All Scripture is taken from the New American Standard Bible 1995 Ed. (NASB95), published by The Lockman Foundation

In my last lesson, I examined the main aspirations that Paul the apostle – not to mention the rest of the apostles – promoted as being the highest for “pastors” to pursue for their flocks. These included increasing love, increasing knowledge, humility, increasing unity, spiritual maturity, usefulness, and disciple-making. The issue I didn’t address was how elders are supposed to help their assemblies toward fulfilling these Scriptural aspirations.

 Sadly, there are many false notions for how elders are to help their flocks toward them. Simply put, many “pastors” fail to do the works for their congregations that Jesus and the apostles outlined as their duties. They often see themselves as managers of a highly sophisticated organization, such as a CEO might be. Some consider themselves to simply be public speakers of God’s Word, spending the majority of their time studying for sermons and/or teaching formally. And a large number of pastors seek to replace professional counselors by offering their own counseling services, as those most qualified in the church to do so. Just as with the many common goals that pastors have for assemblies, these service emphases are still out of alignment with the services that New Testament elders render to those under their care.

In order to rightly understand the duties that elders have toward their assemblies, we must first characterize their servanthood, then define their leadership, and next describe their instruction.

The Elder’s Servanthood

The essence of a Christian overseer’s servanthood is succinctly defined by Jesus’s teaching on the subject for His apostles, as found in the Gospel of Mark:

“Calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, ‘You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.’” (Mk. 10:42-45)

In these words, the Lord gives the fundamental conception of Christian leadership. Two of His disciples have just asked Him if they can sit right next to Him when He takes the throne of His imagined earthly kingdom. Jesus explains that He has no authority to make a decision like that, implying that it’s the Father’s decision. Nevertheless, the rest of the disciples get angry at the two who requested this from Jesus, since they are all hungry for authority and prestige in the Lord’s kingdom. Therefore, Jesus responds by describing true greatness, and true leadership, in contrast to their wrong conception of it, as modeled by that displayed by the pagan, Gentile “rulers”.

So, how did the Gentile rulers wield their authority and position? By “lording it over them”, and “exercising authority over them” in a heavy-handed, and dominating way (v. 42). In other words, they abused their position over their subjects.

In contrast, Jesus holds up humility and service as the hallmarks of true greatness and leadership. He starts by promising the disciples that “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” (v. 43). Hence, the path to exaltation and respect is lowliness and service of others, rather than demanding service for oneself. Second, Jesus defines true leadership and primacy as slavery, since He tells them that if they want to be treated as “first” among each other, they must “be slave of all”. However, not only is He giving these traits as requirements for greatness and leadership, but He’s also characterizing Christians who seek greatness and positions of leadership. This is evidenced by the fact that He describes pursuers of greatness as servants, and those who want to be followed and honored as slaves of those from whom they want honor. In other words, in the community of Christians, truly great leaders are also servants and slaves of those whom they lead.

What is the main reason why Christian leadership is actually a form of servitude and enslavement to followers? Because the Lord Himself was a servant of His followers, as He highlights by saying that He “did not come to be served, but to serve” (v. 45). And what was His ultimate act of service? His sacrifice of giving “His life a ransom for many” (v. 45). Thus, the greatest form of service through leadership is sacrificing yourself for the benefit of those under your care. And this requires humility, love, hard work, and others-centeredness. These are the prerequisites for all the services that elders fulfill toward their assemblies.

Elders’ Leadership

We all know that elders, overseers, or “pastors” are leaders. But how do they lead their assemblies? The apostles give us several functions that elders must fulfill in order to effectively lead their assemblies to spiritual maturity in love, knowledge, humility, unity, service, and discipleship. The first way that the New Testament describes assembly leadership is by the term, “overseer”. In Paul’s outline of qualifications for elders in both 1 Timothy 3:1, and Titus 1:7, he uses this term. In 1 Ti. 3:1, he specifically says that “overseer” is a title for an “office”, so we can know that he’s not just talking about any overseer, but an office of leadership in the assembly. Further, in Paul’s last word to the elders of Ephesus, he reminds them that “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). Finally, Peter instructs the elders that he’s addressing in his first letter to be engaged in “exercising oversight” (1 Pe. 5:2). This concept is simple enough to understand – it means to “look over,” or to “watch over,” a group of people, to determine their condition, monitor their progress, and anticipate problems.

