Who needs elders?

When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed. – Acts 14:23 NASB

When you read the New Testament, you see elders everywhere. The apostles appointed them on their missionary journeys; they keep showing up in Acts and in the epistles; there are qualifications and duties listed, and duties of the congregation to elders.

But do we need elders in these modern times? Haven’t they gone the way of the holy kiss? What evidence is there that rule by elders is God’s continuing instruction? Or what is the harm in adopting our own government?

Come to think of it, why do we even need church government at all? Why can’t we cut the bureaucracy and just preach the gospel?

Contents

1. Who needs elders?
1.1. A first-century thing?
1.2. Optional qualifications?
1.3. Optional office?
2. The work of elders
2.1. Elders shepherd the flock of God
2.2. Elders guard the flock from wolves
2.3. Officers are fundamental to the church’s being the pillar and support of the truth
2.4. The authority of office is essential for the work
3. Summary
4. Objections
Objection 1: Rule by elders is one option among many
Objection 2: There are bad shepherds
Objection 3: We’ll suffer
Objection 4: The sheep will suffer
4.4.1. Reminders
4.4.2. Persecution intensifies the need
4.4.3. Faith, wisdom, and elders
5. Application
6. Benediction

1. Who needs elders?

Let’s start with a brief definition of rule by elders.

At its most basic level, rule by elders means that there are certain qualified men in a local church body who are responsible for the care of souls in that body. This includes preaching and teaching, but it goes beyond that, as we’ll see.

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. – Hebrews 13:17

1.1. A first-century thing?

Perhaps elders were necessary in the first century church. It would have certainly been a matter of obedience to the Holy Spirit for Titus to obey the Apostle Paul’s command to appoint elders in every city:

For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you, namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict. – Titus 1:5-9

Now, was the need for a man to “be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” a first-century thing? I guess if everybody has sound doctrine and there’s no one who contradicts, we might wonder whether this gifting was for a past era. Or perhaps in some places and situations, there is no need for a man to be able to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict. Can that be possible?

Brothers, isn’t the idea laughable? Of course there’s always a need for exhorting in sound doctrine and refuting those who contradict. Speak any word from the Bible today and you will instantly hear ten perspectives on it, half of which directly negate the Scripture while most of the rest labor to slide past the sharp point of the passage rather than submit to it. Exhortation and refutation have never been more necessary than they are today.

1.2. Optional qualifications?

Perhaps we agree that exhortation and refutation are important, but we would say that it is only the last qualification of an overseer that has to do with that, that it must be a man who is holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict. So it wouldn’t have to be a man who is qualified to be an overseer doing this, but just any man who holds fast the faithful word. He need not necessarily be self-controlled nor devout, nor just, nor sensible, nor loving what is good, nor hospitable — what are we anyway, legalists? He just needs to hold fast the faithful word, right?

But what would we be doing, slicing and dicing the qualifications like this? Brothers, we could call this many things, but we cannot call it faithfulness to this passage of Scripture. Look again and see how attention to each qualification is foundational to the stated end: “so that he will be able…” Inattention to any of these qualifications will undermine a man’s effectiveness in this work.

1.3. Optional office?

Ok, so perhaps we not only admit that exhortation and refutation are necessary and we allow that attention to all the qualifications is foundational to being able to effectively exhort and refute. But why does it need to be an elder in the church. Can’t any Bible study leader do the same?

We’ll come back to this question later; for now let’s just ask, what would “do the same” look like?

2. The work of elders

2.1. Elders shepherd the flock of God

Elders do more than exhort and refute. Let’s look at some other responsibilities revealed in the Scriptures:

Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. – 1 Peter 5:1-4

Elders are shepherds of the flock of God. This reminds us of Jesus:

“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.” – John 10:11-15

Overseers shepherd the flock of God, and like the Good Shepherd they lay down their lives for the sheep.

But in modern times, has it somehow become possible to disciple sheep for our Lord without laying down one’s life for them? Or is it now possible to lay down one’s life for the sheep with no reference to the wolves from whom the good shepherd protects the sheep?

Of course not. To this day, the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, and this involves leading them and guarding them from wolves.

