37. Local Leaders – Elders

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 6 – Thinking about Leaders

37. Local Leaders – Elders

Acts 20:17,28  Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church…. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.

1 Pet 5:1,2  To the elders among you …Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be

So eventually: Yes, eventually we get here, to think about elders. The word appears 127 in the O.T. and 64 times in the N.T in the NIV. When it was first used in Exodus (mentioned 11 times), the ‘elders’ were simply the most senior men of Israel there in Egypt. The Patriarchs were gone as the nation grew in number and there were simply those who were, no doubt, the oldest and most mature of the community. As such we see them involved in things with Moses from which others were excluded. In Leviticus it was the elders who had to step up and offer a sacrifice on behalf of the people when the nation had sinned (Lev 4:15); they were the senior representatives of the people before God. The elders of a local community were to act as judge and jury when the occasion required it (see Deut 21:19,20, 22:15-18, 25:7-9) and they were to be bearers of the law and the testimony to next generations (Deut 31:9,28, 32:7) and they led national repentance (Josh 7:6) and took punishment for community failure (Judg 8:16) and clearly showed they were the leaders of their local communities. And so it continued through the Old Testament period into the New, where we find they are leaders of the community, sharing in the rejection of Jesus with the chief priests. Throughout the Gospels they are simply senior members of the community.

But then Church: The first mention of ‘elders’ in the Church, in the historical accounts in Acts, comes right at the end of Acts 11 where the church at Antioch, “decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” Acts 11:29,30) A little later we find Paul and Barnabas returning on their first missionary trip, checking each of the churches they had established and we see, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church.” (Acts 14:23) There is no mention there of qualification (which is found elsewhere in Paul’s letters) but for the church to accept the apostolic appointment of these leaders, would suggest they were people who were simply being recognized for what God had already done in them. When it became necessary for Paul to go to Jerusalem to resolve a theological debate, we find numerous references to not only the apostles in Jerusalem but also the elders (plural) in the church there in Jerusalem. (see Acts 15:2,4,6, 22,23 etc.) There had clearly been an appointing of men to act as leaders of the church at Jerusalem, as well as the apostles. The remaining 8 references to elders in the letters come as teaching or instruction. The 12 references to elders in Revelation all refer to the twenty-four elders around the throne of God.

The Teaching: We have seen previously how the term elder, overseer and shepherd are interchangeable (see Acts 20:17,28 above) To Timothy, Paul spoke of, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church,” (1 Tim 5:17)  and had instructed Titus to, appoint elders in every town,” (Titus 1:5) meaning every church. James expected the elders to be channels of Christ’s healing in the flock: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.” (Jas 5:14,15) Is this one of those verses that parts of the Church conveniently forget or make excuses for (now the canon of Scripture is complete)? What a challenge! “Is anyone among you sick?”  Half the modern church is sick! What are the elders doing about it?

And so? What have we seen so far, what can be implied in the general usage of the term ‘elder’? First and foremost the historical picture shows men (and it would only have been men) who were older, mature and hopefully wise. Their age and wisdom was used to settle problems within the community and, on occasion, to answer to God for the community.  Translating that into the church, again there is the implication that ‘elders’ are those of mature age and who exhibit wisdom and, we might suggest, godliness. Linked with the term ‘overseer’ their role is also to protect the flock and there goes with that accountability and a responsibility before God. If I look back over my years as an elder, I am grateful for the Cross for no other way can we fallible leaders stand. So how do the teaching elements of the epistles fit with what we have said so far? The two main passages are found in Titus 1 and 1 Tim 3.

Titus: “An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” (Titus 1:6-9) Intriguingly, this is largely about character with little about spirituality, although both must be tied together. Note it says he “manages God’s household” not, we suggest, as a business or organisation but in the protective way we have considered previously.

The standard that Paul sets here is so high that I suggest it excludes those who have been divorced, and I realize in the modern church in some places that may cause immense difficulty. His requirement is for impeccable men, whose families hold together in faith and godliness, because they are to be an example to the rest of the world, and in the utterly confused and messed up West where divorces abound, cohabitation is almost the norm, and relationships are so often unstable, this has to be an area where leaders must stand out as salt and light, showing an alternative way. I suspect that ‘being filled with the Spirit’ was something Paul took for granted, for how otherwise can such men pray for the sick and see them healed? Similarly, when it comes to Deacons (who we will consider later on) for those who simply serve the church rather than protect or spiritually feed it, the one time when these is seen in the narratives, deacons were required to be men “known to be full of the Spirit.” (Acts 6:3) Surely elders, with all we have seen of their responsibilities could be nothing less.

Timothy: “Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,  not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.  (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)  He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.” (1 Tim 3:2-7) Similarly, because both have the same author, we find ‘above reproach’ instead of ‘blameless’ but carrying the same meaning, especially in respect of family life and general character. The Titus verses finished with the need for maturity in respect of knowing the word, whereas here to Timothy, he is simply to “be able to teach,” and “not a recent convert” both imply maturity again. But there is something about this ‘maturity’ we have been referring to, and we will pick it up more fully later on when we consider ‘Teachers’ and it is the thing about not merely ‘knowing about’ (which is an essential starting point for an elder) but includes actually doing. Maturity is measured by obedience and availability and that is see in the believer who is well-rounded in both character and service.

And so: Because we have taken three studies to consider this matter of local leadership and the names and roles expected of such men, we really need to get an overview that draws together and highlights these things. For that reason, if you will excuse us stretching this out, the next Study will be a recap that draws all things together and asks two questions: 1. What sort of church or what picture of church is conveyed by all these verses? and 2. What effect should that have on the ordinary believer, the person who has just come to Christ and finds themselves part of the Church?

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