by Mike Shannon
There is an incident in the book of Acts that gives us insight into the role of elder as it was understood by the New Testament church. It is recounted in chapter 20, verses 13-38. Paul is on his way to Jerusalem. He did not know precisely what would happen to him there, but he suspected it would be difficult and perhaps even cost him his life. Paul took time from his journey to Jerusalem to say his farewells to the elders of the church in Ephesus, a church that meant a lot to him. This meeting ended in many tears as Paul said they would never seem him again. In verse 17, Paul summoned the “elders,” which is probably the most common term for the office, even in our own time. In verse 28, he called them “overseers,” and admonished them to shepherd (pastor) the flock, which is the church. This is a passage that gives strong evidence that all three terms were applied to the same “office.” Let’s look at these three words as a guide to critical elements in our understanding of the work of an elder.
First, consider the word “elder.” It means just what is sounds like it means. It is an older or mature man. The Bible never prescribes exactly how old an elder should be, but we can still draw some conclusions about what is behind this designation. A leader in the church should be mature, at least emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. These qualities would most often be found in people who were also chronologically mature.
Secondly, consider the word “overseer.” The English word is actually a quite accurate translation. We instinctively know what it means. The elders provide general oversight over the life, doctrine, and health of a church. Although it doesn’t sound like it, the English word “bishop” is derived from this Greek word.
Finally, the last word is “pastor.” That word is used widely in our world today, but it is actually used rarely in the New Testament, at least when referring to an office. It is the word “shepherd,” and in this passage it is the verb form that is used. While the term “pastor” is often used for the minister or preacher of a church, it seems that this term originally applied to elders, and some elders were, no doubt, teaching pastors.
My purpose is not to make a case for proper titles. There is a place for such discussions, but my purpose is to consider that these three words describe essentials components of a church elder’s work.
He should be mature. Almost nothing is more destructive in a church than an immature leader. Childish behavior will disrupt meetings and the overall building of a Christian community.
He should be sure to take care of the overall health of the church. While good elders delegate to deacons and other church workers, there is nothing outside of their concern. For instance, good elders will take the time to study and understand biblical theology so they can guard the spiritual health of the community.
He should have a shepherd’s heart. It is not just about meetings and policies, however important they may be. Elder boards should consider how they can care for the flock: visiting the bereaved, visiting the sick, consoling the broken hearted, etc.
I could say it like this: elders, be mature, be aware, and be compassionate. In doing so, you will lead like Jesus – our good shepherd.