William Burnett of Hopedale Assembly, Oakville, Ontario, Canada, spoke on the above subject at the Ontario Elders and Workers Conference in May 2002. This is an edited transcript of his address.
In opening this subject, we recall the words of the apostle Peter when he wrote: ‘The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder’, 1 Pet. 5. 1. It should be noted that there are two different words for ‘elder’ used in this verse. The first word for ‘elders’ clearly refers to those who have local responsibility for the shepherding of the flock. The second word occurs where Peter describes himself as being ‘also an elder’. This word for ‘elder’ is only used this once in scripture, and it literally means a ‘fellow elder’. Given the apostolic nature of his calling, and the wide-ranging itinerant ministry it involved, it would be impossible for Peter to have been an elder in a specific local church. It is suggested therefore, that Peter is recognising that in addition to the shepherding influence and direction given by local elders, there are also those who shepherd the saints through their ministry among the assemblies, whether commended or otherwise. Of course there is no suggestion of such having jurisdiction over local elders, or having authority to interfere in local matters. The autonomy of each church is clearly taught in scripture, and this must be strictly observed, but this supplementary shepherding ministry is a fact of life amongst our assemblies.
So when we speak about the elder and his Bible, we are embracing those who have local responsibility as elders, and those who shepherd among the assemblies through their ministry.
THE ELDER AND HIS BIBLE
The subject under consideration is vast; therefore we will only deal with three critical areas in our present study, as follows:
We will address these in what I would perceive to be the order of priority.
PERSONAL AND PRIVATE
In John 13, the Lord took His disciples aside from the demands of service into the secluded atmosphere of the upper room, where He was to give that tender ministry before He went to the cross. When they were settled, the Lord proceeded to remove His garments, girded Himself with a towel and commenced to wash the disciples’ feet. We remember Peter’s objection and the Lord’s firm response. Peter evidently felt that this was a superfluous exercise. After all, they were apostles, and he might have been thinking they were above this sort of thing. But the Lord made it clear that even apostles required coming under His gracious ministry, and to be cleansed and refreshed before they could serve Him acceptably.
Water in scripture is frequently used as a symbol for the word of God. From John 13, we learn that it is critical that we withdraw from the business of service, and its demands to spend time in quiet intimacy with Christ and allow Him to minister to us from His word. This isn’t just a ‘nice to have’ option but a critical necessity. The Lord uses the strongest of language when Peter suggested that he could perhaps be exempt. The Lord said to him, ‘If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me’.
Sometimes the Lord has to draw us up rather severely, and even put us out of action for a while, just to get us to sit still long enough to let Him wash our feet. Speaking with a colleague some time ago, we both felt that, unfortunately, the pressure of our preaching schedule was the thing driving us into the word, rather than longings to spend time with the Lord to allow Him to tenderly minister to us. The effective elder needs the determination to take time out to sit quietly in His presence and allow Him to minister to him. Never forget the sobering words, ‘If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me’.
It is one of the principles throughout scripture, that those who serve the Lord publicly must first have demonstrated that their personal and domestic life is biblically controlled and directed. Failure to demonstrate biblical order in the home automatically disqualifies from service. The Christian home is, in a sense, a miniature of the local church. It provides an environment for the demonstration of biblical order in the case of functioning elders. The headship of the husband, the submission of the wife, and the obedience of children to parents in the home must be demonstrated here. Scripture specifies this as a necessary qualification for eldership, see 1 Tim. 3. 5. In addition, qualities that will be critical to dealing with individual believers, such as patience, tenderness, love, compassion, pity, care, and the exercise of kindly discipline, must first be demonstrated in the home before one is allowed into leadership of the assembly.
MATTERS CONCERNING THE CHURCH
This aspect of the subject is critical to the safety, security, stability and unity of any local assembly. Where an assembly is shepherded by those who are capable of applying biblical principles, practices and precedents to every situation that arises, such an assembly is greatly blessed. The converse is also true, that where those who assume leadership are not biblically capable, and where an assembly is led by the latest ‘common-sense revolution’, such an assembly is headed for disaster. Those aspiring to be elders must be qualified and appointed by the Holy Spirit, be biblically capable (apt to teach) and then when leading the flock, must work strictly to the word of God. Let’s examine a few of the more critical and urgent areas.
FEEDING AND TENDING THE FLOCK
Peter addressing the elders said, ‘Feed the flock of God which is among you’, 1 Pet. 5. 2. Paul, addressing the Ephesian elders said, ‘Feed the church of God, which he has purchased with blood of His own’, Acts 20. 28 JND. This is the prime responsibility of the elder, and is the reason why elders ‘must be apt to teach’, 1 Tim. 3. 5. When Peter and Paul both said, ‘Feed the flock’, they surely had something more in mind than booking speakers to fill the platform. Clearly, it is expected that local elders must be actively involved in feeding the flock. For example, where a local church has gifted teachers, these teachers should primarily be ministering locally rather than being on a circuit most of the time. One of the dangers of the itinerant preaching is that local teachers are seldom ‘local’, where perhaps they are needed the most. In Acts 13, the church at Antioch did not have a ‘one-man’ ministry, but neither did it have an ‘any-man’ ministry. They had a plurality of men, identified by name, and recognised as prophets and teachers in that assembly. In addition there were also the elders in that assembly. Thus the Lord was ministered to and the assembly well served.
PROTECTING THE FLOCK
In his address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, Paul warned them of dangers that would assail the flock – from without, the grievous wolves; from within, men speaking perverse things. Jude in his epistle tells of ‘certain men who have crept in unawares’, Jude 4. So there is a defensive role to be played by the elders to ensure that the flock is protected from false teachers and ungodly men. This can only be done through applying biblical standards when receiving into fellowship. Reception into a local assembly is a serious matter, and when a person in seeking fellowship it is important that the elders should examine such as to their views on all doctrinal matters. We cannot be too careful at this stage. Jude speaks about ungodly men, denying our Lord Jesus Christ! Evidently they had deceived the elders, or the elders had not been diligent enough when interviewing them. Of course, whilst reception is one of the first lines of defence, there are many other areas where the elders must take up a defensive role and stand between the flock and error.
MAINTAINING CHURCH ORDER
Elders in every local church are obligated to operate strictly in accordance with scripture. We cannot risk turning to the latest methods of the secular or religious world, evangelical or otherwise, in dealing with spiritual matters. We cannot allow even the best of teachers to establish what should pertain. We must adhere strictly to what God says in His word. Here are some critical areas.
Maintaining the divinely appointed roles for male and female in the assembly meetings
We must not allow anyone to circumvent the clear teaching of scripture regarding the uncovering of men and the covering of women in the local church. Also the direct commandment of the apostle when he said, ‘Let your women keep silence in the churches, for it is not permitted for them to speak’, 1 Cor. 14. 34, and again, ‘for it is a shame for women to speak in the church’, 1 Cor. 14. 35. These clear stipulations cannot be set aside without violating the authority of scripture.
Exercising discipline in the local church
One of the most difficult moments in the life of any elder is when matters arise that demand the exercise of discipline in the church. The application of biblical standards is never more urgent than here, firstly to determine the type of offence committed, and then to apply the appropriate, biblically specified, discipline. There are no less that six classes of offence described in scripture, with clear instructions as to what should be done in each case. Refer Uplook Magazine, March 2001. It is absolutely vital that those who are local elders should be familiar with these instructions, and for the health and safety of the local assembly, to abide by the word.
All discipline has recovery in mind, and should never be carried out in a vindictive spirit. Even in the most severe case of fornication, the apostle after commanding the Corinthians to excommunicate the guilty brother, 1 Cor. 5. 13, later exhorts them, since he had repented, to bring him back, and to embrace him and to confirm their love to him, lest he be overcome with much sorrow, 2 Cor. 2. 6-8. The important thing of course is repentance, because where there is no repentance, there can be no forgiveness or recovery.
Scripture – a heritage to be transmitted to others
This critical area of eldership Paul refers to in his letter to Timothy when touching on the truth he had received, saying, ‘the same commit thou to faithful men who shall be able to teach others also’. In later life, one becomes increasingly conscious of the burden to transmit truth, and to do for others what was done for you. We appeal to every elder to practice the fatherly art of mentoring promising young men. It needs to be one of the chief goals in your advancing years to do so with urgency. The future of assemblies rests upon this vital ministry of truth being transmitted from generation to generation with integrity. We must take steps to make it happen. The current generation of spiritually oriented young people is required now to take the place of a lost generation in our assemblies. These keen young people we want to prime with solid biblical teaching and give them opportunity to spread their wings in public, where God has given them that gift.
In closing this study, may the Lord give each of us an increasing desire for His presence and His word as we face the final days of the church’s history in this world. The coming of the Lord is imminent. He has said, ‘Behold I come quickly. Hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown’, Rev. 3. 11.