Who Leads The Church? The Elders serve as Shepherd Leaders.
What if the NFL playoffs were played according to “The unofficially official rules of Calvinball”? Calvinball is the game popularized by the great theologian Calvin . . . and Hobbes.
When I began my doctoral studies, I was in the first class of a brand new program. The graduation requirements seemed like they were changing every semester. The completion of the degree felt like I was aiming at a moving target. In hindsight, I was playing Calvinball without even knowing it.
There are times when we play a sanctified version of Calvinball in the church. We recruit people to serve as a teacher or a leader of some sort, but we don’t give them a job description, or at best, we leave it very fuzzy. We simply hand her a curriculum guide, point him to the boardroom, and tell the individual that all they need to do is “Love Jesus and Love people.”
When you come to the New Testament, you discover three different terms used interchangeably in Acts 20:17-28 and 1 Peter 5:1-2 that refer to the same church leaders. The Greek word for pastor or shepherd, “poimen,” refers to the attitude of the leader. The word for elder, “presbuteros,” refers to the character of the leader. The word for overseer, “episcopos,” refers to the task of the leader. The leaders of the church have the task of oversight. They are chosen on the basis of their character. They carry out their assignment with the loving concern of a shepherd.
Pastors and elders are not corporate executives, CEOs, or advisers. As keepers of the sheep, elders are to feed, lead, protect, care, and model godliness for the church.
The task of the elder includes:
- Feeding the Flock. The elders are responsible for teaching biblical truth (Acts 6:1-7) and equipping people with the knowledge and skills so they can serve well (Ephesians 4:11-16).
- Leading the Flock. To shepherd a nation or any group of people means to lead or govern. To shepherd a local church includes leadership, oversight, and management (1 Peter 5:1-2; Acts 11:29-30).
- Protecting the Flock. A major part of the elders’ work is to protect the local church from false teachers (Acts 20:28-31). Just as fathers are responsible for disciplining children who are unruly and rebellious, so elders are responsible as “multiple fathers” in the “church family” to discipline believers who are determined to willfully violate the will of God (1 Thessalonians 5:2).
- Caring for the Flock. Elders must be available to meet the needs of their flock. This means visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved; praying for the ill (James 5:14); strengthening the weak; praying for all the sheep, even those who are difficult; visiting new members; providing counsel for couples who are engaged, married, or divorcing; and managing the many day-to-day details of the inner life of the congregation. Rather than try to do it all themselves, the elders need to delegate many of the practical mercy needs of the congregation to the deacons (Acts 6:1-7).
- Modeling for the flock. Elders serve as godly examples for the members of the church (1 Timothy 4:12-13; 1 Peter 5:3).
- Shared leadership. Pastoral oversight of the churches was a team effort—not the sole responsibility of one person.
1 Timothy 5:17-18 explains that the congregation is to honor their elders. Those who are gifted in teaching and spend the time to do so should receive double honor or be paid for their service. Granting honor or paying a pastor or elder for their service is the easy part of the equation. The more difficult task is to obey and submit to their authority (Hebrews 13:17).
In the mid seventeenth century, the rule of Oliver Cromwell in Great Britain began with the execution of Charles I and continued with a ruthless agenda to rid England of any vestige of the monarchy. Targeted in the aftermath of the civil war were the Anglicans who were tied closely to the king who had served as head of the church. Cromwell emptied the monasteries, removed baptismal fonts from the churches, defamed the clergy, and did everything in his power to disengage their place and influence in the culture. If you were an Anglican pastor, these were tough times to be in the religion business.
In the face of such times there were some who were undaunted. An inspiring but little known inscription hidden away in Harold Church, Staunton, England reads like this: “In the year of 1653, when all things sacred were throughout the nation destroyed or profaned, this church was built to the glory of God by Sir Robert Shirley, whose singular praise it was to have done the best things in the worst times.”
While we may not live in a time of civil war, the church and especially its leaders are under attack today. Their authority has been dismissed and their honor disregarded.
We need to get back to a biblical understanding of the role and responsibility of the elders. A true biblical eldership is not a businesslike committee. It’s a biblically qualified council of men that jointly pastors the local church. The elders are charged with protecting, feeding, leading, and caring for our needs. We need to make their task easier by placing ourselves under their authority.
This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Baptist Church in Chicopee, MA, on January 12, 2014. It is part of a series in 1 Timothy. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.