“Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears. And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified. I have coveted no man's silver, or gold, or apparel. Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me. I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:28-35).”
I would like to draw your attention to Alexander Strauch’s excellent book, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership. A short course based upon this book is found here.
Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership, Rev Exp edition (Littleton, Colorado: Lewis & Roth Publishers, 1995)
Instead of providing the readers with a book review, I would like to explore briefly the theme of biblical eldership with some quotations from Strauch’s superb book. Many churches, including churches from the Protestant tradition, have reduced the office of the elder to only an administrative authority within the church. These “elders” serve within the session only to provide his vote on certain issues or to accompany the pastor during house visitation. They are sometimes policymakers, financial controllers, administrative officers, or the church’s resident psychologist. But their responsibilities do not go beyond the scope of community and social service. They oversee the flock by smiling regularly, and of course, by providing a goodly example in a very secular sense of the word. But it seems that the theological sense of the Word is neglected.
So what are the very basic responsibilities of the elder within the church? Are they simply the “members of parliament” within the church’s session?
1. Pastoral leadership (“to feed the church of God” Acts 20:28)
Regarding the office of elder, Alexander Strauch wrote, “When most Christians hear about church elders, they think of an official church board, lay officials, influential people within the local church, or advisers to the pastor. They think of elders as being policymakers, financial officers, fund-raisers, or administrators. I call these types of elders “board elders.” People don’t expect “board elders” to teach the Word or to be involved pastorally in people’s lives. … A person doesn’t need to read Greek or be professionally trained in theology to understand that the contemporary, church-board concept of eldership is irreconcilably at odds with the New Testament definition of eldership. According to the New Testament, elders lead the church, teach and preach the Word, protect the church from false teachers, exhort and admonish the saints in sound doctrine, visit the sick and pray, and judge doctrinal issues. In biblical terminology, elders shepherd, oversee, lead, and care for the local church.”
So it boils down to basically what it means to “rule” the church. What does Jesus our Lord expect of the elder? The answer is: to feed His sheep (John 21:15-17). And what does it mean to feed His sheep? As Strauch has perceptively stated, it is to provide pastoral, spiritual, doctrinal and disciplinary leadership within the church. The elder’s job is not simply to sit in session to cast a vote, or to provide more sound and fury to session meetings. He must be a qualified man of God, and qualified to teach, preach, lead, and edify the saints (by now I know I’m getting into a lot of trouble with some Reformed folks out there!).
2. Protecting the flock (“Therefore watch” Acts 20:31)
According to the apostle Paul, the elder must be a man well versed in the Scriptures, and able to refute false doctrines and false teachers. The shepherds of the church - the elders - must protect the church from ravaging wolves. “Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers (Titus 1:6-9).”
When questioned about certain doctrinal or practical issues (i.e. basic theology, practical theology), the elder should not tell the member that all views are acceptable, as long as he respects the other contradictory views. Likewise, he should not say, “I am not qualified to teach you. Ask the pastor. I cannot give you an official answer on behalf of the church.” The elder must and should give an accurate answer according to Scripture, and also in accordance to the doctrine of the church. The elder is, of course, expected to give an answer! Or else, he should not aspire to be one.
3. Feeding the flock (“able to teach” 1 Tim. 3:2)
Strauch continues, “Paul reminds the Ephesian elders that he has taught them and the church the full plan and purpose of God: “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). Now it was time for the elders to do the same. Since elders are commanded to shepherd the flock of God (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2), part of their shepherding task is to see that the flock is fed God’s Word.”
In 1 Tim. 5:17-18, Paul wrote, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward.” Although we realize that this verse is the cause of debates even amongst Reformed circles concerning the categories of elders within the church (i.e. teaching and ruling elders), it seems that Paul does not limit the responsibility of authoritative teaching to only a special class of elders. It is true that there are those “who labour in the word and doctrine.” But this does not mean that the other elders are not to serve by teaching the word and doctrine.
