A synopsis of addresses given at a meeting of brethren in London, on 29th October, 1958, by Messrs. W. R. Lewis, J. H. Large, C. E. McLay, A. J. Allen, R. W. Cooper and D. W. Brealey on the character, functions and responsibilities of overseers in the church with some reference to missionary work.
Scriptures constantly referred to were Acts 20. 17-35, Tim. 3. 1-7 and 5. 17-18, Titus 1. 5-9, and 1 Pet. 5. 1-4. The references to other passages quoted are given in the text.
AN APOSTOLIC CHARGE
IN PAUL'S CHARGE to the elders at Ephesus he says, 'Take heed . . . unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in (note R.V. here, in not over) the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood'. What an instructive verse!
Firstly, the apostle called for the 'elders of the church'. Plurality of elders in each assembly is the scriptural ideal. A one-man ministry is not ideal. The plurality constitutes a check on self-will and dictatorship. It also protects against die introduction of wrong doctrine for two or more are less likely to be led astray than one alone. Further, the hearty co-operation of the leaders is a pattern of fellowship for the imitation of the flock.
A LOCAL PROVISION
Note, too, that it is within the assembly that elders are raised up. They are not imported from outside as the result of ecclesiastical patronage or of a trial sermon. Before the Canon of Scripture was completed such leaders were appointed in an assembly by the apostles or their delegates; but now that the qualifications are clearly laid down in the epistles it is for the evangelist or missionary in a newly-planted assembly to indicate any brethren who, even at an early stage, take the lead by showing hospitality, by caring for die poor and by ministering to the sick and sorrow-stricken. When an assembly has become thoroughly established the elders themselves will look out for others who are doing pastoral work and will recognize them as raised of God to share the responsibility, so that the assembly shall function without outside help.
SERVICE PROVES THE CALL
The call of such ciders will soon evince itself. It is better for a man to let his service prove his call rather than to assert that he possesses it. The service of Stephanus was well known at Corinth and was self-evident, 1 Cor. 16. 15. There does not appear to have been any apostolic appointment in his case but the fact that his household set themselves to minister to the saints showed that it was the Holy Spirit who had called them to this voluntary service and had equipped them for it. This work of the Holy Spirit continues to this day.
ELDERSHIP A DIVINE VOCATION
In our recoil from any official ordination there is a danger of taking up the work of oversight in a haphazard way, to be taken or left at will, instead of realizing that it is a divine vocation. Caring for the Church of God is, perhaps the most important vocation anyone can have. The preciousness of an assembly in the sight of God is infinite, it was purchased by the blood of Christ. The true elder is himself a precious gift to the Church from the ascended Lord. Usually, save on the mission field, his will be not a whole-time service but one accompanied by the need of a temporal vocation for earning his living. It may sometimes be thought that the whole-time 'pastor' has an advantage over those who have to labour for the bread that perisheth, but there is a great advantage to ministry in having to mix with men and in meeting the problems of the business world, and thus being saved from professionalism in the Church of God.
THE TEMPORAL SUPPORT OF WHOLE-TIME ELDERS
It is clear that 'the labourer is worthy of his hire', and that 'he that is taught in the word should communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things', Gal. 6. 6, but any financial arrangement between the teacher and the taught, between the shepherd and the sheep, finds no countenance in Scripture. Such an arrangement would take the eyes of both off from the Lord and make the servant of Christ the servant of men. The priests and Levites under the old economy had no stated salary. Their support depended upon the beneficence of God in giving the harvest and upon the faithful response of His people.
But whether the service of elders be whole - or part-time, for effectual service there must be the setting apart of some portion of their time for pastoral work and above all, for its preparation, in prayer. A thorough acquaintance with the Holy Scriptures is essential if they are to be true helpers of others.
THE ELDERS' INFLUENCE
Elders must be men of personal conviction. They must not be content with second-hand theology which they have not made their own by personal exercise. They must be able both to exhort and to convince, and, by reason of their spiritual calibre, to command such respect as will exert a moral authority influencing younger men.
The spiritual condition of an assembly is largely dependent upon the character of those who are its overseers. If these are men of God, well-taught in the Scriptures and sane in their outlook and judgment, then the likelihood is that the assembly will be in a healthy and happy condition. Thus ciders lead by what they are rather than by what they say. They must be Christ-like men, like Him in humility, purity and obedience. Our Lord came not to be served but to serve, and elders must be like Him in this respect. In a very real way an elder's life and time are not his own, he must be available at any time to anyone for almost any purpose.