From this description of elders, we find that the first component of assembly leadership is watchfulness or alertness. Paul stresses this when he exhorts the Ephesian elders by commanding them to “be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock” (Acts 20:28). Notice that the first concern of their watchfulness is for themselves, since it’s only if they know their condition that they’ll be able to keep themselves able to take care of their assembly. Paul makes this same point in his first letter to Timothy, urging him to “pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching . . . for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Ti. 4:16). Hence, faithful oversight of an assembly must be undergirded by oversight of oneself. But how do elders use this oversight in order to lead assemblies?

The most important description of assembly oversight given by the apostles is that of “shepherding.” Returning once again to Paul’s call to a group of elders, the first way that he defines their oversight is by telling them that the purpose of their office is “to shepherd the church of God” (Acts 20:28). And Peter’s main command to the elders of 1 Peter is to “shepherd the flock of God among you” (1 Pe. 5:2). Here we see the shepherding connection from which English-speakers have derived the term “pastor”. Peter pictures the congregations that he’s writing to as “flocks” of sheep that belong to God. The elders’ responsibility is to act as “shepherds” of the congregation “among” them.

How did shepherds take care of sheep in those days? There were three main ways:

  1. Leading them to food and water.
  2. Preventing them from wandering off.
  3. Protecting them from predators like wolves and bears.

Elders fulfill the first duty by teaching God’s Word to their congregation. By doing so, they lead their brethren to the “food” of God’s Word, which will nourish them spiritually. Second, elders prevent their congregants from “wandering off” by giving them warnings and counsel when they’re in danger of being deceived, or falling into sin. Finally, elders protect their flock from “predators” by exposing false teaching for what it is, and by exposing and warning of false teachers. The central role of teaching in the shepherding duty of elders leads us to the New Testament’s description of the relationship between assembly leadership and teaching.

Elders’ Instruction

Paul clearly makes teaching a primary duty for elders when he lists the qualifications for elder candidates in his letters to Timothy and Titus. In 1 Timothy 3:2, one of the qualities of a true overseer is that he’s “able to teach.” A similar requirement is given in Titus 1:9, where Paul describes an elder as “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able . . . to exhort in sound doctrine . . .” So, not only must an elder be able to do this, or skilled at it, but he must also have a tight grasp and understanding of “the faithful word” of the essential teaching of Jesus and the apostles (Christian basics).

Also in 1 Timothy, Paul makes a close connection between the leadership of elders, and their teaching. He declares that,

“The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” (1 Ti. 5:17)

Now, it should be noted that the NASB makes two translation errors in this verse. First, as we saw in the Lord’s own description of the heart of Christian leadership, elders shouldn’t be thought of as “ruling” over their assembly, since this conveys too much connotation of lording it over their flock. Rather, we can simply take the Greek word translated “rule,” and use it’s literal meaning (“to stand before”) to understand it as “lead”. Second, the NASB’s use of the word “preaching” in this verse is unwarranted. The Greek literally says, “those who work hard in word (logos).” Therefore, we shouldn’t see Paul as speaking of these elders as only preaching, but of simply speaking, and delivering the message of God.

Having given these clarifications, this verse teaches us that one of the essential ways in which elders lead their assemblies is by speaking and teaching God’s Word. Also, if we back up in this letter, Paul, speaking to Timothy as an overseer of the assembly in Ephesus, orders him to “. . . give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching” (1 Ti. 4:13). So, here we see three essential elements of an elder’s teaching. First, he must read Scripture to his people. Second, he must “exhort”, or “encourage”, them based on Scripture. And finally, he must give them logical, structured, and systematic teaching of the truths of Scripture.

