God uses human instruments in the proclamation of the gospel and the maintenance of divine testimony. Our attention is turned just now to the latter responsibility. The historical account of Acts and the doctrinal epistles, inspired by the Holy Spirit, reminds us of the distinctions of saints, bishops, and deacons (Phil 1:1) in Gods assembly. We will be occupied with Elders, Overseers (or Bishops), Pastors (Shepherds), Stewards, and Rulers (or those who stand before the flock). Only when the Spirit of God brings before us their qualifications do we have these names in the singular; elsewhere the Spirit of God uses the plural. Therefore, we would expect to see a number of Elders, Overseers, Shepherds, Stewards, and Rulers in each local assembly. The different names are instructive and worthy of our consideration.
SHEPHERDS: their spirituality
Throughout the New Testament, we are reminded of the need to care for the saints as Peter was commissioned in John 21. Years later, the apostle Peter would stir up his fellow elders to “feed the flock of God which is among you” (1 Pet 5:2). Were the words of the Blessed Master still ringing in Peters ears? “Peter lovest thou me?” (the motive), and, “Peter feed my lambs, feed my sheep” (the ministry). Ephesians 4:11 speaks of the pastor-teacher. As the teacher nourishes the hearts of the saints with spiritual food, so the shepherd cherishes their hearts by his love and tenderness (1 Thess 2:7). We can learn much about caring for saints today from the Old Testament shepherds such as Jacob, Moses, and David, but the supreme example is the Lord who came in the character of a shepherd. He is the Good Shepherd, who voluntarily laid down His life for the sheep. The shepherd has the sheep upon his heart; he will feed them, and will care for the weak, sick, and straying saints. He will counsel, care for, and comfort as the need arises. Unquestionably, we need shepherds in every assembly of Gods people.
ELDERS: their maturity
The Elders in the local churches are men raised up and qualified by the Holy Spirit for a spiritual work among the saints. This will be seen in a spiritual exercise to get to know God and His Word, a genuine care for the welfare of the saints, and an interest in all of the assembly activities. The younger man will put his hand to this work willingly, seeking nothing for self, and demonstrating a Christ-like spirit. In due time, the leaders of the assembly will be only too happy to encourage and include him in their work (1 Tim 5:22, 1 Tim 3:6). A quick look at the Book of Acts reminds us of the harmony that marked elders and evangelists (Acts 14:23) and elders and apostles (Acts 15 and Acts 20:17-38). All were working together for the blessing of the company. We need to guard our lips when talking about believers, including the elders (1 Tim 5:19). Let us never twist the truth of 1Timothy 5:17 to establish a “pastor” for the company. One great responsibility for our beloved elders, is that of teaching the saints of God: “who labor in the word and doctrine” (1 Tim 5:17) and “who have spoken unto you the Word of God” (Heb 13:7).
OVERSEERS: their work
If you were to read an ad, “Wanted, caretakers,” would you apply? It seems like such a lowly job, hardly the goal of an ambitious person. This is exactly what God is looking for in the Overseer. The character of his work is “to look at or watch over” the saints; not to criticize, but to care for them. Overseers, or bishops, are seen in plurality in the local church in Acts 20:17. They are the same persons as the elders, but now the emphasis is their work. They are appointed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28), and yet we see the “hearts desire” (1 Tim 3:1), as the basis for this work. Then the apostle Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, presents to us the qualifications of the overseer in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. These requirements should be the aim of every believer, and in particular the overseer. We see qualifications that touch his walk, his home, his maturity, his testimony, and his teaching. I do not believe the overseer must be married, or married with a family. A word to my younger married brethren: You are a husband and a father; God has given you a great privilege. You are to care for, provide for, nourish, and cherish each family member, doing it lovingly, wisely, and prayerfully. You will learn valuable lessons in this sphere. Do your best, but do not look for perfection.
The overseer will watch over the saints with a care “to feed the church of God” (Acts 20:28). There are special needs among the saints, and those needs must be met. If not met locally, invite a capable teacher to instruct young believers in Christian truth. In the gathering of the saints, there are heavy hearts, some burdened over unsaved loved ones, or facing trials physically, financially, or domestically. Seek to minister to those needs, personally, prayerfully, and practically. The overseer will watch over the saints to warn of perils for “they watch for your souls” (Heb 13:17). This is illustrated in Luke 2:8: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding (living out) in the field (among the flock), keeping watch over (guarding from dangers) their flock by night.” Paul reminds the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20, that in his teaching, he had “kept back nothing that was profitable,” and “I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.” Soon he will be absent and they will be responsible to feed the sheep, and drive away the wolves, thus preserving the little flock which is precious to God. He commends them to God and the Word of His grace. Again in Titus 1:9-11, the elder is instructed that by healthy teaching he is to exhort and convince the gainsayers, showing their teaching to be baseless.
STEWARDS: their responsibility
As stewards, the elders are entrusted by God with Hs people, purchased by the blood of His own Son. What a cost! Like the beloved apostle Paul, the elders are ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. As a steward the elder is holding fast the faithful Word, so that he is doctrinally stable and able to apply Scripture.
HE THAT RULETH: their leadership
We now look at leaders among the people of God. Hebrews 13:7 reminds us of worthy leaders now called to glory. We are to imitate their faith as we carefully consider their manner of life. We remember what they taught us, what they were, and their unswerving faith. The authority of the leader is the Word of God, and in Hebrews 13:17, we are exhorted to obey them, and to submit to them, for they watch for our spiritual well being. Their work and the manner in which the ministry is performed will cause the saints to think highly of, honor, and respect them in love (1 Thess 5:12-13).
In all that has been considered in relation to the elders, we cannot help but be impressed with their labors and teaching in the assembly. They are serving God and the saints. You will remember the earlier reference to 1 Timothy 3:1, “he desireth a good work.” The God who has imparted the gift and the grace for such a work will also impart the crown of glory at the Lords appearing. May each heart, which has been so entrusted, hear “well done, good and faithful servant” in that day.