the continuing life and vitality and usefulness of the church. It is my hope that by obeying the Lord Jesus Christ with respect to the elder’s office and responsibility, our Lord will rise up with healing in his wings to bring purity and holiness to his Bride and equip her for the many works of ministry that will make the church again a city set on a hill. One thing is certain: if our light shines before men, they will see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. This is the ultimate goal of a faithful eldership: the glory of God in his church.
For Reflection and Clarity
1. Summarize ways in which the eldership is vital to a stable and holy church in an unbelieving society?
2. What are today’s dangers against which elders must protect the church and lead her in faithfulness?
3. Why are an elder’s godliness and bold stand for God’s truth important in evil times?
4. How can elders better elder themselves as the church’s governing body?
5. Discuss the importance of the elder’s friendliness, approachability, and hospitality in such times?
6. Why is Christian education vital to the church’s future?
Have You Hugged Your Elder Today?
The Development of Biblical Elder-Member Relationships
within the Body of Christ
The Christian community is inundated with books about relationships. You are more likely to find a brontosaurus in your backyard than a book encouraging a better relationship with your elders! One reason for this is the democratization of the church, with its emphasis upon the sufficiency of the individual believer to work out his own relationship with God apart from the assistance/involvement of church leaders. A second reason is widespread ignorance of the Bible’s teaching on church government, which has resulted in the replacement of biblical eldership with a host of non-sanctioned lay-offices and organizational models in the church. Though the spirit of our age is alarmingly indifferent to the clear and pervasive teaching of Scripture on the government of the church through pastors and elders, the New Testament has much to say about this fundamental relationship. Yet, very few Christians understand the duty and usefulness of developing a good relationship with their elders, and even fewer know how to do so. Sadly, the failure of believers to involve their elders regularly and willingly in their lives has led to inconsistent Christian living, the breakdown of the church’s piety and unity in the truth, and the rise of a generation who are largely ignorant of the central role the elders are to play in the life of a Christ-centered congregation.
Often a family consults its elders only in times of crisis, before baptism, or when it leaves one congregation to join another. God esteems the elder/member relationship much more highly. As shepherds of the flock, you, Christian elder, must sustain a close, loving, knowledgeable relationship with each family under your care. You must do this in order to provide oversight, counseling, and biblical instruction. As a member of his body, you, Christian, must make it a point to develop and fortify your relationship with the overseers the Spirit has raised up to help you. Such relationships will provide much-needed accountability and protection, as well as knowledge of you and your family’s needs, gifts, and weaknesses, thereby enabling the elder to perform the shepherding tasks to which God has called him. You can enjoy this sort of relationship with your elders and the blessings associated with it if you will follow the plain Scriptural commands respecting your duty toward your elders.
Because elders are called and commissioned by Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church,
you must honor them.
(1) High esteem is due to those who faithfully fulfill their office. In 1 Thessalonians 5:13, Paul says that you, as a member of Christ’s body, should “highly esteem” those who are laboring among you and for you. The word “highly” means “overflowing all bounds, exceeding, abundantly, supremely.” You must give high honor to the men who diligently work as pastors and elders. Paul adds “for their work’s sake.” This brings into immediate focus that the esteem due is not simply because pastors and elders are likeable, popular, or charismatic. The high esteem due to them is related to their God-ordained office and nature of their work. They are Christ’s undershepherds, raised up and gifted by the Holy Spirit to watch over, guard, and provide for the needs of the church. It is necessary to tie the esteem of the elder to the work of the elder because occasions arise in which the difficult duties he must perform will be unpopular and uncomfortable to you. It is temping to lose esteem for pastors and elders when they perform the more confrontational duties of their office.
