SERMON FOR FEBRUARY 2, 2003 ON BIBLICAL LEADERSHIP
This morning we begin a new and brief series of messages on biblical leadership in Christ’s church. The main reason for this is to prepare us as a church for the pending implementation of a biblical pastor-eldership. That eldership is articulated in our new constitution that was approved a few years ago but has not been fully implemented. This process of church reform at Mount of Olives began in August of 1994 when the Church Board went on a retreat and they were given this teaching in summary form. At that time they approved the teaching of this material to the entire church, which was done more than two years later. Now, as we come to the point of implementing what will be a significantly new way of church government, it seems appropriate for us to go over this important information again. This will be new to some of you but it is important for all of us.
Our first text this morning is First Timothy 3:1. “Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task.” In the first two chapters of First Timothy Paul has been addressing various forms of false teaching and in chapter three he teaches on God’s predominant safeguard against false teaching in the church, the eldership. The New Testament uses three main words for the office and work of an elder. There is the word “overseer” or “bishop” which is rendered in the original “episkpos” and “elder” which is translated from “prebuterion” and “pastor” or “shepherd” which in the Greek is “poimeno.” These three terms are used pretty much interchangeably in the New Testament. We see this in First Peter 5:1-2. Peter says, “To the elders [presbuteros] among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2Be shepherds [poimaino] of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers [episkopoeo]--not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve;” In view of texts like this it is very difficult to justify from the bible the way some Christian traditions have drawn sharp distinctions between bishops, pastors and elders. That distinction is not clearly found in the Scriptures.
First Timothy chapter three is written to give the spiritual qualifications necessary for elders and deacons. However, it would be premature to teach on the qualifications of elders without first giving a somewhat detailed overview of what biblical eldership is. This is all the more important because its probably fair to say that most people in the North American church have never seen eldership as the Scripture teaches it. That is one reason our new church constitution refers to elders as “pastor-elders.” The writers of that document wanted to make it clear that New Testament eldership is NOT simply like our current church board with a new name, but has a thoroughly pastoral function. Most people have unbiblical misconceptions about elders because they have never seen a BIBLICAL eldership. It’s also been only in recent years that the biblical teaching on eldership has been re-emphasized in evangelicalism. The most common misconception within our tradition is that the elder of the church is the Senior Pastor. This is the way our former constitution read. Many people think elders are people who have gone to seminary and are paid to provide leadership to the church. As we’ll see, that is a grossly inaccurate conception of elder. Others believe the eldership is an administrative committee that is organized to help provide leadership of the church and whose main task is to meet once a month or so to vote on the pertinent business concerns of the church. Many churches that DO have these so called “elders” function that way but as we’ll see that model of church leadership is more influenced by the business world than Scripture. Still other people believe elders are a group of men who are highly secretive and authoritarian. They find pleasure in possessing power and who delight in keeping the rest of the church in the dark about the decisions they and ONLY they have the power to make. These elders love their power and revel in lording their authority over everyone else.
As we’ll see from the Scriptures, nothing of those could be further from the truth. Other people believe elders only belong in Presbyterian or Reformed churches--that this is a denominational issue. This simply isn’t true. An increasing number of BGC churches have instituted elderships that do NOT eliminate congregational participation in decision-making. Some Baptists might resist eldership on the grounds that it is at odds with our traditionally held emphasis on the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. That’s also inaccurate because behind that is a wrong conception of the priesthood of believers. The most biblically succinct and responsible statement on the priesthood of the believer I ever heard was when I was a student at Bethel Seminary by Leith Anderson, a Baptist pastor whose church has a functioning eldership. He said, “The priesthood of the believer does NOT mean [simply] that everyone has a voice. It means everyone has a responsibility.” A study of the biblical data on the priesthood of the believer will bear that out.
With all the misunderstanding of what eldership is, it would not be profitable to discuss the qualifications for eldership without first exploring what the Bible says about eldership in general. To that end, I have three broad points the Bible teaches about eldership that will only introduce this topic. The first is: Eldership is the only form of church government presented in the New Testament. It’s not uncommon in some circles to hear that there is no ONE specific form of church governmental presented in Scripture. A quick study of the New Testament will show eldership was the ONLY method of church government practiced in the churches. At the end of Paul’s first missionary journey after he had visited churches in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, it says in Acts 14:23, “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. ” That text gives the clear impression it was Paul’s practice to establish a group of elders in each church shortly after it began. We know there were elders in the Ephesus church. Acts 20:17 says, “From Miletus Paul sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church.” Paul’s apostolic assistants Timothy and Titus were told to appoint elders in the churches. In Titus 1:5, Paul says to Titus, “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.”
