The Role of Elders in Christ’s Church
Whether a man is a president of the greatest nation on earth, the wealthiest man in history, or the greatest athlete ever known, no one occupies a place of more strategic importance than one who is to oversee and guide the church Jesus Christ promised to build. In this continuing series of lessons, we are investigating the statement Jesus made, “Upon this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). His assurance that nothing and no one would ever hinder His plans for His church was twofold. First, He empowered men called apostles to plant the church in the world through gospel preaching. Paul could later say, “I planted, Apollos watered, and God gives the increase” (I Corinthians 3:6), as he spoke of the establishment of the church of Christ in the ancient city of Corinth. Second, Christ set up a system of local government for His church by ordaining the office of elders, who are also called pastors and bishops. We have seen how they are selected, and in this study we will look at their role in the church. What do they do?
Acts 20:17 reads, “And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church.” This was said of Paul. He knew these men well. For three years he had labored diligently with them to establish and strengthen the church in Ephesus. At this point in the great apostle’s life he realized that this would be his last opportunity to see these good men. And he knew something about them they may have thought was impossible. Verses 29 and 30 read, “I know that after my departing grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock, and from among your own selves shall men arise speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” Through revelation, Paul knew the apostasy would begin in Ephesus and some of those with whom he had closely worked would spearhead it.
A warning was issued. Acts 20:28 reads, “Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you bishops (or overseers), to feed the church of the Lord which He purchased with His own blood.” There is only one kind of bishop in the entire Bible. He is not a universal bishop, nor a diocesan bishop, nor a ward bishop. He is simply an overseer of a local church of Christ. Just here we should also be advised that in the New Testament there is never a mention of the Bishop, or the Elder, or the Pastor, when referring to men who are in charge of the work Christ gives His church to do. The New Testament is consistent in the use of the plural number of elders, bishops, or pastors. The one man bishopric, pastorate, or eldership is unknown in the Bible.
The first duty of elders is to “take heed to” themselves. The New International Version changes the words to “keep watch over yourselves.” Elders are to oversee their own lives as well as the flock of God where they are appointed to serve. This is the first thing found in the New Testament that is directed to elders. The first duty any eldership has is self attention. This is a principle found numerous times in the Bible in a general way. Jesus said, “And why behold you the mote that is in your brother’s eye, but consider not the beam that is in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3). Every Christian stands under this obligation. “Try your own selves, whether you are in the faith; prove your own selves” (II Corinthians 13:5). In order to function properly, elders must know their own lives inside and out.
A man who was first a shepherd, then a king wrote: “Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your your own heart upon your bed, and be still” (Psalm 4:4). Everyone needs time for quiet personal introspection. This is especially true of men who have the grave duty of overseeing the church Jesus brought into existence. Peter wrote, “Tend the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight, not of constraint, but willingly, according to the will of God, nor yet for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind” (I Peter 5:2). The work cannot be forced upon one. Therefore, an elder ought to know that the work he has been given to do is what he willingly, and freely is willing to do.
But the elders are to also “take heed...to all the flock of God.” Watching over the entire flock certainly requires such great virtues as patience, diligence, and knowledge. “All the flock” is confined to the members of a single local church. There is no authority for the bishops of one local church to even be concerned with the affairs of another local church, much less try to oversee their functions and work. The possible exception would be when one eldership seeks to nullify or interfere with the actions of another church.
Keeping vigilant watch over the flock the Holy Spirit has placed them over requires a knowledge of the flock. Jesus spoke of good shepherds where the shepherd leads the flock into the right kind of life. Of Himself, Jesus said, “I am come that they may have life, and may have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:10-11). The good shepherd of any flock is first and foremost interested in the quality of life his sheep enjoy. He goes before them to find the best pasture for grazing, the well watered meadows, and the place where there is the least danger.
William M. Thompson, in his book, The Land and the Book, published by Baker Book House, wrote:
“The shepherd goes before, not merely to point out the way, but to see that it is practicable and safe. He is armed in order to defend his charge; and in this he is very courageous. Many adventures with wild beasts occur not unlike that recounted by David, and in these very mountains; for, though there are no lions here, there are wolves in abundance; and leopards and panthers, exceeding fierce, prowl about these wild wadies. They not unfrequently attack the flock in the very presence of the shepherd, and he must be ready to do battle at a moment’s notice. I have listened with intense interest to their graphic descriptions of downright and desperate fights with these savage beasts. When the thief and the robber come (and come they do(, the faithful shepherd has often to put his life in his hand to defend his flock. I have known more than one case in which he had literally to lay it down in the contest. ... The shepherd calls sharply from time to time, to remind them of his presence. They know his voice, and follow on; but if a stranger call, they stop short, lift up their heads in alarm, and, if it is repeated, they turn and flee, because they know not the voice of the stranger.” (Page 203).
This fine statement focuses on the function of all elders of all churches of Christ.
They are also to “feed the church of the Lord.” This application to elders points to the obligation to see that the word of the Lord is available, is prepared correctly, and suits the needs of the flock. Peter wrote, “As newborn babes, long for the spiritual milk which is without guile, that you may grow thereby unto salvation, if you have tasted that the Lord is gracious” (1 Pet. 2:2-3). From the book of Hebrews we take this statement: “For when by reason you ought to be teachers, you have need again that some one teach you the rudiments of the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of solid food. For everyone that partakes of milk is without experience of the word of righteousness for he is a babe” (Heb. 5:12-13). And Jesus declared, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh profits nothing. The words that I have spoken unto you are spirit and are life” (John 6:63). The flock of God will never survive that feeds on anything other than the word of the Lord. Today, when religion turns more and more away from fundamental Bible teaching to a socially oriented focus, people are being systematically starved to death, spiritually.
Watching over and feed the local church also embraces the duty of elders to “watch for the souls” of their charge. Hebrews 13:17 holds instructions to the flock. “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit to them, for they watch in behalf of your souls...” If there is a more solemn duty for anyone one must simply wonder what could it be. To watch for the soul of another is to be continually alert to anything that might damage or destroy that soul. Through persistent vigilance, elders know the members of the flock and members of the flock know them.
Religious orders that are elaborately and intricately organized, that follow some man made form of church organization openly advertise that they have no interest in simple New Testament Christianity. No church today can be identified as the one Jesus said He would build that does not follow the apostolic pattern for church organization which includes elders who take heed to themselves and to the whole flock over which they have been appointed as overseers or bishops. It is our solemn conviction that the church of Christ today follows the divine blueprint with neither addition nor subtraction.
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