By Wallace Tinsley
God’s people are sheep. They always have been. They have always needed a Shepherd. From the first time Jacob voiced his recognition of this comforting truth in Genesis 48:15 to the repeated imagery in the book of Revelation, we sheep know the security of having a sovereign, heavenly Shepherd.
God’s people are sheep. Moses, a sheep-shepherd for the second third of his life and a people-shepherd for the final third, knew the burden of serving and leading God’s people. At the end of his life, he pled with the Lord to continue to lead the people through a human leader. Otherwise, he said, the congregation of the Lord would be “like sheep without a shepherd”(Numbers 27:17).
God’s people are sheep. But so is their Shepherd. In Revelation 5, John has his gaze directed to the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, but, as he turns around, he spies “a Lamb standing, as if slain.” What joy there is in knowing that our High Priest can sympathize with our weaknesses!” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus is not only the powerful, just, victorious Lion, but is also the Sheep sacrificed for sinners. Jesus is the Servant-Leader. We stand amazed.
The Amazing Provision of Elders
Amazed at the total provision for all our shepherding needs in glory, we stand equally amazed at the Lord’s provision for servant-leadership here on earth. He has directed us to have elders in every place (Titus 1:5), not just in Ephesus under Timothy and in Crete under Titus.
Elders are repeatedly called shepherds in the Bible and are held accountable as such. Remember the Lord’s charge through Ezekiel: “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves!” (Ezekiel 34:2). The Greek word for “elder” is “presbyter.” Being Presbyterian means being convinced that the biblical form of church government is that which is conducted by a group of elected elders. Human shepherds, obviously, are also sheep. They are not spotless or undefiled. Their sacrifice can purchase no one’s pardon; nevertheless, they serve by shepherding fellow sheep. As an earthly reflection of a heavenly reality, they, too, are servant-leaders.
How Can This Be?
How can this be, since we are sinful? First, the Lord makes a man into a man of God. He must “be” before he can “do.” Second, the Lord places the forgiven sinner into a functioning plurality of elders, placing the burden of servant-leadership squarely upon their collective shoulders. Third, it works beautifully because it is God’s plan; it is what the Bible tells us to do.
Who? What Must an Elder Be? The Elder’s Qualifications, Short Form
What, then, is required for a man to be qualified to serve as an elder? He must be above reproach, the husband of one wife (a one-woman man), temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine, or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, and free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity. He must not be a new convert. He must not be conceited. He must have a good reputation with those outside the church (I Timothy 3).
Wow, that’s quite a list! The requirements are inescapably difficult. There is no Form EZ. There is, however, a Short Form, a way to summarize these qualifications: this is a man who is becoming like Jesus. This is a man whose life is being conformed more and more to the image of Christ. This is simply a picture of a maturing Christian man. Now think about this question: How is this description any different from the hopes and expectations for any normal Christian man? Do we want any Christian man to be imprudent? Inhospitable? Warlike and pugnacious? Did you want your dad to be intemperate or ruled by a love of money? Did you want your dad to be conceited?
Looking back on it, do you wish your dad had let you run wild? The man qualified to be an elder is simply a normal Christian man, a maturing Kingdom disciple.
How? What Must an Elder Do? An Elder is an Elder is an Elder
Once an elder is recognized by his congregation and set apart for service, how should he expect to function as one of a group of elders or “session”? On the one hand, there are no elders who are “first among equals.” In Church history, super-elders became bishops. The super-bishop, first among his equals, was the bishop of the most powerful city. That city became Rome, so the bishop of Rome became the papa-bishop or the pope. No, we cannot allow ourselves to take that road again. Elders may have different functions, some concentrating their efforts on teaching and some on ruling, but they are all simply and equally elders, as described in the Bible.
On the other hand, there are elders. That is to say that there are elders in the Church in the Old Testament, and there are elders in the Church in the New Testament. There are elders depicted as gathered around the throne in glory, twelve representing the O.T. Church and twelve representing the N.T. Church (Revelation 4, 5, 7, 11, 14, and 19).