Our Bible study leader who is qualified to be an elder exhorts and refutes for the good of the flock. But will he lay down his life for the flock, guarding it from wolves? If not, who will?

2.2. Elders guard the flock from wolves

Speaking by the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul warned of wolves coming among the flock in the future and commanded the overseers to be on the alert:

“Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. – Acts 20:28-31

And Paul again, to Titus:

For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain. – Titus 1:5-11

Peter also warns:

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. – 2 Peter 2:1-3

And so does Jude:

Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. – Jude 1:3-4

Are there no longer ungodly men who creep in among the sheep as Jude warns, nor false prophets as Peter warns?

Of course there are. And silencing rebellious men is no job for a pansy. It is bloody work. It is mortal combat.

How will such rebellious men be silenced if not by shepherds entrusted with the oversight of God’s flock? Is it now just everybody’s responsibility to “guard the good deposit” (2 Tim 1:13)?

Or is it for no reason that elders are given special protection from spurious accusation:

Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. – 1 Timothy 5:19

…or that those who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor?

The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. – 1 Timothy 5:17

No. They’ve been in the fight for the sheep, and this protection and honor is necessary and right.

2.3. Officers are fundamental to the church’s being the pillar and support of the truth

In our day of rampant individualism, we might be inclined to think that sheep can take care of themselves in the flock of God. But again and again the Scriptures teach differently. 1 Timothy is one of the pastoral epistles. In chapter 3, the picture is now that of household and father:

It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach. Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.
Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households. For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. – 1 Timothy 3:1-15

We have seen that God provides shepherds for the flock of God; here we see another picture of the same reality: God provides overseers as fathers in the household of God.

The Apostle Paul did not say, “Find some acceptable way to be the pillar and support of the truth”. But, writing by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he said,

I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.

Anyone who has sons can attest that if your family consists only of brothers, you won’t live in peace for long. Fathers are essential! The office of father is disregarded in a household to the peril of the household. The office of shepherd is disregarded in a flock to the peril of the flock. So with the office of overseer over the household of God. This is how God builds His house.

2.4. The authority of office is essential for the work

Elders have a responsibility to use this pastoral authority they have been entrusted with as shepherds for the purpose it was entrusted to them for. Look again at the pastoral epistles:

Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you. – 2 Timothy 1:13-14

I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. – 2 Timothy 4:1-2

These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you. – Titus 2:15

As we read the New Testament, we are struck by how often Paul speaks by the authority of his office as an Apostle of Jesus Christ. It matters that he wasn’t one brother among many, making suggestions to brothers. He was an apostle, and it was not from arrogance or personal pride that he continually invoked the authority of his office. We shake our heads at him today, clucking our tongues and tut-tutting that Paul wasn’t a very clean man. So messy, so rough, so dirty. We would hope that if he had it to do all over again he would stay above the fray, clean, not so warty.

But the Apostle Paul loved the sheep too much to stay clean. He was willing to do whatever it took to keep the flock from being led away from safety, whether it was boasting like a madman to make a point, defending his integrity, ministry, and apostleship from those who spoke against him, or instructing the flock on all kinds of embarrassing topics. Even today Paul is slandered as a misogynist for his faithfulness to speak by the Holy Spirit to the differences between male sanctification and female sanctification.

That’s today though. Wasn’t everyone lovey-dovey when he spoke such words then?

Not at all. Consider first the sufferings the apostle bore as he earnestly contended for the faith:

Are they servants of Christ?–I speak as if insane–I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? – 2 Corinthians 11:23-29

Consider second the humiliating scorn and ridicule the apostle battled within the church which led to the need to ever make such a list. And he had to battle this from jail.

Brothers, they told Paul to stop. Then they screamed at him to stop. Then they did their dead level best to silence him. Meanwhile the clean machine “super-apostles” sneered at him and tried to dismiss him:

For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible.” – 2 Corinthians 10:10

The authority of his office as apostle was essential to Paul’s work. The apostle often states his office first off in his greeting:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
To the saints who are at Ephesus and who are faithful in Christ Jesus:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
– Ephesians 1:1-2

And within the letters he brings up his office as needed to underscore his authority and not be disregarded.

