The Role of Elders in the Local Church

Weldon E. Warnock
Akron, Ohio

Qualified elders are necessary for the well-being of the local church. Titus was told to "ordain elders in every city" (Tit. 1:5). Paul, on the return trip of his first missionary journey, appointed elders in every church (Acts 14:23). Hence, churches are to have elders. God has assigned the role of elders in the church. It is a grave and serious responsibility as we shall see. Some take the office lightly, treating it as some glorified position to hold rather than a work to be done. The Bible says, "If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work" (1 Tim. 3:1).

A man who is motivated to become an elder simply to control the church, and not to do the work which the office entails, has the wrong attitude. He has no business being an elder. Paul says a man is to desire the function or work, not the power to rule somebody. Even some brethren look upon the eldership as just a decision making body as they constantly say in their prayers, "help the elders in their decisions." Of course they are to make decisions, but there are other important things elders are to do. Thank God for all those men who have the ability to be God's elders and have accepted the oversight in order to serve the Lord to the fullest of their abilities. They conscientiously and energetically look out after the church of God. May their number increase.

With these preliminary remarks, let us now consider what the role of an elder is in a local church, primarily from a practical standpoint. This will not cover every duty, but we will endeavor to deal with some major duties and what they imply.

One of the must's for being an elder is the ability to lead. The Bible states, "Obey them that have the rule over you . . ." (Heb. 13:17). The word, "rule," in this passage signifies "to go before, to show the way, to guide; to lead, as an army or fleet, and so to command, to rule; to be a guide, a leader, ruler, chief" (Church Polity, Wm. Hayden, p. 54). Hence, an elder is to be a leader, a guide, a ruler. Brethren, in some places, have put the emphasis upon "faithful children" and have almost ignored leadership qualities. We should have come to realize by now that a church cannot go beyond its leadership. This is why some churches are stymied in growth-they have incompetent leaders. Competent leadership would demand the following things:

(1) Regular and frequent business meetings. Before elders can know in which direction to lead, they must make plans. Some of these meetings must include the preacher, deacons, teachers, and the other members, as all play a part in the growth of the church. Some places, the elders meet infrequently, and then the time is consumed talking about material things. I have seen elders huddle in a corner. for a few minutes after worship and try to discuss the work of the church. A few matters might be decided in a huddle, but no serious and in-depth plans can be worked out to move the church ahead.

Too, all the time necessary should be devoted to a business meeting. Some limit a meeting to an hour, regardless of the problems to deal with. Any unfinished business is postponed until the next meeting, perhaps a month or two later. Thirty to sixty days have been procrastinated simply because some men did not think enough of the Lord's work to spend the amount of time needed to get the job done. Elders are to rule diligently (Rom. 12:8) and not slothfully (Rom. 12:11).

(2) Vision. Someone said, "A leader sees three things: what ought to be done, what can be done, and how to do it." Elders need this kind of vision. They need to see the opportunities to stimulate, both the spiritual and numerical growth of the church.

(3) Initiative. After seeing what can be done to promote progress, they then must initiate the plans. Too many elders have to be goaded into nearly everything that is attempted. It is so easy to stay in the rut and be satisfied with the status-quo. Elders should initiate teaching and training programs, new and better methods of work, visitation programs, changes in order of worship occasionally, better facilities and equipment by which to work, etc. In other words, they should lead in a positive manner and not always have to be prompted to take every step forward. They should be the leaders and not the ones led.

(4) Distribution of responsibility. God gave elders the authority to rule the church, but this does not preclude distributing work to the other members. In fact, delegation of responsibility must be made to others if the work gets done. This is good leadership.

Deacons need to be given the job God authorized them to do, that is, take care of the physical responsibilities. Deacons, under the elders, should be given charge of the building and grounds, needy saints, baptismal equipment, communion supplies, etc., and the elders devote their time to the spiritual aspects of the church (cf. Acts 6:1-4). Some elders have taken over the deacon's work and their duties go wanting.

Members can be given the task of checking absentees, visiting some of them for the elders, writing letters, helping in Bible classes to see that supplies are adequate and several other things. Some elders seemingly do not know how to systematically assign duties to others. They either try to do everything themselves or it is not done at all. All members should be made responsible in some duty or other. Members of the church should not be lost to the devil by a lack of activity; nor should they have to be coming to the elders asking for work. Elders ought to put them to work before they get a chance to ask.

(5) Communication. A good leader has a harmonious relation with his followers. He takes them into his confidence and at times asks their advice. All the brains are not in one man-not even a preacher. He informs them of his plans and stimulates them to serve by saying, "Let us rise up and build" (Neh. 2:17). Elders cannot expect cooperation by aloofness and an air of "bossism." The attitude, "We are running things around here and it is none of your business what we do," will not work. Elders are members of the congregation, too-not above it or outside it. The church is not theirs. They were chosen by the members to lead, guide and coordinate the functions of the church. The church deserves some consideration. Actually, for the most part, members should be told what transpires in the business meetings of the elders. Their meeting is church-business, not just elder-business.

May elders of God's church everywhere strive to properly govern its affairs, adequately manage its interests and suitably promote its welfare. The church for which Jesus died deserves nothing less.

Role of Shepherding

In addition to being leaders, elders are shepherds or pastors of God's flock. Paul told the Ephesian elders "to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20:28, NASB). Peter exhorted elders to "shepherd the flock of God among you. . ." (1 Pet. 5:2, NASB). The King James has "feed" instead of "shepherd."

