The Elder and the role of Leadership in the Local Church
John Griffiths, Port Talbot, Wales [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a short series on this very needy and practical area of elders. It is designed to emphasize the spiritual nature of this work and how we need to encourage younger men to be exercised about the responsibility of caring for the flock of God locally.
The Bible’s ‘take’ on this is completely different to Christendom’s practice. We must disabuse ourselves of current religious practices and look to the word of God when considering assembly government. Sadly, even in some assemblies the pattern of the world, commercial or religious, is rated above that divinely revealed in the scriptures.
Leadership is to be exercised corporately by a plurality of elders in the local assembly in which they are in fellowship.
Leadership is a grace – a gift from God, NOT a natural talent
In the list of spiritual gifts given to believers at conversion by the sovereign choice of the Holy Spirit, 1 Cor. 12. 28, following ‘helps’ we have ‘governments’. Some believers will have been given this gift but by no means all.
Confirmation that elders are appointed by the Holy Spirit’s choice can be found in Acts, ‘the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers’, 20. 28. Natural gift or talent which we use in our working life has no bearing whatsoever on the gift distributed to us by the Spirit for use in the local assembly. W. Trew said, ‘Overseers in the assembly are not a body of control or a board of management’. Those chosen and gifted of the Spirit need no institutional training or ecclesiastical ordination to function for God. When God calls, God equips.
The word ‘government’ is the same word translated ‘master’ of the ship, Acts 27. 11. The ‘master’ was responsible for setting the course of the vessel based on the charts available to him. Similarly, elders are the ‘helmsmen’ responsible for giving the assembly its steer, a sense of direction and purpose based on our chart and compass, the Bible.
Enumerated in Romans chapter 12 verse 8, we have the gifts given to the assembly by the Father. Note, ‘he that ruleth, with diligence’.
The word ‘ruleth’ comes from the Greek proistemi which means ‘to stand before’ and, hence, ‘to lead’. The shepherds of old did not drive the sheep from behind but led the sheep from the front, ‘He leadeth me’, Ps. 23. 3; ‘He led the flock’, Exod. 3. 1. Elders are not to drive the flock from behind but to lead from the front by example. Proistemi is used in the following passages: 1 Thess. 5. 12, ‘over’; 1 Tim. 3. 4, 5, 12, ‘rule’; 5. 17, ‘rule’; Titus 3. 8, 14, ‘maintain’.
Christ gives gifted men to the church – evangelists, pastors and teachers, Eph. 4. 11.
The word ‘pastors’ is simply ‘shepherds’, that is, those who have a flock to care for. The thrust of these passages clarifies the type of leadership God approves of: a helmsman setting the course by chart; one who leads from the front by example; a shepherd with the sheep’s interest at heart. Here there are no hierarchical structures, ecclesiastical training, or one-man ministry!
Leadership is delegated, NOT executive
In 1 Corinthians chapter 4 verse 1 where service is the context, Paul and his co-workers call themselves ‘under-rowers’ of Christ, such is their humility and subservience to Christ. In 1 Peter chapter 5 verse 4 we conclude that as Christ is the Chief Shepherd the elders are under-shepherds. Their authority is administrative, not legislative. They apply the scriptures; they do not write them or add to them, as the Pharisees attempted to do.
Their responsibility is to the Lord and to the sheep, ‘other sheep I have which are not of this fold: them also I must bring’, John 10. 16. 1 Peter chapter 2 verse 25 reminds us that you ‘are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls’. The Lord is the Owner of the sheep, not just their Shepherd and Overseer.
Those with leadership responsibilities must recognize that they do not own the sheep. They act on behalf of the Chief Shepherd: a work that demands accountability, Heb. 13. 17, a work that will be rewarded by the Chief Shepherd when He appears, if, indeed, reward is merited. The assembly is the Lord’s: Acts chapter 20 verse 28 teaches us its preciousness to the heart of God, ‘purchased with his own blood’. He is the Purchaser and Proprietor of the assembly – leadership is subject to His gift and grace.
Leadership is spiritual, NOT secular
The assembly’s leaders receive a spiritual gift in order to do the work and are appointed by the Holy Spirit, Himself. Just as Christ is ‘the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls’ so the responsibility of the elders is primarily concerned with believers’ souls: ‘they watch for your souls’, Heb. 13. 7.
In this chapter there are three references to elders and the saints’ appropriate responses.
- Consider their Witness – ‘remember them’, Heb. 13. 7.
- Consider their Watchfulness – ‘obey them’, v. 17.
- Consider their Worth – ‘salute . . . them’, v. 24.
In each case the word ‘rule’ is hegeomai. It means ‘to lead with authority’, ‘to preside’ and is elsewhere translated ‘governor’ and ‘judge’. J. N. Darby translates as ‘leaders’.
Consider their Witness – remember them!
