The Recognition and Reward of Elders
John J. Stubbs
No subject in relation to what we call assembly truth can be more important than that of rule among the assemblies of God’s people. The assembly is not a place where everyone does that which is right in their own eyes. Nor is it ever intended by God that His assemblies should be governed and controlled by one man, however able and gifted he may be. Elders in the local church of God are in the plural. Aged men are not necessarily fitted to guide and feed the flock. Young men generally have not the experience or spiritual maturity to be an overseer. However, there will always be exceptions to these generalizations. In the days of the apostles, overseers were a distinct and recognized group. This is seen in Philippians chapter 1 verse 1, and Acts chapter 20 verse 17 where Paul sends for the elders to meet him at Miletus. Elders rule within the assembly where they have been raised up by God, and have no jurisdiction over another assembly. We do not read of a group of elders forming themselves as a district oversight. This is foreign to scripture. In this article we will briefly consider what the word of God teaches on the subject of elders or overseers.
Since elders were needed even in the apostolic period, should the need be any less today? There is a crying need for godly leadership in the assemblies today. In every sphere in this world, rule of some sort is needed, otherwise chaos and confusion will follow. Would there be any peace or order in the national, ecclesiastical, or local spheres without rule? Can we imagine a country without government, a city without authority, a family without parental restraint? Without proper government, in these and other spheres in this world, we would have mass chaos and corruption. Consider a sad example of this in scripture where in Judges chapter 19 we have an appalling description given to us of conditions when there was no kingly rule, vv. 1, 21, 25. The result is exactly what we have stated and is an illustration of what an assembly would be without government. Elders are needed for ruling, leading, feeding, and watching the flock. The work of elders should have the support and prayers of the assembly. Such work is often a thankless task.
In the New Testament the leaders in each local assembly are described as elders, Acts 20. 17, overseers, Acts 20. 28, and pastors, Eph. 4. 11. It should be clear by examining and comparing these scriptures that these terms are synonymous and refer to the same persons. They give an indication of the kind of work in which they engage. There is not the slightest hint of one bishop being set over one church, or a group of churches. The term elder refers to their experience, the overseer refers to their exercise, the pastor or shepherd refers to the overseers who will make sure that the flock of God is fed with spiritual food, Acts 20. 28.
Elders are not a board of legislators imposing their mind on the assembly, but are seen in scripture as labourers among the saints. What a difference! Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, speaks of their leaders labouring among them, 1 Thess. 5. 12. Plainly, elders are expected to work for the good and wellbeing of the saints. Eldership is not an office to fill, but a work to be done! Sadly, for some men in the assemblies it is only a position to be grasped at with no proper realization of the grave responsibility involved. It has been well said that overseers in God’s assembly are not appointed by men, but anointed by the Holy Spirit. This is seen in Paul’s words, Acts 20. 28. In addition to their rule the following ministries mark the true overseer. They are shepherds, feeding, nourishing and supporting the flock. In Hebrews chapter 13 we have some further interesting indications of the role of elders. An overseer is to be a watchman, v. 17; they watch for the souls of the saints. An overseer is to be a leader, v. 7.
How are elders appointed and recognized in the assembly? It is rather interesting to see that Israel always had elders among them, even when down in Egypt, Exod. 3. 16. Moses was told by God Himself to bring before Him men whom ‘thou knowest to be elders of the people’, Num. 11. 16. Did Moses make them elders? No, he did not! They had already shown themselves to be true elders. They were equipped and fitted by God. Because of this, Moses chose them to share with him the responsibilities of leadership. It is no different in this present church age. It is regrettable that it is possible to have self-made overseers, or men in the assembly who have been voted in as elders. Such ideas are not found in scripture.
Eldership in the New Testament was not a new thing, but rather a carry-over from Old Testament days. There are many references to the presence of elders in Israel. God demanded that elders function in the nation. The God who demanded proper rule and government among His people in Old Testament times requires the same today. Who, then, appoints or authorizes elders? In the early days of the history of the church it was the apostles, Acts 14. 23, or their delegates, Titus 1. 5, who appointed, or ordained, elders. Today we have no apostles. There is no foundation for the teaching that this authority was handed down to succeeding generations. In Acts chapter 14, Paul had been away from the assemblies in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, v. 21, but, during the period of his absence, men came to the fore who were raised up by God to guide and govern the saints. This shows that God was able to work a spiritual work in the lives of these men, and prepare and fit them by the Holy Spirit for leadership.
An elder must have the recognition of his brethren and the whole assembly, 1 Thess. 5. 12-13. There are three exhortations to the assembly in Thessalonica regarding their attitude towards the elders. First is acknowledgement, ’Know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord’. To ‘know them’ means to get to know them, and to appreciate their character and work. It is by a man’s behaviour, example, maturity, and care for the saints that his leadership qualities are manifest to the assembly. Second is appreciation, ’And to esteem them very highly for their works sake’. You know a man by his work. We are not asked to appreciate certain personalities! Third is assistance, ’And to be at peace among yourselves’. What a help it is to elders when the saints in the local assembly are happy with one another, and there is sweet fellowship. Do we support the overseers in their work?
We know that in the things of the world, qualification always precedes office. How very important it is that those who are to have the care of the assembly should possess certain spiritual qualifications. Sadly, some of the problems, and even disasters, in assembly life have been caused by men who have not been fitted to lead the saints. We need to see from scripture what God demands from those who attempt to take the position of an overseer, 1 Tim. 3. 1-7. The godliest of overseers are not perfect and infirmity marks the best of them, but God looks for the highest of standards. Their personal life, their public life, and their position at home must all be beyond reproach. Does the professed overseer have anything in his life that would be just cause for complaint? Does he have his own family under control? Before one can take care of the church of God he must prove his ability to effectively control his own house, v. 5. Is his public life in order? In relation to the world the overseer must have a good testimony and also be free from bringing reproach upon the assembly by his life in the world, v. 7.
There are two conditions in this passage dealing with overseership that would be helpful to briefly comment upon. Their meaning is often misunderstood. In verse 2 an overseer must be ‘apt to teach’. This does not necessarily denote public teaching of the word of God, though it may include this, but refers to the ability to impart knowledge and instruction. The elder will have an understanding of the word of God and will have the ability to help believers in the assembly as to the interpretation and application of the scriptures. The thought in verse 6, not a novice, means simply not a recent convert. It refers to want of spiritual maturity or experience.
It is good to see that overseers will be rewarded for their labour of love. Peter speaks in his First Epistle, 5. 4, of the ‘crown of glory’ that is to be bestowed on all those who have taken up this important work of godly rule and faithful shepherding of the flock. The overseer’s work may yield little return, but there is a day coming when nothing will be forgotten. This reward will come from the Chief Shepherd’s own hand. An overseer may be reading these lines who has shed many tears, made many sacrifices, and toiled very arduously tending the flock. Fear not dear brother, the promise of reward is sure and all will be seen to be worthwhile in that coming day.
Yet it is solemn to think that the eye of the Great Shepherd never leaves the under-shepherds. He knows and measures the cost of their labours. Overseers should serve in the light of this. Every God-appointed overseer will have to stand at the judgement seat of Christ. Leaders must give account, and they should be able to do it ‘with joy, and not with grief’, Heb. 13. 17. This puts oversight work in a very solemn light. An overseer should do his work in the assembly in the knowledge that the Shepherd’s eye is always upon him, watching his work, and observing his motive. An overseer’s work is a spiritual work, a willing work, an unselfish work, a humble work, and an exemplary work, 1 Pet. 5. 1-4. Such features seen in an overseer will certainly have their reward!