The New Testament sets forth the leadership of the local church in men who serve as the elders. They are leaders, but they are also servants.
Sometimes the elders are called “bishops,” or “pastors.” In Acts 14:23, the apostle Paul set men in position of leadership men to serve as elders. He did this by the authority of the Holy Spirit.
Yet, what example could he have used to help the men serve effectively? For that matter, what is an elder in the New Testament modeled after?
There are two points I want to give some attention to in this article. First, there is an example not to follow. Secondly, we want to consider what the New Testament says about an elder.
Before we give some attention to this, let us understand briefly that the word “elder” conveys one who has gained wisdom by virtue of age and devotion to God. An elder is one who is good standing with the local church and the community. Elders, however, are men; and men can make poor decisions.
The Judgment of Elders
Because elders are men, it is wise to consider the Lord’s perspective on leadership when He spoke against the shepherds of Israel in Jeremiah 23. It is there that we read, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of My pasture!” says the Lord (Jeremiah 23:1).
The Lord was very “put off” by the pitiful leadership that was exercised by these men over God’s people. In fact, looking at the first four verses, we learn what the shepherds of Israel did.
First, they drove the people away. Second, they did not see to the needs of those to whom they were given responsibility. Third, they did not feed the flock of God. Fourth, the flock of God experienced fear and dismay toward those leading them. Each one of these reasons is interlocked together. In other words, the people were driven away because of the lack of leadership, and the lack of leadership resulted because the leadership refused to be led by the word of God. This allowed fear and dismay to reside in a confused people.
Are the “shepherds” of Jeremiah 23 referring to elders in a New Testament context? No, the “shepherds” of Jeremiah refer to the kings over the nation (3:15; 25:36). We learn, however, that the God-ordained “shepherds” in an Old Testament context do give us principles of application in a New Testament context.
Moreover, the ones identified in the chapter include more than just an Israelite or Judean king. In the context of Jeremiah 23, those identified are “shepherds,” “prophets,” and “priests.”
While it is true that the word “shepherds” is applied to the kings of the nations, it would be a mistake to think that spiritual leadership in the form of prophets and priests would not also be included. The king leads the nation, but who are the spiritual teachers?
Thus, we learn what leadership failings existed in Jeremiah’s time, and why the nation went into physical captivity. Though not directly connected to those of us in our day, the principles of righteous leadership shout out loudly to those who pay attention to what is said by the Holy Spirit.
The Work of an Elder
In a New Testament context, we also have shepherds who have responsibilities. In Peter’s letter to the saints scattered abroad, he exhorts the men who serve as elders (presbuteros, presbyters) to be mindful of their charge (1 Peter 5:1-4).
First, they are to shepherd (poimen, pastor) the flock. This means they are to feed, protect, and rule the congregation. How shall they go about this? Think about feeding a flock. A livestock owner can have his animals fed by another person who has no ultimate responsibility for that livestock, or he can tend to their needs himself. When he does so, he then becomes involved in the lives of those for whom he is responsible. If he desires the livestock to produce that for which they were created by God, then this is part and parcel of his work.
In the same way, elders of the church are to take an active part in teaching the flock. The phrase “apt to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2) is important in this regard. An elder needs to be one able to teach. This implies knowledge of the subject (the Scriptures).
“Sunday Schools” are a relatively recent invention of man since the time of the first century. Thus, the phrase “apt to teach” does not have direct application to that environment, but there is no reason to think that it is not a fitting location where much teaching can be done by those in the eldership.
Second, the elders of the congregation are to protect the flock. This is done in two ways. Not only is there correct teaching (1 Timothy 3:16-17) whereby God’s shield is set up around the congregation; but there is also the necessary resistance to the words of man that are contrary to the Holy Spirit’s teaching (Titus 1:9). It is important to note that what is taught to the congregation of the Lord’s people is not the opinions of men, but only that which is directly revealed in God’s word. Paul said that he dare not speak of anything but that which Christ had accomplished through him, and this includes teaching (Romans 15:18).
Third, the elders are to rule the congregation. For some, this is a frightful word. It conveys a dictatorial idea to them. If the elders are led by the example of Jesus, then this couldn’t be further from the truth!
An elder is to be a leader like Jesus, in so far as he can (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:1). To be an overseer implies leadership, and leadership implies authority, and those in a position of authority have a ruling capacity to exercise.
Thus, elders (presbyters) are men who are in a position of authority, called upon by God to oversee (rule) the affairs of the local congregation.
Guy N. Woods once wrote, “elders are obligated to superintend and direct the affairs of the congregation committed to their care” (Commentary on Peter, p. 124).
Among the Saints
All of this can be done very well if they are among the saints. That is, to borrow the words of another, if they “smell like sheep.” Elders are not “directors,” but workers. They don’t serve at a distance, but they serve in the midst of those they work alongside.
A fitting quote by Jack Bates is appropriate.
…the bishops are so dedicated that, in the true spirit of leadership, they are concerned not so much with governing as an administrative board as with the challenge of leading and nurturing the flock into greater areas of spiritual growth and service. This means that they are taking the lead in securing not just statistics on a board on the wall, but they are deeply concerned with developing the qualities of Christ-likeness (“Solving the Preacher Shortage,” The Minister’s Monthly, January 1961, p. 214).
The Character of an Elder
In Peter’s exhortation, he gives a number of positive characteristics for the man who serves as an elder. He serves willingly, eagerly, and as an example. There are also some negative qualities to be avoided. He must not feel compelled to serve, and neither should he do so for dishonest gain. Moreover, there is only one Lord over the congregation, and that is the Chief Shepherd.
An elder is also to be an example to those he leads. When the leaders lead, the people follow – an adage that if not true absolutely, is not far from it. They lead best by living and demonstrating the life of Christ in their own lives.
A man who serves willingly understands that he is in a position to help those in desperate need. This willing spirit radiates a spirit that others can’t help but see.
He might receive a call during the evening hours to help some poor sister who is struggling to maintain her spiritual survival, and this is the only time she has her wits to call. An elder, by the nature of his position, is in a work that results in being inconvenienced on occasion. This godly work, inconvenienced or not, is a work he willingly accepts.
There is a model given by the Lord to man wherein he can model himself, and that model is the Lord Jesus. He is our Chief Shepherd.
From Jeremiah 23 we learn that shepherds over God’s people have a tremendous obligation. Failing to exercise godly/spiritual leadership is disastrous for the men who serve and for those led. As Jesus led, elders of the Lord’s church are to lead and serve.
In conclusion, we can say the work of the elders is to feed the saints with the pure word of God, not mixed with the teachings of men. Furthermore, they are directly involved in the teaching. Without knowing the congregation and the needs of the saints, their effectiveness at teaching and leading will be limited.
Let us, as men who serve as elders, be sure we look to our Chief Shepherd.