“Overflowing esteem” is lacking in many of our congregations. There are two reasons for this. First, a spirit of independence and democracy is ravaging the church so that the average Christian resents and resists the idea of another man watching over him. The eldership may be honored in theory, perhaps as an elitist badge of ecclesiastical superiority or as a formal vestige of a beloved tradition, but should an occasion arise in which the elder must rebuke, exhort, and correct, the required honor rapidly diminishes. Criticism, resistance, and suspicion often replace honor. Second, the eldership has not consistently functioned in a manner worthy of respect. It has not provided faithful, consistent, patient, and loving oversight of the sheep. It has been cowardly, lazy, and indifferent to the approaching howl of wolves. As a result, the congregation’s confidence and respect for it have dwindled. This situation can only be remedied by a renewed obedience to the personal, familial, and doctrinal qualifications for the office set forth in Scripture, as well as a recommitment on the part of elders to provide oversight and leadership for the congregation that is worthy of its respect and support. Such leadership is chiefly marked out by godliness, an exemplary family, and intense, loving concern for the people of God. The congregation, in turn, must repent of its stubbornness, autonomy, and ingratitude for one of Jesus Christ’s most gracious gifts, faithful men who sacrificially labor for the good of the church.
This honor will motivate the elder to fulfill his office faithfully. One who is despised and resisted by the people will eventually grow weary in well doing. He who is never thanked, shown hospitality, or consulted will inevitably feel that the people take him for granted or reject his oversight. His work will then become a grief to him, and he may be tempted to give up in despair or to grow cold toward Christ’s precious lambs. While the elder is culpable for any neglect of his work, love, or service for the body, God’s people often receive the quality of oversight they deserve. If the congregation’s attitude toward their elders exudes genuine respect and honor, elders will be motivated to faithfulness and willingly labor to watch over the flock. A reciprocating psychology of faithful leadership and humble gratitude is always operative in the church. The more the congregation respects, supports, consults, and obeys its elders, the more motivated elders are to serve sacrificially the congregation, the more willing they are to listen to the concerns of God’s people, and the more diligently they will love and labor for their good.
(2) Double honor is due to those who rule well and work hard at preaching and teaching God’s Word (1 Timothy 5:17-18). Double honor is due especially to those who “labor in the word and doctrine.” While both church governors (ruling elders) and pastors are “elders,” to the minister of the gospel or pastor belongs the additional calling to preach the word (1 Tim. 4:2). This is a difficult work, requiring diligent study, intense meditation, and fervent prayer. Those who labor faithfully in this ministry should be highly esteemed. You must never forget how much you owe such men. Pastors and teachers are Christ’s love gifts to you! They contribute greatly to your understanding of the life-giving Scriptures, your ability to apply them consistently, and your faithfulness in Christian living. Accordingly, you must appreciate and greatly esteem them in the Lord. As Calvin wrote in his commentary on this passage, “Now, this work is for the edification of the Church, the everlasting salvation of souls, the restoration of the world, and, in fine, the kingdom of God and Christ. The excellence and dignity of this work are inestimable: hence those whom God makes ministers in connection with so great a matter, ought to be held by us in great esteem.”
In concrete terms, how does the church honor faithful elders? Fundamentally, by giving them the respect and esteem that their position and faithfulness in it demand. The elder is honored as the believer consults his opinion regularly, follows his biblical directives, and teaches his family to value his work highly. In addition to this, most interpreters of Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 5:17 equate “double honor” with “double remuneration” or “financial support.” The analogy is to soldiers who were doubly compensated due to special services rendered in the course of their military service. The two ideas are closely related; it is because elders are honored for their work, their sacrifice, and their vigilance in watching and feeding the flock that the congregation gladly provides for their temporal needs. Some pastors are paid barely enough to keep food on the table. As an old deacon once prayed, “Lord, you keep the preacher humble, and we’ll keep him poor.” This is a sinful attitude. Those who labor diligently in bringing God’s Word to the people are worthy of sufficient income from the people of God that they may provide for their family’s needs. This does mean that the church should provide an opulent life for its pastors, but they should be supported in a way that leaves them free from financial concerns so that they may devote themselves to the word of God and to prayer (Acts 6:4).
