We continue our study of the subject of overseership by considering the qualifications and ministration of elders.
In the things of the world, qualification always precedes office, and in the things of God the order is no different. If one has to possess certain qualifications in any sphere upon which one enters in the world, whether national, ecclesiastical or domestic, how much more necessary that those who are to have the care of the assembly should possess certain spiritual qualifications. One is no more fit to guide an assembly without qualifications than in fulfilling work in the world without them. H. Hitchman has written, “Some of the greatest disasters that have happened in connection with God’s assembly have been due to those who have attempted to lead the saints without having the ability to do it, according to the Scriptures”.
Moral qualities and the spiritual capacity of God-given overseers are given in 1 Timothy 3. 1-7 and Titus 1. 6-9, where they are seen irreproachable in four spheres of life.
Their Position at Home, 1 Tim. 3. 4; Titus 1. 6. This is a very important qualification, since “if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?”; “having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly”. He must have an effective control over his household. If aspirers to this work have children that are a disgrace to them because of their wilfulness and worldliness, they are not qualified for oversight in the church of God. Before one can take care of the house of God, one must needs prove ability to take care of his own household.
The elder must also be “given to hospitality”, 1 Tim. 3. 2, “a lover of hospitality”, Titus 1. 8. When possible, believers used to resort to the homes of fellow-believers, so as to avoid associating with those in the public inns. This is one good reason why hospitality should be cultivated among God’s people, and in this the overseeing brethren should set the example for others to follow. The home is always to be open to the Lord’s dear people, since while showing love to strangers (those travelling) “some have entertained angels unawares”., Heb. 13. 2. Concerning elders., then, it must be said “The latch string was always outside”.
W. E. Vine has written, “The well ordered household., the decent modest behaviour, the reverent, affectionate relations between parents and children, between the master and the dependants – these things are to be the test of a man’s fitness for caring for God’s children”.
Their Public Life, 1 Tim. 3. 7. Elders “must have a good report of them which are without”. He must be irreproachable not only in his relationship to those on the inside (the home and the assembly) but also in relationship to those outside, namely, the unsaved who, as another has well said, “have a shrewd judgment of what we ought to be”. He must have a good testimony in the world and be free from bringing reproach on the assembly by his unreliability in his word or work. Of necessity his conduct must be of an exemplary nature.
Their Personal Life, 1 Tim. 3. 2-3. (i) Again note the high standard. The elder is to be irreproachable in conduct, that is, he must be without reproach. There must be nothing in his life that would be just cause for complaint, as being inconsistent with his position in seeking to guide others.
(ii) “The husband of one wife”. Marriage neither qualifies nor disqualifies one for overseership. Rather the thought is that in an age when polygamy was prevalent, the elder must be husband to only one woman at the same time, not to two or more.
(iii) He must be sober-minded, sane, sensible, self-controlled in speech and action, not stubborn and self-willed, but of sound discretion in his dealings.
Their Perception of Divine Revelation, 1 Tim. 3. 2. “Apt to teach” does not necessarily denote public teaching from a platform. This may be included, but the stress is on aptitude or ability to impart knowledge or instruction, a work done mostly in private. Because of his meditation on the Word of God, he will be able to give the interpretation and the practical application thereof. Although verse 9 refers to deaconship, if one is “apt to teach”, he must of necessity be one who holds the faith.
One must hold “the mystery of the faith” before he can declare it. W. E. Vine has written, “In Scripture a mystery denotes not the mysterious, as with the English word, but that which, being outside the range of unassisted natural apprehension, can be made known only by divine revelation and is made known in a manner and at a time appointed by God and to those only who are illumined by His Spirit. In the ordinary sense a mystery implies knowledge withheld; its Scriptural significance is truth revealed. The ‘mystery of the faith’, then, signifies the spiritual truths or doctrines of Scripture which are made known only to those who believe, who alone can perceive the things revealed.”
Elders are not a board of legislators over an assembly, but labourers among the saints. There are various phases to their work, of which we shall note six.
Pastors. In Acts 20. 28 they are told to “feed the church of God”, which means to pasture, feed, nourish, support. We have a form of the same word in 1 Peter 5. 2. From these two verses we believe that overseers are to be pastors, working under the Chief Pastor, v. 4. Thus we see that a pastor’s duties are to tend and feed his flock. This involves instruction of the ignorant, visitation of the sick, consolation of those who have lost loved ones, admonition to the disorderly and last but not least the restoration of the overtaken ones. How sad sometimes to see those “taking the oversight” as professed elders rending instead of tending the flock, beating instead of leading, fleecing instead of feeding, “feeding themselves”, Jude 12, instead of the flock of God. True pastors manifest that they have been thus made only by the Holy Spirit as they manifest the characteristics of the Chief Pastor.
Protectors. As watchmen, Heb. 13. 17, elders are to guide and protect the flock both from those outside seeking to get in and at times from those within seeking to draw away disciples after them, Acts 20. 29-30. Was there ever a day as the present time when the saints needed protection?
Patterns. In 1 Thessalonians 5. 12, Paul exhorts the believers to “know them which … are over you in the Lord”. One has written, “Literally this means those who stand in front of you, your leaders in the Lord”. Thus the elders stand before us as patterns, examples to be followed, leading the flock and not lashing the flock, directing them and not driving them.
Presiders. The word “rule” in 1 Timothy 5. 17 has the thought of presiding over. This can mean that, when occasions arise to cause a dispute between believers, elders as arbitrators are authorized to preside over or rule in the matter, instead of going to law against each other, 1 Cor. 6. 5. While it is true that overseers have no human authority in the assembly, they have in a sense an authority delegated to them from on high. God has given wisdom and sound judgment to elders, and thus they should be able to judge righteously between saints.
Pilots. This word is suggested by the word “governments” in 1 Corinthians 12. 28, and it conveys the thought of steering, piloting, directorship (in the church). As pilots, overseers are to steer the assembly clear of hidden rocks which would cause shipwreck, by following the chart and compass from the Chief Pilot Himself, even our blessed Lord Jesus Christ.
Performers. They are to be labouring brethren in the real sense of the word, 1 Tim. 5. 17, spending and being spent in this wearying work – always serving and often getting plenty of criticism and very little credit. Thus elders are to be performers among the saints and not princes over them.
Some may say, “We have a monthly oversight meeting, or a brethren’s meeting, when the brethren come together to discuss the affairs of the assembly. Is not this the oversight of our assembly?”. Definitely not! We believe that the work of real oversight is carried on outside this kind of meeting, which is often only a business meeting. To call a meeting of all the brethren in an assembly its oversight has no scriptural sanction. Since it is scriptural to have a plurality of elders, none would deny their right to come together for prayer and consideration of the spiritual welfare of the assembly. One has written, “It is all-important that they should be united in their judgment, for a divided oversight means a divided fellowship. Any undue individuality of action, regardless of the fellowship of the other elders, will lead to the spirit of Diotrephes, 3 John 9. Such meetings should consist of overseers alone, of those who have the fullest confidence in each other and of the assembly, Acts 15. 6; 21. 18. In Acts 20. 17 it was the elders alone who were sent for and addressed by Paul, and not every brother in the assembly. Let us therefore get back to the scriptural form of government, conducting oversight meetings according to the pattern found in the Word of God, Acts 15. 6; 20. 17; 21. 18.