Posted by: Andrew Webb | December 11, 2007

What Makes a Good Elder

If you aren’t familiar with John Piper, you really should be. Piper is a Baptist Pastor, and Reformed, and he has written some amazingly insightful books. He has quite an ability to draw out and write on the experiential or heart issues of the Christian faith. Normally he writes for Christian laypeople, but in 2002 he brought out a book intended specifically for Pastors that caused quite a stir, frankly I wish it had caused more of a stir than it did, it was entitled – Brothers, We are Not Professionals.

The reason why it caused such a stir was that Piper was going directly against the dominant model for pastors and for churches; the business model. In the business model, the church is just another business peddling products and services, and the pastor as a professional, a manager and salesman in that organization.

Now the business model that makes the pastor into a professional is seen as successful because it supposedly “gets results,” but Piper pointed out in his work that the results it gets are not biblical. What are the marks of success in the business world? Well you grow in size and you produce a nice profit. Walmart or McDonalds for instance are modern examples of business success stories. So when you apply the business model to the church, you measure their success by nickels and noses. How big you are and how much capital you have. But Piper pointed out that the objectives of a ministry are not the same as those of the business world, and that because we have adopted them, we are actually killing the Church, and replacing it with a baptized version of the world:

He wrote: “The aims of our ministry are eternal and spiritual. They are not shared by any of the professions. It is precisely by the failure to see this that we are dying.”

He came to the conclusion therefore that: “The more professional we long to be, the more spiritual death we will leave in our wake”

John Piper is by no means the first person to recognize the profound impact the shepherds or leaders of God’s people could have on the church or how the wrong shepherds, following the wrong model instead of leading people to eternal life, could cause their spiritual death.

Throughout the Old Testament, we see the positive impact that good shepherds like David had on God’s people, and the baneful influence that bad shepherds like Ahab had. Paul and Peter in the New Testament era certainly recognized the profound importance of having faithful elders and consequently in his first epistle to the churches in the dispersion, Peter doesn’t just address the people of those congregations, he addresses their elders as well. He writes:

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 Peter 5:1-4)

Now when he uses the term “elders” or presbuteros in the Greek he doesn’t mean the older people in the church, he means the office of elder or presbyter – that is incidentally were we get the term “Presbyterian” from. But while He is addressing the elders in the congregations of the dispersion, PLEASE do not for a moment think that this is just relevant to ruling and teaching elders and those considering pursuing the office of elder. Every Christian needs to understand what God’s word is saying here, because it is desperately important that the members of the church understand what makes a good elder. They need to know before it ever comes time to vote in a congregational meeting what elders are supposed to be doing, and what they are not supposed to be doing.

It is interesting to note that Peter does not call himself an Apostle, or Lord it over the men he is addressing, which if he really was the first Pope as the Roman Catholic Church claims, we would expect. It is not “I Peter, First Pontiff and Vicar of Christ on Earth do declare Ex Cathedra, etc.” instead he stresses his fellowship and essential equality with the men he is talking to; he is a fellow elder. And he goes on to further establish his fellowship with them, he calls himself a “witness of the sufferings of Christ” now there he doesn’t mean, “I saw Christ as He was being crucified” he means he is a witness in the sense of one who witnesses or proclaims the truth of the gospel to others. He uses witness in the sense in which these elders who were proclaiming the gospel of Christ crucified could participate. He then goes on to remind them that because of his and their union with Christ, he and they were already partakers of the glory that would be revealed when Jesus returns.

He then exhorts those Elders to three critical activities that all good elders should emulate:

1) Shepherd Christ’s Flock

2) Lead them by your Example

3) Look forward to your Final Reward in Heaven

1) Shepherd Christ’s flock

a) First He reminds them whose Flock it is: Elders need to be reminded that this is not their congregation, that these are not their Lambs, they are Christ’s. Jesus is the Great Shepherd, the Chief Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, the elders are but undershepherds. This is the flock of God, and we have no proprietary rights, we serve at his pleasure. Remembering this simple but vital fact would eliminate at least 50% of the bad and pragmatic decisions elders make.

b) Then he calls them Christ’s overseers: the word there is Episkopoi, they are Christ’s stewards that keep an eye on our Lord’s property, the people he purchased with his own blood.

Acts 20:28 “Therefore 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.”

An elders calling is to “oversee” not to “overlook” – Jesus said in John 10:27 “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” the undershepherds must follow that example, they must KNOW the Sheep. Admittedly, that will be tough, because a lot of sheep do not want their shepherd to know what they are doing. Those of you with children will be familiar with that experience. One of my children was up to no good a little while ago, so after I had called out and chastened them, they immediately tried to move behind the building where I wouldn’t see. Members of the church do that kind of thing all the time.

c) He tells them what should be their reason for shepherding Christ’s flock: It shouldn’t be a drudge, they are not to be timeservers, putting in their 40 hours and then escaping. Rather they should do it willingly, they should desire to have their lives poured out on the congregation as an act of service to Christ. Professionalism, is actually one of the ways that Pastors avoid this as well as the difficult duty of oversight. Elders can use programs, time regimentation, and countless other devices to keep the flock at arms length. As thy do this they become professionals and timeservers. Ministry becomes one shortcut and professional gimmick after another. Paying for canned sermons becomes a real possibility.

