Acts 14:23; 20:28; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:11; Hebrews 13:7, 17; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; 5:17; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 1 Peter 5:2-4
An examination of the features of New Testament assemblies shows that each is autonomous. There is no central governing body that sets policy or adjudicates on matters, but each assembly is responsible to the Lord alone. It shows that each member of the assembly is a member of a spiritual priesthood, where neither gender nor age is distinguished. A third essential feature apparent is that each member has a spiritual gift from the Lord for the practical operation of the assembly.
The Place of Elders
From these features, one might conclude that the assembly is an organization with no government, guidance, or control, functioning in a disorderly fashion. But from the same New Testament we learn that the Holy Spirit arranges an administrative order to govern each assembly, an order seen in the work and responsibility of elders. Always seen in the plural, they have the responsibility to lead, guide, exhort, admonish, and care for the spiritual needs of the assembly. They are also responsible for gospel outreach from the assembly and the workers in such outreach. Other terms referring to these elders include “shepherd” and “overseer.” These terms describe their work. Their authority is derived from the Word of God alone, and they are accountable to the Lord Himself.
Probably the greatest deficiency in assembly testimony is the lack of godly elders to care for the Lord’s people. Progress in its spiritual growth, protection from error, the recovery of backsliders, and the maintaining of assembly purity all depend upon these men being raised up by God.
“Elder” is a comparative term that normally refers to chronological age, but when referring to assembly government it refers to spiritual maturity. This is in contrast to the term “novice,” which Paul uses in 1 Timothy 3. In other words, “elder“ would describe a man who has been saved, has matured in his walk with the Lord, in his growth in the Scriptures, and in acquiring wisdom with respect to Christian living and responsibility. During those years, his progress would be such that his life and home are examples for the saints to follow. And, being free from reproach, he exemplifies to the world true Christianity. One can readily see that such features are not developed overnight. Besides these moral features, he has a knowledge of God’s Word and a measure of ability to teach it so as to instruct the saints in the truth, and to recognize and refute error.
The Position of Elders
How do elders arrive at this position of leadership? The assembly is neither a democracy, where a majority elects elders, nor an autocracy, where one man decides. Long years of fellowship in the assembly and gray hair do not automatically bring recognition as an overseer.
In the early days of the apostles, there was appointment of elders by Paul and Barnabas or by a person sent by Paul for the specific purpose, such as Titus. These appointments were prior to the compilation of the NT Scriptures. Undoubtedly, this action entailed apostolic discernment. It is likely that these men were younger chronologically, because of the newness of the work.
The elders at Ephesus, we are told, were made such by the Holy Spirit. This would involve the required gift being given to them by the Spirit, and may at that time have involved some communication by the Holy Spirit such as seen in the marking out of Paul and Barnabas at Antioch in Acts 13.
In our day, with the advantage of the New Testament and its pattern, an elder is recognized. He should be identified by the early exercise of this gift God has given him and by the consistent high moral character of his life. A compassionate man, an elder will show ability in feeding the saints from the Word, in visiting the sick and the backslider, and in displaying hospitality. The saints will have confidence in such a person. To such they will gladly submit. The wise procedure is for the assembly to be informed that a certain brother is being considered to help the elders in their work, and prayer would be appreciated for this decision. After an appropriate time, it will be evident if the members acquiesce in this matter so that he will then be recognized in this capacity.
It is important to note the prepositions used in describing their position. “Among” (1 Pet 5:1), and “wherein” (Acts 20:28) tell of their oneness with the saints. “Rule over” (Heb 13:17) literally means “to stand before,” pointing to the importance of “leading” as opposed to “driving” a flock of sheep. “To” (1 Pet 5:3) is the importance of being an example or pattern whose faith is to be imitated.
Precautions for Elders
Being an elder is a responsibility demanding great humility and the fear of God. The assembly takes character from its elders. While some would aspire to the position, Peter reminds us of three dangers to avoid lest the assembly suffer.
First, a brother may be reticent to act as an elder and not rise to the responsibility. Peter says the elder is not to take on oversight “by constraint.” He may sense unworthiness or feel incompetence. Any true elder does. Or he may not want the responsibility. Certainly, it would be easier to come and go to the meetings, perhaps take a little part, but not have to be concerned with who is absent and why. Giving up sleep to have time with God and His Word for food for the people of God wouldn’t be so necessary. A man fitted as an elder should serve willingly, as unto the Lord.
The second danger is to take on the work of overseeing the flock because of some material or personal motive. Peter says, “not for filthy lucre.” It is certainly appropriate for the assembly to have practical fellowship with the elder in his work if there is need (which is different than a “paid pastor”). His work for the Lord may entail extra expenses, may require time away from his work, and may involve use of his own substance. To care for the assembly, he may not accept a promotion from his employer and, consequently, lose his job. Few assemblies are sensitive to these things.
The third danger is that of an elder becoming “the elder.” Peter warns against “lording it over God’s heritage.” The greatest danger to any assembly’s health is the presence of a “Diotrephes” spirit in one of its elders. He insists on the last word in any decision; he determines what the assembly position is on any matter; he gives all the ministry, and controls visiting ministers of the Word. He usually possesses an imposing personality so that the other elders who are there are reluctant to differ with him. Consequently, the believers begin to leave, one by one, through discouragement. For this reason, God emphasizes the plurality of elders. No elder/member ratio is given in the NT, but two elders could hardly meet the responsibility of a company of 60 and 6 would hardly be necessary for a company of 40. The mind of each godly elder is important, and decisions must not be made until all the elders are in agreement. This unity among elders is essential to good leadership. Not “lording it” would suggest that feedback from assembly believers should be respected and appreciated.
Passing the Baton
Does an elder ever retire? In the OT service of the Levites, it was recognized that the labor of the tabernacle required physical strength, so God said the period of active service was from 25 to 50 years of age. Such parameters are not given with respect to the NT assembly where emphasis is upon spiritual labor. However, it should be recognized that advancing years bring their own limitations, not only in ability to meet the strain of such responsibility, but oftentimes in being able to relate to the problems younger Christians face. In spite of this, some seem reluctant to step down. They feel there are no younger men who can do as well as they, and the assembly will falter if they were to retire. They try to carry on, until they are not appreciated. Another point to consider is that upon retirement from secular employment, an elder may have extended periods of absence because of health considerations. Such absences from his own assembly render him unable to carry on the work as in earlier years. Like Moses to Joshua, Elijah to Elisha, and Paul to Timothy, wise elders will encourage and mentor younger brethren. Thus the passing of the baton will not leave the saints without the care they so much require, while the older man can still be available in an advisory capacity.
It is evident, therefore, that God has established a godly order in the government of the assembly and to which He instructs us to submit. Being human, the elder is not infallible in his judgment, but where a believer may disagree on some point, he is to leave it with the Lord, knowing that elders are accountable to Him.