Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Work and Qualifications of Elders

We have seen that two very important foundational elements of the church are the headship of Christ and the unity of the body. These two principles impact everything that the church does. It should especially have an impact on our relationships with one another. We have already discussed how it should impact our fellowship with one another, and we have also touched on a part of the authority structure that God has given for us in the provision of elders in the church. Let us now look a little more closely at the role and qualifications of these elders/overseers. First it might be instructive to look at the names that the Bible uses to describe them. The term elder means just that, an older person. Sometimes it is used in reference to the forefathers of Israel. The use of this word implies that these individuals have experience and wisdom. The word translated, overseer, is actually rather versatile. The root meaning seems to involve the idea of looking into, or inspecting. Sometimes it is translated, visitation, in the sense of visiting a sick person to see how they are doing. Thus from these two words we might get an idea both of the qualifications, and of the activities of an elder/overseer. We should be able to expand on both of these categories, however, by looking at other Scriptures.
We will first examine the qualifications of overseers as presented in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. In this passage 16 qualifications are given. The following is an expanded translation of this passage:
“Faithful is the saying, If anyone aspires to oversight, he craves (desires) a good work. Therefore it is necessary for the overseer to be irreproachable (blameless, having nothing to warrant censure), a one woman man, sober (not under the influence of anything intoxicating), sober-minded (deliberate and careful in thinking), orderly (having a life harmoniously ordered), hospitable (a lover of strangers), able-to-teach, not given-to-wine, not an assaulter (striker), not greedy-for-dishonest-gain, but equitable (gentle, one who carefully considers a case with fairness), not-a-brawler (contentious), not a lover of money, leading (as by example) his own house well, having children in subjection with all honorableness, but if one does not know how to lead (as by example) his own house, how will he take-care (involving forethought and provision) of the assembly of God? Not a newly-planted [believer] that he might not, being puffed up, fall into the condemnation of the devil, but it is also necessary for him to have a good testimony from those who are outside that he might not fall into reproach and a snare of the devil.”
These qualifications are fairly self-explanatory, I would just like to note that they are largely outward manifestations, but indicative of inner character traits. No doubt it is important to have these outward characteristics as handles by which to judge a man’s readiness to serve as an elder, this does not mean, however, that we should not also look at the inner characteristics. For example a man may have only one wife, but if he is not being truly committed and faithful to her then surely he does not meet the qualification of “a one woman man.” Likewise there might be a man who has been saved for years, but has not gained the experience and wisdom that he ought to have.
Let us look now to the work of elders. One clue that we can pick out of the above passage is that they are to take care of the assembly of God. It is interesting to note that this same word, “Take-care” is used of the so-called good Samaritan and what he did for the wounded traveler. Note the completeness, forethought and personal sacrifice exemplified in that story. Other passages indicate the care which the elders have for the believers is more spiritual than physical. Hebrews 13:17, for example, says that they watch for our souls. Peter’s exhortation in 1 Peter 5:2 to feed the flock of God seems to be talking about spiritual feeding from the Word of God more so than physical food. We also see an example in Acts 6 that is helpful. Although neither elders nor overseers are specifically mentioned here it is clear that the apostles are in a position of leadership, and therefore the application is strong. When it is clear that something needs to be done about the provision of physical needs, the apostles are careful not to allow those things to distract from the spiritual things which they indicate are their priorities. The physical needs are certainly important as well, so they appoint others to take care of those needs. I would not take from this passage that elders should not do anything for people’s physical needs, but it does indicate that there is wisdom in letting the elders look primarily to the spiritual needs, and having others tend to the physical (I will write more about these others at a later date). One of the best insights into the work of overseers in found in Acts 20 where Paul gives some parting exhortations to the elders at Ephesus. They are exhorted to be on the lookout for false teachers (grievous wolves). He teaches them a lesson about salary (or the lack thereof) in verses 33-35. Paul also tells them to remember how he did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears for three years! (verse 31) That is quite an example of what it means to be invested in the lives of other believers. It’s a good example for all believers. Caring for the spiritual needs of the church requires commitment, foresight, and much personal sacrifice. I thank the Lord for those who are willing to take on this responsibility. It truly is a good work. We also ought to remember that it is the responsibility of all believers to care for one another and invest in one another’s lives.

1 comment: