The work of Jesus’ church is the greatest effort with which we could ever be involved, and the role of elder is, in my estimation, the most important of the earthly roles. In order to be an effective leader, whether at the top of the leadership hierarchy, or somewhere in the middle, there needs to be a clearly delineated job description. Clearly defined expectations lead to better performance. So what are the NT’s expectations of elders?
1. They must be SHEPHERDS
At the heart of his duties is an elder’s obligation to protect and nurture. John 10 gives us a wonderful vision of what it means to be a good shepherd, and Ezekiel 34 is a frightening warning of the judgment God has prepared for false shepherds.
Breaking down the obligation to shepherd, an elder must encourage and nurture his sheep. An elder should guard against beating his sheep down, but rather be one of the primary agents of deepening a member’s relationship with God and others (cf. Titus 1:9ff). One of the most successful ways in doing this is through hospitality (1 Tim. 3:2). Showing hospitality engenders a lot of good will and can develop positive relationships that might not have ever existed in the first place. A shepherd also encourages and nurtures by visiting the sick (cf. James 5:14).
A shepherd must also refute and admonish those who are unruly. Titus 1:9, after calling elders to encourage via sound doctrine, also calls them to refute those who oppose such, i.e. to gently expose wrongdoing and convict those who are in the wrong. An elder will love the truth of the gospel and will defend it passionately just as a shepherd will love fresh, green grass and sources of good water for his sheep. An elder will love the gospel because it is the story of Jesus. An elder will know that anything opposed to the gospel means death for his flock.
Elders must take seriously their call to refute those not consistent with sound doctrine. According to Titus 2, sound doctrine has as much to do with our behavior as it does our beliefs. If a deacon exhibits a behavioral pattern of being ornery and obnoxious, or if ministers are teaching things inconsistent with the Word, the elders must act to discipline them. Elders should never discipline as a means of humiliating someone, but in a way that will restore them to righteousness before the Lord. The exercise of discipline should always be accompanied with tears, not glee and the intoxication that comes from a power trip.
The final component of a shepherd is managing and overseeing the congregation. While it is the prerogative of the eldership to know details, this should never obscure the “big picture” work of a congregation. To speak frankly, some elders too often concern themselves with the work of deacons. A perfect example of this is Acts 6 where the apostles knew that details work (important as it was) was taking them away from big picture responsibilities, which they identify as “prayer and ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:2). An elder must have the humility and wisdom to know when his attention to these things is being undermined by his desire to have his finger in everything. Elders, do you know how it is spiritually with every member of your flock? And can you in good conscience rest until you have determined that?
2. They must LEAD BY EXAMPLE
In 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1, there is a lengthy list of requirements a man must meet before he can become an elder. Many of the requirements are moral in nature. An excellent way of discerning whether a man is qualified morally to serve as an elder is to observe his way around his family (1 Tim. 3:4-5). If he is the man he should be, his wife will respect and obey him. If he is the father he should be, he will have a close relationship with his children who respect and submit to his authority. Often, I am told that a man cannot control his children once they leave the house. But this is nonsense.
My father has been dead for over 8 years of my life, and no longer poses the threat of physical discipline to me. Yet he continues to hold a powerful sway over my life, the force of moral authority that I cannot escape. I thank God for this, and I can only hope to instill the same in my children. Likewise, an elder must have the ability to compel righteous living in others through the sheer force of his character, personality, and the good will he engenders in others. I want to be clear: having unfaithful children does not mean a man was a poor father, nor does being unqualified to serve as an elder mean that a person is a poor Christian or a bad person. But if I am to entrust my family to a man’s spiritual leadership, I want assurance that he has proven himself successful with his own family (1 Tim. 3:5).
3. They must GUARD THEMSELVES
There are explicit warnings in the NT that an elder should guard himself against the corrupting influence of the devil (cf. 1 Tim. 3:6-7; 1 Cor. 10:12; Acts 20:28-32). If he is not careful, an elder can become puffed up, rather than humble. This happens when he shifts his focus from the spiritual realm to the physical. Being an elder of a church in a community makes a man important. Having the ability to hire and fire church staff makes a man important. Having shared control over how a large amount of money is spent makes a man important. But knowing that an awesome God will demand that you account for every soul in your church is humbling. Knowing that you are responsible for forming Jesus in the heart of every one who submits to your leadership is a daunting commission. Knowing that just one selfish decision can set a congregation back for decades is a great risk every elder assumes.
For these reasons, elders need our unequivocal support as our leaders. As members, we have the dual obligation to thank them continuously for their service, but to also always hold them to the high standard set forth by Scripture and not settle for anything else. So let us be grateful for the men who serve in this capacity, let us support them in every way, and let us challenge them, not to do their best, but to go far beyond their best by the power of God and the mercy of Jesus.