We can easily understand what is involved in shepherding if we consider the term in its physical sense. Shepherds who tend sheep have a three-fold responsibility. They are to feed the flock, keep the flock from straying and protect the flock from predators. In like-manner, elders have an identical responsibility toward the flock which they pastor (shepherd). Let us notice each one briefly in the order we have stated them.

(1) Feed the flock. One of the qualifications of an elder is "apt to teach" (1 Tim. 3:2). This indicates that he must know the Scriptures and be able to nurture and strengthen those whom he watches over. Several methods can be employed by elders by which the flock can adequately and sufficiently be fed. One way is the Bible class arrangement. Faithful and able teachers are secured to edify the church. Some elders are dilatory here. They fail to train men and women for teachers, never have teacher's meetings, have little thirty-minute classes twice a week, fail to provide adequate facilities and materials, and just let anybody teach a class. We provide for our livestock a better diet than this.

Pulpit preaching is an effective manner of edifying the church, providing the preacher studies and well-prepares his sermons. A good library, a well-supplied tract rack, religious journals, special classes, vacation Bible schools, a bulletin, etc. are excellent ways that elders can feed the flock. Good shepherds use these methods, and others, to build up the church.

(2) Keeps the flock from straying. A good shepherd watches for the safety of the flock so that one does not wander off and become lost. If, perchance, one does get lost, the shepherd immediately leaves the flock and searches for the lost sheep until he finds it (cf. Lk. 15:46).

The inspired writer said that elders "watch for you souls. . ." (Heb. 13:17). When the church meets and some of the flock is not present, faithful elders find out what is wrong. They may have fellow-saints assisting them in calling on the absentees, but they are getting the job done. If the situation merits it, then the elders make a personal visit and deal with the matter.

Some elders hardly ever bother with absentees or problems among brethren, unless the problem stinks to high heaven. In fact, they do not even miss the absentees until they have already petrified and ossified, spiritually. Then, its too late. Brethren, those elders who are not going to shepherd need to resign. They are a hindrance to the church and the spiritual welfare of the souls under them.

(3) Protect the flock from predators. Paul told the Ephesian elders, "For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch. . ." (Acts 20:29-31).

Elders must be very careful as to what preacher they secure to fill the pulpit. Good churches have been ruined by preachers. Furthermore, elders need to choose faithful teachers and also be familiar with the subject matter in each class. Our present crisis in the church over institutionalism, liberalism, fellowship, etc., would never have happened, or at worst, would only have been minimal, if elders had been doing their job. May elders have the courage to carry out their Godgiven duties of being shepherds over the flock of God

The Role of Being An Example

The Bible teaches that elders are to be examples to the flock. Peter exhorts elders, "Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock" (1 Pet. 5:3). In the epistle to the Hebrews, the inspired writer declares, "Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation" (Heb. 13:7). Elders must, therefore, go before the flock, showing and demonstrating how New Testament Christianity is to be practiced. The flock is to walk in their paths as they walk in the path of righteousness. Elders should not drive but rather lead. So much more can be accomplished by this procedure. Let us notice some things wherein elders are to serve as examples.

(1) Serving the Lord. Christians are "not to be slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord" (Rom. 12:11). Enthusiasm must be generated in reaching the lost, edifying the saints, helping the needy, visiting the sick, worshipping God, yea, in anything that involves serving the Lord and doing his will. Elders must be examples in this zeal and fervency for the things of God.

(2) Domestic life. Elders are to be examples as husbands and fathers. They are to love, honor and provide for their wives and their wives are to be in subjection unto them (cf. Eph. 5:22-33). Many elder's effectiveness is destroyed by insubordinate and worldly minded wives (cf. 1 Tim. 3:11). Those who are elders must .have taught their children to honor and obey their parents and to be faithful Christians (cf. Eph. 6:1-4).

(3) Hospitality. One of the qualifications for an elder is hospitality (1 Tim. 3:2). He should open his home for the lodging of visiting preachers or at least have the preacher in his home for a meal. He should have brethren in for meals and entertainment and lodge deserving brethren who are passing through town. There are some elders who never put themselves out to have anybody in their home. Their example is not becoming to the work.

(4) Community life. An elder is to have a good report of them which are without (1 Tim. 3:7). A boorish, selfish person would have little influence for the Lord. An elder must exemplify kindness, courtesy and concern for others.

(5) Disposition. Elders must demonstrate how to get along with people. They must be willing to listen to others when they have suggestions or problems, and respond with respect and appreciation. They must show that there can be matters of disagreement over opinions without losing their temper and becoming angry. Elders are not to be soon angry (Tit. 1:7). Some elders cannot be differed with or they become indignant and accuse you of being insubordinate to the eldership. Such attitude is wrong, being self-willed.

(6) Generosity. Paul told the Ephesian elders "to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). Elders should be liberal with their own money, and the Lord's as well, using it to promote the Lord's work. Men who are misers or covetous should never be appointed elders. Yet, some are appointed and retard the progress of the church by hoarding the money. Let elders be an example in giving and spending for the Cause of Christ.

In conclusion, I quote from the pen of H. E. Phillips. "The responsibility of the elders is continued from day to day in the congregation over which they rule. They have not been appointed to 'let another do the work' of overseeing and tending the flock, because only elders can do the work of elders. The sooner bishops can realize their duties and respond to them the sooner the church will begin to grow spiritually and numerically in every city of this great country" (Scriptural Elders and Deacons, p. 189).

Truth Magazine XXI: 27, pp. 424-426
July 14, 1977