In the Old Testament, God used the terms prophet, priest, elder, judge, and father somewhat interchangeably. While God was Israel’s Chief Shepherd, he consistently provided sinful and redeemed under-shepherds to lead, protect, correct, and nourish his people.
In the New Testament, God used different labels: elder, pastor, shepherd, teacher, priest, presbyter, and bishop were all used interchangeably. Again, there was no doubt that Jesus was the savior, lord, prophet, priest, king, and pastor of his church. He was the head. He was her groom and esteemed elder. However, under his leadership and through his Spirit, Christ called men, gifted them, presented them as gifts to his church, instructed fellow-elders to approve and set apart such men, and commanded the church to choose and honor those they called to be Christ’s under-shepherds for their improvement. Oh, none of these men were worthy of such an office and duty. All of Christ’s ministers were totally depraved sinners who consistently saw themselves as humbled and broken in the dust. Like Paul, they who were most wise considered themselves to be the chiefest of sinners. Yet, Christ demanded that all these unworthy elders men were to be shown honor and respect (double-honor was to be shown to some) while they sought to walk honorably before the Chief Shepherd whom they represented.
And how were those elders to busy themselves? What were they to do?
And how are your modern-day elders to busy themselves? What are they to do?
And how are we – those called and ordained to the office of elder – to busy ourselves? What are we to do?
John Calvin summarizes the job description of the elder, whether ruling or teaching, whether part-time or full-time. Listen to his emphasis on ministering by means of the Word:
Here, then, is the sovereign power with which the pastors of the church, by whatever name they be called, ought to be endowed. That is that they may dare boldly to do all things by God’s Word; may compel all worldly power, glory, wisdom, and exaltation to yield to and obey his majesty; supported by his poet, may command all from the highest even to the last; may guid up Christ’s household and cast down Satan’s; may feed the sheep and drive away the wolves; may instruct and exhort the teachable; may accuse, rebuke, ad subdue the rebellious and stubborn; may bind and loose; finally, if need be, may launch thunderbolts and lightnings; but do all things in God’s Word. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2:1156-57)
Fellow preacher, let us be reminded of our primary duty. Sure, there are times when we must put on the hats of therapist, C.E.O., C.F.O., secretary, deacon, custodian, revivalist, missionary, historian, cultural commentator, civic activist, worship leader, and party planner. However, let those be hats that we put on and then take off — quickly. Our primary calling is to be men of the Word. There is our duty. There is our reason for existence. There is the place where God will most likely show forth his power and allow us to bear much fruit.
Fellow elder, though you have not necessarily the seminary degree of your brother, and though you have not the same amount of time to focus on the local church, and though your source of income flows not from the generous offerings of God’s people, you too have been called to be pastors and shepherds. You are not men’s ministry leaders. You are not a board of directors. You are not a staff of consultants. You are not deacons. No, you are elders, and God has made you “apt to teach.” So do so! Once again, because you are most often the most involved, as a leader you too will have to wear many hats. However, put them on and then take them off — quickly, and do not neglect your primary calling to shepherd and water Christ’s people with his inspired Word.
Finally, fellow churchmen, encourage all your elders to “eld” you well. Be attentive in the election of those men to whom you will entrust your spiritual care. Be faithful at the stated worship services, Bible studies, and small groups led by your elders. Do not merely be hearers of the Word spoken by your ministers; put it into practice. Submit to their spiritual admonition and rebuke; do not sit in their pews and dismiss their counsel, and especially do not do so if you have entered into an ecclesiastical relationship were vows were made. Spend time with your elders; ask them questions; allow them insight into how to apply the Word to your daily walk. In addition, actively use your own gifts in your church, for this frees your elders from having to wear so many hats. With glee, appreciate, support, respect, and expect the many hours spent by some men in their study. Be not bitter that some receive money to devote themselves to books, the Book, and the proper application of God’s truth to your life. And by all means, pray for your elders daily. They too are struggling hard with sin. They too are addicted idol makers. Their families are not immune from Satan’s plot. Like you, your elders have innumerable theological questions they cannot answer. They struggle with their emotions. Their mouths run wild at time. And if you talked with them in a moment of introspective transparency, they would tell you that they too want to church-shop or trade churches; a fresh beginning would be nice for those men as well.
Church of Jesus Christ, your King knows what is best for you. While there is the universal church, he has also ordained that there be local assemblies who gather together under sinful elders. Let us be submissive to the Chief Shepherd. Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together. Let us honor and obey those whom He and we have called to serve and lead us. And let us pray that Christ’s elders would shepherd well the flock entrusted to their care. Friends, we can make too much of elders. Let us never confuse them with the Chief Elder who holds us in his hand. However, we can make too little of elders as well.