Also no elder should ever be serving for dishonest gain. There should be a world of difference between the Minister who serves for the good of the flock and the TBN minister who serves for financial gain. The sheep and even those outside should be able to spot the difference as well.

2) Lead them by your Example

The Good Elder is not to Lord it over the people, but to lead them by example. There must be humility in the elders – elders are not just schoolmasters teaching something they know perfectly, the flock must see that they also sit underneath the authority of Christ, that they too are learning at His feet and following Him and if they say to them come on, hurry up, they have to see that they are beckoning them from the front not pushing them from behind. They must not drive them to do the things they will not do themselves. Every member of the church should be able to see that their elders are men who have listened to Christ’s admonition “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” (Luke 9:23) It should be possible for every elder to say what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11:1 with a straight face: “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.”

But by contrast with the Professional large business model, how in that case do you lead by example? Let us say you are the Pastor of a 5,000 member church and one family has a child that is born gravely ill, how on earth would you even know that child, much less that they were gravely ill, and you certainly wouldn’t say leave an event to fly home to personally tend to the needs of that family. “Be imitators of me”, doesn’t mean speak well, have great hair, a nice wardrobe, be charismatic – it means that people see Christ in the things you do.

So for a good elder, the people shouldn’t say “there’s something in him that reminds me of Zig Ziglar”, but “there’s something here that reminds me of Jesus.” One other thing about that that is also very “unprofessional” our devotion worthy of emulation is not seen in how we spend our time with those who have it “all together” but how we spend ourselves on those who do not – Jesus specifically went to the misfits, the wounded, the sick and not the well, the good elder will do likewise.

3) Look forward to your Final Reward in Heaven

What is the Reward that the faithful Shepherd can expect to receive? Well certainly it cannot be financial renumeration that we work for. Our pay in a very real sense merely enables us to do our job.

1 Tim. 5:17-18 “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer is worthy of his wages.’”

In fact one should never pursue the office of elder in expectation of any kind of this worldly reward. This is vitally important, because too many men enter the ministry expecting some sort of reward here on earth. If not money, then respect, success, acclaim, something temporal, here and now.

For those of you who might be contemplating becoming an elder for that reason I would say think again. This is not a calling for the lazy, the unfeeling, for the thin-skinned. It is not for those who want a lot of leisure time, or the ability to spend much time with their family, for the kind of person who wants job completion or the ability to leave their work at the office (it is always with you). It is not a calling for those who seek worldly fame or riches. It is a calling also in which you can expect to suffer in proportion to the faithfulness with which you perform your duties and that sometimes at the hands of ones own flock. Both John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards fulfilled their callings with extraordinary faithfulness and never sought to please men, and both were rejected by their congregations and kicked out of their churches, precisely because they were so zealous for their king and for the spiritual good of their people.

I say that because the general level of holiness and spirituality amongst Christian men in our age has fallen to such low levels that any man who shows an interest in theology and the bible is generally immediately encouraged to either become a minister or an elder whether or not he genuinely has been called by God to that office and consequently gifted for it. We have a recruitment crisis, and it is causing us to make decisions that are hurting the flock, and hurting the men who seek the office without being qualified for it and who are therefore setting themselves up not only for failure but exposing themselves to a stricter judgment

James 3:1 “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.”

The reward the elder should be seeking is not here but hereafter, a reward given by his king Jesus in heaven, the reward of hearing: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.”

Athletes competed for crowns of leaves that perished, kings received crowns that likewise pass away. The pastor however, receives a reward that is unfading, imperishable. They may be despised on earth, but they will be honored in heaven!

Jesus told us Peter in Matt. 16:18-19 “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

As Pastor Derek Thomas once put it: “Our lives as Pastors should be a series of footnotes on Matthew 16”

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Responses

  1. My Dear Brother in Christ,

    I certainly appreciated your insights. Recently, I completed a paper on the subject of shepherding aspects of the pastoral ministry. I arrived at many of the same conclusions as you and Rev. Piper.

    However, I noticed at the same time that one particular problem has been overlooked, or unintentionally ignored. Yes, it is true, we are cautioned, “we are not professionals.” But themetaphor is being mixed: on the one hand, the comments are addressed primarily to pastors, but try to make the same applications to working, professional ruling elders. The problem with this direct application, without the proper distinctions, is that the applicatory waters quickly become quite muddy.
    In practice, and in my experience, there are some distinctions to be made. So, if we are going to talk about pastors, then talk about pastors. If we are talking about “another office” then lets identify that specific person in his calling and work. If the office and calling are ambiguous, or the lines blurred, we lose the strength of the application and we lose the ability to define the challenges and syndrom we have so diligently tried to define in order to correct.
    Case in point: The typical situation in the church – even a Reformed church with a decent ecclesiology – is that the pastor is the “professional” even while avoiding the professional pitfalls mentioned in the articles both you and Piper wrote. He is seen, or perceived, that way by the congregation. He sees himself and his elders’ callings as a little different, both in terms of being equipped and in terms of how the congregation sees their function and ability. They are not as accessible, they are not called upon as a pastor, they do not have the academic credential which has defined the pastor, nor the “head office,” as it were. It may be beside the point to blame this on the view of office, but it would be futile to deny the reality and perception created by it.
    The members of the congregation have a number of reasons that they do not normally seek out the elder. You are aware of what these can be in a typical church. You are aware of the false (and legitimate) perceptions that cause the idea of the undershepherds to be differently formulated in the minds of the flock. We certainly acknowledge the working/career identity that defines the ruling elder, and the degree to which that contributes to his perception (and as compared to the pastor, that “other” overseer) by the flock. So we have created a “professional” view of the office of pastor over against the “elder” and the two are not seen as overseers with the same incumbent admonitions commensurate with the office (you who presume to be teachers, etc).