Leadership comes through action. Some men are 'born leaders'. They have the natural gift, often seen early in life, of leading others. If a brother has this quality, what an invaluable asset, under God, he can be to his assembly. Provided, and this is important, that he has the Spirit of Christ and does not insist on having his way regardless of the feelings of others. A born leader who acts in self-will will often cause division and heart sorrow to those to whom he should be a gracious shepherd. There are several specific spheres in which elders should show wise and spiritual leadership:
(a) Leadership in worship. All elders (like all brethren) should be ready to take part (and equally ready to remain silent) at the worship meeting when the assembly gathers to remember the Lord. The elders must have sufficient discernment to bring the thoughts of the meeting back to Christ, either through leading in worship or ministry of the Word, should there be any wandering away from the purpose of the gathering.
(b) leadership in Gospel testimony. Elders should also be ready to take the lead and initiative in aggressive gospel witness. This would include preaching in the open air as opportunity affords, showing by their example eagerness to serve Christ in this way. They should be ready to encourage younger brethren in such work as tract distribution and house-to-house visitation. The needs of those living locally will be a constant burden calling for leadership in making arrangements for special efforts at regular intervals both amongst adults and children.
(c) Leadership in teaching. The ability to teach both in public and in private is also a quality of leadership. The Hebrews epistle (13. 7) says 'Remember those leading you who have spoken unto you the word of God', and in Timothy we read, 'Let the elders who take the lead well be esteemed worthy of double honour especially those who labour in the word and doctrine'.
(d) Leadership in public prayer. What a need there is for elders to take the lead in public prayer! If they have been in communion with the Lord throughout the day there should be no difficulty at the assembly prayer meeting in making known to God some of the very many needs of those present and of the assembly as a whole, as well as the much larger and varied interests of the Church and world outside. Their prayers should set an example of brevity, sincerity and directness. If elders remain silent in the prayer meeting, can other brethren be condemned for not taking part?
A SPIRITUAL SUCCESSION
Elders should have in mind the needs of future generations and begin early to train suitable men to follow them. Paul saw no inconsistency between cherishing the 'blessed hope' and yet building for the future. Four generations are envisaged in 2 Tim. 2. 2 - Paul, Timothy, faithful men and others also. What Timothy had learnt he was to impart to men who were faithful, and they, in turn, to others. Timothy had much work to do in the assembly but the solemn committing of the revelation to chosen men was something additional, which required that both parties should spend time together.
COMMITTING TO FAITHFUL MEN
It is a cause for thankfulness that the lack of competent teachers is arousing serious concern, but in the complex conditions which obtain today it will be asked, 'But how are elders to ensure that promising men are trained?' It is useless to be mere theorists who do nothing but criticize those who attempt something. We must have every sympathy with men who wish to be realistic and we are at least able to understand if some, concluding that the ideal has been lost beyond recovery, feel compelled to answer, 'Send them to a Bible School'. We can be thankful for such Bible Schools as have been founded with a sincere desire to give earnest young men a good grounding in the faith, but they are not the ideal solution - and that for many reasons. Certainly the Scriptures do not encourage the idea. Timothy was not to delegate the responsibility to others - 'the same commit thou'.
Is it too late to retrieve the mistakes and omissions of the past? No! Surely God would honour us if godly and discerning elders, well instructed in the truth were stirred up in spirit to look out for promising and earnest young men in whose lives God seemed to be working, take them under their wing, spend time with them in prayer and study, gradually taking them into fellowship with themselves in their service so that these young men come to know God and His Word, and the realities of the Christian life and of church problems in the practical circumstances of every day.
Without for a moment inferring that an academic education is a guarantee of spiritual usefulness or that a lack of it disqualifies a man, we note that there are among us today more than ever before, numbers of godly young men whose capabilities have secured for them the advantages of a first-class education. Too often it is taken for granted that they must therefore enter a lucrative professional career which will absorb their best years. Have we come to regard a high standard of living as a Christian virtue? Dare we suggest that capable young men, who show signs that God is exercising them, should be encouraged to ask themselves, 'Is God calling me to sacrifice worldly prospects for His sake, not necessarily to go into the mission field, or to take up a wide-spread ministry but to earn a modest living at home so as to devote myself to prayerful preparation for the service of God and His people in my local assembly and neighbourhood?' The sacrifice will be considerable but the compensation now and the reward hereafter will be more than ample.
DIVINE STANDARDS FOR SHEPHERDS
In shepherding we must avoid standards of our own making, or thinking that, because of the deterioration in moral standards around us, anything will do for the Church of God. The only standards we must observe are those set up by God.
(a) Old Testament examples. We do well to recall the solemn charge laid by God against the shepherds of Israel in Ezek. 34. 2-5. 'Thus saith the Lord GOD unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks? . . . The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost. . . And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd'. From these scriptures we may learn what God required of the shepherds in days past and surely His standards are the same for shepherds of the flock of God today. The work of a shepherd among the saints is not that of attending elders' meetings.
