Eldership: A Dynamic, Noble Task!

Any familiarity we may have with the New Testament pictures of elders as overseers and shepherds must not allow us to miss the important details of this “noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1) or to become detached in any way from the dynamic realities of the NT.  This article is written especially for elders and their wives, and for all who aspire to serve the church in this way, and takes a fresh look at some vital aspects of eldership and their implications for you as couples together…

1: Firstly, your “appointment” was or will be by the Spirit (Acts 20:28, where the word is etheto meaning ‘to put, place, lay, set, fix, establish’).  Your eldership – an outcome of your lives and marriages – has been determined (indeed ‘pre-determined’) by God.  It may have come about through the agency of others – affirmed by the Body, preceded by prayers and fasting, confirmed by the laying-on of apostolic hands (Acts 14:23) – but the appointment of every elder was established, fixed, arranged and set by the Spirit!  That’s why we first know in our spirit those to whom we’re shepherds.  That’s why at the end of your tenure you must give an account to a Higher Court (Hebrews 13:17).  From start to finish, every aspect of this “noble work” (1 Timothy 3:1) is spiritual and is to be by the Spirit; elders function in a spiritual realm and dynamic.  The ‘natural’ and the ‘spiritual’ are contradictions (Romans 8:4-8, 1 Corinthians 15:46, Galatians 3:3, Jude 1:19), and only spiritual leadership befits God’s House (Ephesians 2:22, 1Peter 2:5).  Our natural leadership will never be enough, and will usually contradict God’s thoughts and plans!  Elders must see and observe spiritually, think spiritually, make spiritual choices, selections and judgments (1 Samuel 16:7, 2 Corinthians 5:16, James 2:4)…

2: Elders are not just as an extension of apostolic government, but of the apostolic heart and mind – appointed by apostles (Acts 14:23) or their delegates (Titus 1:5) to lead the church in its ‘apostolic’ life and mission: being sent into all the world to make disciples (Matthew 28:18f).  Elderships must not stop at seeing the flock well fed, well cared for and well physically; the goal must be healthy people mobilised for the mission.  Therefore, elders will will turn the Body outwards; they will see beyond their locality and serve a greater, wider purpose – releasing people and resources to serve the apostolic vision (cf. Acts 16:1-3).

3: Eldership is a precious stewardship – “managing” or “taking care of God’s household/church” (1 Timothy 3:5).   Elders are to “guard” themselves and the flock (Acts 20:28), which requires that they first guard their own hearts and lives (Proverbs 4:23), then guard one other to save any of us from falling or causing division (Acts 20:30), and then guard the church, which is God’s flock entrusted to us (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:3) – never ours.  Elders are appointed by God’s Spirit for God’s people (Acts 14:23); they serve the flock, never the other way round and their ministry is on behalf of the Chief Shepherd, who alone will reward them for a job well done (1 Peter 5:4).  However, whilst elders will be very close and connected with the church, very personal and available, their time and priorities will be dominated by the demands from ‘above’ not ‘below’.  Elders are not ultimately answerable to those they serve and they cannot allow themselves to be distracted, diverted or diluted.  Likewise, they ought to be unaffected by human praise (or criticism); what matters is the Master’s feedback! 

4: A particular aspect of this will be the eldership’s care and guarding of God’s Word.  As today, the issue in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3-4) and Crete (Titus 1:10-11) was false doctrine which threatened to derail the advance of the gospel – and the primary weapon against it was the appointment of elders “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2) and “encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9).  The antidote to false doctrine was and is elderships embodying sound doctrine.  Elders cannot ‘contract-out’ their study of Scripture or their awareness of what’s being falsely taught in the church or the world.  Not all elders will have primary responsibility for preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17), but all must be competent in handling God’s Word.  This is at the heart of an elder’s’ ‘work’ and ‘craft’, and they must take time to become more proficient in it: to go deeper, dig-down, see and understand more… 

5: Elders function as part of a team.  The NT picture is exclusively one of ‘plurality’ and teamwork (eg, see Acts 11:30, 14:23, 15:2, 20:17, 21:18, 1 Timothy 4:14, Titus 1:5, James 5:14, 1 Peter 5:1); the elders are always seen together, never alone – indeed, they cannot function effectively alone.  Their togetherness is an integral part of God’s ‘setting-in’ and must give rise to vital attributes: they’re never divisive or divide-able, always honouring, and appreciating on another.  They embrace differences in their respective gifts and measures, but esteem their equality as elders.  They need each other – for encouragement, correction, confidence-building, provocation security, common sense, perspective….  And the dynamics of their teamwork must go further, for they also work in harmony with the fivefold Gifts.  They have different concerns (the eldership for the health of the flock; the Gifts for the equipping and maturing of the Body) – but these belong together!  And since the fulness of the church depends on the input and deposit of the Gifts (Ephesians 4:11ff.), then to the extent such gifting is not present within an eldership, elders will draw from beyond themselves to ensure the church has all it needs (1 Corinthians 3:21-23 cf. 3 John 1:9-10).

6: Eldership involves powerful impartation!  They may lay their hands on emerging leaders to impart something to them (1 Timothy 4:14) just as they will pray for the sick and see them raised up (Jas 5:13ff).  The laying on of hands is no less essential or “foundational” than repentance, faith or baptisms (Hebrews 6:1-2)!   Impartation demands that the elders are ‘always ready’: to intercede at any time; to draw heavenly realities down to earth (Matthew 16:19, 18:18).  This dynamic of their task may well mean they use fewer words but see greater works – less instruction and more impartation!  And this impartation will be vital to the development of others; elderships must impart something to emerging leaders without fear of being overtaken, eclipsed or surpassed. 

7: Finally, elders are tasked with setting an example for others to follow (1 Peter 5:1-3, Hebrews 13:7) and this must have depth and breadth; not just an example in worship and prayer, but also in friendliness, openness, humility, winsomeness, missionary zeal; an example – in every respect – of those appointed by the Spirit according to God’s choice and arrangement…  Their example is to be the very opposite of “lording it over” the church (1 Peter 5:3).  They have authority, but we lead with a ‘light touch’; their authority and example builds-up and never tears-down (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:8, 13:10); it releases, liberates and sets free.  Elders are to be catalysts, not controllers.  And of course they should also set an example in devotion: elders worship and fall down before King Jesus (Revelation 4:10, 5:8, 5:14, 7:11, 11:16, 19:4).  They are in awe of the One they serve and represent; they are in love; with Jesus, they are passionate and zealous and they make no apology!…

This noble” task” is “work” (1 Timothy 3:1); the word is ergon meaning ‘work, task, employment; that which is wrought or made; work that accomplishes something; a deed (action) that carries out (completes) an inner desire (intension, purpose)’.  It is often hard work, but it is work alongside friends, by which something is built and created (cf. Nehemiah 3).  And it is work undertaken in the dynamic of the Holy Spirit, who appoints and enables us to succeed in all we do!

In light of these dynamics, eldership teams may wish to consider: (1) Does your eldership fall short of the New Testament picture in any way(s)? If so, what adjustments are required? (2) How can you increase your impact and impartation? (3) As you develop emerging leaders in your church, what can you give them? (4) What do you dream of creating together?…

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