Recently, someone who is studying the biblical teaching concerning eldership asked each of the elders of BBC to contribute a statement explaining why we desire to be elders and what we believe our responsibility is as elders. The two issues are, of course, intimately related. Elders should desire to do what God has prescribed for elders to do. If they do not desire to do what God has prescribed, or if they do not do what He has prescribed, then, to use a disconcerting word, such elders are disqualified. In other words, elders are not to merely fill a position but are to faithfully function in that position.
I am grateful for the question and for the opportunity for self-reflection. The exercise has been somewhat painful, but largely profitable—perhaps the latter because of the former. Nevertheless, I trust that it will prove helpful to any congregation to be reminded what to expect of its elders. On a more personal level, may this article both inform your understanding of why the elders of BBC do what we do, and encourage you to remember us in your prayers. We desire to be faithful in what God has called us to do.
So, what is an elder required/called to do? Simply, elders are called to pastor the flock of God, and they are to do so with maturity, credibility and ability. A look at the various terms in Scripture to describe this one office—pastor, elder and bishop (overseer)—gives proof to this thesis. Elder speaks of maturity, pastor (shepherd) speaks of credibility (“they really do care”) and bishop (one who inspects for the welfare of others) speaks of the commitment and ability to give oversight.
When Paul addressed the elders of the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:17), he summed up their responsibility in v. 28 when he said, “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [bishops], to shepherd [pastor] the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood.”
We can conclude that elders (v. 17) are bishops who pastor (v. 28). And fundamental to effective shepherding is active oversight. But all too often it is precisely here where elders can go terribly wrong.
God-equipped elders are men who desire to care for the flock of God. They desire to actively engage the flock in such a way as to promote spiritual maturity, to promote spiritual health. It is not an overstatement to say that the ministry of spiritual shepherds is vindicated by the eventual presence of a healthy flock. And one mark of such spiritual health is reproduction. As I have said on several occasions, shepherds do not give birth to sheep but rather sheep birth sheep. As the flock of God is faithfully shepherded, it matures to the place where it is fruitful and multiplies. One of the strange consequences is that such sheep are often transformed into shepherds (see 2 Timothy 2:2)! But such fruitfulness in the flock requires faithful, active and caring oversight.
Therefore, one major question that elders must constantly consider is whether or not they are giving proper oversight to church members; or, are they guilty of oversight when it comes to their calling to give oversight? Oversight by overseers can be catastrophic for the congregation. Wolves and disease and dangers abound. Elders need to have their eyes wide open.
Elders desire the welfare of the flock and this requires that they be alert (aware), attentive, and active.
Elders should be asking themselves if they are aware of the condition of the flock. Are they aware of the health of individual members? Elders, of course, will never do so infallibly, yet they should be aware of the presence and/or absence of church members at congregational gatherings. Further, are elders aware of the sheep’s participation in Body Life and of their countenance? That is, are they alert to the signs of sorrow, fatigue, and heartache, as well as the “glow” that often flows as the Christian spiritually grows?
Elders should be attentive to the needs and to the “hints” that their fellow brothers and sisters often give indicating their burdens. Even such small things such as remembering birthdays can communicate care. (I try to do this, but don’t always get this right!) I want church members to know that I am thinking of them and that I thank God for them. A part of “bishoping” others is to pay attention to what is happening in their lives—including such special times.
All of the above requires that elders be actively engaging with the congregation. Elders are to take the initiative in this (though there is also a corresponding responsibility on the part of the congregation, see 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13).
To summarise, elders need to be asking themselves if they are actively giving oversight. If not, then they open themselves to many temptations, including that of criticising from a distance and making what in fact may be harsh and even erroneous assessments. As we all know, it is far easier to criticise and detect fault than it is to constructively engage in helping to correct the fault. If indeed the fault really exists.
The task of an elder is to give oversight, and this requires giving instruction. Yet elders are not called to merely instruct. Yes, elders are to teach, but they are also called to care; they are called not only to instruct, but also to be involved; they are called to carefully instruct. In fact, I would surmise that one who is not seeking, in some way, to be involved in the lives of those they teach will perhaps be ignored when he does instruct.
Let me summarise with a tongue-twister: Shepherds are careful to give oversight, which also means that they are careful to avoid oversight of that essential oversight.
As a member of BBC, you have the biblical right to expect shepherds/elders to give oversight—and not merely from a distance. To type that statement gives me a heavy heart. For, you see, I have often failed in this task. As much as I have tried to be faithful, there is no argument that I have not given as much attention to the flock as is needed. But rest assured that I am not happy to rest with failure. By God’s grace, I will do a better job for whatever length of time the Lord has me here at BBC. I am grateful for your forgiveness and patience.
It is true that not every elder can give every church member equal time in such a task. But that is the reason why the Lord has prescribed a plurality of elders in the local church. This has many positive implications, one which is a division of labour.
It would be unrealistic for a member of BBC to expect equal time with and from each elder. There are just not enough hours in the day, nor are there practical scheduling opportunities to do so. But as the eldership develops in maturity and effectiveness, and as it expands in size, then all of the sheep can rest assured that, if they desire oversight, they will get it. By a wise spreading of the workload, such a division of responsibilities yields a corresponding multiplication of effectiveness.
So, in answer to my brother’s great question, I am an elder because I desire to exercise faithful oversight of the flock for their benefit to the glory of the Chief Shepherd. And by God’s grace I will work hard at doing all that I practically can to make sure that I am not guilty of oversight of oversight. Please, pray for me.