With respect to the ruling elder, the same rule may be applied, though in practical terms, it is often difficult if not impossible for a congregation to sustain a pastor and its elders with a full-time income. It is often necessary to utilize lay elders, as the Presbyterian churches have historically done, who are not dependent upon the congregation for their livelihood, but hold the office of elder in conjunction with another vocation. But the provision of income assistance ought to be made for faithful ruling elders as soon as practically possible. The benefits of such a system are inestimable, will greatly strengthen the congregation, and will better supply sufficient oversight, instruction, and protection. This is especially important in growing and larger congregations, in which a point is reached at which the pastor simply cannot perform all the preaching, teaching, counseling, visitation, and oversight responsibilities needed by the congregation. It may be practically impossible to split into smaller churches, due to the lack of ministers, sparse population, or the desire of the people to be fed by a particularly esteemed pastor.
Because elders are God-given assistance for faithful Christian living,
you must know and involve them in your life (1 Thess. 5:12).
The elders “labor among the flock.” They have been chosen from the flock in order to provide the loving oversight and shepherding commanded in Scripture and essential to Christian living. Therefore, you must frequently interact with your elders. In Acts 20:20, Paul speaks of “house to house” visitation. It has been the practice of Reformed churches for over 400 years to encourage elder visitation in the homes of their families. Elders cannot possibly understand, sympathize, or watch over those with whom they lack intimate acquaintance. Sunday morning “hellos” are insufficient. Elders are to labor “among the flock,” spend time with its families, obtain first-hand knowledge of their weaknesses and struggles, as well as rejoice with them in their victories.
This simple practice has been all but abandoned in many churches today. Our lives are simply too busy to have frequent elder/family interaction. Legitimate factors can become an excuse for failure to pursue this relationship as Jesus Christ commands and inevitably leads to distant feelings between the elders and members of the church. But Jesus has given us elders! We must avail ourselves of his help against sin, the world, and despair. We need not fear elder involvement but welcome a faithful elder as an angel of Christ sent to help and encourage us toward his eternal kingdom. If we do not involve Christ’s elders in our lives but confine them to the four walls of the church building, they will be consulted only in times of trouble or to oversee a formal discipline process. Management by crisis is the result, and it yields poison fruit: hurt feelings, elder alienation, and migration away from the churches that mishandle this important relationship.
Moreover, you must remember that elders are your elders. You chose them, thereby expressing confidence that they possess the necessary piety, wisdom, and compassion to provide the quality of oversight required and modeled in Scripture. Let me, therefore, encourage you to know your elders, consider them not as unwelcome intruders but men who come in Christ’s name to aid in Christian living and discipline, and involve them in your lives. Invite your elder over for dinner periodically. A wonderful and productive way of facilitating oversight, friendship, and familiarity in urban areas is the lunch-meeting between the pastor/elder and church member. The weekly telephone call is always appreciated and often reveals a need or upcoming issue well before it develops into an emergency. A close, biblical relationship with your elders will (1) introduce a powerful encouragement for Christian living through accountability, (2) endear your heart to the government of Christ’s church, (3) make an impact upon your children as they see you submit to Christ’s authority and witness the loving, helpful, and wise involvement of elders in your family, and (4) provide needed direction and protection for you.
There are a variety of areas in which regular involvement with your elders would revolutionize your faith and life. Marriage sins and frustrations can often be addressed before serious disagreements or ruptures in the relationship occur if you will only seek counsel, accountability, and prayer. You need guidance and encouragement in wise parenting and financial decisions, vocational troubles, and a host of other practical issues. Your elder should never dictate in minutia or matters of relative indifference but remind and encourage you to follow basic biblical principles. Older young people and single believers would benefit greatly from educational, vocational, and relational struggles with which they are particularly confronted. Do we not all need help and encouragement in our walk with God, struggles against sin and Satan, and the pursuit of God’s everlasting kingdom? Many, virtually all specific sins and problems could be greatly lessened in their negative effects and turned into positive opportunities to avail of Christ’s grace unto sanctification if we would seek our undershepherds regularly and humbly. While elders should be proactive in exercising oversight, you must be equally proactive in seeking it.
Because ruling elders work hard for the sheep,
you must love them (1 Thess. 5:13).
