The Nature of Biblical Eldership (Part 2)
Eldership has a context within the biblical narrative. Throughout Scripture, the Lord reveals his covenant care for his people in terms of a Shepherd caring for his sheep (e.g., Ps 23:1-6; Jer 23:1-6; Ezek 34:1-31; Matt 2:6; 9:36; Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:1-4; Rev 7:17). As God's ultimate self-revelation (John 1:18), Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11-18). When the New Testament applies the term pastor (or better, shepherd) to the elders of the church (Eph 4:11; 1 Pet 5:2; cf. Acts 20:28), it signals that elders must reflect the same kind of concern and care that God has for his own covenant people throughout the Bible. Indeed, the elder must handle his role in a manner that reflects the sacrificial love of Good Shepherd himself, who came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.
Thus, when we discuss the nature of biblical eldership, we are seeking to answer the question, What should Jesus Christ’s care for the church look like when it comes through the elders (cf. Eph 4:8, 11)? Using terms often associated with shephering in the Scriptures, we could summarize the nature of eldership under four headings: lead, feed, protect, and care.
Elders Lead the Church
To begin, elders lead the church. Paul explains to Timothy that an elder “must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church?” (1 Tim 3:4-5). Hebrews 13:17 says to “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” The assumption behind these passages, and others like them, is that elders bear the primary responsibility in leading, managing, and overseeing God’s people (e.g., Acts 20:28; Phil 1:1; 1 Thess 5:12; 1 Tim 5:17; 1 Pet 5:1-2).
Such leadership entails preaching the gospel, clarifying vision, giving direction, stewarding resources, correcting sin, guiding sheep, setting goals, and promoting spiritual health, all of which stem from a sound and consistent application of the word of God. At Redeemer Church, such leadership comes to the church through avenues like corporate worship, one-on-one discipleship, counseling, lunch meetings, small group leader meetings, and other specialized teaching/training. The elders also lead the church in monthly members’ meetings in which the congregation is able to interact with the elders regarding the work of ministry and the life of the church.
Elders Feed the Church
The best leadership for the church are elders who continually allow God’s word to govern the church in her beliefs, worship, fellowship, longings, activities, goals, and overall well-being. Whether praying, singing, teaching, counseling, writing, or discerning, the Scriptures keep God’s word central to the life of a congregation (e.g., Rom 10:17; 1 Cor 15:2; Col 1:25; 3:16; 1 Tim 4:13, 16; 2 Tim 3:15-17; Heb 13:7; 1 Pet 1:23). This is why elders must understand the Scriptures and be skilled in teaching them to the church (1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:9). As elders nourish the congregation with the truth of God’s word, the people follow the voice of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and conform their lives to his lordship. In this sense, elders are to be exemplary disciple-makers, equipping the saints with the word to perform the work of ministry (Matt 28:18-20; Eph 4:11-13; 2 Tim 2:2).
Elders Protect the Church
Just as elders feed the church with God’s word, so also elders protect the church by God’s word. Based on their prayerful attention to God’s word, elders purge the church from and call her attention to whatever contradicts God’s word and may bring harm to the church’s overall well-being (Acts 20:28-32; 2 Tim 4:3; cf. Rom 16:17). They must help the church hold fast to sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it (Tit 1:9). As 2 Peter and Jude demonstrate, false teaching will lead to false living. Thus, the elders must protect the church by instilling the truth. Only the truth sets people free.
Yet such protection reaches beyond the preservation of sound doctrine. In fact, sound doctrine in the heart will lead to sound practices in the church. For example, God's concern to protect the most vulnerable in society would direct elders to ensure that their church has strong childcare policies in place and that the workers abide by them. Or, if a church had widows who were in need, it would be wise to put a plan in place to ensure their protection (e.g., 1 Tim 5:1-16; Acts 6:1-7). Or, if a church member pursues a dating relationship with a non-Christian, the elders' would protect that individual by counseling them away from that kind of relationship with a non-Christian (cf. "only in the Lord" in 1 Cor 7:39).
Elders Care for the Church
Finally, elders care for the church by responding to practical needs among the congregation. In Acts 20:35, Paul exhorted the elders saying, “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” And James 5:14 exhorts the church like so: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” In both cases, the Bible envisions elders who care for God’s flock, helping the weak in their midst through servitude and prayer. Some of this care may certainly be distributed for other saints to handle (e.g., Acts 6:1-7; Gal 6:2; Eph 4:11-13; 1 Tim 3:8-13), but elders must lead in exemplifying such care, so that others might imitate them. In doing so, they also display the generosity of Christ himself towards his church and help the congregation grow in active care for one another.