What is the role of an elder in a local assembly?
Peter gives three responsibilities: “Feed the flock . . . taking the oversight . . . being ensamples” (1Pe 5:1-3).
“Feeding” the flock translates the verb, to shepherd or tend. The Lord distinguishes between feeding and tending sheep in His post-resurrection interview with Peter (John 20:15-18). He gave Peter the responsibility of feeding His lambs (v 15) and His sheep (v 17). Using a different word, He also entrusted to Peter the shepherding of those sheep (v 16). Judging from Psalm 23, shepherding means providing for every (spiritual) need (v 1). The shepherd provides rest for the sheep in the “green pastures” of God’s Word (v 2, 1Ti 5:17b, 1Th 5:13b). He refreshes (Psa 23:2b, Phm 7) them “by still waters.” He restores and leads them in right ways (Psa 23:3), reassures them by his presence (v 4), and fosters fellowship (“a table,” v 5), a refuge from their enemies. He honors each one with respect (v 5b with Luk 7:46) and the abundance of his care causes God’s people to rejoice (Psa 23:5c).
“Taking the oversight” means he “diligently looks” (same word in Heb 12:15) at the sheep to know their condition (Pro 27:23a), and he watches for enemies that will destroy the flock (Acs 20:29).
“Being examples” (ESV) bears a similar thought as the word “rule” (1Ti 5:17, 1Th 5:12,), which means to be “set before” or leading so as to protect and care for others. So the elder is responsible to lead by example. His worthy walk will draw others to follow him and be guarded by righteousness (Pro 10:2b).
The elder, then, is to feed, heed, and lead the flock.
How does an elder’s role differ from a deacon’s?
Deacons are servants who have a particular work to do. The assignment of the work is often evident in the use of the word (Eph 3:7, 6:21; Col 1:23, 25, 4:7; 1Th 3:2; 1Ti 4:6). The deacons in 1 Timothy 3 are responsible to hold the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience (v 9). They are to be faithful with the truth that God has revealed. While the elders care for the flock and hold “fast the faithful word” to both comfort the believers and protect them from those who contradict the truth (Titus 1:9), deacons have a more general responsibility to “the faith.” They serve in communicating God’s Word. The assembly looks to them for spiritual service with preaching the gospel, teaching the saints, working with children and young people, and various related responsibilities. Elders, because they are “apt to teach” (1Ti 3:2), may also serve as deacons, but deacons are not necessarily elders.
Wise elders will encourage as many as possible who have the ability (or even the potential of ability) and qualifications (vv 8-13) to serve in deacon work. This is not an official position or a title to claim. It denotes a responsibility entrusted by the assembly’s guides. Elders make a mistake when they limit deacon work to themselves, even if it seems easier or others seem hesitant to accept deacon work or the elders have greater ability than others.
How can broken trust between elders and believers be restored?
Such a condition is drastic and surely must be a rarity. No doubt, lesser degrees of this condition exist.
If the elders lose confidence in the other believers in the assembly, they cannot effectively lead them. Since they are responsible to the Lord to lead (1Th 5:12) and are presently accountable for the condition of the flock (Heb 13:17), they are responsible to find a remedy. If they “know the state” of their flock (Pro 27:23), they will avoid such a condition. If they tenderly and genuinely take care of the flock and depend only on the authority of the Word of God, such a condition could hardly exist. Those who “lead” but find no one is following “have not so learned Christ” (Eph 4:20). But to balance this, the flock needs to be reminded of God’s command (!) to submit to the overseers. To submit is to obey the Lord, so submission to the overseers means submission to the Lord (and vice versa). Whatever the condition, believers are to pray for the overseers and the overseers for the flock (Jam 5:16). This is our primary resource.
If the believers lose confidence in their leadership, their responsibility to submit to and pray for their leaders has not changed. Nonetheless, the burden of responsibility in remedying this condition rests on the leaders. When the Lord shepherded His disciples, He did not have to ask them in order to know their condition, thoughts, and needs. He knew them completely. Even so, He did ask on occasion (examples: Mar 9:33; Luk 24:38). Fallible overseers need to communicate with the flock. Apart from information that is confidential or strictly personal, overseers can freely communicate all matters regarding their work. Even confidential information can be kept confidential, but overseers can tell the flock that confidential information influenced their decision. Overseers are not a board of directors who hand down decisions to be implemented by the managers and other employees. A willingness to consult with the flock on any matters that will affect them is sound policy (Pro 11:14; 24:6). Also, some non-biblical, non-spiritual decisions can be entrusted to others (Rom 14:19a). If pride is a negative factor in interpersonal relationships (Pro 13:10), servant leadership (Mar 10:33, 34) will tend to unity and peace.
To whom can believers go if the elders seem unapproachable?
This perception may not be true. Try to approach them! Otherwise, we are responsible to notice the log in our own eye before noticing the speck in our brother’s eye (Mat 7:1, ESV). In interpersonal problems, first check your own “eye.” Is it possible that you have contributed to this alienation? If so, confess the fault (Jam 5:16) – even the slightest contribution – and seek to remedy the situation.
But, supposing that the log is in overseers’ eyes, two possibilities exist. The first is a primary resource and the second is a possible resource. The primary resource is prayer, whether or not the overseers are unapproachable. This is not a resource of last resort! The possible resource is some other Christian brother or sister who has earned your respect and the respect of other (and perhaps older) godly believers. In seeking their help, refrain from speaking evil of your overseeing brothers (Jam 4:11; 1Th 5:12, 13), and do not allow this to produce factions in the assembly.