Why are these two factors important? It is because God has designed the shepherding of His Church in a marvelous way. Shepherding does not fall onto the shoulders of one man, as a super-elder or bishop. Nor is shepherding left to the sheep. The responsibility for human guidance of Christ’s Church is placed neither in a manmade hierarchy nor in a man-made pure democracy. Both tyranny and mob rule are biblically prevented.
The burden of church leadership falls on the shoulders of a group of godly men, forgiven sinners, living in the world but not of it. Clearly, this responsibility is too much for them, as husbanding a wife or parenting a child is clearly too much for any man. Without the work of the Holy Spirit, the job is not only overwhelming; it is impossible.
Part of the genius of shepherding by a group of elders is that it takes into account Romans 7, along with I Corinthians 3 and 6. In Romans 7, the Christian man so struggles against sin in his life that he cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” The maturing Christian man cries out in humility day by day how much he needs Jesus! On the other hand, he relies upon the truth of I Corinthians 6:19, that the Holy Spirit lives in him and that, by His power, he can flee immorality and live a godly life. More than that, the elder takes I Corinthians 3:16 seriously, believing that the Spirit indwells the Body of Christ, the Church. He believes that God’s leadership among a group of forgiven sinners is possible.
The Elder and Practical Servant-Leadership
Therefore, the elder is willing to step up to the plate. On behalf of his sheep and on behalf of his Shepherd, he is willing to stand there and take the pitches thrown at the Church by the world, the flesh, and the devil. First, he will not pass his responsibility off to a hierarchy above him, to a super-elder or bishop or CEO of the Body of Christ. He will not consider “rubber-stamping” someone else’s viewpoint. Second, he will not demur and wait for the whole congregation to get together and say what they think so that he cannot be held responsible.
Instead, recognizing his feebleness and tendency to sin and selfishness, he will share the burden of leadership with the rest of the sin-scarred set-free shepherds the Lord has raised up in their particular flock. He will be eager to speak his conscience. He will be “quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (James 1:19). He will have the Philippians 2 mind within him, copying Jesus. He will war within himself against selfishness and empty conceit. With humility of mind, he will consider the other elders as more important than himself. He will simply be living out the gospel as a maturing Christian man among maturing Christian men, dealing with a burden too heavy for them to bear, but placed upon their shoulders by their Best Friend and their Good Shepherd. It takes courage, but Jesus gives it. It destroys pride and causes humility to blossom. It is part of a long, hard, uphill race, but what joy awaits the faithful servant at the finish line!
Why? The Elder and Confidence
Proceeding in this manner, the elders and the congregation can rest assured in the Lord’s leadership of His Church. The elder can vote his conscience and rest in the confidence that the Lord is leading through this process He ordained. Voting in the minority is no more of a problem than depending upon the God-ordained process of husband-wife decision making. If, as Henry Krabbendam recommends, the wife has her full say and her husband has the final say, then the couple can rest assured that the Lord will lead their home (A Biblical Pattern of Preparation for Marriage, 2001, Ninth Edition).
Similarly, the pastor, as one of the elders, can rest assured of the Lord’s guidance. He consciously sets aside any goal of getting his own way. Having no “yes men” on his session, he seeks none. He, as one of the elders, speaks his mind and expresses his viewpoint. As an elder who specializes in the function of teaching the Bible practically, the pastor will seek out relevant Scriptures and biblical themes for the discussion. He is in a privileged position of teaching, but he does not have a bully pulpit. He sees himself as an elder among elders, a forgiven sinner among forgiven sinners. He trusts that the Spirit’s leadership is greater than his viewpoints.
What are the results? Stability. Excitement. Creativity. Vision. Planned and executed assaults on the Gates of Hell for the glory of Christ. Proclamation of the good news, near and far, to all nations. Expansion of the Kingdom into all areas of life’s endeavors. The sheep are fed. The forces of darkness feel the overwhelming, invasive, persistent power of the Light. The flock of potentially wayward sheep becomes a Kingdom army, discipled, equipped, and led to victory by their King. The servant leadership of a Presbyterian elder is priceless.