Leadership - Eldership

Denis Clapham, Birmingham

In every matter which involves the saints and their responsible conduct in relation to the things of God, we will find our blessed Lord Himself to be the perfect model of it. This is because in His own person and work He fully displays all aspects of truth. Consider, by way of example, the following matters: loving, giving, obeying, caring, understanding, witnessing, to mention only a few. With regard to every one of these the Lord Jesus personally demonstrates all we need to learn about them. So it is with regard to leading and shepherding, with which we are especially occupied in this short article. He Himself is the perfect example. While no man, however spiritual, can attain to the standard He has set, those who have been marked out by the Holy Spirit to take a lead in respect of the flock of God, or to exercise rule in the household of God, must first learn from Christ, taking His yoke upon themselves and aiming to become imitators of Him.

In the New Testament we are given certain characteristics of those who from the first were called elders and shepherds. The well-marked qualifications, and the role of such men (never women, be it noted) may be gathered from the following scriptures, viz. Acts 20; 1 Timothy 2; Titus 1; and 1 Peter 5. It is important to acknowledge that in these scriptures we are brought face to face with divinely inspired and authoritative statements expressed by the apostles Paul and Peter. Throughout the course of church history these things have remained unchanged in the Word of God, and have guided those prepared to be taught by them, although church councils, Popes and others of great influence in the sphere of Christian profession have not hesitated to pervert them. This has inevitably resulted in so much, both in teaching and practice, which is not of God, and consequently has produced characters which bear little resemblance to Him who in all His service was meek and lowly in heart, and who became obedient unto death, and that the death of the cross. Therefore, we propose a consideration of the one Shepherd and Bishop of our souls, who is presented to us in the days of His flesh as the Good Shepherd; the same One who, now raised from the dead is called that Great Shepherd of the sheep; and who, at His appearing as the Chief Shepherd will give unfading crowns of glory to all those who have faithfully shepherded the flock of God, and eagerly served Him as overseers, having been in their short day examples to the flock.

The Good Shepherd, John 10. 1-30
At the first there were, in each assembly of Christians, men working together to shepherd the flock of God. By this plurality is seen the wisdom of God in restraining any one, overbearing personality assuming lordly rights to dictate to the saints. Indeed, not just one, but all elders are instructed not to lord it over God's heritage. Today, sad to say, such is the weakness of so many small companies of the Lord's people that numbers of saints have difficulty in recognizing any willing men capable of undertaking the work of caring for their souls. In such times as these what can the saints hope for? By whom are they to be protected from gross doctrinal and moral evils, and guided in their lives through this dark world? John 10, so well known to us, sets before us the Son of God who, we can be fully assured, will always be the Keeper and Guardian of His own. Is He not Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today and forever? For those who aspire to be like Him, let them first be reminded that such was His love for the sheep that He gave His own life for them, vv. 11, 15, 27. Then consider that He knows each one of His sheep by name, that is, in such a personal and individual way that they actually recognize His voice when He speaks to them, vv. 3-5, 14, 16. Also, that He is the One who goes before the little flock, so that those who follow Him are sure not to be led astray, but always in right paths, vv. 4. 27. See also Psalm 23. 3.

Finally, it is most important to take account of the reassurance He gives to His sheep as to their eternal security, vv. 28, 29. How very necessary it is, therefore, that an elder should be able from the scriptures to quell all doubts that can arise in the minds of believers, both young and old, concerning salvation. It is a vital, yet often neglected personal work, to be able to confirm the faith of the weak and to recover those who may stray from the truth. See Luke 15. 4.

