The local church body is a beautiful thing; integral to the faithful Christian’s walk in obedience and worship. It’s a family, truly it is. Not simply an amalgam of believers who gather once a week to speak kindly to one another and offer pats on the back and shoulders on which to cry. It’s a divinely ordained institution with divinely ordained instruction which is taught and enforced by divinely ordained leadership, namely the elders.
A consideration of the eldership in a local church is something I think few of us ever actually do but something which is necessary if, as a church, we’re serious about conducting ourselves in a manner subservient to the aforementioned divine ordinances.
So what is the eldership?
For the purposes of this article, I’m not going to worry about when, in the formation of the early church, the eldership was actually first established. If one were inclined to do so, one might explore the book of Acts but it’s not a discussion that will serve much purpose here. Suffice it to say that when Paul gives instruction to Timothy and Titus respectively concerning what qualities an elder must have and how he must conduct himself in the service of the body, I’m willing to take his word for it that the office of elder is a legitimate one and that it’s essential to the proper function of the church.
Having said that, it should be pointed out that elders are mentioned throughout the Old Testament as well as the new. In point of fact most early societies and communities found guidance and instruction from elders. In a general sense it just seems natural, doesn’t it, that the older members of a community should inherently be the ones to teach and correct the young. And the Bible bears this out. For example, Lev. 19:32 says, “You shall rise up before the gray headed and honor the aged, and you shall revere your God; I am the Lord.” But we’re not talking about simply respecting the “gray headed and aged” in broad terms. We’re talking about coming under the office of eldership as specially instituted by God for our instruction and edification. In reading Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, it seems apparent that he’s concerned with wisdom, maturity, and experience above actual age. As Voddie Baucham Jr. puts it in his book Family Shepherds, “Maturity in Christians is marked not by gray hair, but by the fruit believers bear in keeping with their sanctification.” This ‘fruit in keeping with sanctification’ manifests in several ways and is the baseline for how a church might determine a man worthy of the pastorate.
Firstly, it’s important to realize that the eldership and the families which comprise the body are inextricably linked. When Paul writes to Timothy and Titus, one of the first charges he gives to prospective elders is that they be men who have shown themselves to be worthy leaders of their own homes and families. In 1 Timothy 3:2-4 we read that an elder must be the husband of one wife and one who manages his household and children well and with dignity. And just to make sure we understand why that’s so important, Paul poses the rhetorical question. If a man can’t manage his house and children, how is he supposed to care for the church? We could pose another of our own. If a man cannot remain faithful to one woman, how can he remain faithful to his congregation? To again quote Voddie Baucham, “The family is the proving ground for the elder.”
To reinforce the concept of elders being committed to the righteous management and care of family, we can look also to Titus 1:9-11. The man called to leadership is charged with holding fast to the faithful word so that he will be able to teach sound doctrine and refute those who teach things contrary to Scripture. And the reasoning behind the charge is that there are deceitful rebellious men “upsetting whole families” with false teaching. The threat here is not to the church directly although we can be sure that ultimately the body will be harmed if nothing is done to fight this evil. But the immediate issue to which Paul draws our attention is the threat to family. The previous command for the man of the house to care for wife and children faithfully includes with it the necessity of an understanding of Scripture. This so that he can preach to his family, standing as sentinel at the hearts of kith and kin, encouraging them in sound doctrine and rebuking those who refute it.
This idea of proving oneself is broadly significant and reinforced by Scripture. The elder is called to all the same standards of character as every other Christian. Among other things, we read that an elder should be a man who is temperate, prudent, above reproach, not quick tempered, not addicted to wine, holding fast the faithful word, not violent but gentle, not a lover of money etc. The difference is that he must not be a recent convert (1 Timothy 3:6). He must have had time to have shown himself a man of character, unshakable and faithful to his allegiance to the Word of God and the doctrine therein. The consequence of a failure in this regard is what we might expect of a recent convert. If not checked and held to account, the conceit of man will take a position of primacy and bring shame to the office of elder and harm to the church.
The ingredients of faithfulness, graciousness, and competent dominion over family and time-proven submission to the Word and the Christ, result in the formation of a good shepherd. A strong-willed man of God equipped for the leading of the church and the making of disciples. And that’s ultimately why the office of the elder is so important. His ministry, through raising his own family and living as exemplar of righteousness, is to teach those under his care to do the same and to refute any teaching that is contrary to Scripture. “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:9 ESV)
The responsibility of the congregation therefore is twofold and should not to be ignored or understated. First, if, as we’ve already seen, the elders are called to the same standards as ordinary Christians but have proven themselves to be exemplary in those standards, we as the body must be diligent in following them in their dedication to the Word. They have been called to a position of authority in order to exhort us to righteousness. And we who are given to their care are to humbly submit to their leading, passing on the things we learn, thereby working together, all of us, in the making of disciples (1 Peter 5:1-5). Second, we must also encourage and shore up the elders as they guide and teach. Their position of authority is not so high as to exempt them from loving fellowship with the body. We are all one in Christ, some as teachers and others as students but all of a single hope. One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father who is over all, and in all, and through all (Ephesians 4:1-8). We must therefore bear with one another in humility and love, as the shepherds serve the flock and the flock serves the shepherds.
Recently I heard Michael Horton say on the White Horse Inn podcast, “The method reveals the message.” At first I just let the comment pass, but then it began to gnaw on me. The methods he was referring to are the methods and activities engaged in by churches. This includes worship service activities, outreach methods, fellowship activities, and so on. But do the activities of a church present a message? Surely the message is independent of the method. Isn’t this what we hear or read? For example, when it comes to church music I have heard it said, “The music style isn’t important. What is important are the lyrics.” Also, “It doesn’t matter whether sermons or topical or expositional as long as they meet the needs of the people.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what a church does or how it does it as long as the gospel message is presented. But can the methods and activities of a church obscure or change the gospel?