We have already seen that Scripture requires the congregation to respect and honor those elders who rule well, who faithfully fulfill their office. You must also love your faithful elders. Remember that they watch over your soul as they do their own (Heb. 13:17). They have no greater joy than to see you growing in grace and enjoying a close walk with Jesus Christ (3 John 4). They pray for you night and day, are available for you in time of need, and endeavor to preserve you from danger. They are men worthy of deep love. Tragically, they are often shunned by the very ones who should display great affection toward them. Should you not love a man who points you to God and heaven, warns you of danger, walks hand in hand with you to bear you up, and whose very presence reminds you of Christ’s word and care for you? It is not surprising that the elder is often the most frustrated man in the congregation. He works hard but is rarely loved for his sacrifice. He did not accept his office for worldly gain or glory. All he wants is to preserve you blameless until the day of Jesus Christ. He desires to see you growing up into Christ. He would perform his office with greater fervency and joy if he sensed in the congregation a spirit of love. Do you love your elders? Does your heart rejoice when they phone or visit? Or, do you think to yourself, “Oh, no! They are trying to check up on me again!”
And you, elders in the congregation, as well as those who aspire to the office, are you lovable? Does the flock see you sacrificing yourself for its wellbeing? Have you faithfully prayed for those under your charge? Is your home regularly opened to counsel, encourage, and serve the people of God? Is your interaction with Christ’s sheep harsh, censorious, or cold? Do you communicate indifference or deep attachment? Does your life manifest the “love of God shed abroad in your heart by the Holy Spirit” in your countenance, your words, your joyful pursuit of holiness, and your example of service in the congregation? While the flock is commanded to love its elders, the elders must make themselves loveable through a sanctified demeanor, the development of better communication skills, kind words, and joyful service.
On the subject of personal loveliness in church leaders, pastors and elders should make the lives of Paul and supremely of Jesus Christ their regular study. It is remarkable that Paul, whose letters are filled with many weighty doctrines of the Christian faith that cause even the most learned to tremble, sustained a level of intimacy and affection toward those who labored with him and the churches of Jesus Christ, even those that so often caused him personal pain and grief. By the grace of Christ, his attitude was, “And I will very gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved (2 Cor. 12:15).” Paul could see beyond the immediate controversy or painful rejection of his person to God’s broader, sanctifying work in his people and the importance of remaining faithful to his responsibility toward them even if they were tardy in fulfilling theirs toward him. Our Savior is unsurpassed in his tenderness, patience, and commitment to his sheep. “Having loved his own, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). While it might be objected that none can live up to his example of selflessness, sacrifice, and sympathy, it is nonetheless true that he is the Chief Shepherd, the model for those who would be his faithful undershepherds. Therefore, pastors and elders must labor to have and practice selfless, tender, patient, and compassionate love for the precious flock for which Christ Jesus shed his precious blood – love that is willing to confront, able to weep, willing to bear burdens, quick to rejoice and commend, and anxious to help the people of God.
Because elders rule by Christ’s authority and according to his Word,
they must be obeyed (1 Thess. 5:12; Heb. 13:17).
Obedience is an extremely unpopular idea. In every human relationship, from parenting to civil government, obedience has been rejected. The reasons are very simple, very tragic. First, when one denies the authority of God’s word, no basis for authority exists in any other sphere of life. Second, when the objectivity of God’s revelation in Scripture is rejected, then each man lives as a law unto himself. We see this in the downfall of the American university, the doctrinal chaos in the church, and the loss of meaningful public discourse. Everything is a matter of personal opinion, power politics, or private judgment. It is not simply that each man and especially groups must for themselves distinguish right from wrong, scholarship from quackery, and justice from social engineering. It is that there is no legitimate distinction between these concepts. In this environment, individuals are encouraged to follow the already implicit rebellion of their hearts – to forge meaning for themselves with reference to no other person or authority.
Third, since the authority and objective truth of God’s word are rejected, then authority structures are purely matters of social arrangement, convenience, or preference. This is not a new development, though it is intensified in our day. From the rebellion in the Garden of Eden to the rebellion of the secularist state, fallen man desires to be his own god, without accountability or interference. And while Jesus Christ has redeemed us from our rebellion and given us his subduing Spirit, we see in some corners of the “church” this same spirit: radical individualism, spiritual autonomy, and resistance to Christ’s lawfully ordained authority structure. Building a biblical, meaningful, and effectual elder-member relationship requires that you reject this spirit of rebellion and revolution against God and practice joyful submission to servant authority within his body.
