The Elder as a Servant

William Burnett, Toronto, Canada

Part 1 of 3 of the series The Elders

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a short series on this very needy and practical area of elders. It is designed to emphasize the spiritual nature of this work and how we need to encourage younger men to be exercised about the responsibility of caring for the flock of God locally.

In Matthew chapter 20, the Lord was asked by the mother of two of His disciples whether, in the coming Kingdom, one could sit on His right hand, and the other on His left.1 In consequence of this request, the Lord drew attention to the fact that in the Gentile world, princes exercise dominion over others, and they, in turn, have those who exercise authority over them.2 The Lord then said, ‘But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant’.3 Indeed, the Lord Himself was the greatest exponent of this principle. The apostle Paul, writing to the Philippians, reminded them that the Lord Jesus ‘made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant . . . and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross’.4 Therefore, it is the purpose of this article, to show how this principle of ‘servanthood’ should manifest itself among those whom the Holy Spirit has raised up amongst us as shepherds of the flock.

FEEDING THE FLOCK

Speaking to the Ephesian elders for what may have been the very last time, the apostle Paul exhorts them, ‘Feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood,’5 and, similarly, Peter echoes the very same strain.6

Feeding the flock is one of the important responsibilities of shepherds. It is suggested that this goes far beyond the arranging of speakers to fill the platform, and demands that the local overseers must be actively involved in ministering food convenient to the flock. Hence, the need for the qualification of the elder that he should be ‘apt to teach’!7 Of course, this does not mean that all the elders must be orators, but they must be biblically taught, and capable of expressing the truth of God to the flock. Not only so, but this must not be confined to platform ministry. The apostle reminded the Ephesian elders, ‘I have taught you publicly, and from house to house’.8 The ‘house to house’ ministry is perhaps one of the most neglected exercises of the day. Speaking personally, my spiritual growth and development owes much to the mentoring received from a very capable teacher in our assembly who took me under his wing in early teenage years, and he, privately and consistently, taught me each Friday night of the year. He was investing in a future he would never see, due to advancing years.

PROTECTING THE FLOCK

Paul, in giving his final address to the Ephesian elders, also warned them of dangers that would assail the flock, not only from without – the grievous wolves – but also from within – ‘of your own selves shall men arise speaking perverse things’.9 Jude, in his short epistle, also tells of certain men who have ‘crept in unawares . . . ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ’.10 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, and this can be done only through applying biblical standards when receiving into fellowship. Reception into a local assembly is a serious matter, and, perhaps, not taken seriously enough in our day. When a person is seeking fellowship from some other church or evangelical group, it is important that the elders should examine such a one in relation to his or her views on doctrinal matters, matters of church order, etc., and to bring scripture to bear. We cannot be too careful at this stage. Jude speaks about ‘ungodly men, denying our Lord God’ who had arrived in fellowship. Evidently, they had deceived the elders, and the elders had not been diligent enough whilst interviewing them prior to reception. Of course, whilst reception is one of the first lines of defence, there are many obvious areas where the elder must take up a defensive role and stand between the flock and error. 

EXERCISING HOSPITALITY

One of the qualifications given for elders is ‘must be . . . given to hospitality’.11 This is an important ministry and its value is often underestimated. When an elder’s door is always open to visitors, whether by invitation, or casually, the benefits to the local church can never be overestimated. It is often during such casual moments of fellowship that hearts are unburdened, needs made known, and concerns expressed, that otherwise might never have surfaced, and where they can be resolved without recourse to more formal means. Matters that might have festered and gone unnoticed until a crisis erupted can be quietly and kindly dealt with to the furtherance of the peace and unity of the assembly. The exercise of hospitality is one of the great gifts that the Lord has given to the church, and we need to exercise it conscientiously in the assembly.

MAINTAINING CHURCH ORDER

Elders in every local assembly are obligated to operate in accordance with scripture. We cannot risk turning to the latest methods of the secular or religious world, evangelical or otherwise, in dealing with Church matters. Here are some critical areas:

Maintaining the proper roles of male and female in Church capacity

It is most important that we do not allow the liberalism of the world we live in, to put aside the God-given instructions relative to the different roles of male and female in the local assembly. Modern thinking, even in so called evangelical circles, is that such differences were only a reflection of the culture of the times when 1 Corinthians was written and that in our culture, being different, we can afford to ignore these matters.

Such thinking makes it important that teaching is given by elders regarding the scriptural authority behind the different roles of men and women, and to show that they apply whatever the culture. Also, teaching regarding scriptural headship is most important showing the why and wherefore of our assembly practice, which requires the men to uncover their heads, sisters to cover their heads and maintain silence in the assembly. 

Exercising Discipline in the Local Assembly

One of the most difficult moments in the life of any elder is when matters arise that demand the exercise of discipline in the assembly. It is here that things can go so tragically wrong, and where the response can vary from ignoring the problem, and hoping it will go away, as was happening for example in Corinth, or going to the opposite extreme of harsh, legalistic discipline. The application of biblical standards is never more urgent than in this case, first to determine the type of offence committed, and then to apply the appropriate, biblically specified, discipline. There are no less that six types of offence described in scripture, with clear instructions as to what should be done in each case.12 It is absolutely vital that those who are local elders should be familiar with these instructions and, for the health and safety of their assemblies, to be prepared to endure the pain of implementing them. The exercising of discipline is never easy, but it is absolutely essential.

Of course, 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 Paul, after commanding the Corinthians to excommunicate the guilty one,13 later, since he had repented, exhorts them to bring him back, and to embrace him and to confirm their love to him, lest he be overcome with much sorrow.14 The important thing is repentance, because where there is no repentance there can be no recovery. 

TRANSMITTING THE TRUTH TO THE NEXT GENERATION

We close our study by speaking about this critical area of eldership. Paul refers to it in his Second Epistle to Timothy when he wrote concerning the truth he had received, ‘The same commit thou to faithful men who shall be able to teach others also’.15 As years advance, one becomes increasingly conscious of the burden to transmit truth, and to do for others what was done for us. We appeal to every elder to practise the critical art of mentoring promising young men, and to make it one of the chief goals in their advancing years and to do so with urgency. The nature of the New Testament church requires that truth be transmitted from generation to generation with integrity. The future of assemblies rests upon this vital ministry, and we must take steps to make it happen. We dare not neglect this critical task. A generation of excellent, spiritually-orientated young people is coming up, and they will require to be advanced quickly to take the places of a lost generation in our assemblies. These young people are keen, and we must prime them with sound, solid biblical teaching, and give them opportunity to exercise their abilities in public, where God has given them that gift. 

References

  1. Matt. 20. 20-21.
  2. Matt. 20. 25.
  3. Matt. 20. 26-27.
  4. Phil. 2. 7- 9.
  5. Acts 20. 28.
  6. 1 Pet. 5. 2.
  7. 1 Tim. 3. 2.
  8. Acts 20. 20.
  9. Acts 20. 29-30.
  10. Jude 4.
  11. Rom. 12. 13; 1 Tim. 3. 2.
  12. Refer to booklet Church Discipline, by W. H. Burnett.
  13. 1 Cor. 5. 13.
  14. 2 Cor. 2. 1-11.
  15. 2 Tim. 2. 2.