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WHAT IS AN ELDER?
Victor M. Eskew
The apostle Paul ordained elders in every church that he and Barnabas established on their first missionary journey (Acts 14:23). These were not the first churches to have elders, however. There were churches in the region of Judaea that also had elders (Acts 11:29-30). Who are these men? The answer to this question will be the focus of this article.
Let us begin by giving a simple definition of this position in the body of Christ. An elder is a Holy Spirit selected man who desires to shepherd the local flock under the oversight of the Chief Shepherd. In the remainder of this article, we will examine this definition point by point.
First, an elder is one who is Holy Spirit selected. Paul told the elders of Ephesus: “Take heed therefore to yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers…” (Acts 20:17, 28). In saying that elders are Holy Spirit selected, we do not mean that the Holy Spirit miraculously chooses those to serve in the position of elders. The Holy Spirit selects men to be elders by means of the qualifications He has revealed in I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. These two passages set forth 25 qualifications that must be met before one can serve as an elder in the church. NOTE: One must possess all of the qualifications in order to be an elder. Anyone interested in the position of an elder needs to be honest about his meeting these qualifications. He should ask himself very pointed questions before being ordained an elder. Am I really “apt to teach”? Am I really “given to hospitality”? Am I a person who is “not self-willed” and “not soon angry”? Am I a man who is “sober, just, holy, and temperate”? Similar questions need to be asked about every one of the qualifications. The Holy Spirit does not want just anyone to serve as an elder. He demands that a man meet all the qualifications He has designated.
Second, an elder must be a man. This is evident when one considers the qualifications. He is to be “the husband of one wife” (I Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6). It is sad that this point even has to be made. However, there are those within the church who do not honor God’s Word. They bow to culture and political correctness and advocate that women should be allowed to be elders. They refuse to respect God’s will in this matter. They are wrong. God has appointed men to serve in the work of elders.
Third, an elder is a man who “desires” to shepherd the local flock. “This is a faithful saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work” (I Tim. 3:1). Desire from within is different from enticement from without. Too, this desire must be for the work, not just the position. Again, the one who is thinking about being an elder needs to be honest with himself. He needs to truly evaluate “why” he wants the position of an overseer. It is because he desires the work? Or, does he have some other motive for wanting to be an elder?
Fourth, an elder is one who shepherds the flock of God. It was Paul who exhorted the Ephesian elders “to feed the church of God” (Acts 20:28). Peter gave a similar admonition to the elders in I Peter 5:1-2. “The elders which are among you I exhort…feed the flock of God which among you…” The word “feed” is from a Greek word that means “to shepherd.” The elders are the pastors of the local congregation. All the duties required of a shepherd, they are to fulfill. Leading, feeding, seeking the lost, and protecting the flock are some of their job requirements. Shepherding is not about money matters. It involves the difficult, spiritual work of watching for the souls of the members (Heb. 13:17). Shepherding cannot be accomplished behind closed doors. The shepherd is a man who is actively involved in the lives of each one of the sheep in his care.
Fifth, the elders are the shepherds of a definite group of people, the local congregation. In the New Testament, the church is presented in two ways, the universal church and the local congregation. Elders oversee the local congregation. In Acts 14:23, elders were ordained “in every church.” Each congregation had its own eldership. We read of the elders in Jerusalem (Acts 15:4), the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20:17), and the elders of the church in Philippi (Phil. 1:1). Peter admonished the elders to whom he wrote to feed the flock of God which is among you (I Pet. 5:2). Each congregation of the Lord’s church is autonomous. It is overseen by her elders only. This autonomy manifests the wisdom of God in protecting His church from error and disgression.
Sixth, the elders of the church are under the oversight of the Chief Shepherd. In John 10:11, Jesus declared: “I am the good shepherd.” Jesus is the Shepherd who is over every flock (every local congregation). Elders are “under-shepherds.” They are accountable to the Good Shepherd. Peter reveals this in his concluding words addressed to elders in I Peter 5:4. “And when the Chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.” Faithful elders will be rewarded. Unfaithful elders are also accountable to the Chief Shepherd. It is a sobering thought to think that an elder will one day stand before the Chief Shepherd and give account for his labors as a shepherd.
Many fine men have served in the position of elder within the church. They have served loyally. They have fought the wolves and the bears. They have led the flock through the valley of the shadow of death. They have fed their flocks in green pastures. They have led them beside the still waters. These men are to be honored for their work’s sake (I Tim. 5:17). It is a difficult task. It is not for the unqualified, the power hungry, the money loving, and the faint-hearted. God bless all Holy Spirit selected men who desire to shepherd the local flock under the oversight of the Chief Shepherd.