All Scripture Quotations are Taken from the New American Standard Bible 1995 Ed. (NASB95), Published by The Lockman Foundation
Where the leaders go, the people will follow. Such is the fundamental principle of every institution, organization, or society. And the same is true of churches. The greatest influencers of the character of a Christian community are those who lead them. And who are the recognized leaders of most churches? The “pastors” or “elders.” Therefore, the direction in which they’re headed is the direction that their congregation will go as well.
And yet, in many Christian assemblies, this leadership is almost exclusively confined to leadership in thinking about Scripture, and how to understand it. It’s merely intellectual leadership, not lifestyle leadership. This is due to the fact that most elders in western Christianity have little personal contact with the people they lead. Further, what little personal interaction they have with their followers is usually shallow, brief, and often even “professional,” and therefore impersonal.
This is not the style of leadership taught and modeled by Jesus and the apostles. Their leadership was not only a work of teaching truth and facts, but also of showing their followers how to serve God and people through example. So, where such modeling and mentoring is virtually absent, Christians will imitate those with whom they interact the most. What kind of people do most Christians interact with the most? Unbelievers. And, according to Paul’s quotation of a common proverb, “bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33). No wonder most assemblies are so worldly, sensual, prideful, and selfish. But, if the elders and leaders of assemblies engaged in the hard, painful, and time-consuming work of example-setting and personal encouragement, instruction, counseling, and warning, then they’d be able to prevent much of the downward drift or spiritual stagnation of most congregations.
But, of course, how can only one or a couple of men serve as role-models for an entire congregation? The answer – in most cases – is that they can’t. That’s why everywhere the New Testament describes the work of elders, it either explicitly says, or implies, that there are at least several elders of a particular assembly. For example, wherever the term “elder” is used in the New Testament, it’s always in the plural form of “elders.” This shows us that the early church’s leadership model didn’t consist of one, or even usually a couple, of men leading assemblies, but of enough of them to be able to have personal contact with as many of the congregants as possible. This character of New Testament eldership is often called the “plurality of elders.” Such a leadership structure obviously implies that the elders work together to shepherd the flock, and this requires them to be examples to one another.
Thus, starting from the understanding that elders must be examples to their people, and that they must work together as a team in leading them, it will be helpful to see how the apostles teach that elders set the example, and work together. First, we will examine some of the New Testament’s areas of modeling for elders. Then, we will look at the ways in which the apostles both exemplified and taught how elders synchronize their leadership.
Virtues that Elders Model
The first virtue I want to highlight is one of the most neglected in the western conception of the eldership. This virtue is financial-sufficiency through hard work. Paul both modeled and taught in his pastoral leadership that ideally, most elders should provide for their material needs, so that they don’t burden the assembly, and are able to help the needy. Paul makes this clear in his final address to the Ephesian elders, in which he recounts,
“’You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:34-35)
In these words, Paul is clearly offering himself as an example to follow for the elders of Ephesus. And what is his example? First, it’s his practice of meeting his own needs, as well as his co-workers in service (v. 34). Second, it’s how he used his material-sufficiency – by helping “the weak.” How long did Paul do this? Luke says that he lived in the area of Ephesus without leaving for at least two years (Acts 19:10). So, we can infer that for at least a prolonged period of time Paul was earning a living for himself, and was doing so while serving as an overseer, teacher, and evangelist. So, Paul says that he lived this way partly to “show” the elders that they “must help the weak” “by working hard in this manner.” He doesn’t offer this as a suggestion, but as a duty for them.
Moreover, Paul bases his practice of sacrificial living with the teaching of the Lord Jesus Himself. Although not recorded in the Gospels, he reminds the elders that Jesus taught that it was “more blessed to give than to receive.” In other words, one of the motivations for earning one’s living, and having enough provisions to help the needy, is that it brings more blessing, which literally means “happiness,” or “congratulations.” Thus, Paul shows that, in the case of elders, they’ll be more blessed if they have enough goods to give to others, than if they’re only receiving provision from others.
