The Role of Elders - extract from foundation module Biblical Eldership
Crosslands has just launched two new modules, aimed at supporting the training and equipping of leaders or potential leaders in the local church. Here is a short extract from our new Biblical Eldership module for you to enjoy.
These biblically rooted and deeply practical modules can be studied either independently or as a group. They can also be taken as part of a learning track, a more rounded or in-depth programme of study, and are available to purchase online now. If you would like to set up a Crosslands study group, contact us here.
The Role of Elders
Acts 20 is the fullest discussion of the role of elders in the NT. The apostle Paul is travelling to Jerusalem but wants to meet the elders from the church at Ephesus on his way. Ephesus is where Paul has spent a significant amount of time and seen the church established (see Acts 19). As Paul meets with the elders it becomes clear that these are his departing words to them; he is passing on the baton of responsibility to them and gives them a ‘charge’ in their role as elders.
Paul spends time describing his own ministry in Ephesus. He is reminding them of the example he set – this is why he begins by saying ‘You know…’ (verse 18). He does this because, although there are unique elements to his ministry as an apostle, his example is still a pattern for them to follow.
There are a number of key elements he reminds them of. There is his pattern of teaching (verses 20-21). When Paul says ‘I have not hesitated’ he is saying that there could have been reason to shrink back, but he gave himself to this task despite that. He grasped the nettle. Paul uses the same phrase in verse 27 again of teaching. That is why he can say he is innocent of anyone’s blood (verse 26). No one will be able to accuse him of holding back on something he should have said, a warning he should have given, or a truth he should taught.
So in verse 20 he says he taught whatever was helpful to people: that is anything which would be for their spiritual good. Hence elders are to teach faithfully and comprehensively, not ducking difficult issues or controversial topics for the sake of keeping the peace. Rather they teach on everything needed for the sake of the good of their listeners.
Notice that Paul says he taught publicly and privately (verse 20). So teaching involves up front teaching in public meetings, and personal counsel and individual instruction. Paul also reminds them that his teaching focussed on the message of repentance and faith (verse 21). There is a gospel centre to Paul’s teaching. The gospel is not the limit of it because he also says he proclaims the whole will of God (verse 27), but all his teaching centres on and flows from the gospel.
Paul also speaks about his attitudes in ministry. He speaks of ‘serving the Lord’ (verse 19) which shows us his basic orientation. In addition, his service was with ‘great humility and tears’ and comes within the context of suffering. There is nothing arrogant or self-promoting about Paul’s ministry; rather he endured suffering for the sake of those he taught.
Paul goes on in verses 22-24 to speak about what will happen to him personally but he is still setting an example in attitude: he was willing to be spent in this task. The task was more important than his life, let alone his comfort. So the example Paul sets these elders is that of sacrificing himself for sake of the church.
Paul returns to his own example in verses 34-35 where he reminds them of his policy of earning money while ministering. It seems Paul did this for a variety of reasons. Elsewhere he comments on not being a burden on people (1 Thess 2:9). Here he points to the example of integrity: that he wasn’t doing it for the money. Elsewhere Paul makes it clear that it is normal for elders to be paid for their work (see 1 Tim 5:17-18), so it is not wrong to receive money. But there is still the example of giving rather than getting. Elders give rather than receive, but they know there is blessing in that.
Hence no one should become an elder for the kudos or status. You become an elder expecting it to cost you. You expect there to be moments of pressure, angst, and in some situations persecution. You become an elder expecting to give rather than receive. And yet also know that you are doing the most wonderfully worthwhile role and Jesus will bless you for it.
In the middle of his speech Paul gives a charge to the Ephesian elders:
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. Verse 28
This is a wonderful summary of the role of the elder. It uses the language of sheep and shepherds which we have seen already. The church is like a flock of sheep and the leaders are to keep watch over it, because the Holy Spirit has made them overseers of the flock. That command to keep watch is linked to the command to ‘shepherd the church of God’.
As we have seen the shepherd analogy is a rich picture: it includes feeding and nourishing, protecting and defending. Here the defensive idea is prominent because of the rise of false teachers in verse 30 and Paul’s example of warning in verse 31. False teachers are like savage wolves who will harm the flock.
Elders then have a defensive role where they guard the flock from wrong teaching and harmful influences. That is most immediately the harm of those who distort the gospel (usually by adding or subtracting elements) and so come of the guise of ‘Christian teacher’. Unfortunately, there are many of these around (and always have been) whether in person, in print or online. More generally though this means protecting the flock from any harmful influences, whether from supposedly Christian teachers, from the culture at large, or wherever. Leaders having a concern for sound teaching and opposing heresy is sometimes portrayed as a bit negative, but from Paul’s angle this concern is protecting the flock from danger.
Elders are to know the flock and keep guard over it. That means elders are in the people business: they are constantly looking out for people. Congregations should expect elders to ask questions about their spiritual health; elders should be lovingly intrusive into people’s lives. Hence elders are not like distant board members of a company; they are like a shepherd knowing his sheep or a father knowing his children. This is why Paul says his own warning and guarding of people was with tears (verse 31). You cannot shepherd a church and be emotionally detached.
Notice that the leaders must keep watch over themselves first (verse 28). The reason comes in the statements about false teachers in verse 30 – they will arise even from your own number. Elders themselves can distort the truth. So they need to keep watch over themselves as well as over the flock. There are countless churches around with leaders who teach falsehood. Those churches were almost certainly orthodox at some stage in their history. Presumably no one simply decided to turn from the truth, rather someone probably changed their mind on a small issue at first but it was the beginning of a slide away from the truth. Or perhaps the gospel was assumed and the focus of ministry moved elsewhere. That would then affect who they appointed as the next elder or pastor, and after however long had passed, they’d lost the gospel and savaged the flock.
Lastly notice what a responsible task this is. Paul says they are to shepherd the flock ‘which God bought with his own blood’. He points them to the preciousness of the church: Jesus died for these people, they cost a lot. And so we must take looking after them really seriously. This is after all the church ‘of God’ which he has given to us for safe keeping, and so we are responsible to him for how we look after them.
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