As we find ourselves one week away from the privilege of appointing Jonathan Douglas as an elder, I want to spend this week talking about what the function of an elder precisely is. I do this for a couple of reasons: 1) that Jonathan might know what biblically is expected of him, and 2) that you might know what to expect of him. Too many times, the function of the elder is ignored and the congregation assumes that he is to be a one-man show as far as the ministry of the church is concerned. But such is not the case. Therefore, I want us to look at the function of elders in the church this morning.
They really boil down to two things that I will mention. However, under those there are many things, and though I will not precisely mention prayer as one, it is to be thoroughly part of fulfilling each of these functions. The two functions of an elder are governing and teaching.
So, for those of you who like an outline, this morning I want to comment on each of these two functions, speak a word to Jonathan, and then say a word to the congregation. I will do this mainly looking at the two texts which we have just read.
The elders (as I previously mentioned, they are to be plural) are to govern the affairs of the church. They are to oversee the ministry of the church and set a vision as to how the Lord is directing it.
This is seen first of all in the list of qualifications found in 1 Timothy 3:4-5, as Paul writes, “He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?)” Paul seems to uplift this qualification of managing one’s household because the elder is to “manage” the affairs of the church.
Paul affirms this interpretation in the text which we read in chapter 5, writing, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor” (1 Timothy 5:17). This confirms that the elder is to “rule” or govern in the church. And, finally, in 1 Peter 5, Peter writes, “Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock” (5:2-3).
This means for us then that the elders are to have a deal of authority in the church. Now I do not mean tyrant authority, but nonetheless, there is a great degree of authority. This is suggested (at very least) by Peter’s warning not to “lord it over those allotted to your charge.”
And I mention this specifically because we (as Americans, etc.) often do not like the idea of someone having authority over us, but I believe it is biblical.
So, why do the elders have a great degree of authority in the church? The reason is because at the end of the day there is a great degree of responsibility that falls on their shoulders. The elders, as shepherds, are responsible to the Chief Shepherd for the sheep which God has given them.
Hebrews 13:17 also assures us that the elders are to have authority and responsibility. Though Hebrews 13:17 doesn’t specifically mention elders, we see this idea as the writer of the epistle tells the people, “Obey your leaders, and submit to them; [why?] for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” The elders will give an account to God for the people whom they shepherd.
This is why Paul can tell the Thessalonians, “For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20). He knows that he will be judged by the Lord concerning the state of those under his responsibility. And as he looks over them and marvels at their growth in the Lord, he sees that they will be his crown before the Lord. He will be able to do as the Lord Jesus and say, “All that you gave me know you and love you, and they are one, even as you are one.” This is the desire of the elder for everyone whom God gives to him to shepherd.
That is why there is no difference between my personal mission statement and that of the church, to present men to the Father complete in Christ. So as I am able to see people’s growth in the Lord and delight in him, it is to my delight. The pastor who constantly is putting down his people just does not get this.
And there are practical things that the elders will therefore do, given this authority and responsibility. They will speak with those interested in church membership to try to ensure that they truly know our Lord. For the elders want to know that those allotted to his care know the Lord. And we are reminded that allowing church membership is an endorsement of someone’s salvation.
The elders (along with others in the church) will fight to hold marriages together, make sure Sunday school is God honoring, make sure our music is the best thing to fight against emotional worship (i.e., thinking about God or singing about God without feeling deep affection for him). The elders watch the members of the church for opportunities to encourage them. They try to labor against divisions in the church. They aid in church discipline as such is needed. And all this because they have been called to be stewards of God’s people, and this is part of the work of governing them.
And let me add here, that the elders govern/lead/rule the church as a husband is the head of his wife (Ephesians 5:23). They look for her best interest and their Lord’s most glory, not lording anything over them, but striving to lead with the consent and confirmation from the people of God. This is my and Jonathan’s desire, and it should be the desire of everyone whom God would call to this role in the future.
And I think Jonathan will see that in God’s providence, as he seeks his Lord, that God will reveal the vision he has for his people, and that will be confirmed by the church. Such has been how we have arrived at our mission and vision and Jonathan being appointed an elder. And we believe it is how the Lord will lead us in the future.
The elder is also to teach. This is also a qualification for the elder listed in both 1 Timothy and Titus.
This does not mean that the elder must do public teaching as I am doing today. Rather, it seems that, biblically, though all the elders governed, there were a few who labored in preaching and teaching, even as I do. And it appears that such were probably those who labored full-time in such a role and were paid by the church. That would explain Paul’s writing in 1 Timothy 5:17-18, which we read at the beginning.
However, all the elders should be able to teach, “that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). This is because all the elders are called to guard the flock against “savage wolves … speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). So the elders must be able to teach as a safeguard for the truth.
Let me give you an example of this. As I have mentioned lately, there is a growing philosophy in our world that is possibly more of a detriment to our goals than anything we have faced. There is no longer a transcendental truth in the eyes of many. So, even as years ago, you could do evangelism on the basis of the validity of the resurrection, now people will agree that believing in a resurrection is good for you and true for you, all the while believing in Buddhism. They do not get that if the resurrection is true, then there are transcendental truths that must affect their lives.
Therefore, the elders must keep track of the pulse of culture and address these issues to the people to keep them from being led away by the perverse things being spoken. They must be able to detect heresy and stomp it out. This is a challenge, and it is nonetheless a calling placed on the elders. They are to govern and teach the people allotted to their charge.
A word for Jonathan
Now, what this means if you are an elder is that you have a calling that seems impossible. And, not only that, but according to 1 Peter 5:2, it is to be fulfilled with eagerness. Therefore, I want to encourage Jonathan, personally, (and those who would later become elders) to see these functions much as the law.
I mean that in two senses. First of all, see it as something that you cannot do in your own strength that it might act as a tutor to push you to Christ and cry out for his strength. And then, second, see it as something that is possible by faith in Jesus Christ.
It is so crucial in this calling (and in every other calling, for that matter) to cry out for the Lord’s strength. For unless you do this, you will fail in doing it in the manner ordained, and you will fail in fulfilling your ultimate calling to reflect his glory. Peter’s whole reason for saying that he who serves should serve with the strength that God supplies is “so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11).
A word to the congregation
And to the congregation, though I will mention this in more detail next week, I beg you to pray for those whom God has called to serve as elders. Pray for Jonathan. For they are the ones who are laboring in oversight of your souls that they might present you complete in Christ before the Father. They are called to tasks where their inability is obvious. And they will fail without your prayers. I beg you for them. And I know Jonathan begs you for them as well.
So as we move into next week, I pray that we move forward in humility, unity, and desperateness for the grace of our Lord.
His grace will be with us. Amen.