The elders are spoken of in the past tense, ‘which have had the rule over you’. Saints are to recall the qualities of spiritual leadership manifest in the teaching and testimony of these recently deceased elders. Consider the issue of their manner of life, that is, ‘imitate or mimic their faithful example’.
Consider their Watchfulness – obey them!
‘Obey’ is translated ‘trust’ on eight occasions and ‘confidence’ on six occasions. Thus, we are to show every confidence in our elders by being compliant with their teaching. They are to watch for our souls, that is, our spiritual condition. The word ‘watch’ signifies ‘sleeplessness’. They are to be constantly alert, watching for our soul’s wellbeing. It is a twenty-four hours a day responsibility. Their alertness now is matched by their accountability at the judgement seat of Christ for the flock that they shepherded. Will it be an occasion of joy or sorrow? If sorrow, this will be unprofitable for the sheep when it comes to reward or loss.
Consider their Worth – salute them!
Greet your elders with a sense of their work and worth in mind. We are desperately short of men of the calibre described here. How many of our present-day leaders fit the scriptural photofit? Leaders of the character of Hebrews chapter 13 are worth their weight in gold. Do not be critical of them but: remember them; trust them; greet them!
Leadership is exemplified in work, NOT enshrined in an office
‘If a man desireth the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work’, 1 Tim. 3. 1. ‘Office of a bishop’ is one word in Greek, episcope: overseership. ‘Office’ does not occur in the text at all. The context of the passage is ‘a good work’. It is by the job that they do that saints recognize their elders, just as you recognize a bus driver because he drives a bus! 1 Thessalonians chapter 5 verses 12-13 state, ‘Know them which labour among you . . . esteem them . . . for their work’s sake’.
The assembly is not a democracy where matters are put to a vote or a show of hands is called for. Leadership is entrusted by God to gifted, godly men designated elders or overseers. The image of Daniel chapter 2 suggests God’s evaluation of democracy!
Leadership is corporate, NOT individual
The ‘law of first mention’ regarding assembly elders leads us to Acts chapter 11 verse 30 where it is clear that the assembly at Jerusalem had a plurality of elders who acted collectively on behalf of the believers. Most references are in the plural. Where the singular occurs it is used in a generic sense, for example, ‘rebuke not an elder’, 1 Tim. 5. 1.1
Just as one-man ministry is contrary to the scriptural principle of the priesthood of all believers, talk of ‘the leading brother’ is equally unscriptural. Ideally, an assembly will have several elders who are seen to work corporately and collectively, not merely as individuals. It is recognized that some small assemblies, however, do not have the luxury of several elders though they would be delighted if this were the case.
The corporate nature of the elders’ work may be alluded to in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, based upon the idea that the expression ‘angel of the church’ refers to the totality of elders in each autonomous assembly.
Leadership is to be exemplary, NOT dictatorial
‘Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock’, 1 Pet. 5. 3.
The elders are to be patterns, not princes; leaders, and not lords in respect of the assembly. It is God’s ‘heritage’, kleroo, a word from which we get ‘clergy’. The whole assembly is thus seen to be God’s clergy or heritage not just the leaders only! This is diametrically opposed to the tradition of the world which divides the church into clergy and laity.2 Thus the leaders are not to lord it over God’s clergy, that is, the assembly. They are not to dominate the Lord’s people. They should not exhibit the characteristics of the Nicolaitans who rejoiced in victory over the people. God hated this oppression of His saints, Rev. 2. 6, 15. The division of the church into clergy and laity is contrary to the mind and will of God. ‘Ensamples’, tupos, is better translated ‘model’ or ‘example to be imitated’, hence, leadership by example.
The idea of ‘whose faith follow’, Heb. 13. 7, is to ‘mimic their faithful example’. By way of contrast, consider Diotrephes in John’s third epistle. The second epistle introduces us to the seeds of heresy; the third epistle to the seeds of cleresy. Diotrephes is a self-assertive man who refuses to show hospitality to itinerant preachers. He delights in the limelight and enforces his will on others who open their homes to the Lord’s servants. This leads to physical violence as he ‘casteth them out of the church’. Men like this we can do without! John’s exhortation is, ‘Follow not that which is evil but that which is good’. ‘Follow’ brings us back to the idea of imitating, 1 Pet. 5. 3; Heb. 13. 7.
In closing this article, we would emphasize that leadership is totally dependent on the qualities enumerated in the Pastoral Epistles being lived out in the lives of spiritual elders.
- References to plurality: Acts 14. 23; 20. 17; Phil. 1. 1; Titus 1. 5; Jas. 5. 14.
- See also W. E. Vine, The Church and the Churches, Pg. 60 ; Plumptre, St. Peter and St.Jude, Pg. 153, Cambridge Bible Series.
AUTHOR PROFILE: John is an elder in the assembly at Port Talbot, Wales. He ministers the word of God throughout the UK. This is his first article for Precious Seed International. He is a retired headteacher.