It is almost unreal to us that we are living in the twenty-first century Looking back on more than half a century of preaching and teaching the Word of God in close fellowship with assemblies who gather in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ makes me wonder at the speed at which these years have flown. Paul’s words have more meaning to us than ever, “Redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Eph 5:16).
I have been asked to write on the one subject which impresses me as being one of the greatest needs of this new century. This is a cause for deep exercise because our needs are many. Brethren who have already written in this series have covered such necessary subjects as the need for personal and collective restoration and the need to evangelize with zeal and effectiveness. They have also referred to the great need to reestablish the precious truths of gathering in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the need for shepherds to be raised up by the Holy Spirit. There is no doubt that a powerful case can be made that we need more godly and gifted teachers and preachers, but the need for godly elders is greater.
The Need for Elders
My outline could have included the necessity for elders and the number of them that is required in an assembly The teaching of the NT is that every assembly must have a plurality of elders. There are times when an assembly has been reduced to as few as two men to guide it. When this number is reduced to one, then we question if the lampstand still exists. However, we have known cases where an assembly did get so small that its continuance was in question, but God in grace visited the little company and revived it. It is then that we can appreciate those who have hung on in the face of deep discouragement and remained faithful to the truth of gathering in His name until God revived the work.
The need for elders to be raised up by the Holy Spirit of God in assemblies has never been greater. The Spirit of God is engaged in at least five distinct ministries. He gathers believers to the Lord Jesus Christ, the divine gathering Center (Matt 18:20). He glorifies the Lord in the midst of His people so that an assembly is the place where we can behold the beauty of the Lord (Ps 27:4). He is the unfailing Guide who through the Holy Scriptures gives us direction for every circumstance. He is also able to gift believers to maintain testimony to the name of the Lord, but He has another most important ministry in the government of an assembly. Only the Holy Spirit can fit men to function as godly elders. He raises them up and they are recognized in an assembly as being men taught and prepared by God for the solemn work of feeding, guiding, and governing for God. They have no arbitrary authority Their authority is the Word of God which they teach primarily by their own practice and secondly by their words. Let us thank God that the Spirit continues in this ministry I know elders who are younger in years than many we have known in the past, but they are neither less godly nor less suited to their work. In some cases they excel those who went before them, but the need for more of the same kind is obvious to us all. An assembly must be under the rule of elders, raised up by God. It is a Theocracy where God rules, not a democracy where the majority rules.
The Names of Elders
When it is maturity that is in view, the name “elder” is used. This is not so much a factor of physical years as it is of spiritual maturity. The name “overseer” refers to the function of elders in “looking over” the needs of each believer who comes under their care. They are not above other believers, to look down on them, but among them (1 Pet 5:1) with a tender care and burden for the spiritual welfare of each one. This is the opposite of being aloof, detached, or unconcerned. An overseer needs to oversee in such a manner, that he does not miss a problem that needs help before it becomes a problem that is beyond help. This requires oversight and foresight. Elders are called stewards (1 Cor 4:1-2) when they are viewed as servants who have been entrusted with the Word and work of the Lord. It is a holy trust for which they must give account (Heb 13:17). But elders also function as deacons. This is service that is toward believers for the Lord’s sake. It involves material and practical needs, but it is a word that is also used for spiritual ministry of the Word of God and its application.
The Nature of Elders
The function of pastors in the NT is always plural. The word is never used as a singular noun except when the qualities and qualifications of pastors are in view. The word that appeals to us to translate poimen (pastor) is “shepherd.” This is one who has tender care and a vigilant eye toward every sheep and lamb in the little flock. If “elder” refers to his maturity, then “shepherd” refers to his heart. God’s glory and God’s people are in his heart and he gives himself to his ministry in such a way as to meet the need of each believer so he can feed, tend, and guard each one according to need. This will be a multiple task that often robs him of sleep and personal ease and comfort. If the price seems too high, let us remember “the Good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep” (John 10:11). When assembly believers do not sense that elders are approachable, easy to be entreated, and always ready to minister to them, we must confess failure. It grieves us that believers sometimes look outside an assembly to find answers to their spiritual problems or comfort.
This tender, heartfelt care of the saints is the opposite of a man or men who become dictators, usurping personal authority and becoming lords over God’s heritage (1 Pet 5:3). In fact, a man who is self-willed and, when failing to get his way, is “soon angry,” is unfit to be an elder (Tit 1:7). The spiritual function of shepherds, as all good brethren know who have given themselves to this ministry, goes far beyond any personal agenda of self exaltation, or even the arrangements of meetings and the material needs of the building where the saints meet. I have scarcely met a true elder who ever wanted to call himself an elder or a shepherd, but there are godly men whom we “recognize and esteem” (1 Thess 5:12), “acknowledge and submit to” (1 Cor 16:15-18), and “obey” their teaching from the Word of God (Heb 13:17). Let us continue to pray earnestly that God will raise up shepherds among us!
The Nurture of a Little Flock
There are fifteen qualifications for overseers in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. One of these is that he must be apt to teach (v 2). This does not mean that every elder must be a gifted teacher in a public sense. An elder who labors in the word and doctrine (1 Tim 5:17-18) is worthy of double honor. This compels us to believe there are elders who do not have a gift that enables them to rise up in an assembly meeting and be able teachers of the Word. If they are not so gifted, how can they be apt to teach? Some of the godliest elders we have ever known were not men who taught from the platform, but in an effective way they taught by personal example of godliness and by private instruction from the Word. This does not mean that we do not highly value men who are taught in the Word (Gal 6:6). We should give them double honor.
It is in the context of 1 Timothy 5:17-18 that we find the solemn warning against preferring one believer before another. Doing nothing by partiality is not as easy for elders or servants to obey as we might think. We have believers to whom we feel partial, toward whom we have a deep feeling of personal friendship. This is not evil and is not condemned. What is condemned is a prejudicial judgment in their favor when there is any controversy between believers. Friendship is very valuable, but it should never be allowed to interfere in righteous judgment. When fellowship rises no higher than friendship we have erred. There are areas in the life of assembly believers that come under the watchful eye of shepherds and toward which they have a heavy responsibility There are personal areas of home and family about which the attitude of elders must be one of nonintervention. There are times when husbands and/or wives ask for counsel from elders regarding home problems, but being asked for help and advice in a difficulty does not open the door to pry into personal matters that must be settled privately within a marriage. Marriage counseling is in fashion in the religious world. It is an area where elders must tread with a holy fear of going too far and being guilty of an invasion of privacy, or even worse, taking sides with one partner against the other. The greatest need of God’s people in this twenty-first century is men and women who have holy lives and live godly in Christ Jesus. If such men are not raised up to guide the people of God, we will see a great decline in testimony for God.