Sunday, April 15, 2018

What is an Elder?

This morning we are continuing our study of elders. So, this morning, I want us to answer a fundamental question. What is an elder? That sounds like such a simple question, doesn’t it? But, in reality, it’s not that simple.

Though the New Testament does talk about the kind of people who should be elders. And we looked at some of those passages last week. The Bible doesn’t really provide a comprehensive job description of what elders should do. So, congregations of the church over the centuries have asked elders to do all sorts of things.
  • Teach
  • Govern
  • Serve as delegates at church councils
  • Pastor
So, here’s a potential problem: What if my job description for what an elder should do is different from the one my elder is working from? Church, that is a recipe for conflict! And, over the centuries (and recent history), the church has experienced some of that conflict.

This morning my goals are simple, and perhaps a bit ambitious! First, I want to go to the Text and see how elders functioned in the earliest days of the church. I’ll admit straight away, we don’t have much to go on. For all of the emphasis we put on “Church Leadership.” Our world is enamored with the subject of leadership! We have seminars and books written on leadership all the time! The Bible, however, doesn’t say a whole lot about it! At least not in the way we think of leadership. But we will look at what is there. Second, I want us to answer this questions: What should we expect from our elders here at Glenwood? Those are two ambitious goals, and we only have three hours left, so let’s get started.

First, how did elders function in the Early Church? Most of what we know about early church leadership comes from Paul. The first thing I am going to say about Paul’s understanding of elders sounds too academic, but it is an important statement. Paul’s ecclesiology was greatly informed by his eschatology! In other words, Paul’s understanding of church had a lot to do with Paul’s understanding of how the world would end. Or, more precisely, “when” the world would end. In some of Paul’s earliest writings (I Corinthians, I Thessalonians), it is apparent he believed Jesus would return at any moment. He tells the Thessalonians that many of them would still be alive. He tells the Corinthians they shouldn’t get married because Jesus was returning soon. In those earliest writings, Paul didn’t say much at all about church leadership. Why? The apostles had leadership well in hand.

As the years and decades passed, however, Paul’s language about Jesus’ second coming changed a bit. Yes, he still believed Jesus would return. But, he began to accept the fact that it might not happen during his lifetime. So, he wrote to Timothy about his pending death. He began to think about the church after the departure of the apostles. That is when Paul began writing about church organization. Only in some of Paul’s very last writings does he discuss elders or deacons or anything else related to how to the church should organize itself.

So, what exactly did he say? Here is a nearly exhaustive list of elder functions in the New Testament:
  1. The elders lay their hands on people to impart spiritual gifts (I Tim 4:14)
  2. The elders pray for the sick and anoint them with oil (James 5:14)
  3. We also have examples of the elders making decisions about the direction of the church. In Acts 15, the church is wrestling with how to integrate Gentiles into the primarily Jewish church. Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to discuss that question with the apostles and the elders.
  4. Many times in the New Testament, elders are associated with teaching. Listen to the last half of I Timothy 5:17, “Let the elders who lead well be given a double honor (probably money), especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” The first half tells us that elders were paid!
  5. Part of the service of an elder did include some kind of authority and oversight. Listen to I Timothy 5:17 again: “Let the elders who lead well be given a double honor…” I Peter 5 says, “In the same way, I urge the younger to accept the authority of the elders…”
I think I should stop here and address something that has developed in recent history in our movement. Several years ago, Lynn Anderson wrote a book entitled They Smell Like Sheep. A fabulous book! A book that helped move many of the elderships in Churches of Christ more toward a shepherding model. But, one of the unforeseen consequences of that book is that many took Lynn to mean that elders should have no administrative function whatsoever! This left a huge vacuum in many congregations. Many congregations that had historically been led by elders. The elders had functioned as boards of directors. And then, suddenly they didn’t, but no one else stepped in to fill that gap! I think many congregations went too far: the Bible does speak of some “authority” and “order” that comes from elders.