(1) The Nature of the Elder’s Authority: Jesus Christ commissions the elder to oversee the life and doctrine of the congregation. Therefore, his instruction, counseling, and discipline are not mere recommendations. They are authoritative. When the elder speaks in accordance with God’s Word, either by precept or “good and necessary consequence, his teaching and discipline possess the authority of Jesus Christ. The assumption is that qualified leaders will of course direct in terms of Scripture, and only clear, incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, as determined within the context of the accountability structures Jesus has ordained in the church (1 Tim. 5:19), gives us license to reject his authority in order to obey Jesus Christ. Nor does obedience mean that you should obey your elder only if you agree with his counsel. The test of biblical obedience is whether we will obey the will of Jesus Christ even if it presses upon us or requires us to change the way we are living in order to follow him. Against all personal rebellion, which is as the sin of witchcraft (1 Sam. 15:23), and spiritual autonomy, the New Testament commands you “to obey those that have the rule over you” (Heb. 13:17). It is, therefore, your duty to develop a submissive, compliant spirit toward the spiritual leaders that Jesus Christ has commissioned and the Spirit raised up to watch over you.
(2) The Extent of the Elder’s Authority: This authority has limits. Elders may never command something that God’s Word does not command, either by direct precept, a divinely authorized example, or a good and necessary inference from a biblical principle. Neither can they require less than Scripture commands. Hence, if their commands and admonitions are inconsistent with Scripture, the individual Christian not only has the right but also the duty to resist. Christ is the only Lord of the conscience. Elders carry his authority only when they rule in accordance with his word.
(3) The Blessing of Submission to the Elder’s Authority: The Christian’s obedience to his elders in no way infringes upon his liberties, as long as we define liberty as the freedom in Christ to obey what God has revealed in Scripture. Knowing our tendency to refuse obedience to lawful authority, God provides two incentives unto obedience. “They watch over your souls as those who must give an account.” Elders also have the interests of the congregation at heart, therefore, it is profitable to submit to their instructions and follow their godly example. The elder’s authority is from Christ, and he blesses you when you gladly submit to it.
Your obedience to divinely authorized leadership enables the elder to perform his office “with joy instead of grief.” The elder’s job is difficult even when the sheep are willing to be shepherded. When his loving instruction and discipline are rejected, it is necessary for him to be firm. If the eldership continues to receive opposition, discipline often ensues. Resistance to the legitimate exercise of elder authority renders the office exceedingly burdensome. The elders watch over you because, like Jesus, they love you and want to see you honor Christ in all areas. When your reject his loving oversight, he is filled with grief, and you rob yourself of the benefit that his loving oversight provides.
Because elders lead godly lives,
you must imitate their good example (Heb. 13:7; 1 Pet. 5:3).
The elder must be a man of imitable character (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9). He must display a Christian life and experience that all members may follow. In Hebrews 13:7, Paul commands the Jewish believers to remember the faith of those who have already passed and imitate it. Did they embrace God’s promises? So must the flock. Did they walk in obedience to God’s commands? Follow their example. Did they trust God in the face of tremendous obstacles? You must also trust God’s Word. Godly living receives a divine impetus as the believer recalls the men and women of faith and walks as they did. We see the blessings they obtained through faithfulness, and we are motivated to strive for the same.
Elders provide a living example of godliness for you. Peter writes that this is one of the primary ways in which elders govern us: by providing a pattern of godly living that we may pursue. The question for you is, do you follow their example? Are you around them enough to know how they live, respond to problems, manage their homes? Every man is an island in the world today, setting his own agenda, living his own way, creating his own reality. Jesus, however, has provided living paradigms of godliness for his sheep. He wants you to know how to handle crises, endure suffering patiently, pray, discipline your children, and love your wife. Although elders are sinners, their godliness and mature Christian living can help you see how God wants you to live. This also places a tremendous responsibility upon pastors and elders to lead exemplary lives of obedience and faith, an imperative duty at all times but especially in times of spiritual declension within the broader church in which God’s people must see the Christian faith lived out for their encouragement and motivation.