In Psalm 78 :70-72 wc get an Old Testament example of the men whom God takes up to take care of the Church of God. The Lord 'chose David ... his servant, and took him from the sheepfolds: from following the ewes great with young, he brought him to feed Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance. So he fed them according to the integrity of his heart; and guided them by the skilfulness of his hands'. Let us weigh these solemn words before the Lord and judge our own motives, because human nature glories in administration or making demands upon others rather than upon ourselves.
(b) New Testament examples. What a standard was set by the apostle Paul, in speaking to the elders of Ephesus. He said, 'Ye know . . . after what manner I have been with you at all times, serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, . . . and how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you'. These words give us an insight into the pureness of his motives and the sacrificing nature of the work in which he sought to serve the saints.
The greatest of all examples of a true shepherd, indeed the perfect shepherd, is the Lord Himself. The Psalmist gloried in knowing Him as shepherd in Psalm 23. There He ministers confidence, comfort, refreshment, restoration, counsel, companionship, all this and more for the weary saint. Again, in John 10, the Good Shepherd offered the greatest of all sacrifices in that He gave His life for the sheep, and says, 'I know my sheep, and am known of mine'. Would that we His servants would seek the needed grace to emulate His great example!
THE SHEPHERD'S TASK
It is to tend the flock of God, 1 Pet. 5. 2 (R.V.). This comprehensive term involves much more than feeding the sheep, though of course it includes this. Tending the flock means attending to it; it means giving them right food, plenty of it and in good variety. A farmer recently said that one of the secrets of good sheep rearing is continually to change their pasture; if possible to give them a fresh field each day. The elders must give the flock of God a balanced diet with such variety of good food as will stimulate their appetites. Sheep like fresh pasture, so do the saints. They have little appetite for that which is stale.
In the Lord's charge to Peter He recognizes that there are lambs as well as sheep in His flock, John 21. 15-17. These must not be neglected and food convenient for them, Prov. 30. 8, must be supplied. It is a sad state when an elder forgets the young and immature, or, being at such a distance from them in years, becomes so old in spirit that he has nothing suitable to set before them.
Tending the flock means not only providing them with food but caring for their feet. Sheep can get foot-rot and so can Christians. The elders will carefully watch the walk of the sheep and use prompt means to arrest the very first signs of this disease. All this means work! Eldership is much more than a seat on the oversight.
ELDERSHIP IN CONNECTION WITH MISSIONARY WORK
When we come to consider the responsibilities of elders regarding missionary work we find guidance in Acts 13. There we see a meeting of elders in progress with this subject before them. It is significant that their exercise of heart was combined with prayer and fasting. It was at this gathering that the Holy Spirit pointed out those of His sovereign choice. Today a missionary candidate informs his brethren of his exercise, seeks their fellowship in prayer for further light, submits himself to their guidance as to the field he has before him and as to the spiritual and material equipment necessary, and awaits their acceptance and commendation.
(a) Discernment of the call of God. The brethren of his home assembly will receive the candidate in a spirit of brotherly love and with a seriously minded desire to discover whether the Holy Spirit has indeed called him to undertake His work. This needs spiritual discernment. However useful business instinct is in an elders' meeting, it must be kept rigidly within bounds when this delicate question of the Spirit's call is under consideration. Sometimes the poor of the flock are more spiritually alert to detect the true than those accustomed to dealing with the hard mercantile facts of life.
(b) Encouragement. There will need to be brotherly love and gracious shepherd care in pointing out any faults or failings which may have emerged during public or private examination. This should be done delicately, not before others but privately, considering oneself. Remember the divine admonition to Moses when referring to a young man who was in spiritual training, 'Encourage him', Deut. i. 38.
It will be necessary to learn what has led the candidate to desire to go forth with the Gospel. Has he led any to Christ? Is he seeking by all means to save some? Has he a clear grasp of the essentials of the Gospel? Is he happy at home? Will the step entail sacrifice? Has he saved anything towards his outfit and passage? Has he a good reputation in the home, at business and in the assembly? What educational advantages does he offer? Is he likely to learn a foreign language reasonably well? Is his command of the English language above reproach? Is he courteous? Is he engaged to be married? Would he feel awkward if he had to interview important officials? What of his moral stability? Has he attempted to bring the Gospel to those on his doorstep both English and foreign? As he will be entrusted with the sacrificial savings of others, does he realize the value of money and will he spend it wisely?
Probably the candidate will have been deeply exercised and needs kindly help. He may be sincerely mistaken. If so, help him graciously to discover his mistake in such a way that he is not stumbled but helped forward. Be sympathetic but wisely firm.
There remains the important question of health, including mental fitness. Tropical heat and a difficult language can arouse latent instability. Above all there must be the inner life and the power to iced it privately on the Word, and by communion at all times and not merely at intervals.