But we should acknowledge this: Paul is reluctant to talk about authority in the church, unless he is talking about the authority of God. Paul is even reluctant to assert his own authority as an apostle. His second letter to the Corinthians is filled with examples of this. Over and over again, Paul downplays his “authority” over the Corinthians. He criticizes false teachers in Corinth who are using their authority to lead the people in wrong directions. There were some who were using their speaking ability. Or their position as teachers. As Paul says, “to place themselves over you…” (II Corinthians 11:20). Paul criticizes them for that. Instead, Paul says: I may not speak like they do. I may not assert my authority over you like they have. But I have cared for you and loved you and led you just the same. Robert Banks, a scholar who wrote an essay on Church Order and Government in Paul’s letters, rightly points out:
“In view of the widespread use of this term [authority] in Greek for those in positions of influence over others, Paul’s reticence in using the term can only be intentional.” (Robert Banks, “Church Order and Government,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters)
Yes, elders have authority…BUT…Paul modeled a different kind of leadership and authority. A kind built on humility. A kind built on service. This is the kind of leadership he set up in the congregations he established all over the Greco-Roman world.

All that to say, church, elders in the 1st century and in the intervening centuries wore many hats!
  • Teachers
  • Preachers
  • Administrators
  • Counselors
  • Anointers of the sick
Let me ask you a question: Know any one person who is gifted to do all of these things? The reality is that over the centuries the church has found many ways to accomplish these goals. Many people within the church have come together to perform these important functions. Though each elder may not wear all of these hats, the elders are given the responsibility, the charge, to oversee these important functions. And, as congregations have grown, this task has become more and more difficult. The congregations that Paul worked with had no more than a couple of dozen people in them! In our own time, with congregations much larger than then, the job of an elder is much more complex.

So, the next question…

What should we expect from our elders? We use the word “shepherd” around here more than we do elder. But when we use those terms we are referring to the same person. That doesn’t mean elder is a bad word. It’s a good word. It’s a biblical word. But the reason we refer, most often, to our elders as “shepherds” is because “shepherd” more naturally describes their primary function. Shepherd is a good word too. Shepherd is also a biblical word.


This is my favorite passage about elders in the Bible. I know we typically camp out in I Timothy 3 & Titus 1 when we talk about elders. But those passages, as we’ve said, don’t tell us much about what an elder should do. I Peter 5 gives us the closest thing to a job description for an elder that we have in the Bible. And notice what stands at the center of an elder’s job description: shepherding (as a verb)! And what does the writer of I Peter mean by shepherding?
  • “Tend the flock…”
  • “Watch over the flock…”
  • “Protect the flock…”
  • “Don’t rule over the flock…but lead by example…”
And to us:
  • “Accept the authority of these elders…”
  • “Clothe yourselves with humility toward each other.”
  • “God stands against the proud, but gives grace to the humble!”
How would the church be different if we simply lived by the last words of this passage? When I think of elders, I think of a man I hardly knew. Jack Garner was a long-time elder at Southside Church of Christ in Rogers, AR. My mom and dad attended Southside years ago, when I was an infant. I learned many years later, when I was an adult, that my parents (and specifically my dad) had some tough times early on. He didn’t grow up going to church. He didn’t grow up having any kind of faith. My mom did! She was the product of a strong Christian family—parents and grandparents. She was in church every time the doors were open. This dissonance caused some problems early on in their marriage.

One afternoon, Jack Garner went to visit my dad. I don’t know what was said. I don’t know what methods he used. But I do know why he went. He went because he loved my family. He began to mentor my dad in the faith. He was one of the most instrumental persons in the earliest stages of my dad’s faith journey. My dad eventually became an elder. His children are all believers. Almost all of his grandchildren have now been baptized. I think our family tree owes a lot to Jack Garner. In my mind, that is what an elder is.

Church, being an elder is an important job! I pray for our elders every single day, and I encourage you to do that same thing. I pray that we respect them because of the way they love this family. I pray that when they mess up (because we all mess up), I pray that we will love them all the same. That’s what it means to have humility with one another. Another way to say it is to echo the words here in I Peter 5. We need to give grace to each other. Because God have given grace to us! Join me in praying for God’s guidance as we continue our process to recognize the elders among us.

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