We must try to restrain ourselves in making fine distinctions and categories within the office of elder based upon this verse of Scripture. If there is any distinction within the elders, it is not in the realm of function, authority or domain, but as Towner had aptly said, “The main distinction is probably between those elders who had faithfully discharged their duties (whether leading well and preaching/teaching, or, in the case of some lacking the latter gifts, just exercising leadership), and those who had failed. The instructions imply that one or more elders had been accused of something (Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdsman, 2006), 361).”
Elders who are worthy of double honor (1 Tim. 5:17), according to Paul’s definition of “double honor” (see 1 Tim. 5:18), seems to involve some form of “material compensation (p. 363),” although the precise meaning of this phrase is difficult to ascertain. But certainly this verse in 1 Timothy cannot be used to exclude the responsibility of authoritative teaching/preaching from the other elders. Knight, in his excellent commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, confirms that all elders must be able to teach, “It is likely, therefore, that here [1 Tim 5:17], too, he is speaking of a subgroup of the “overseers” that consists of those who are especially gifted by God to teach, as opposed to other overseers, who must all “be able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2).” (George W. Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 233.) It, therefore, seems logical to conclude that elders, who must all be able to teach, ought to teach the congregation.
4. Leading the flock (“Let the elders who rule [lead, direct, manage] well be considered worthy of double honor” 1 Tim. 5:17a)
Strauch continues, “In biblical language, to shepherd a nation or any group of people means to lead or govern (2 Sam. 5:2; Ps. 78:71, 72). According to Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5, elders are to shepherd the church of God. So, to shepherd a local church means, among other things, to lead the church. To the church in Ephesus, Paul writes, “Let the elders who rule [lead, direct, manage] well be considered worthy of double honor” (1 Tim. 5:17a). Elders, then, are to lead, direct, govern, manage, and otherwise care for the flock of God. …”
“In Titus 1:7, Paul insists that a prospective elder be morally and spiritually above reproach because he will be “God’s steward.” A steward is a “household manager,” someone with official responsibility over the master’s servants, property, and even finances. Elders are stewards of God’s household, the local church.”
We read in Peter’s epistle, “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind (1 Peter 5:1-2).”
As overseers, elders are to provide pastoral oversight of the local church. This oversight is part of spiritual leadership, and definitely involves more than making one’s presence felt within the church. The elder needs not be handsome like Absalom, or tall and dark like Saul. He needs not be eloquent like Prime Minister Lee, or be a master of equivocation like President Bush. But he is definitely required to be an over-seer of the church’s spiritual and physical welfare. This spiritual leadership is via godly example, “neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3).” The church has no place for a Hitler or a Diotrephes.
It is a shame whenever the elder’s family is not ruled appropriately. How can he rule the church when he cannot even rule his own wife and children? How can he teach the church when he is not even sure of what is right and wrong according to Scripture? Any elder should know that his life and family is opened to scrutiny from the church members. If they are not fulfilling their ecclesiastical duties, they should rightly be rebuked with a view for improvement. In a sense, yes, there may be gossips, and such gossiping is sin on the part of church members. But if the church leader is sinning, or if his family members are sinning, it reflects badly upon the leader’s attitude towards correction from his brethren if he considers such advice as “gossiping.” An elder or leader is not beyond reproach, and not all who comment on a leader’s life and family are doing out of spite or jealousy.
5. Meeting the flock’s practical needs (James 5:14; Acts 20:35)
This lies within the territory of practical theology. If one is not even knowledgeable of basic scriptural teachings, how can he apply the Word to everyday living? The elder must be able to answer questions such as these: “Should we go clubbing? If not, why?” “What should we wear whenever we go out?” “What are the roles of the man and woman?” “Why can’t we sing jazz or rock and roll in church worship?” “Why am I dying of cancer?” “Why are there sufferings?”
The elder must be gifted and able to apply the Word to the members’ life. He must be able to meet the spiritual needs of the congregation through his skilled usage of Scripture and doctrine. “As shepherds of the flock, the elders must be available to meet the sheep’s needs. This responsibility includes: visiting the sick and comforting the bereaved; strengthening the weak; praying for all the sheep; visiting new members; providing counsel for couples who are engaged, married, and/or divorcing; and managing the many, day-to-day details related to the inner life of the congregation (Strauch).”