But the elder’s teaching can’t be restricted to simply teaching the truth directly. Paul also requires that elders be “able . . . to refute those who contradict [sound teaching]” (Tit. 1:9). So, the ability, and duty, to teach has a twin component. Not only must elders be able to teach the truth, but they also must be able to disprove error, falsehood, and deceptions. This makes it essential that elders know the teaching of Scripture thoroughly, and are not only able to explain it in general, but explain how each truth relates to another, as well as how the truth relates to related ideas — whether they’re true, almost true, or completely contradictory. In other words, truth must not only be taught, but compared and contrasted with error, so that such error can be refuted and destroyed. It’s only in this way that elders can warn their flocks of false teaching that has the potential to deceive them.

Despite the importance of the teaching of elders, there’s a final duty they must exercise that’s at least as important, if not more so. And this is one of the core distinctives of truly Christlike leadership – example-setting.

Elders’ Example-setting

The main goal and framework for assembly leadership demands that elders set a worthy example to follow. This is first due to the fact that the main goal of their leadership is to teach the assembly to obey the Lord more, in order to become more like Him. This is implied in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20, which instructs Jesus’s disciples to first “make disciples,” and then to do this by “teaching them to observe all I have commanded you.” When He told them to “make disciples,” He wasn’t only telling them to turn people into disciples of Him, but also of them. Such following and imitation of leaders is necessary, since the goal of Christian teaching isn’t just to impart information; nor only to teach a skill, an art, or a line of work; instead, the aim of Christian teaching is to persuade and conform people to living in a comprehensive manner of thinking, choosing, and acting. To put it simply, the purpose of discipling and teaching others as an elder is to promote and grow their Christlikeness. Hence, it’s imperative that an elder not only be able to teach in word, but also to show by example how to imitate the Lord’s character in obedience to His commands, and the teachings of His apostles.

The second reason why example-setting is so fitting and proper for assembly leadership is that their leaders aren’t only teachers with authority, but are also more mature brothers in God’s family. In most cases in natural families, there’s an innate desire for younger siblings to imitate older siblings, and the same is true in the spiritual family of God’s household. Therefore, as some of the most mature brothers in the assembly, the elders must set the example for faithful living in obedience and imitation of the Lord.

To remove all doubt about the necessity of elders showing how to obey Jesus through their behavior, read Peter’s command for elders from 1 Peter 5:3, after he’s just urged them to “exercise oversight” in their shepherding work, not,

“. . . as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.”

In addition, this style of leadership by example was the same as that practiced by Paul, as shown by his command for the Philippian assembly to,

“. . . join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.” (Php. 3:17)

Here, as well as calling them to follow his “example,” he also urges them to “observe” or “watch” brethren who live their everyday lives “according to the pattern you have in us.” Who are the “us”? Not only Paul, but also his spiritual son Timothy. Thus, Paul authorizes imitation of himself as a follower of Jesus, and imitation of all who follow that pattern of living. This emphasis on example and imitation may be one of the main causes for Christianity being called “the Way” in the Acts of the Apostles.

Having established that setting the example for an assembly is one of the duties of elders, and is necessary for spiritual growth, it now remains to explain in what ways the apostles teach leaders to be the example. These specific areas of practice will give us some illustrations of how elders can practically demonstrate mature Christlikeness to their assemblies. This will be included in my next article.

Are Your Elders True Servants, Overseers, Teachers, and Models?

Brother or sister, please consider these questions:

  1. Are the elders of your assembly serving their flock?

2. Are your elders paying close attention to the spiritual condition of your assembly, and doing what’s necessary to lead them toward greater righteousness and faithfulness?

3. Are your elders truly gifted, diligent, and persuasive teachers of Scripture and its truths?

4. Are your elders worthy models of Christlikeness, and are they visible to the assembly to see how they live?