This is not found only in the writings of Paul. In James chapter 5:14, those who were sick in the church are instructed to call on “…the elders to “pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” One reason this verse is an important statement about the universality of elders in the church is because the letter of James is what is known as a general epistle. That means it was to be circulated to many churches which James characterizes as “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” in chapter one. We see this in Paul and in James and we also see it in Peter. In First Peter 5:1-2, Peter writes, “So I exhort the elders among you...[and he tells them to] “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is in your care.” First Peter is another general epistle that was circulated to dozens of churches scattered about Asia. Peter, like James simply assumes all the churches he was addressing had a functioning eldership. There were also elders in the Jerusalem church according to Acts chapters 11 and 15. The plain truth is, in the New Testament, there is NO diversity in the forms of church government presented. There is a clear and singular pattern of New Testament church government, eldership.
Having said that, that still doesn’t answer the question of “what is the nature of eldership?” That brings us to our final two broad points. The second point is a very important one. That is: Biblical eldership is always plural. That is, there is NEVER in the New Testament one elder presented as the leader of the church. Not one time. New Testament scholar Wayne Grudem, to whom I am much in debt for this material says, “...no passage [in the New Testament] suggests that any church, no matter how small, had only one elder.” It is not consistent with the scripture for a church to have one elder who is largely responsible for the spiritual leadership of the church. Why is that? There are several reasons for this. First, because a plurality of leadership enables the weaknesses of each individual elder to be strengthened by the complimenting strengths of the other elders.
No ONE person has all the gifts or all the personality traits needed to provide balanced and comprehensive leadership to Christ’s church. One person may be an excellent preacher, another person may have excellent people skills--still another an excellent administrator. It is as God puts these diversely gifted people together that a composite leadership is established. Its not uncommon to read in Christian publications that today churches can expect their pastors to be supremely gifted teachers, dramatic preachers and at the same time, warm and fuzzy relational people with top notch administrative and leadership gifts. If such a person exists, I have yet to meet him. It is only through the combined strengths of a plural eldership that a truly balanced leadership can emerge and minister to all the various needs and people in the body of Christ. This need for diversity and interdependency is something designed into the body of Christ. First Corinthians 12:14 says, “Now the body is not made up of one part but of many.” That diversity is an essential quality of the body of Christ. Since that is true, isn’t it only consistent to think that this kind of diversity and interdependency should be seen in the leadership of the body?
A related reason why plural or team leadership is so important is because it provides for healthy accountability. One of the surest lessons of history and tragically, church history is that authority can and does corrupt people. A team of leaders is much less likely to fall into the temptation of pride than a solo leader. Earl Radamacher, former chancellor of a seminary in America writes, “Human leaders, even Christian ones, are sinners and they only accomplish God’s will imperfectly. Multiple leaders, therefore, will serve as a `check and balance’ on each other and serve as a safeguard against the very human tendency to play God over other people.” That is a humbling but irrefutable statement. A final reason why plural leadership is not only biblical but also simply sensible is: to shepherd the church of Christ in a biblical, God-honoring way requires a tremendous amount of work. Very few churches receive the kind of biblical shepherding that is needed for spiritual maturity and as one of the pastor elders here I will readily admit that this one isn’t receiving adequate shepherding either. We don’t have enough shepherds. That leads us to our third point. That is: The work of the pastor-eldership is a manifold responsibility.
The work of the eldership as defined by the New Testament can be divided into three areas, protecting, leading and feeding. Part of the role of the elders is to do what had not been well done in Ephesus, to protect the church from bad teaching. We see this protecting role spelled out in Acts 20:28-31. Paul’s last duty before he left this church he had planted at Ephesus was to call the elders of the church at Ephesus around him and his parting words to them were a solemn warning. He said to them, “Be on your guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with his own blood. I know that after my departure, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert.” [NASB] Paul put the elders on alert because he knew by the Holy Spirit that false teachers would come in and try to corrupt the truth and devour the flock and that is exactly what happened. When these teachers did eventually come in, Paul as part of his response to that problem which he writes to Timothy in the book of First Timothy was to re-address the elder issue because it was their job to protect the flock and they hadn’t been very successful. The wolves had come in and ravaged the flock. We see the same issue of protecting the church in Titus 1:9. Paul gives the qualifications for elders there also and says of the elder, “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. Do you hear that part of the elder’s responsibility is to refute false teaching? An elder or pastor elder who can’t do that is not qualified for eldership. That’s why for the less biblically literate candidates for pastor-elder, we will be doing some fairly intense doctrinal training—to equip them to protect the flock.
This protection is to be done, not only in reference to those outside the church, but also involves dealing with sin within the body and addressing other issues which are harmful or potentially harmful to the health of Christ’s church. First Thessalonians 5:12 assumes this kind of protection. It says, “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you.” That word “admonish” is most often translated “warn.” The elders of the church are to warn those whose behavior or lifestyle is not in keeping with the Scriptures. The elders are to protect from the attacks from without and the spread of sin from within.
The elders are also primarily responsible for the feeding of the flock. Alexander Strauch in his book “Biblical Eldership” writes, “unlike modern board elders, New Testament elders were required to be able to teach.” This is clear in First Timothy 3:2 where we see that elder was required to be “able to teach. It is the faithful teaching of the word that enables the church to grow, mature and be trained in righteousness. In Acts chapter six when the Grecian widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food verse two says, “So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.” The priority of the teaching function of elders is also seen in First Timothy 5:17. Paul says, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” The importance of the teaching function is seen in the double honor especially given to those who are teaching and preaching. One of the major problems in the church today is most Christians are woefully ignorant of the teachings of Scripture. This is tragic and part of the problem is because there is not enough teaching and training in bible doctrine by the elders of the church.
Richard Baxter in his classic book “The Reformed Pastor” looked at the teaching ministry of the church quite differently than most in the church do today. He writes that the church should be a place where each person is taught the bible PERSONALLY by the leadership. He lists six things they are to be taught. I won’t go into all six, but he says this teaching should include “personal tutorials, examinations and instruction.” How would you like that—to have a pastor elder call you and set up an appointment to teach you the bible through the use of personal tutorials and tests? Baxter, who ministered in the 1600’s would spend approximately 20 hours a week with two other teachers having people come to the church and give personal instruction to each family in his church so that within a year, the 800 families in his church had all been personally taught by the leadership. He says, “I have not been refused by a single family during the year when I have asked them to come visit me. And I find more outward signs of success with those who come than in all my public preaching.” It must be granted that Baxter’s world was not as educated as ours and there were not nearly as many Christian resources available to the church but do you hear the priority—how much time and energy is given here for equipping the church with the word? That standard is much closer to the biblical model than what passes for the teaching ministry in the church today.
You may think that would be impossible in this church and you would currently be correct. One reason it is impossible is because there are not enough elders involved in teaching the church. Just because that model is not being followed that doesn’t mean it is not biblically valid and it doesn’t mean it can’t happen here with the right kind of committed eldership and church. We don’t abandon a biblical practice simply because it is not currently practical or does not conform to parts of the popular evangelical church culture. If the standard is a clearly biblical one, we are called to change what we are doing now --change the culture of the church to conform to the standard. This is radical but we must never lose sight of the fact that the church of Jesus Christ is a radical organism and institution.
A final responsibility of the eldership is to provide leadership to the church. We see this in I Timothy 5:17 again. “Let the elders who rule [lead, direct, manage] well be considered worthy of double honor.” Titus 1:7 tells us that the elder is “God’s steward” in the church. A steward is a manager with responsibilities over the master’s servants or property. Alexander Strauch summarizes this leadership function of the eldership. “The eldership must clarify direction and beliefs for the flock. It must set goals, make decisions, give direction, correct failures, affect change, and motivate people. It must evaluate, plan, and govern. Elders, then, must be problem solvers, managers of people, planners, and thinkers.” Now, all of this is to be done under the rubric of First Peter five which says the elder is not to “lord it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” The leadership is never to be dictatorial, but give genuine servant leadership with all humility.
Remember, this is not a mandate for more paid staff—though that is sometimes needed in a church. Many of these pastor-elders should be NON-vocational men who make their living some other way. If this sounds like hard work you’re right. In response to this truth Strauch writes, “Some may say, You can’t expect laymen to raise their families, work all day, and shepherd a local church.” But that is simply not true. Many people raise families, work, and give substantial hours of time to community service, clubs, athletic activities, or religious institutions. The cults have built up large lay movements that survive primarily on the volunteer time of their members. We Bible believing Christians are becoming a lazy, soft, pay-for-it-to-be-done group of Christians. It is positively amazing how much people can accomplish when they are motivated to work, and when they love something. I’ve seen people build and remodel houses in their spare time. I’ve also seen men discipline themselves to gain a phenomenal knowledge of the Scriptures.” He concludes, “The real problem, then, lies not in men’s limited time and energy, but in false ideas about work, Christian living, life’s priorities, and especially, Christian ministry.” Our goal in this brief series of messages is to dismantle false notions about leadership in Christ’s church and replace them with the truth of Scripture. In spite of the hard work involved in eldership, Paul states that this is a “good thing” to desire.
The pastor eldership is responsible to protect, lead and teach the flock of God. The eldership is to be a team and they shoulder a tremendous responsibility. There are many more questions about the nature of eldership. We’ll those in the coming weeks. Until then, may God give us the grace to move as a church to constantly be reforming ourselves to conform to the Scriptures.
Page last modified on 2/2/2003
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