Today, can we believe that there are no occasions where elders will need to invoke their authority as elders, which they received by the laying on of hands?

What about when they must exercise the power of the keys, handing the unrepentant one over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme, like with Hymenaeus and Alexander? What gives them the right to bar a fellow believer from fellowship?

What about when they teach or warn of danger, but another in the flock contradicts, like Diotrephes with John the Elder?

There are blessed times and places in our lives where there is sweet harmony and submission to God’s order and there is no need to call attention to one’s office, like Paul with the Philippians, with whom he never once even mentions his apostleship. Thank God for these times of refreshing in our families and churches.

But it is not for nothing that God draws a distinction between the responsibilities of shepherd and sheep, between the responsibilities of parents and children. What father hasn’t had a time where he had to sit his son down and say, “Son, I know that you don’t agree with this decision, but the Lord has placed me in authority over you as your father, and I must make decisions that are best for you”?

That father is invoking the authority of his office. We’re kidding ourselves to think that the office of elder is a mere optional decoration, the authority of which will never be necessary.

3. Summary

Brothers, rule by elders is not the precept of man. Jesus has not stopped being the Good Shepherd of His people, and His people have not outgrown their need to be protected and instructed, to be rebuked and exhorted, to be taught publicly and from house to house by shepherds, faithful shepherds of the flock whom the Lord raises up and who lay down their lives for the sheep — faithful overseers who take care of the church of God, the pillar and support of the truth.

Rule by elders is not itself the gospel. It is God’s design for the safety and protection of the sheep as they are taught the gospel–as they are led on in obedience week by week and year by year, being fed the milk and meat of God’s Word. Surely I am not contending for something complicated, foreign, or strange when I contend that the protection and guidance of the flock is integral to the successful spreading of the gospel, am I? Surely chafing at the idea of the flock needing shepherds is like chafing at the idea of sons needing fathers. Both are by God’s design. Both are necessary — and good!

So, who needs elders? By the authority of the Word of God, I answer: The church of Jesus Christ does.

4. Objections

I will now answer some objections.

Objection 1: Rule by elders is one option among many

Answer: At its base, rule by elders simply means that the sheep need shepherds. There can be variations in how the shepherds are chosen (e.g. by appointment or by congregational vote), how they relate to elders in other churches (as peers, through a hierarchy, or not at all), and how many rule a local congregation (a single elder or a plurality of elders). We should look to Scripture for wisdom and instruction on these issues as well. But surely such issues are of lesser importance than the base issue: that for preaching and teaching, for disciplining those who sin, for protecting a flock from the wolves, the Scriptures teach that there must be shepherds for the sheep.

To put it another way, there is a big difference between arguing about characteristics of a good parent and arguing whether a child needs parents at all. Surely no one would seriously suggest sending the sheep out without a shepherd, would they? That would be either naive or wicked.

Objection 2: There are bad shepherds

Not all shepherds do their job. Some are hirelings who see the wolf coming and flee, because they do not care about the sheep. Others weigh them down with heavy burdens and will not lift a finger to help with them. What good are such shepherds? How can we contend for the necessity of shepherds when there are examples like this?

Answer: Not all fathers do their job either. Some refuse to give their children discipline, others refuse to give their children tenderness.

But surely the answer is not to do away with fathers and shepherds, but to train and to develop and to have and to be good fathers, good shepherds.

Objection 3: We’ll suffer

Answer: In America if we expose wolves and false teachers and use the power of the keys, and if we hold fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, we will face outrage from those who do not recognize the authority of elders to do just this and who will say we are arrogant and abusive. Others will call us a cult and a false religion for obeying the Scriptures in this. It will be dirty, messy, and bloody, like the Apostle Paul was.

But what did we expect? Our Savior promised us suffering, the Scriptures promise us suffering, the examples of men of faith through the ages is that of suffering for a better country. This life is not our reward. Let us not shrink back then, but rather count the cost and count it joy to serve our King and the flock of God in this way, that soon we will be part of the great cloud of witnesses, having persevered by faith.

Objection 4: The sheep will suffer

This objection carries weight. If we love the sheep, how could we possibly lead them in a path that in some areas of the world practically guarantees suffering? Screaming, groaning suffering that tears apart families and churches, that takes covenant children out of the hands of their parents and plants them among those who hate God?

