Purpose of this Session
An elder or deacon is defined by function, not title. Scripture speaks of several functions the elder in the Body of Christ in a given locality. The eldership spoken of in the New Testament is always trusted local men of spiritual maturity and tested character, serving a local community of born again and functioning believers. Apostles and other five-fold ascension giftings provided apostolic oversight and direction at times, but the elders of the local church were primarily responsible for the direction and daily decisions of church life.
An elder is called to rule well in the Household of God, providing an example to the flock of Godly living. They are to diligently watch over and serve the people of God, shepherding and protecting them as God’s own flock, and instructing and teaching others in the ways of God.
Although some would want to deny that the New Testament speaks of structures of authority in the Church, the reality is that Jesus has instituted authorities in His Body, and appointed ‘rulers’ to teach, train, lead, correct, protect and Shepherd His people.
The following Scriptures all speak of elders in their capacity as rulers in the House of God.
Romans 12:8; 1 Thes 5:12-14; 1 Tim 5:17; Heb 13:7,17,24; 1 Pet 5:1-5
Having said this however, it must be remembered that this is not a positional or hierarchical leadership, but one where those who rule and lead do so by example, as servants and lovers of the people, not religious tyrants or egotistical managers; spiritual CEO’s of an ecclesiastical enterprise.
An elder superintends the work of the local church, but does not necessarily direct the work – this is the job of the Head who is Christ Himself. As spiritually mature men and women, these New Testament leaders are exemplary people who model servanthood in the church; motivate the believing community toward active devotion and service; and mould the spiritual development of younger believers.
Humility is called for by all within the Body of a local church however, not just the servant elders. Those ‘under’ their care are called to wisely obey their elders, knowing that in doing so they protect their own soul:
“Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.”
(Hebrews 13:17 KJV)
It is worth noting here that the Greek word (peitho) used for obey speaks more of being confident in the character and advice of, and being persuaded and convinced by the experience and wisdom of someone, than obedience to a command. We are to allow the spiritual stature and trustworthy nature of these individuals to persuade and convince us to yield to their direction. It does not speak of a blind obedience to an institutional authority. Again, it is relational, functional, organic, not organisational.
Because of the proven character of these mature believers, the Scriptures encourage and command that elders (the mature, anointed and appointed overseers of God’s flock) be honoured, respected, prayed for, and obeyed. They are to be known and appreciated and valued for the role they play in the edification of the House of God (1 Thes 5:12-13). Those elders who labour primarily or exclusively on behalf of the local church body are also to be supported financially by those in that local congregation, so they are able to perform their responsibilities effectively, and without the burden of lack in any way (1 Tim 5:17; Gal 6:6). This is one practical way in which the value of men and women who love God and the Word, and serve others in the Body, can be honoured and valued for their labour of love.
Paul also says that we are not to receive accusations against elders except in the mouth of two or more witnesses. Because of the nature of their work and leadership, an elder is open to accusation and misunderstanding more often than most. Because of this we are encouraged to not judge too hastily (1 Tim 5:1,19). Conversely, if an elder is found to be guilty of wrongdoing, because of the public and influential nature of his or her function, their chastisement should be public also that others might realise the severity of carrying responsibility in the house of God (1 Tim 5:20).
Shepherding the Flock
Elders are called to shepherd the Flock of God (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2)
This includes responsibilities such as:
i. Feeding the people with the milk, meat and bread of God’s Word (Acts 20:28)
ii. Watch over and protect the people from those who would hurt or deceive them (Acts 20:29-31)
iii. Help the weak and give to those who need (Acts 20:35)
iv. Minister to the sick (James 5:14-15)
v. Provide an example for others to follow (1 Pet 5:3)
Instructing the people
As livers of the Word and lovers of God, elders will naturally seek to instruct others in that which can benefit their lives. They are to have a firm grasp of the Word, and be able to confidently instruct others, and correct those who are teaching or living contrary to God’s will and Word.
The following verses addressed to Titus are particularly powerful:
“PAUL, A bond servant of God and an apostle (a special messenger) of Jesus Christ (the Messiah) to stimulate and promote the faith of God’s chosen ones and to lead them on to accurate discernment and recognition of and acquaintance with the Truth which belongs to and harmonizes with and tends to godliness
…the bishop (an overseer) as God’s steward must be…hold fast to the sure and trustworthy Word of God as he was taught it, so that he may be able both to give stimulating instruction and encouragement in sound (wholesome) doctrine and to refute and convict those who contradict and oppose it [showing the wayward their error].
…and in all respects to be a pattern and a model of good deeds and works, teaching what is unadulterated, showing gravity [having the strictest regard for truth and purity of motive], with dignity and seriousness.
…let your instruction be sound and fit and wise and wholesome, vigorous and irrefutable and above censure, so that the opponent may be put to shame, finding nothing discrediting or evil to say about us. Tell [them all] these things. Urge (advise, encourage, warn) and rebuke with full authority. Let no one despise or disregard or think little of you [conduct yourself and your teaching so as to command respect].”,(Titus 1:1-3, 7, 9; 2:7-8, 15 AMP)
See also: 1 Tim 3:2; Heb 13:7;1 Tim 5:17 and 2 Tim 2:2
Teaching and encouraging the Body is not intended to be the sole responsibility of a select company of individuals however. Although elders oversee the work of the House, every member has a place and right to function, and each member can be a conduit for Christ’s love and Word (1 Cor 14:26; Col 3:16).
An elder or deacon is not of a different rank or file than the rest of the Body. Although there are functional structures based on mutual submission and accountability, there is not a caste system in the Body of Christ that exalts some to spiritual prominence, and relegates others to inactivity.
Author, Robert C Girard says of this danger:
“There is thoroughly entrenched in our church life an unbiblical two-caste system. In this two-caste system there is a clergy-caste which is trained, called, paid, and expected to do the ministering. And there is the laity-caste which normally functions as the audience which appreciatively pays for the performances of the clergy – or bitterly criticizes the gaping holes in that performance (and there are always gaping holes). No one expects much of the lower or laity caste (except attendance, tithe and testimony). And everyone expects too much of the upper or clergy caste (including the clergy themselves!). The greatest problem is the fact that the Bible’s view of ministry totally contradicts this system.”
The Scriptures speak clearly of functions within the Body of Christ, recognised areas of service filled by anointed and trusted individuals. These functional roles exist to serve and superintend the local church body in order to bring it to maturity and ensure that its members are taught, served, protected and encouraged. It is an honourable thing to desire to stand in these roles within a local Body, but they also come with great responsibilities, and therefore require tested and proven traits of character to qualify as a potential candidate. Deacons are chosen individuals, accepted by consensus by the church, to serve in many capacities. Elders are chosen by the Holy Spirit, and acknowledged by Apostolic oversight before the local Body.
Although these functional roles are highlighted, it is within the context of a fully functioning local Body of believers. All are called within the Body of Christ to minister as kings and priests. The many faceted wisdom of God, and the richness of fellowship and ministry is not consigned to a select few. Ministry is the honour of every member to function, according to their gift, in mutual submission and accountability to their brethren, and in agreement with the mature and appointed men and women in the congregation.