After Jesus told His apostles that He would build His church, He said to them, “Verily I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18). Christ commissioned the apostles and they were inspired to set in order those things to be taught and practiced by Christians. “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13). In the early church members had various abilities, some were given spiritual gifts by which to promote its growth. When the apostles had finished their work and the complete word of God had been revealed, spiritual gifts ceased (1 Cor. 13:10). Mankind now has access to God’s word which contains “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3). The inspired word converts the sinner and leads him or her in becoming a mature Christian. Every Christian is to “grow in grace and knowledge” (2 Pet. 3:18) and practice those things set in order by the apostles. The apostle Paul admonishes us to grow, “For when the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not strong meat” (Heb. 5:12). It is our responsibility to become a mature Christian so that we may save our self and bring others to Christ.
The church found in the New Testament was organized according to God’s word and this spiritual order has been sealed by the blood of Jesus Christ. Spiritual leadership as ordained by God involved the appointment of qualified men to guide the local church. The same holds true today, qualified men are appointed as elders with the responsibility to function as shepherds and overseers in leading the local congregation in the way of truth. With this in mind, let us consider some of the responsibilities of elders to the congregation and the members to the elders.
Hebrews 13: 17 describes the personal work of an elder: “for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief.” Elders, are you watching over the souls for which God holds you responsible? In order to do so, it is imperative that you personally know each member of the flock you oversee, much like a good father knows his children. An elder must have more than just a casual knowledge of the members he oversees – watching over souls is a fearful responsibility. This duty is carried out by a man who is “a lover of hospitality” (Tit. 1: 8) and possesses “a sincere love of the brethren,” an elder who “loves one another fervently with a pure heart” (1 Pet. 1:22) and places the value of a soul above all else. Joy awaits faithful elders who lead the flock to eternal bliss, while grief and sadness lie ahead when members perish by the way.
An elder must have a good knowledge of God’s word and practice it. 2 Timothy 2:15 commands all children of God to “study (be diligent) to show yourself approved unto God…” Elders are ordained by God to teach and enforce His laws without compromise. Everyone likes to be accepted, but on occasion an elder may become unpopular for taking a biblical stand for the truth. Many times an elder has lonely and soul searching issues to contend with and may be tempted to make concessions for the sake of keeping the peace. However, he must remain strong, keeping in mind that the truth of God’s word cannot be altered to satisfy man.
It is equally important that each member be a good student of the word and respect the qualifications required to be an elder. When considering someone to serve as an elder, it is important that the congregation know the individual well enough to compare his manner of life with God’s word. Men, both young and old should make it a personal goal to live according to the qualifications found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Elders must regularly compare themselves against these standards. “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith, test yourselves…” (2 Cor. 13:5). The apostle Paul warned the Ephesian elders to “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also, from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears” (Acts 20:28-31). Elders must be diligent and ever watchful for the adversary, “taking the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17) “which is able to build them up and give them an inheritance among all them which are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).
Having served as an elder, I know it is one of the most awesome responsibilities a man can have. Elder, you have been asked to be keepers of the flock and will have to give account. That’s awesome! “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away” (1 Pet. 5:1-4). The impact an elder has on the local congregation affects the lives of each member, as well as his own…with eternal consequences. Elders must serve as patterns to the church and set a good example in their service to the Lord. A common pitfall facing an elder is “sleeping on the job” by placing emphasis on material things (housekeeping) rather than the spiritual welfare of the church. It is a grave responsibility to serve as an elder, as he will give an account to God of how he discharged his duties. This fact requires an elder to get on his knees often and ask the Lord to help him.
Just as elders have divine responsibilities, the Lord has also instructed individual members in their roles and obligations to the local church. Each Christian is commanded to “obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves” (Heb. 13:17). The inspired writer wrote these words to the early church and it applies to all Christians until the end of the age. It is the duty of members to yield to the instruction and governing of faithful elders. With this in mind, let us all reflect on the following questions:
- Have I considered my duty toward the elders?
- Am I in submission to the elders and willingly do what I am called on to do?
- What is my attitude when I need to make correction in my life and the elders call on me to do so?
- What is my relationship to Christ, to His church, to the elders, to my brethren, and to the world?
The lives each of us lead will have eternal consequences. May God bless our efforts as we continue in prayer and earnestly contend for the faith.
Garland has served the Lord’s church in numerous positions, including as an elder. His son, Michael, is also an elder at the Duncan Church of Christ in Duncan, SC. Garland may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.