The apostle Paul, on his journey to Jerusalem, sent from Miletus to Ephesus to call the “elders of the church” together. In the church at Ephesus there were those who could be called such, and who were no doubt accustomed’ to act together. We shall consider briefly some of the New Testament teaching concerning such men. It is abundantly clear from the Scriptures that “elders”, “bishops” or “overseers” are synonymous terms, Acts 20. 17, 28; Titus 1. 5-7; 1 Pet. 5. 1-2, and that a plurality of elders in each assembly is the will of God, Acts 14. 23; 20. 17. The word “elder” refers not so much to their age, but rather to their spiritual experience and maturity, whilst “overseer” refers to the work they are called upon to do.
How, then, did brethren become “elders” or “overseers” in the church in N.T. times? This is important because in no other way should, brethren become elders today. The Word of God leaves us in no doubt as to the answer to our question, for we read “the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers”, Acts 20. 28. They were divinely appointed. It is an unspeakable honour to be set as an overseer by the Holy Ghost in “the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood”.
In the Scriptures, there are very clearly set out for us the features of a God-given overseer. There must be fitness, a moral fitness, a quality of character which is the outcome of acquaintance with God and His Word. Then there must be maturity. The word “elder” suggests this. Growth in grace is a silent call to the work. In 1 Timothy 3. 6 we read “not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil”. He must also know how to rule. If a man is weak in his own house, he will be weak in the house of God. The bishop must be “one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (for if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)”, 1 Tim. 3. 4-5. He must have a good name, Solomon said that this is “better than precious ointment”, Eccles. 7. 1. The world outside must have no real ground of accusation against an elder, and we need to remember that they expect a very high standard of the Christian. He must not be mixed up in public scandal, fraud or be a bankrupt who has not discharged his debt. Moreover, he must have “a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil”, 1 Tim. 3. 7. He must have a holy desire for the work. No one should be self-appointed to eldership, and no one should undertake an elder’s work against his will. “If a man desire” the work and is moved by one impelling force to serve God and His people, he will serve acceptably. He serves “not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind”, 1 Pet. 5. 2.
They are to feed or tend the flock with shepherd care, providing good pasture, Acts 20. 28, watching against grievous wolves from without and men speaking perverse things from within their number, Acts 20. 29-30. The work is that of tending and nourishing the flock with a view to its spiritual growth and development. Men called to such a work remember the shepherd character of our Lord. When He finds the sheep He bears it on His shoulder and shields it from all danger. Oh for grace to follow His steps! A man may be an elder without labouring in the word and doctrine, 1 Tim. 5. 17, but he must be apt to teach, however, 1 Tim. 3. 2.
The apostle Paul in Acts 20 cited his own example to the Ephesians. He referred to his humility of mind, tears, trials and faithful ministry before exhorting them to take heed first to themselves and then to the flock among whom they moved. Elders should not act as “lords over God’s heritage”, 1 Pet. 5. 3. As the eastern shepherd, they lead but do not drive.
As such they are to guide, represent and protect the church. They take care lest unworthy ones come in, and what is just as important, they take care lest worthy ones are kept out. As an overseer he is to rule according to the Word, “he that ruleth, with diligence”, Rom. 12. 8. The rule of godly elders is a moral rule which needs grace for its exercise and for its proper recognition. They are to instruct; reprove, rebuke and exhort those committed to their care. They are to be longsuffering towards all. In discipline, they should investigate a matter prayerfully and judicially, and if necessary inform the church. As there is a plurality of elders in a church it follows that they should meet together for prayer and deliberation on all matters relative to the welfare of the church. It is all important that a united judgment should be made, for a divided oversight means a divided fellowship. Such business or oversight meetings should consist of overseers alone, with the full confidence of each other and the assembly, Acts 15. 6.
Whenever the divinely given qualifications are discerned, the saints are responsible to recognize those who labour among them, who are over them in the Lord, and who admonish them. Such should be esteemed very highly in love for their work’s sake, 1 Thess. 5. 12-13. “To know” points to a practised recognition and submission to their rule. In the church today, as in the world, some resent the mention of submission or obedience on the ground that they are individuals responsible to the Lord alone. Yet the Scripture clearly refers to those who “are over you in the Lord” and commands us to “obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves”, Heb. 13. 17.
In 1 Peter 5.1 we read of “the elders which are among you”, that is among the flock, whilst verse 2 refers to “the flock of God which is among you”, that is among the elders. The shepherds and the sheep are found together, the one functioning among the other. May the Lord increasingly develop such harmonious working and unity of purpose as is suggested here.