Paul similarly describes his example of working for his living, without receiving material support, in his second letter to the Thessalonian assembly. In the last chapter, he’s chastising members of the assembly who were living life without working for a living, and were instead being bothersome toward others’ daily routines (2 Thess. 3:11). In response, Paul reminds them of his diligent and disciplined lifestyle that he lived while among them:
“Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you; not because we do not have the right to this, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example.” (2 Thess. 3:6-9)
In this passage, Paul prefaces his reminder of his disciplined example by calling it “the tradition” that the Thessalonians received. The word translated “tradition” simply means “something handed down,” but Paul clearly places the authority of the Lord Jesus on it when he “commands” them “in the name of . . . Jesus Christ” to observe it (v. 6). Hence, just as Paul’s example for the Ephesian elders, this practice isn’t a suggestion, but a command and requirement for believers.
And what is the practice that Paul, as well as other apostles (note “we” and “us”), put forth as obligatory on the assembly? The practice of “working” with “labor and hardship . . . so that [they] would not be a burden to any” of the Thessalonians (v. 8). Although Paul says that he and the apostles had “the right” to receive material support, he explains that they provided for themselves “to offer [themselves] as a model” for the assembly (v. 9).
The question is, why did Paul and the apostles have the right to material support? Basically, this was due to the principle that he teaches in such places as 1 Corinthians 9 and 1 Timothy 5, that those whose time and energy is consumed by teaching and/or preaching ought to receive financial help from those whom they serve. Nevertheless, Paul consistently relinquished this right in order to avoid “burdening” anyone, and to be of more help to those who couldn’t provide for themselves. When we apply this to elders, we can conclude that, despite having a right to be supported when it’s necessary, they ought to whenever possible, earn their own living through hard work, in imitation of Paul and other apostles. Not only will this remove an unnecessary burden from an assembly, but perhaps more importantly, this will allow elders to offer themselves as examples of hard work and discipline to their flock.
Goodness, Love, Faith, and Purity
In addition to being examples of hard work, and self-provision, there are several character traits that Paul calls two of his pastoral representatives to model to the assemblies under their care. He gives two sets of specific instructions to Timothy and Titus on what behaviors they were to be models for in his letters to them. In 1 Timothy 4:12, Paul makes this appeal to Timothy:
“Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.”
Notice the specificity of the virtues Timothy was to lead in. It wasn’t just his speech and conduct in general, but also his “love, faith and purity.” That is, he was to be one of the prime examples among his assembly of loving, believing God’s Word, and acting without sin. Compare this instruction with that given to Paul’s other representative in oversight over assemblies:
“. . . in all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine, [and being] dignified . . .” (Tit. 2:7)
In this list of virtues, Paul becomes a bit more concrete, and urges Titus to be an example of “good deeds,” or doing good, not only to please the Lord, but also in service to others. Next, he addresses Titus’s teaching of beliefs, and orders him to model “purity” in such teachings. Finally, he caps off the list by telling Titus to be “dignified,” or respectable and honorable in his lifestyle. Such dignity will attract those under his leadership in following him, and imitating his goodness, and pure thinking and teaching.
After these virtues in importance, there’s also a last characteristic of elders that all of them – as well as all Christians – ought to strive after.
Perseverance in Faithfulness
Although not applicable to all elders in every stage of life, the character trait of perseverance ought to be the highest goal of all faithful elders. The author of Hebrews highlights this area of example-setting in his reminder to the Hebrew Christians about their former leaders:
“Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.” (Heb. 13:7)
To repeat, note first that these leaders are no longer leaders of the Hebrews, since they’re to be remembered as those who “led” them, and “spoke” God’s Word to them. Hence, we can infer from this, as well as from what follows, that most, if not all, of them have died. Also, the writer calls his audience to consider “the result of their conduct,” implying that their godly behavior resulted in something particularly noteworthy, most likely their persecution, as the Hebrews had suffered persecution. In connection with the “result” of these leaders’ lifestyles, the author commands this congregation to “imitate their faith.”
