Elders in Every Church (Part 1): The Needed Work of Elders

Elders in Every Church (Part 1): The Needed Work of Elders

As we begin this study, we are going to consider why elders are needed, what it is that makes elders special, and why Christians should desire to have elders in the local churches of which they are members. We will also briefly examine the work of elders as it is described in the New Testament.

The Need for Elders

Local churches need elders in order to follow the New Testament pattern. Paul told Timothy, “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:13). The word translated sound means to be in good health. In other words, following the pattern revealed in the New Testament is necessary for us to be healthy spiritually. Having elders in a local church is part of the “standard of sound words” that keeps a congregation – as well as the individual members – healthy in their service to the Lord.

Furthermore, with respect to this pattern or standard, the New Testament teaches that local churches are to have a plurality of elders – not just one man that rules over them in that capacity. When Paul and Barnabas visited the churches they helped to establish, they “appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23). When Paul came to Miletus, he met with the “elders of the church” in Ephesus (Acts 20:17). When the apostle wrote to Titus, he instructed him to “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). There is no example given nor inference to be drawn that would lead us to believe that churches in the New Testament had only one elder overseeing them. Every example of churches with elders indicates that there were at least two elders who would oversee each congregation.

Elders are also needed in order to shepherd the flock. Addressing elders in the church, Peter wrote, “Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness” (1 Peter 5:2). God’s people are often likened to sheep in the Scriptures. Sheep need a shepherd so they do not become scattered and, as a result, vulnerable to attacks from their enemies (cf. Ezekiel 34:5). In the same way, local churches need leadership from men who can serve as elders and watch over the flock among them.

The Specialness of Elders

Elders are special because they have been given by God. Paul wrote, “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11). The “pastors” mentioned in that verse are the elders. They have been given to help us do the work that God has given the church to do. They help in the “equipping of the saints for the work of service” (Ephesians 4:12).

Not only that, but elders are special because there are few who can serve as elders. As we will consider later in this study, there are qualifications that must be met before one can be appointed to serve as an elder (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Not everyone will be qualified to serve as an elder. In fact, some will never be qualified, even those who may be mature Christians themselves. We will discuss this further when we talk about the qualifications in more detail.

The Desire for Elders

We must desire elders so that we will not be lacking as a congregation. Again, when Paul told Titus to “appoint elders in every city,” this was to “set in order the things that are lacking” (Titus 1:5, NKJV). It is not necessarily wrong for a church to be without elders. After all, having only one elder or having unqualified elders violates the New Testament pattern. If there is not a plurality of qualified men to serve, then a church must not have elders. However, if a congregation does not have elders, they must be working toward having them. We should not be content in a condition that the Holy Spirit called “lacking.

We must also desire elders in order to have help in our individual lives as Christians. Regarding elders, the Hebrew writer said, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17). As elders “keep watch over [our] souls,” they provide us with much needed help in our spiritual lives. In the end, there is nothing more valuable than our soul (Matthew 16:26). Therefore, the safety of our soul is of utmost concern. When elders are able to do their job – watching over our souls – it benefits all the members of the local church. Jesus said, “For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14). The way to heaven is not an easy path. We need all the help we can get in reaching our goal.

The Work of Elders

As we have seen from the Scriptures, there is a need for elders in the local church. We have considered the fact that elders are special because they are part of God’s design for the church and because not everyone is able to serve in this role. We have also noticed that there should be a desire among those in the congregation to have elders in place to watch over the flock. But why are elders needed, special, and to be desired? It is because of the work that God has given elders to do.

First, elders are to shepherd the flock. Peter wrote, “Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3). This work of shepherding the flock involves several things.

  • Feeding the flock – Peter said that elders must “feed the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2, KJV). This is done by making sure the congregation is fed the word of God. Paul told Timothy that he was to be “constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following” (1 Timothy 4:6). The word of God provides nourishment that allows His children to grow (cf. 1 Peter 2:2; Hebrews 5:12-14). It is the responsibility of the elders to be sure that the congregation is receiving a proper diet of Scripture-based teaching.
  • Protecting the flock – Paul told the elders from the church in Ephesus, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). He then warned about the threats they needed to guard against (Acts 20:29-30). After listing the qualifications of elders, Paul told Titus that elders must be able to “refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). This was necessary because some were “upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach” (Titus 1:11). Elders are to protect the church against such attacks.
  • Leading the flock – In writing about elders, the Hebrew writer said, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17). Elders provide spiritual leadership to those in the congregation. This is done through the word of God (Hebrews 13:7), not contrary to it (Acts 20:30). In other words, elders are to lead those in the local church in the ways of Christ. If the elders seek to lead the congregation in a different direction, the Christians in that congregation are to reject them.

Second, elders must exercise oversight over the flock (1 Peter 5:2). This comes from a word that means “to look carefully, beware” (Thayer). This means that elders must be diligent, not half-hearted, in their efforts to oversee the congregation. Peter indicated that elders are to oversee the flock among them. In other words, elders only oversee one local church, not several. As they do this, they are responsible for keeping watch against threats to the church. These can come from without and within the congregation. Paul warned the Ephesian elders, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). Elders must be on guard for false teachers that may creep into the church. They must also look to themselves in case anyone from within the church attempts to lead others away from Christ.

Third, elders must be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3). When we study the qualifications for elders, we will notice that the character qualifications for elders are also characteristics that all Christians should develop. Elders must live in such a way that the congregation can imitate their life. Christians are even told to look to elders in this way: “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). Paul wrote, “Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us” (Philippians 3:17). This means that we should follow the godly example of all Christians who are following God’s word. However, elders, because of their position and the qualifications they had to meet before being appointed, should naturally be ones that the brethren in the local church can follow.

Summary

Elders in the local church are needed, special, and to be desired because they have an important work to do. However, we must also be careful that the right men are put in place as elders. So in the next three lessons, we will deal with the qualifications for elders that have been given to us in the word of God.

As we study this, keep in mind that God designed His church with elders for a reason. It is for our spiritual well-being (Hebrews 13:17). God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). After people obey the gospel, God takes “no pleasure” in them if they “shrink back to destruction” (Hebrews 10:38-39). Instead, He wants them to remain “faithful until death” (Revelation 2:10). God placed elders in the church in order to help accomplish this.


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