6. Sacrificial hard work for the Church
Regarding the office of elder, Alexander Strauch emphasized, “When the church eldership is viewed as a status or board position in the church, there will be plenty of volunteers. When it is viewed as a demanding, pastoral work, few people will rush to volunteer. One reason there are so few shepherd elders or good church elderships is that, generally speaking, men are spiritually lazy. That is a major reason why most churches never establish a biblical eldership. Men are more than willing to let someone else fulfill their spiritual responsibilities, whether it be their wives, the clergy, or church professionals. …”
“Biblical eldership, however, can’t exist in an atmosphere of nominal Christianity. There can be no biblical eldership in a church where there is no biblical Christianity. If a biblical eldership is to function effectively, it requires men who are firmly committed to living out our Lord’s principles of discipleship. Biblical eldership is dependent on men who seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matt. 6:33), men who have presented themselves as living and holy sacrifices to God and view themselves as slaves of the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 12:1,2), men who love Jesus Christ above all else, men who willingly sacrifice self for the sake of others, men who seek to love as Christ loved, men who are self-disciplined and self-sacrificing, and men who have taken up the cross and are willing to suffer for Christ.”
If a man does not love Christ and his teachings more than material comfort, mammon, or his own reputation, how can he be trusted with the things of eternity? Eldership is great responsibility, and an elder cannot be chosen quickly. The quantity of elder should never be the priority, but the quality of the elder should be. Even in cases of dire need of leadership, we must not put a man into the office of elder simply because of the necessity of the circumstances. A man must be tried and tested, and be found worthy of the office of eldership.
7. A comment on the practice of term eldership
There is a sensitive and taboo area within Reformed circles that I hope to mention in this short discussion. Those who disagree with me would do well to note that I do not want to take issue with this. But I am, after all, entitled to voice my thoughts.
The traditional Reformed practice of term eldership creates an interesting scenario whereby numerous men who were ordained as elders are coexisting, serving, and teaching within the same local church. Such men - whose term of eldership has expired - are officially no longer elders, despite the fact that there were ordained by the laying on of hands by the presbytery. I have heard of men being put out of the eldership because of serious sin, doctrinal aberration, or other disqualifications. But to be “unordained” because the pages of the calendar were irreversibly torn off is something truly novel and refreshingly disturbing. Or perhaps these ex-elders were never “unordained;” in which case, they are still ordained elders! This creates the tricky situation whereby men who are unofficially church officers serving with men who were never church officers. But no one can deny the fact that there is always a lingering shadow of unspoken authority behind an ex-elder-teacher, especially when compared to a never-was-an-elder ordinary member. And such was the situation in some churches whereby half a dozen ex-elder-teachers “share” the Word together with currently serving elder-teachers. The never-was-an-elder-member to elder/ex-elder ratio is sometimes 1:1, of even 1:2 or 1:3.
So what is the big deal? James taught, “My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation (James 3:1).” The word masters here means teachers (didaskaloi). Both Dan Phillips and my brother-in-Christ Daniel had posted on this issue. Daniel, particularly, posted this after he realized that certain churches actually have numerous ex-elders within its membership. The point is this: do not put a man into office as elder unless he qualifies, and this includes being apt to teach. The church is not meant to have “many teachers (James 3:1).”
It will be strange if God plans to gift certain churches with so many mouths, and tilting the balance of body parts towards the mouths. But the church is a body of believers, each with a different gift. It is indeed odd if Christ has given a church so many elders and ex-elders, each one serving a term of a few years, and after that, disappearing into the background of anonymity and inactivity. An elder is called. An elder is gifted by God. And an elder serves willingly without constrains.
The other issue with regard to term office is this: it results in numerous “retired teachers” within the same church, each with a tenure whereby he is held accountable for what he taught as an elder. The responsibility of an elder-teacher is huge, and God will not only hold us accountable for every idle word (Matt. 12:36), but also for the teachings of the man who hold the office of elder. So James exhorts us, “not many of you should become teachers.” But in the case of churches having term eldership, there are indeed many ordained teachers within the same church.