Why does the author call them to imitate the faith of their former leaders? Because by doing so, they’ll obtain blessing as a “result” of such faithfulness. It seems clear to me, given the purpose and context of the message of Hebrews, that the author is calling his hearers to imitate the faith of their leaders by following Jesus to the end. And part of the way that these leaders did this was by leading and speaking God’s Word until the end of their lives, or their partnership with the Hebrews. Such faithfulness in persevering in the leading of Christians, and the teaching of God’s Word, ought to be the legacy of every elder up until he’s unable to teach, or falls asleep to wake up in heaven.
But such perseverance will almost always require the help of other elders, which is the subject we turn to next.
The Elders’ Synchronization of Work
The necessity of a team-model for effective Christian leadership is made clear by the fact that the original apostles themselves led the first assembly together. This is evident from Luke’s account of the first major service problem in the Jerusalem assembly found in Acts 6:1-4:
“Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. So the twelve [apostles] summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, ‘It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’”
From this narrative, we can see a few instances of the apostles working together to lead “the disciples.” First, it was all twelve of them who “summoned” the assembly to propose a solution for the problem. Second, it wasn’t one particular apostle who explained the problem to the assembly, but “we,” the twelve apostles, as a group. Third, the apostles said that they would put the selected men in charge of the food distribution. And finally, all twelve of them promised to devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” So, far from this being a one-man operation, or even a few-man operation, the apostles’ leadership was corporate and cooperative.
Another prime example of plural leadership is given by Paul’s narration of his missionary and pastoral service of the Thessalonians in his first letter to them. In this description, he repeatedly mentions that it wasn’t just him who was leading and teaching the assembly, but also the other missionaries who helped him – including Silvanus and Timothy (1:1):
“. . . we never came with flattering speech . . . nor did we seek glory from men . . . even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. But we proved gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us. For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children . . .” (1 Thess. 2:5-11)
In all of these pastoral services that Paul describes, it’s all three of the apostles, at least, who are rendering them. First, they all cared for them (v. 7). Second, they all shared their “own lives” with them (v. 8). Third, they all “proclaimed the gospel of God” (v. 9). And finally, they all “were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one” of the Thessalonians (v. 11). As we saw with the Jerusalem apostles, this wasn’t a “one man ministry,” but a team effort.
And jumping back to the elders’ example, note Paul’s description of the personal nature of their leadership and teaching. First of all, the apostles shared their lives with the assembly, and not just the gospel (v. 8). Also, they treated them as their “children” when they “urged”, “encouraged,” and “implored” “each one” of them (v. 11). So, this wasn’t just public speaking, but personal speaking and confrontation. It was only in these ways they could not only serve each of the Thessalonians with specific teaching, but they could share their behavior as an example for their followers.
As well as working together in all the same works of shepherding, the elders of the New Testament are described as performing degrees of labor. The primary passage that reveals this is found in Paul’s first letter to Timothy, in which he writes,
“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)
In this verse, Paul distinguishes between at least three types of elders. First, there are those who “rule well”, or literally lead well. This implies that some elders can at times lead poorly. But thirdly, Paul marks out another group of elders who are especially “worthy of double honor.” These are elders “who work hard at preaching [literally, “word”] and teaching.” The Greek term translated “work hard” literally conveys the idea of “working to the point of exhaustion,” so Paul’s speaking of elders who spend their all speaking and teaching God’s Word. The implication is that their main occupation is speaking and teaching, setting them apart as elders who deserve special recognition – and as I believe the context shows – financial support.
To sum up, Paul teaches here that there are elders who lead excellently, those who fall short of such excellence, and other elders who are wholeheartedly and exhaustively engaged in the particular work of speaking and teaching. Hence, in any one assembly, there can be elders who work the most at administrating, organizing, and delegating the works of the assembly, and also those who spend most of their time and energy speaking and teaching. Not all the elders have to be doing the exact same thing. The goal is to identify, cultivate, and combine the various strengths of the elders in an assembly to work the most effectively at leading and teaching the flock.
