What are elders? Every communion service you see some of them solemnly sitting up front and quietly serving communion. You are asked occasionally in the bulletin to pray for them in their monthly meeting. What is it that they actually do? Peter is himself an elder, and he gives us a brief glimpse at what they are and what they are to be doing.
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
5 Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
The first line of verse two presents the job description of an elder: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.
The rest of the sentence is admonition about the spirit in which to carry out the work. Let’s review them quickly. First, do the work not begrudgingly but cheerfully. We can appreciate this admonition. We all know how dreadful it is to be served by someone who clearly does not enjoy what he is doing. We certainly don’t want that from our elders. Second, don’t take on the work with an eye for self-gain, but with an eagerness for the good you will do for others and for God’s kingdom. Third, don’t get puffed up over your status, but be examples, as Jesus was, of humble and sacrificial service. Good instruction: be cheerful, zealous, and humble.
Let’s get back to that job description: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.
“Shepherd the flock of God.” Elders are shepherds, and their flocks are the people of their clan or tribe or nation, or, as in the New Testament, their church. Their origin is easy to surmise. An elder literally is a person of older years. Who more naturally heads up a family or clan, that then makes up tribes and nations, than the older men? The earliest references to elders is in Genesis 50. After Jacob dies, Joseph takes his body into Canaan. He is accompanied by his brothers and the elders of Egypt and of Israel household. It is Exodus that they come to prominence. Moses comes before the elders of Israel to announce God’s deliverance. He goes before Pharaoh with the elders, and he leads the people alongside the elders. They are the representatives of the people…sort of.
I say “sort of,” because, although they do represent their people as heads of their people, they have the greater duty to act as God’s representatives. Numbers 11:16ff presents their commissioning: “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. 17And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone.’”
Do you know their first action as ordained elders? They prophesied. They acted as spokesmen for God. They did not speak to God on behalf of their people; they spoke to their people on behalf of God. They became his representatives. They became the judges, the interpreters of God’s law. They saw that his law was carried out so that justice was enacted and that the poor were provided for. They were to keep religion pure. They were to be like shepherds, taking care of God’s flock, just as Peter instructs the elders of the church.
The flock is God’s flock. Whether it be the nation of Israel under the Old Covenant or whether it be the Church under the New Covenant, the flock belongs to God, and the elders serve as his shepherds under his authority. That is what ordination is all about. We might recognize men as having the gifts to be elders, but it is the ordination by God that makes them his elders. When we elders lay hands on men whom the church recognizes as having the gifts of elders, we are re-enacting the ceremony that took place in Numbers 11, trusting that the Spirit rests upon them.
Let’s get back to what elders, as shepherds of God’s flock do. To help us with this, we will use The Book of Church Order of our denomination to inform us. This job description is taken from chapter 8.
The first duties mentioned can be categorized as oversight. That’s what Peter had said in verse 2. We are told:
It belongs to those in the office of elder, both severally and jointly, to watch diligently over the flock committed to his charge, that no corruption of doctrine or of morals enter therein. They must exercise government and discipline, and take oversight not only of the spiritual interests of the particular church, but also the Church generally when called thereunto.
What is it that the elders watching out for as overseers? “That no corruption of doctrine or of morals enter therein.” In his last meeting with the elders of the Ephesus church, Paul gave this charge to them:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20:28-30).
The wolves that church shepherds must guard against are the persons who would lead their people astray in doctrine and in morals. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.” Christ sends his Holy Spirit to draw our hearts repeatedly back to him. Elders cannot take the place of the Spirit; nevertheless, they are charged to do all that is in their power to protect their flock from false teaching and corrupting forces. They are listening to me now, and if I speak what is false, they have to correct me; and if I keep on speaking what is false, they will have to keep me out of the pulpit! You might smile at this, but Paul did say, “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things.” It happens.
In overseeing the church, the elders “exercise government and discipline.” Even in the church at Jerusalem, where the apostles were based, elders exercised these duties. Acts 15 records a council meeting made up of apostles and elders who decided together whether Paul was giving appropriate teaching and what would be required of Gentiles coming into the church.
So, the elders watch over the flock, protecting their people from false teaching and practices that could lead them away from the fold of God, or even worse, corrupt the whole flock. But they are more than Overseers looking out over the flock. They are Shepherds in the midst of their sheep providing care for them.
Ezekiel 34 provides most extensive treatment of duties of Shepherd-Elders in the context of condemning what they do not do. Consider from the criticisms singled out for the pastoral care expected:
Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.
God speaks of himself as shepherd:
15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak,
Shepherds should feed their flock
- strengthen the weak
- heal the sick
- bind up the wounds of the injured
- bring back those who have strayed
- rule over flock with tenderness and kindness
Our Book of Church Order goes on to say: “They should visit the people at their homes, especially the sick. They should instruct the ignorant, comfort the mourner, nourish and guard the children of the Church… They should pray with and for the people, being careful and diligent in seeking the fruit of the preached Word among the flock.”
Elders are to visit in the homes and hospitals…
They instruct the ignorant…
They comfort the mourner…
They nourish and guard the children of the Church…
They pray with and for the people…
Lead by Example
Elders are also called to “set the pace” for living as disciples. Our BOCO says, “They should set a worthy example to the flock entrusted to their care by their zeal to evangelize the unconverted and make disciples. All those duties which private Christians are bound to discharge by the law of love are especially incumbent upon them by divine vocation, and are to be discharged as official duties.”
They are to share their Shepherd’s heart (Christ) for the lost, especially the lost of their church… The lamb that has strayed…
They cannot shirk their duty to be role models…
1. To elders
Take heed to your calling, especially those of you not serving on the Session…
2. To the congregation
Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
Humility is the key. It is lack of humility that causes trouble.
We don’t like what the elders say. We know better…
Close with a request:
Pray for your elders. Our frailties and our failures weigh heavily upon us…
“The Guardian” list…
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you (Hebrews 13:17).
Our strength and comfort and even our joy – we also have a Shepherd…
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By D. Marion Clark. ©2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org