Answer:
Let’s spend a little more time on this one, starting by reminding ourselves of some things that we already know.

4.4.1. Reminders

Let us be reminded…

It’s not our way, but God’s

It’s the way of faith

This life is but a breath

Suffering is but for a moment

Our Lord promises eternal rewards for the one who walks by faith

Those who suffered and died for the faith are often an encouragement to others for centuries

Turning souls from the way of faith is not kind

The Psalms come violently, explosively alive to us, the comfort of the fellowship of believers is never so dear to us, the things of earth never so dim to us, heaven never so near to us, we never hang with such desperate abandon to God’s promises, as when we are suffering persecution

We should not seek persecution, but like the apostles, elders and believers in the early church and like the great cloud of witnesses that has gone before, we should receive it as those who look for another country

4.4.2. Persecution intensifies the need

If anything, persecution intensifies the need for shepherds:

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation…For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? … Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. – 1 Peter 4:12-13,17; 5:1-4

And the context of the great hall of faith in Hebrews 11 is the necessity of perseverance in suffering:

But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one. Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised. – Hebrews 10:32-36

O let us not shrink back to destruction!

4.4.3. Faith, wisdom, and elders

But may we take no precautions or measures to minimize the flock’s exposure to persecution? This is not what I am contending for. When Paul was returning to Jerusalem, for instance, the elders offered a plan to reassure the Jews (Acts 21:20-24), which Paul accepted. This accomodation did not represent a lack of faith or a shrinking back, but was an example of acting in wisdom.

In such situations, faith and wisdom are needed. I am not here attempting to list specifics for each situation. I am simply insisting from Scripture that the office of elder remains essential for the safety and the building up of the household of God, and that under no circumstances may we safely abandon it.

5. Application

We’re not obeying the teaching of Scripture very well, especially in the context of missions. We live as if elders are optional, as if sheep may or may not need a shepherd.

I’m not here claiming that God has never worked in spite of men’s disobedience.

There were kings of Judah who did right in the eyes of the Lord, though they did not completely obey. And God blessed them for whatever faith they had.

But surely we would not jump from the fact that God blesses imperfect obedience and obedience mixed with disobedience to make the argument that obedience mixed with disobedience is what we should strive for, would we? Or that in such and such a case, obedience mixed with disobedience is the best plan? God forbid that we would exhibit such arrogance against the knowledge and goodness of our Lord as to turn from His ways as second best.

Neither am I claiming that by obedience to God’s commands to and regarding shepherds, we will earn our way to heaven, or that if we obey in this one area, everything will be perfect in the church. Certainly not. Our every deed is stained by sin and our strength is weak. We are saved by grace alone, through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, glory to His Name!

Yet having been taken from death to life, having received the adoption as sons, our desire is to do the deeds of our Father. It is not all the same to us whether we obey or disobey.

Particularly regarding the Great Commission, how can we make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything He commanded us, while we ourselves refuse to obey such clear teaching of Scripture? How will we avoid making hypocrites of them? Dare we test our Lord?

Paul told the Ephesian elders,

“Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.” – Acts 20:26-27

But will we shrink back from declaring the whole counsel of God?

God’s ways are good and right. He faithfully provides shepherds for His church, and He faithfully provides for His shepherds too. We need not fear. There is great reward. We have this promise:

Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life. – Mark 10:29-30

For God’s glory, for the honor of His name, and for the love and protection of His sheep, then, we must not despise the office of elder. O brothers, may the Lord grant us courage and faith!

6. Benediction

And for him who steps into the office of overseer by the laying on of hands, may this act of obedience mark the start of a lifetime of obedience. May he indeed, in the words of our Lord and Savior, “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you”. And may he bear much fruit, and ever boast only in the Lord; and may his wife be a fruitful vine, and his children olive shoots around his table, arrows that contend with their enemies in the gate; may he never be forsaken, nor his children begging bread; and though they put him to death, and though he be hated by all because of His name, yet may not a hair of his head perish; and let him faithfully proclaim Christ, that there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved; and may many see and fear, and trust in the LORD, to the glory of God the Father.

Amen

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