The Great Shepherd, Hebrews 13. 20, 21
When the Lord Jesus Christ first came to this earth we are told that He came to His own (inheritance or things), but that His own (people) did not receive Him. How very sad a thing, that for so long the sheep of the Jewish fold had become alienated from their God and been scattered abroad from their land and inheritance. Obviously, there was a reason for this, and it was referred to by the Good Shepherd when He said, all who ever came before Me were thieves and robbers. None of those who had preceded Him had shown any genuine concern for the well-being of the sheep of His pasture. Could this be why, on His looking over the few sheep who had remained 'at home', the Lord Jesus recognized and spoke of their pitiful state as being like 'sheep without a shepherd'? But, though all who ever came before Him were only hirelings, and as such were solely motivated by self-interests, He Himself was truly genuine and great by way of contrast. It was His great sorrow that made Him weep over Jerusalem. And such was His great concern for the people's salvation that He willingly laid down His life for them all. The greatness of His heart for His people was prophetically declared in that, He was wounded for their transgressions, bruised for their iniquities, and the chastisement of their peace was vicariously borne by Him. We may well ask, 'For whom were all His sorrows'? The same prophet again will tell us that it was for all those who like sheep had gone astray and had turned everyone to his own way. Could there possibly be a greater shepherd than this One, who would willingly answer to God for the guilt of such sheep? Impossible! His greatness is only measurable by the magnitude of His sacrifice. The love of Moses, Exodus 32. 32; of David, 2 Samuel 24. 17; and of Paul, Romans 9. 3, cannot be compared with His love. Will any of us who now, perhaps, to a greater or lesser degree regard ourselves as elders and shepherds, not recognize that our own 'stature' will be proportionate to the degree to which we are willing to suffer loss, and forego our personal interests for the good of those for whom Christ died? The penetrating questioning of the apostle Peter by the Lord Jesus, John 21. 15-17, was not with a view to confirming his apostleship. The Lord's gracious purpose was to probe the very corners of his conscience, and teach him that only a love for Christ which allowed no rival claim in his heart would adequately fit him to be the humble elder he afterwards became. So, with faith and love tested and approved, may genuine elders be recognized today, and thus earn the loving respect that their work deserves.

The Chief Shepherd - 1 Peter 5. 4
We have already sketched some of the qualities and characteristics of the perfect Model for all who aspire to leadership in the assemblies of the saints. And we have briefly noted the Lord's gracious, personal dealings with the man who possibly regarded himself, with some justification, as the chief of the apostles. Peter it was, who was the first apostle to be granted the revelation by the Father that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Now, whether Peter was older than all the others, or the senior partner in the fishing business, or just possessed of the strongest will of them all, we cannot tell. But that he invariably appears to take the lead is evident from the Gospel records, and in each list of the twelve he is always the first mentioned. This is not to say that the other apostles did not at times aspire to be first, for we read that on the occasion of the institution of the Lord's Supper there was an argument among them as to who should be the greatest. Did this involve a dispute about the places around the table at which they were first to eat the Passover with their Lord and Master? As such rivalry could not be allowed to continue, the Lord Himself adopted the menial servant's role of washing the disciples' feet, thus setting them an example in humility none was ever likely to forget. That Peter took the lesson to heart becomes apparent from what he wrote about humility towards the end of his life.

It is worthy of consideration that, though Peter's apostleship was primarily toward the circumcision (i.e. the Jews), by the time he comes to write his first letter to those of that nation who were scattered abroad from their homeland, it could well be that his travelling days among them, leading about his wife as he journeyed, had come to an end. Having obeyed the commission he had received from the Lord, and also made use of the keys of the kingdom to open the way for both Jew and Gentile to enter into it by faith, he had then reached the stage in his life and service at which he could exercise himself in a given locality as an elder. If this is the case, then he had come to the point of fulfilling the personal, three-fold charge he had received from the Lord to shepherd His sheep and lambs. He alone of the New Testament writers addressed elders in the assemblies as a fellow-elder. The apostle Paul will write about them, and even address them in a general way along with deacons; but Peter, while yet an apostle, writes as an elder himself. What he has to say in few words covers the scope of the elders' responsibilities:

(i) First, he exhorts them to display the willing and unselfish spirit in which their work as overseers is to be undertaken, always remembering that they are engaged in a work for the good of God's heritage.

(ii) Then, probably recalling the example set by the Lord in the upper room, he exhorts them to be examples themselves to the flock of God in lowly, Christlike service.

(iii) And, finally, he assured them that the Chief Shepherd, who continually oversees all, will at His appearing give unfading crowns of glory to those who have done the work as He would have done it Himself.

The work of an elder will not be undertaken lightly, nor engaged in to fulfil the aims of men. Only when the Holy Spirit has done what He will first have to do in the life of a morally upright and spiritual man, in his home, at his workplace and in the assembly, will he be fit to stand before the saints. Today, Christian assemblies need true spiritual leaders more than multiplied (heaped up) teachers. This being so, may God mercifully grant that those who have chosen early in life to put His interests before their own, will be diligent in their application to His word, and patient in the training He puts them through, so that when He can safely entrust them with the care of His people they may have Christlike hearts and minds to do His will for a season.