In 2 Timothy chapter 2 verse 2 the apostle Paul sets out a pattern for the progression and maintenance of the truth of scripture for succeeding generations. The ‘things which (Timothy) had learned’ would not only be the fundamental doctrines concerning the purposes of God and the person and work of Christ, but also the orderly functioning of New Testament churches as they were formed and established.
With regard to order and development within each church or assembly, a number of features are made very clear in the apostolic writings. It is evident that, although there was a knowledge of and fellowship between the various companies of believers,1 each individual church was intended to be responsible before the Lord for their behaviour, their spiritual progress, and their obedience to divine principles. No precedent is found in the New Testament for any local assembly to censure, or exert undue influence, on any other company of the Lord’s people who are seeking to follow the New Testament pattern. Each church is made up of individuals, often from a wide diversity of background and influence, which inevitably leads to a variety of views in certain matters. Thankfully, we are not meant to be clones, or cast in some rigid mould to sit, as one brother expressed it, ‘like crows on a wire’! The local church should be a vibrant, energetic, active place to be, exciting even! And this is where the importance and influence of godly elders should be seen.
If, in any group of believers, the multiplicity of opinions and ideas was unharnessed and allowed free rein, chaos and division would ensue! That is why the Spirit of God in His wisdom, knowing the vagaries of human nature, has gifted and fitted men to be shepherds of the flock, teachers of the Lord’s people, guides to show the pathway, and providers of suitable spiritual food to meet the needs of all, to ensure that each individual feels valued, a part of the whole, an integral member, essential to the well-being of the assembly.
In the early days of Christian witness, as souls were saved and companies of believers were formed in various localities, there was an evident need for teaching, encouragement (often in the face of persecution), pastoral care, and a means of maintaining scriptural order and stability. This was achieved as the apostles, or their designated representatives, as in the case of Titus, under the guidance of the Spirit of God, appointed or ordained those in each church who manifested the qualities later outlined in 1 Timothy chapter 3, and Titus chapter 1.2 These men were called elders, in recognition of their spiritual maturity and moral authority. On other occasions they are referred to as overseers; a designation which emphasizes the work engaged in, rather than the man undertaking the responsibility.3 The suggestion of appointing, or ordaining, does not involve some formal ecclesiastical ritual, but simply ‘to indicate with the hand’. It is important also to note that elders are invariably spoken of in the plural.4
As the apostles passed away, it was necessary that order within the churches was maintained. In anticipation of this, the apostle Paul, when meeting with the elders from the church at Ephesus, reminded them that it was the Holy Spirit who had made them overseers;5 this action on the part of deity was, and remains, the primary requirement for those who would lead, feed, and teach the people of God. Essential too is the desire in a man’s heart to give of his time and energy, using Spirit-given gifts, to serve as a shepherd to the flock; in 1 Timothy 3, verse 1, Paul acknowledges with approval such a desire. This aspiration would not be as a result of selfish ambition, nor a craving for some position of authority, but as placed in the heart by the Spirit of God. At this point, and indeed for some time following, this may be known only to the Lord and the individual involved.
As the work of the Spirit in his heart begins to develop, he will give diligence to fulfil the qualities as outlined in 1 Timothy chapter 3, and Titus chapter 1. These involve his home life, his church life, and his conduct before unbelievers, ‘them that are without’. As these heart exercises continue, the elders, and, most importantly, the whole company, will perceive a man of moral authority, of evident maturity, and of good testimony.
Those already recognized as overseers will observe the manner in which other brethren conduct themselves among the people of God. They will look for evidence of loyalty to the various activities of the assembly, both in their presence and their prayers – a willingness to exhort, encourage and teach other believers, publicly as opportunity is given, or privately as need arises. Observant elders will know if others in the church have confidence in a particular brother, if they seek his advice and value his wisdom. The qualification ‘apt to teach’, given in 1 Timothy chapter 3 verse 2, does not necessarily carry with it the idea of an ability to preach or teach in a public sphere. Rather, it is an ability to understand and apply the word of God reliably and appropriately in the manner required; a similar thought is presented in Titus chapter 1 verse 9, ‘Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers’.
The man who would lead and feed the flock of God must, of necessity, have the character of a shepherd, not a sheepdog! An inflexible, intransigent approach will not win the hearts, or gain the confidence, of the saints. That does not mean that he will compromise to accommodate, but, like the priest of old, he must be able to ‘have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way’, Heb. 5. 2. There will be times when from a tender heart he will ‘weep with them that weep’, Rom 12. 15. He will ‘be gentle unto all … patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves’, 2 Tim. 2. 24-25. He must, however, be prepared to resist false doctrine with firmness, and, if occasion arises, he must not avoid the application of scriptural principles and practice in discipline.
Those who ‘watch for the souls’ in a company of believers soon realize that there are times when it can seem a thankless task! Popularity can be at a premium! Evaluations have to be made for the good of the church, which, on occasion, may not meet with the approval of all. Overseers must take the lead in endeavouring to maintain the unity forged by the Spirit, in the bonding power of peace and embrace any dissenting members in their decisions.
We can learn lessons from men like Moses and David, who in their time kept, led, and fed the flock entrusted to their charge. Perhaps the best Old Testament example of shepherd care, however, is found in Jacob. Returning from Padan-aram, having been overtaken by the pursuing Laban, Jacob gave an account of his work as a shepherd. He spoke of his care for both old and young, male and female, his keen sense of loss for those damaged or taken from the flock by wild beasts, the days of drought, the bitter sleepless nights, and the uncertainty of reward or gratitude from Laban. Old Testament history provides pertinent lessons for those who would shepherd New Testament flocks!
Sadly, it is the case in our day that many assemblies of the Lord’s people are small in numbers, and the elders are advanced in years. There is no immediate opportunity for such to pass on the burden of responsibility to younger men and, since there is no retirement age in service for the Master, they press on, faithfully seeking to maintain a testimony and a witness; we salute them! In other cases, however, there are younger men with gift and ability who should be given opportunity and encouragement by discerning elders. Often, it is only when given responsibility that individuals blossom and begin to show the potential and the commitment latent within. The possibility is that older brethren may hold on tenaciously to every aspect of the work both spiritual and practical, leaving a vacuum when they are called home. Returning to the introductory words of this article, ‘things learned’ should be ‘committed to faithful men’, who in turn would ‘be able to teach others also. Thus the succession will continue until the Lord returns and calls His people to meet Him in the air.