I should be able to address this topic, for I have served as an elder for three congregations in three states. However, as with most things concerning this service, I approach it with feelings of inadequacy. My confidence in what the Bible teaches remains strong; therefore the reader can expect the following to have a heavy dose of Bible, with a little dose of me. I will examine the role of expediency for an elder, a shepherd, and an overseer. First, however, I think it expedient to clarify the concept of expediency.
Imagine a circle. All within the circle is authorized, approved, and acceptable to God; all outside the circle is without authority, without approval, and is unacceptable. Everything expedient is already inside the circle. Expediency does not authorize. Rather, it expedites that which is authorized. Every elder should know the difference in authority and expediency, and every elder should consider diligently how Bible authority is established. I have become weary of elderships re-studying themselves into error. The use of instrumental music is not an expedient way to improve the ambience of worship, because that use of an instrument is not authorized. Having women lead men in worship is not an expedient way to demonstrate that we value women, because that role is immodest for women. If a thing is not authorized, it cannot be expedient.
Paul wrote, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient” (1 Cor. 10:23). Paul’s succinct style lent itself to elliptical statements; that is, for force and brevity Paul often implied more than he wrote. Paul was not saying that the law allowed him to do anything he wanted to do. To write in the implied ideas, Paul said, “All things (that are lawful for others to do) are lawful for me (also), but all things (that are expedient for others to do) are not expedient (for me also).” In Paul’s example, it was lawful for all to eat meat sold in the shambles. Yet if the meat had been offered to idols, and if eating that meat could cause a brother to stumble, then it was not expedient for him to eat it. For a thing to be an expedient is must first be lawful and then be wise.
The Work of Elders as Elders
Elders have authority in matters of expediency. It is appropriate to call these men elders (or presbyters) because they are recognized and respected as men with spiritual maturity (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 20:17; 21:18; 1 Tim. 4:14; 5:17, 19; Tit. 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1). It is appropriate to call these men overseers (or bishops), because they are to be on watch and to look after the church (Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1,2; Tit. 1:7; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:2). It is appropriate to call these men shepherds (or pastors), because they are to tend to the church as shepherds would tend to their master’s flock (Acts 20:28; Eph. 4:11; 1 Pet. 5:2-4). The words used to describe these men describe their work. Some question the idea that elders have authority, but it is a foolish question. Everyone always has the authority to do what God wants them to do. With the assignment goes the authority. If elders did not have authority, they could not “rule well” (1 Tim. 5:17). When the elders in Jerusalem said, “Do therefore this that we say to thee” (Acts 21:23), even Paul submitted to them in this local matter of expediency (Acts 21:18-26).
As elders, respected men of spiritual maturity teach and admonish the church, and live as examples. Elders are to be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2). The elders ordained in every church from Lystra to Antioch were to continue the work of confirming the souls of the disciples and of exhorting them to continue in the faith (Acts 14:22-23). The elders Paul left in Thessalonica were to “admonish” the church (1 Thess. 5:12). Both Paul (Acts 20:28) and Peter (1 Pet. 5:2) admonished the elders to provide spiritual nourishment to those entrusted to their care. Paul spoke of the elders as those who “labor in word and doctrine” (1 Tim. 5:17). Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus about their “pastor-teachers” (Eph. 4:11). Paul wanted the elders on the isle of Crete to hold fast the faithful word so that they could exhort and convince through sound doctrine (Tit. 1:9). Elders are to speak the word of God, and live so that we can follow their faith (Heb. 13:7). Peter reminded the elders that they were to be examples (1 Pet. 5:3). The better a church is taught, the easier it is for the elders to lead, and the easier it is for the members to follow.
The importance of elders being men of influence is seen in Acts 15. Here the elders came together with the apostles to consider and clarify the Lord’s teaching concerning circumcision. With the teaching clarified, the elders thought it expedient to join with the apostles in sending letters to the churches to document this clarification. The respect the Christians in these distant churches had for the elders in Jerusalem would make it easier for them to receive this teaching from the apostles. Elders have the responsibility, and therefore the authority, to see to it that the church is taught. What to teach, when to teach, who should teach, and how to teach are matters of expediency.
The Work of Overseers as Overseers
As overseers, these men have the authority to manage congregational affairs. It has been said that elders are to concern themselves with spiritual matters and not with material things like heating and air conditioning or paving the parking lot. Those who say such things have not considered how seemingly mundane things can have spiritual implications. It is true that overseers can delegate responsibility for such task, but they can only do so if there are others willing and capable of carrying out those tasks. It may be lawful to delegate, but it may not always be expedient.
The authority of overseers includes the authority to manage the money that come to the church. When the disciples in Antioch sent relief to the brethren in Judea, they sent it to the elders (Acts 11:27-30). When Paul brought the funds entrusted to him to Jerusalem, he brought those funds to the elders (Acts 21:18). Being stewards of these material funds, they are being stewards of God (Tit. 1:7). How to account for these funds, and how to effectively distribute them for their lawful purpose, are matters of judgment and expediency.
It is important for bishops to be “not self-willed” (Tit. 1:7). The church is not a cult; elders are to use their authority with restraint, lest they become “lords over God’s heritage” (1 Pet. 5:3). Often the best that elders can do is to provide guidance and advice. The easiest way to lead people is to lead them where they want to go. Through diligence, patience, and gentleness elders can often teach people where they ought to go. It may be that elders will have to exert their authority to make an unpopular decision, but when this is done it may a sign of a failure of their leadership. The better the church follows the overseers, the less the overseers will have to direct the church. In managing the affairs of a congregation there are many decisions to make. Most often these decisions, the timing of these decisions and the implementation of these decisions are matters of expediency.
The Work of Shepherds as Shepherds
As shepherds, these men are to labor among God’s flock and keep it safe, comforted, and fed. Shepherds “take care of the church of God” (1 Tim. 3:5). That is why elders visit the sick, pray for them, and attend to their physical comforts (James 5:14-15). The presbyters were acting as shepherds when they laid their hands on Timothy to give him the gift of their approval and encouragement as he went out from them to go work with Paul (1 Tim. 4:14).
One of the more difficult shepherding responsibilities of elders has to do with problems concerning marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Such problems often have repercussions for the whole church. The teachings of Christ on this are clear (Matthew 19:9), but effectively implementing these teachings is often difficult. It seems that there are always extenuating circumstances. Elders are to watch for the spiritual well-being of all involved, and often those most involved are already spiritually weak. Sinners must repent, and those who repent will need diligent, sympathetic, tender, and loving care. These problems are further compounded when children are involved. The spiritual welfare of every child must also be a priority. Often there are no easy solutions, but some solutions are better than others. By listening and by suggesting and supporting the better and more expedient solutions, elders can help.
Sometimes elders have to act on confidential information, and therefore sometimes they have to make difficult and controversial decisions that they cannot fully explain. Elders need to earn the trust of the church, and the church must trust their elders. Having served as an elder, I know from experience that it is often easy to know what is right, but it is often difficult to determine what is expedient. This is one reason I thank God that there are a plurality of elders (Prov. 11:14). Pray for your elders, love and esteem them for their works sake, and honor them in matters of expediency.