This, however, is not the case in all Reformed churches. Most churches re-elect the elder to serve for terms on end. In some Presbyterian circles in Singapore, the eldership is a term office of two years or so, but the elder almost always serve for life. This is because the church recognizes the qualifications and gifts of the godly man of God, and he continues to serve the church until the Lord pronounces a sabbatical upon his tenure either by sickness, inability or death.
The office of elder seems to be a permanent office in the New Testament churches. With regard to the permanence of the office of elders and deacons, even Douglas Kuiper admits that based upon “scriptural data … it is pointed out, for instance, that Scripture nowhere speaks of such limited tenure; but, on the other hand, it does seem to teach the principle of lifetime service. In the Old Testament, the kings of Israel/Judah, in the line of David, served in office for life or until sickness or old age prevented them from carrying out their work; the priests served many years in the temple; and the prophets also were not limited in their tenure. In the New Testament, we find no limit on the length of service for deacons or elders. And our own practice, as well as that of the church throughout history, has been that our ministers serve in their office for life. Consistency would require us, then, to allow elders and deacons to do the same.” See Douglas Kuiper, “The Election and Installation of Deacons (6) Tenure of Office,” The Standard Bearer 79, no. 19 (2003).
Some had argued pragmatically that the practice of term offices allows other equally (or more) gifted men within the church to serve as church officers (i.e. elders and deacons). But this suggestion can easily be turned upon itself by asking the question, “Why is this pragmatic reasoning not applied to the election of the office of pastor-teacher, who is likewise an ordained elder in a very technical and theological sense?” There can easily be seminary-trained men within the congregation who can replace the “term” office of a pastor-teacher! So should we then ask the pastor to serve out his term of say two to four years, and subsequently ask the other men to “serve” and “use their spiritual gifts?” If the pastor-teacher is an ordained church officer, the other “ruling” elders are also ordained by the laying on of hands and were similarly set apart for their ministry. This conclusion only shows the weakness of such pragmatic paralogism. God often gives the church only one pastor-teacher, and a handful of elders. These men are not to be changed according to the whims of some traditional ecclesiastical practices.
Rev Kuiper, arguing for the term office practice, writes, “(The) more weighty (reasons), again, are the principle reasons. One is that Scripture, being silent on the issue, leaves it to the liberty of the churches to do as they please. The fact that God does not expressly require that office bearers serve for life means that He could be glorified either way.”
It is strange that the Regulative Principle of Worship is often applied in the order of worship and sacraments, but not in the important realm of ecclesiastical leadership. But again, Rev Kuiper had stated that Scripture “does seem to teach the principle of lifetime service.” How is it, then, that Scripture is being extremely silent on this issue? The church father Polycarp did not seem to have served only a term office, only to give himself to the flames of martyrdom. Neither did Peter or John the elder served for only a time, and subsequently was converted to the status of ex-elder “emeritus.” It seems clear that the ordination of elders in the New Testament churches were a permanent setting aside of certain men for the office of elder, and the same can be said of deacons. These men were not ordained with the view of temporal service. These men were tested, examined against the high standards of Scripture, and accepted both by the session and members as men of extraordinary faith, maturity, and knowledge. Most of all, the men who are to be installed as elders should be selected by God himself.
Rev Kuiper continues, “Another argument (for term office) is that, generally speaking, the Holy Spirit has given the gifts of ruling and shewing mercy to many people in the church. By having terms of office, more people are given the opportunity to use their gifts in the service of the church and God.” We also know that many members of the fairer sex also possess “gifts of ruling and shewing mercy to many people in the church.” Should we then ordain women as elders? I’m sure Rev Kuiper is not encouraging an egalitarian interpretation of the Pastoral Epistles.
In summary, Christ has given the church some to be elders, some deacons, and some to serve in other areas. It is very unlikely that the spiritual gifts get rotated through the members via term offices, and it is even more unlikely that God withdraws the gifts of specific men as elders and deacons from a church in a short span of a few years, only to give other men for similar offices. If an elder falls due to sin or disqualifies himself in any manner, the church should withdraw him from the office of elder. Until such a man fails Christ and the Church, let us recognize the spiritual gifts given to such a man of God, and let us place him in his God-ordained office for the edification of the saints, and for the glory of God our Creator, who is blessed forever more. Amen.