Therefore, you must become well-acquainted with your elders. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest weaknesses in Reformed churches today. We speak of the eldership theoretically, but we do not make opportunities to watch our elders live. Seeing them on Sunday morning is insufficient. We must see them at work, service, with their families, on the softball field, around the dinner table, and at worship. As a type of Christ, the elder is a powerful molder of Christian character in the church. Accordingly, elders must set an example that is above reproach: Christ-like, Bible-based, and Spirit-controlled so that the congregation may follow their example. Elders, you must walk in union with Christ so that the abundant fruits of union with him may be seen by the congregation to its edification and encouragement unto godliness.
Because elders are fallible men, you have the right to appeal their decisions/counsel to the whole Session, and if necessary, to Presbytery (cf. Acts 15).
The Presbyterian system of church government does not allow for the tyranny of the elders over the flock. While obedience to the elder is a clearly prescribed duty, the institution will not result in tyranny, not only because Jesus Christ in his wisdom has ordained and preserves it, but also because he has instituted important congregational checks and balances to allow for humble appeal to the elder, confrontation, and correction of his fault. When disagreements arise, you should appeal to your elder in a loving, humble manner, with an honest desire to understand him better and submit to him if at all possible. If an elder deserves rebuke, then two or three witnesses should confront him. If he is guilty, he should be rebuked for his infidelity to Christ and his sheep in the presence of everyone (1 Timothy 5:19,20). In serious cases, he may be removed from office.
Unfortunately, the majority of believers feel that the way to resolve a problem in a congregation is to leave the church. When a disagreement arises, however, if an elder has abused or neglected his office, the Bible provides a method by which the problem may be resolved while the believer’s vows of church membership are fulfilled. Both of these are important. The elders are your representatives. They were deemed qualified for office by the congregation. Upon receiving these men, a vow was taken to submit to them in the Lord. Upon joining the congregation, a vow was taken to submit to the government and discipline of the church. In a period of conflict, the congregation must hold their elders accountable to their office, and if they fail, remedy the situation in a loving manner as commanded by Scripture: go to the courts of the Church to seek their wisdom and endeavor to resolve the conflict in a biblical fashion. If the Session cannot resolve the problem internally, a member has the right and responsibility to appeal to Presbytery, the gathering of elders from all churches joined together in a geographic area. The Bible prescribes connectionalism between churches, so that a just resolution of disagreements may be obtained without flight from conflict to another church body. When this occurs, it is often the sad truth that the existing congregation is weakened through conflicts not being resolved in a godly manner and another congregation infected with discontented sheep.
Because elders are still weak and sinful men,
you must pray for them (1 Thess. 5:25; 2 Thess. 3:1; Heb. 13:18).
When was the last time you prayed for your elders? I do not mean a simple sentence or two. Have you recently held them up before the Lord in a period of intense, heartfelt prayer? You are commanded to in Scripture. Their office is essential to the wellbeing of the flock. Yet, they are weak and sinful; God alone can grant them strength and grace to fulfill their office. Paul sets the constant example of asking his congregations to pray for him, even as he prays for them (Rom. 15:30; Eph. 6:18,19; 1 Thess. 5:25; 2 Thess. 3:1). Here are three Scriptural principles that I trust will encourage you to pray for your elders.
(1) Consider their responsibilities. Elders have been called to serve as overseers and shepherds of God’s flock. You are a sinner, often besieged by sin, and sometimes refuse to listen to loving, Scriptural advice given to you by an elder. You do not call the elder until there is a crisis. When the elder becomes involved, he is often viewed with suspicion rather than as a loving shepherd whose tender concern, counsel, and rebuke will restore health and holiness to your life. Or, at the eleventh hour of trouble, he is expected to work miracles. Even so, he must answer to God for the quality of oversight he provides for you and your family. Clearly, the elder must have your prayers, so that he may persevere in his office regardless of the condition of the sheep.