This diversity of giftedness is vividly pictured in Paul’s instructions for an exemplary early Christian assembly meeting found in 1 Corinthians 14:29-32:
“Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets . . .”
At the time of the apostles, the “prophets” were usually men who were gifted with the ability to receive and deliver direct revelation from God, in the absence of a comprehensive source of truth as we find in the Bible. And in the Book of Acts, many of those in leadership roles were also prophets, including Paul, Silas, and Judas (Acts 15). Thus, many of these prophets prophesied as part of their teaching service of the assembly. It’s for this reason that we can apply Paul’s instructions for prophets to the teaching services of elders today.
The point I want to make with this passage is that elders should evaluate and learn from one another in individual assemblies. This is what we see with these prophets. To begin, Paul instructs the Corinthians to “let two or three prophets speak,” not just one (v. 29). Second, the ones who are listening to the speaker must “pass judgment” on the prophecy being uttered. That is, they were to confirm that the prophecy was in alignment with known truth, and truly revelation. Third, Paul asserts that some prophets could be interrupted if another one received another revelation (v. 30). Fourth, he explains that the reason each prophet can speak at one time is ”so that all [the prophets] may learn and . . . be exhorted” (v. 31). Finally, he ends by saying that each of their “spirits,” or sources of prophesying, are subject to one another, meaning that they’re to hold each other accountable for what they share (v. 32).
We can learn some practical principles from these facts for how teaching in the assembly is conducted. First, it’s ideal to have multiple teachers during the gathering. Second, the elders should be able to offer comments, insights, or questions for the one teaching. Third, elders should be able to learn from one another’s teaching. And finally, the elders ought to keep one another accountable for what, and how, they teach.
The last aspect of the elders’ synchronization is succinctly put by Paul in his charge to Timothy with regard to his life of service in 2 Timothy 2:22:
“Now flee youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith , love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”
As one of the overseers of the assembly in Ephesus, Timothy wasn’t just to pursue these virtues with the whole Christian community in general, but also specifically with his fellow leaders. And what was he to pursue with pure seekers of the Lord? Almost the very same things that he called Timothy to model in 1 Timothy 4:12. He begins with “righteousness,” or right thinking and living. He follows this with “faith,” or trust in God’s promises, which leads to faithfulness. Flowing from faith, Paul commends the pursuit of “love,” which is fruit of faith. And finally, he calls Timothy to pursue “peace,” which will only be maintained and strengthened through love. But again, Timothy doesn’t have liberty to pursue these qualities alone, but with pure worshipers of the Lord, especially his fellow leaders. This group pursuit ought to be the pursuit of every group of elders overseeing and shepherding an assembly.
Elders Set the Example of Christlikeness and Teamwork
In conclusion, we’ve seen that the apostles repeatedly highlighted the necessity and power of elders being examples to their assembly. Among the character traits that the apostles promote are self-provision, excellence of speech, good deeds, love, faith, purity, and perseverance. So, are the elders of your assembly prime examples of these virtues?
Are your elders hard workers, and givers to those in need?
Are they careful in their speech?
Are they models of doing good for others?
Are they noticeably loving people?
Are they examples of trust in God’s promises?
Are they pure in their speech, behavior, and lifestyles?
Are they consistent examples of Christlikeness?
Lastly, we’ve surveyed the New Testament teaching that elders are to also model what it means to work as a Christian team.
So, do your elders work well together?
Do they help one another in becoming more like the Lord through personal encouragement and discussion?
Do they help one another to become better teachers?
Do they consistently provide personal, and specific, care for as many members of the assembly as possible?
Let us all seek to follow the apostles’ teaching and example of being the best role models we can be for our brethren, and of working together with one another in the great work of making and teaching disciples, for the glorification of the Lord Jesus.