The title of this article may create the impression that it will focus on the recognition given to those brethren who are already acknowledged as being elders, and who have served in that capacity for a long time. That such men deserve recognition is undeniable, for the scriptures clearly teach that we are to ‘esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake’, 1 Thess. 5. 13. Similarly, when writing to Timothy, Paul states, ‘Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in the word and doctrine’, 1 Tim. 5. 17.
However, the purpose of this study is to consider a different facet of ‘recognizing elders’, and there are two prominent matters that will be explored. Firstly, how does a man become an elder? Secondly, how do we recognize those who display the potential to be elders and encourage their development? These are men who do not formally meet with the elders but are manifesting a care for the saints, and are maturing in their Christian experience.
The importance of this subject cannot be overstated, for the paramount need in so many assemblies is for such shepherds. Churches rarely, maybe never, rise above the general tone set by those who lead them, and this ought not to be surprising. An examination of the historical books of the Old Testament reveals that whenever the people had a good leader they prospered spiritually; whenever they had a bad leader, they declined morally and embraced the gods of the heathen.
In the formative years of my assembly experience, this question was often raised, and the answer that always followed was, ‘It is the Spirit of God that makes a man an elder’. This response was correct, for speaking to the elders from Ephesus Paul said, ‘Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers’, Acts 20. 28. Unfortunately, no one ever clarified for me how the Spirit of God made a man an elder, and I assumed it happened by some very mysterious means!
Two qualities, amongst several others, which must characterize every elder, are recorded in 1 Timothy chapter 3. Those qualities are: a real heart-yearning for the work, v. 1; and the ability to teach, v. 2, although not necessarily always in a public sense. Neither of these features is the outcome of human initiative but is the product of the Spirit of God. He stimulates the desire for the task, and He equips the man with the gift of teaching – and it is by these means the Spirit of God makes a man an elder.
The church of the Thessalonians had not been established very long when Paul wrote to them urging them ‘to recognize those who labour among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you’, 1 Thess. 5. 12. These new converts were to discern and appreciate those who were standing before (over) them in order to guide and care for them. Already, within this fledgling church, there were men emerging who were demonstrating features that indicated they had been equipped by the Spirit of God to perform the duties of elders.
In the Epistle to Titus the apostle says, ‘For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you’, Titus 1. 5. This ‘appointing’ of elders wasn’t achieved by voting, or by ordaining in the ecclesiastical sense. Titus’ duty was to discern which men revealed the features listed by Paul in the following four verses, and then exhort those in fellowship to recognize such as being divinely enabled elders. About a year after his first missionary journey, Paul and his companions set out to revisit the areas previously evangelized and in so doing they also ‘appointed elders in every church’, Acts 14. 23. What Paul did was point out those who had already been doing the work of an elder.
As we collate the details given in Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, to Timothy and to Titus, and observe his actions as recorded by Luke in Acts chapter 14, a clear pattern emerges for us to follow today. We recognize the potential for a man to be an elder because that man starts to display the qualities required of an overseer as set out in the various Epistles.
Although it is a bizarre notion, if it were possible to conduct a conversation with a flock of sheep and ask, ‘How do you know who your shepherd is?’ they would not struggle for an answer. They would know that there is a world of difference between the behaviour of the shepherd and that of the sheepdog. Even more crucially, they would very quickly realize there is a vast difference between the shepherd who owns the sheep, and the person who is responsible for their slaughter. A shepherd is a man who cares for the flock and is found amongst it, who loves sheep, who ensures the flock is well fed, and gives priority to its security. Accepting the limitations of the metaphor, the same ideas apply in the context of a local church.
That the Spirit of God makes a man an elder does not absolve those already recognized as overseers from having a duty to encourage and nurture those who are emerging as potential leaders. This practice runs throughout the Bible for there are several instances of men of maturity working in harness with those who are younger, in order to hone their spiritual abilities. For example, Moses worked with Joshua, Elijah with Elisha, and Paul with Timothy.
It is disappointing to observe a reluctance on the part of some older brethren to hand over the reins of responsibility to succeeding generations as though wisdom will die with them. Sadly, the problem goes even deeper than that, for before they hand over duties to those following on they should have been priming them for those days of responsibility. Often, when older men die, there is a vacuum created because they have held on to things far too long, and the next generation have only had experience of certain aspects of an elder’s work, because they were not given, or even denied, the opportunity or meeting with fellow elders and sharing the burden of their responsibilities. As it is the purpose of God that each local church should have elders, and that such men are expected to be vigilant, they should be watching over the fellowship to look out for younger brethren who are showing early signs of an aptitude for leadership.
The Spirit of God inspired Paul to write two separate lists of qualities that must be seen in every elder; the first is found in 1 Timothy chapter 3 verses 1-11 and the second in Titus chapter 1 verses 5-9. His objective in Timothy’s letter was to establish a standard against which any brother, especially one who desired to be an overseer, could examine himself. His purpose in the letter to Titus was to set out the qualities that others should expect to find in those who wished to be recognized as overseers. These two passages make it easier for mature men to discern those who are beginning to show promise of having a shepherd care, and they ought to draw alongside such to encourage them. In addition, where older brethren are genuinely seeking to follow the scriptural pattern these two lists will safeguard them from handing things over to someone younger just because he is a family member, close friend or even their ‘preferred successor’.
Of course, it is all very well to set things out in a theoretical way but often the practice is more complicated, so we have to determine how this ‘nurturing’ of future elders can be done in assembly life. As already stated, the existing overseers should be looking out for those who are maturing and who are displaying a care for the saints in the fellowship. They would be watching to see that there is an appreciation of Christ, steadfastness in attendance at the meetings, evidences of a teaching ability, consistency in their testimony, and care for fellow believers. However, they would not be looking for perfection, and they would need to be patient with these brethren as they will make mistakes.
It goes without saying that the elders would spend time in prayer concerning those they see as being successors in this vital work. In addition, they would ensure that opportunities would be created in conversational Bible study, in the ministry meeting, or in the home, for the teaching gift to be utilized and stimulated. Elder brethren would also speak to these younger men and share with them their joy at seeing their spiritual advancement and inform them that they see them as future overseers. This requires great care, sensitivity, much prayer and a waiting on the Spirit of God. However, as time passes, and progress continues, the elders could transfer certain elements of their workload to these emerging brethren, though much wisdom would need to be used as to what work is passed on. Finally, they would ask such brethren to work with them in all aspects of ‘overseership’ – and when they do so it should not come as a surprise to anyone.
The foregoing is not an exhaustive model. However, it seeks to set out some ways in which help and guidance can be given to brethren who demonstrate a genuine desire to serve the people of God by assuming the onerous and often thankless task of eldership. We have a duty to ensure there is a succession of elders, and steps need to be taken to develop and recognize the next generation of these much needed men.
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