(c) The assembly's commendation. If the ciders are unanimous in believing that the candidate is called of God, they should call a meeting of the whole assembly, lay before it the relevant facts and ask for its commendation. They should stress the fact that commendation connotes the assumption before the Lord of some responsibility towards the cost of reaching the field, of maintenance while there, of compulsory repatriation, if demanded, by the foreign government, and of bringing the candidate home for furlough from time to time. This responsibility may be spread if other assemblies feel happy to join in commendation.
While the elders will respect the freedom of the candidate to act before the Lord as regards his sphere of work they must keep in constant prayerful touch with him and if they feel that he is taking an unwise course, they should write asking for explanation. Elders do not control him in his service but neither can they support him in a path of self will if they find him acting contrary to his brethren on the field who have the advantage of long years of experience.
In the unusual event of loss of confidence in the missionary, the assembly should notify him sorrowfully of the fact, advise his return home and withdraw its financial support from him.
ELDERS, BISHOPS AND OVERSEERS EQUIVALENT TITLES
In agreeing that the elder and the bishop or overseer are one and the same person, we remember that each name has its own particular significance. 'Elder' is the rendering of the comparative form of a word meaning 'an old man'. It signifies spiritual maturity and experience to which there is no royal road. He must not be a novice. 'Bishop' or 'overseer' rather indicates the nature of the ministry which is entrusted to an elder as God's steward. 'Elder' speaks of dignity while 'bishop' speaks of duty.
(a) Their rule or leadership. The New Testament churches were under the rule, or leadership, of elders -'Remember them that have the rule over you'. There are 'elders that rule well'. This rule was not democratic, they were not elected to office by a majority vote of the church, neither was it aristocratic, they were not a ruling class; their rule was theocratic, all their authority lay in their divine commission. The extent of their rule may be seen in 1 Thess. 5. 12 where they are described as being 'over you in the Lord'.
The sphere of their rule is strictly limited. They are over you, i.e. the Thessalonians. The sphere of the elders' rule is limited to the local church; it is not to reach outside.
The scope of their rule is limited too; it is 'in the Lord'. It is limited to spiritual matters.
For this there has been divine endowment. Paul told the elders of Ephesus that they had been made overseers by the Holy Ghost. The list of spiritual gifts given in 1 Cor. 12. 28 includes governments, 'God hath set some in the church . . . governments'. Some - not all. Had all this gift of leadership the result would be chaos. Some only are called by Him to this responsibility and being called are divinely qualified and equipped.
The exercise of their rule in general is to 'take care of the church of God'. The church is in the midst of foes and the elders' duty is to take care of it.
(b) Their qualification. As to his character and conduct -he must be blameless - no just accusation can be levelled against him. He must be sober-minded (not frivolous) and temperate or self-controlled. This will keep him from brawling, striking or contention.
As to his domestic relationships - they must be all satisfactory and fully Christian. He must be the husband of one wife -not a polygamist. His children must be faithful and in subjection. His home must be a centre of generous hospitality.
As to his attitude to money - not given to filthy lucre. How many otherwise good men have failed just here!
As to his use of the Scriptures - he must be apt to teach and able to exhort and convince gainsayers.
The degree of the ciders' real influence over the flock committed to their care will be in exact proportion to their own walk with God. Said Paul to the Ephesian elders, 'Take heed unto yourselves'. A similar direction is found in the private letter to Timothy, 'Take heed to thyself, 1 Tim. 4. 16, and, again, 'Give diligence to present thyself approved unto God', 2 Tim. 2. 15, and, yet again, 'Be thou an example to them that believe, in word, in manner of life, in love, in faith, purity', 4. 12. An elder's influence is incalculable. How carefully, then, he needs to walk! Only a close walk with God will enable elders to fulfil their ministry.
(c) Their recognition. An elder is not necessarily one who is on the oversight, but one who is doing the work of oversight. For such work he will have been called, qualified and equipped of God. It remains for the assembly to give him the place God has given him. The assembly is to know or recognize such and to esteem them very highly for their works' sake, 1 Thess. 5. 12, 13, and to appreciate fully their value. This is a purely spiritual exercise and is possible only to spiritual men.
AN ONEROUS TASK
The work to which elders are called of God is not easy and they must be prepared for opposition from the world, and, alas, at times, it may be, from fellow believers. Our hands may well hang down and our knees may tremble and our very souls be chilled unless we are persuaded that it is God who has called us to this work and that we have the sympathy of the Chief Shepherd who knows full well what these trials may mean. Let us then watch sleeplessly over the souls under our care as men who will have to give an account for them and let us be encouraged by the thought that when He shall appear we shall 'receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away'.
In view of the importance of the subject we are glad of the opportunity of providing our readers with this useful synopsis, although it does not necessarily follow that we are committed to all the views expressed.
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