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The Responsibility of Elders (1)

N Mellish, Stoke on Trent

On my travels in many parts of the world it has become evident to me that some men who take the role of elders in God's assembly seem to fail in the responsibility with which the Lord has entrusted them. It is in the role of care for the saints that some do not seem to rise to the desire of the Lord regarding the ministry they have received from Him.

Built into the creation was the thought of government (Col 1.16; Gen 1.26). During this church age the Lord has left the responsibility of government in the hands of the elders, for the Lord is deeply concerned with the church, and desires to see the preservation of that which is precious to Him. In this we see that elders have a great responsibility as they shepherd the sheep of the flock. It is no surprise then that the qualities that must mark an elder are seen to be so high in the passages that bring them before us.

In the four major passages that deal with elders, all state that an elder must be able to teach the Word of God in order to guide the saints through the various trials and privileges they have for God. It is incumbent upon an elder to know the Word and teach it, as this is what will preserve the saints in their testimony.

One of the dangers that will face believers is seen in Acts 20.28-30 where, in Paul's address to the Ephesian elders, he states that "grievous wolves [will] enter in among you, not sparing the flock", and the elders are bidden to watch. The saints must be preserved from those who have but a carnal interest in the work of God and seek to promote themselves, and "to draw away disciples after them".

In 1 Timothy 3, the prime thought is that of "the house of God, which is the church of the living God" (v.15). The assembly is for divine pleasure and to maintain divine authority. It is the elders' responsibility to see that the saints move with care in such a holy place.

When we turn to Titus it is evident that the thoughts of the apostle focus on the character of life that must mark a believer who is in fellowship, as ch.1 reveals. The elders must be able by "sound doctrine…to convince the gainsayers" (v.9).

The book of Peter also has a word for elders as they are set forth as shepherds of the flock in ch.5. In this epistle the saints were passing through suffering and the only thing that would preserve them when all seemed against them was to be cast upon the Word of God that provides an answer to the sufferings that we are called to endure. Hence the words of Peter to the elders: "Feed the flock of God which is among you" (v.2).

With such responsibilities in mind, we can see why the elders must bear the character that is set forth in the Word of God as they move among the saints. In 1 Timothy 3.1-7 details are written so that there can be no man standing before the believers who is unworthy of the ministry God has given to them. These are not qualifications but rather qualities, things that should be seen in every Christian but must be seen in elders. In them we see:

1. The exercise of heart (1 Tim 3.1)

There must be an internal desire to shepherd the flock. This exercise is not for any fleshy reason, but is that which is instilled by the Holy Ghost as Acts 20.28 declares: "the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God". In this we see that elders are not appointed by vote - there is no such thing as human appointment; we do not have the Urim and Thumim today to guide us. Nor are elders co-opted by their fathers! This is not a business that can be passed on by lineage. Nor do elders select who is to be associated with them, and friends do not set them forth. They are not self-appointed. This is the work of the Holy Spirit alone. Perhaps many of the sad features that are seen today are because the Word of God is ignored when it comes to who will care for the saints!

We see the problems that arise with self-made men in Abimelech (Judg 9.1-57) and the destruction it caused, even to his family. Those whom the family appointed, as Samuel desired to do with his sons, was the initial theme of God's authority being set aside by the nation. Is not Saul an example to us of those who are appointed by men, who will always look on the outward appearance and know not the heart? It is far better to leave this issue with God to set in place those who are made elders by the Holy Spirit.

2. The excellence of the task (1 Tim 3.1)

An elder is said to desire a good work. The thought behind the word "good" carries the idea of that which is beautiful. Can there be anything more beautiful than to be called by the Holy Spirit to watch over that which is for God. It is seen as a "work", and this word carries the thought of the energy and labour that is needed for this ministry. This is not merely sitting in a room to discuss that which may be brought up at a so-called elders meeting, and no further exercise is used such as visitation, instruction in the Word of God, and seeking to preserve the Lord's things in the Lord's way.

3. Expectations in character (1 Tim 3.2a)

Here we see the private life of the elder. He is set forth as a bishop, which would indicate the ministry in which he is engaged. The word shows that he must look over the work of God and inspect at all times to see all is moving for the Lord. He is also to be the husband of one wife and this has caused considerable controversy among writers and speakers alike. It is obvious that the normal path of a man is to have a wife and as one brother put this, he must be a "one woman man", who is not always seeking to divide his affections. We see the problem this caused in 1 Samuel 1 with Elkanah and his wives. Please note that it does not state that the elder is the husband of "a" wife, as if this is vital to a brother being an elder. Many good men have proved themselves worthy of this calling even though they have not married.

The other expectations in character manifest the features that will mark any Christian who has divine interests at heart. They are the things that new birth, and the transformation that takes place in the life at conversion make evident that salvation is a reality.

4. Expounding the word (1 Tim 3.2ff)

There are features that go together, that is "given to hospitality, apt to teach". It is a very sad thing when hospitality is not practised by those in responsibility, and yet how many neglect this injunction. I was in one assembly where I did not know where the elders lived let alone be given hospitality by them. Hospitality is enjoined upon all believers as Romans 12.13 makes clear. With an elder this is essential for it is followed by being "apt to teach". What better place to seek to help a saint than after a meal and showing kindness, then to bring to their attention something that needs to be set in order in the life. A brother once told me that if they were invited to one of the elder's homes, they knew that something needed to be adjusted, but he always did it over a meal. This was greatly appreciated.

To be continued.


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