(2) Consider their weakness. The elder is weak. He scarcely has the time to watch over his own life adequately. He is frequently cast down before the Lord over his sins. Yet, he must continue watching over your life as he struggles with his own. He is not an oracle of infallibility. He is neglected, held in contempt, despised by his culture, and his office is disparaged by the world and many professing brothers. In the midst of this crooked and perverse generation, in which many of Christ’s sheep are scattered with few good shepherds to lead and guard them, he is called to watch tirelessly over you and your family. His heart is in the right place. He loves you as if you were his own child. He desires to fulfill his office faithfully, and he realizes that the only possible way he can do so is if the Holy Spirit empowers him with grace. His weakness leads him to fall on his face before the Lord; will you join him at the throne of grace? It is your soul for which he is pleading.
(3) Consider their judge. The elder will one day stand before the Lord and give an account of his labors. Dear Christian, you are not the only one who will be examined one day with respect to your life. Your elder must give an account for your life as well, at least in terms of how he shepherded you. Did you grow in grace? Did you use your gifts and skills to God’s glory? Did you raise your children in the fear and nurture of the Lord? Were you faithful in church attendance, tithing, and service? You will answer for these things, and so will your elders.
Let me exhort you to pray for those who rule over you, who counsel, rebuke, and guide you with loving counsel from God’s word. They have been called to this office by the Head of the church, Jesus Christ, chosen for this office from eternity by God the Father, and equipped for it by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. They are God’s men bearing God’s authority who care for God’s sheep. These sheep are the apple of God’s eye. He holds his elders accountable. Will you not pray for such men? Will you not find half an hour, even ten minutes, to pray that they might be strengthened to watch faithfully over their own lives as well as yours? As you pray for your elders, you are praying for yourself! May God stir up in each believer a spirit of fervent prayer for the elders who guard the sheep that the Son of God purchased with his own blood!
How is your relationship with your elders? It likely stands in need of improvement. To neglect your elder, child of God, is to neglect a gracious gift that Christ has given to his church. Give your elder a telephone call today. Tell him how much you value his labor in the Lord. Ask his forgiveness if you have not involved him in your life. Commit yourself afresh to his loving oversight. As you do, the great Shepherd of the sheep will bring a resurgence of Christian piety and discipline in our churches and make us the salt and light he redeemed us to be. Have you hugged your elder today? I hope so, not out of mere sentiment, but as a vivid token of the goodness and love of Jesus Christ for the church, and from a sincere desire to submit gladly to the rule of Jesus Christ through his consecrated elders. If you kiss him, you are kissing Jesus, for your elder is a gift of his love and a testimony of his concern for your wellbeing in the world.
For Reflection and Clarity
1. Give some of the authority and practical reasons for good relations between elders and God’s people.
2. Why will the elder’s authority always be a challenging issue in the church?
3. How should elders be treated by the church?
4. When is an elder’s authority absolutely to be obeyed? Possibly to be obeyed? Not to be obeyed?
5. Why should the church doubly honor elders who teach and preach God’s word?
6. How can elders encourage the congregation’s esteem and love?
7. Why should the congregation view the elder’s work as an extension of Christ’s work and love?
8. What is the biblical recourse for an abusive or unfaithful elder?
9. How would close elder-believer relationships mitigate or prevent serious sins issues in the church?
10. Discuss the powerful influence of a godly elder in a congregation.
11. What should be our response to the truth the elders will give an account to Christ of their oversight?
 One of the leading contentions between advocates of the Episcopalian and Presbyterian forms of church government is the proper identification of the two words “bishop” (episcopos) and “elder” (presbuteros). Defenders of Episcopalian (hierarchical) forms of church government insist that these two words refer to different offices and levels of authority in the church. Advocates of the Presbyterian form of church government refer these two words to the same office. The Presbyterian interpretation is decidedly correct textually, for in Acts 20:17, Paul calls for the elders of the Ephesian congregation and in the midst of his address to them refers to them as bishops. It is also correct historically, for the apostolic church knew nothing of hierarchical forms of church government and gradations of authority within the local congregation beyond the eldership (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). It is best to see these two words are related as follows: “The elder bishops; the elder oversees the life and doctrine of the church.”