    The R.E. will work 40-60 hours per week. He is not able to be among the flock much. He has many, many obligations to fulfill. More often that not has not the training or skill set to perform the work of the overseer in the shepherding capacity, as compared to the pastor; and this is easily discernable by the flock. He is neither as accessible, nor as perceptibly capable. He is seen as a second string person, similar to the 6th man on a college basketball team.
    In a real world, we in the pastorate also have different expectations of these overseers. Often, the “job description” if written by us, would be substantially different in the qualifications for appointment and the duties and obligations consistent therewith. This is evident in our forms of government and in our interpretation of relevant Scripture. It is also acknowledge defacto by our training and our method of electing and ordaining.
    I am not decrying three office, and I am not advocating two office. That would be missing the point. Rather, I am simply making the point that should be most obvious: the amazingly challenging hurdle that we have erected in our own ecclesiological practice and application of the office of “overseer” while we use the exact language – interchangeable terms, requirements, obligations, identity, without acknowledging the inherent differences, whether created by our own obstacles or by the nature of the office as per our interpretation of Scripture.
    One has to question whether the discussion as put together in your article or Rev. Piper’s, to which you refer, is beneficial. Again, I believe that we must make our definitions very distinct and be careful how we make application as we formulate critique and consider recommendations for addressing the problem of “professionalization” of the “overseers” in the church. To lump together the overseers as one office on one function and make sweeping application is unproductive and confusing. We must first acknowledge differences in the office, in the problems and their sources, and in the different solutions that are available to each office.
    In sum, I believe that we must move a long distance toward correcting our ruling elder -overseer function, together with its perception on the part of the R.E. and on the part of the flock, as well as on the part of the pastor. Each have their own peculiar challenges and solutions to those problems.
    In the end, we all want to see overseers care for the flock, and for the flock to see them fully as shepherds of the flock – but not as shepherds and shepherd-boys, or “temps.” And, we want a correct view of the shepherd obligation on the part of the R.E.

    Joe

  2. Hi Joe,

    Thanks for your thoughts. While I acknowledge that REs will have at least two additional hurdles they have to clear in the exercise of their office – i.e. most do not have the standard three year Master of Divinity Degree, and most will have their own vocation to attend to in addition to pastoring, I don’t believe the problems need be viewed as insurmountable or so great that the offices need to be viewed as entirely distinct.

    One of the things I would like to see occur within the greater revival of “Old School Presbyterianism” is a renewed desire to return the office of RE to the estate it once had when men like Miller was writing “The Ruling Elder” and Dickson was writing “The Elder.” At that time a high level of competence and ongoing study was expected and the officers were far more active in shepherding the flock than they are today. One of the reasons we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of Assistant Pastor, Youth Pastor, Counselor, etc. staff positions in churches is that REs are no longer expected or called upon to fulfill these functions (they are after all, not professionals and therefore supposedly not qualified!) as they once were.

    I don’t believe that has to be the case, but it requires a willingness on the part of the TE and when possible mature and gifted REs to train and the younger REs to study to show themselves approved.

    In our church, for instance, the REs teach the Sunday Schools (adult and children), lead and pray in worship and do brief expositions of the Scripture, and go on all visitations in addition to their other session duties. They are also given reading to do as part of continuing training, and all of them show an interest to keep up with current theological discussions, apologetics, etc. One of our REs is licensed, and after his exam several TEs in our presbytery commented that it was one of the best exams they’d seen and that he knew his stuff better than many of the TE candidates. I can honestly say that they are at least as well trained and knowledgeable as many of the pastors in our particular city (many of whom have at most a few years of bible college and sometimes no formal doctrinal education.) As a result many of our visitors assume they are associate pastors. All of these men work hard in other jobs, and one of them is in the army. None of them are supermen, they just share the same commitment to a philosophy that sees RE as a vocation, and one that requires that a man be a good shepherd and “apt to teach” and not simply administrate. There really is very little I do that our elders could not do in a pinch and I’m very glad of that.

    I really do believe that what we need is a recovery of thinking about the office of RE that requires that a man be gifted, pious, doctrinally informed, scripturally sound, and willing to work hard to shepherd the sheep. If we could find and ordain those kinds of men to the office of RE then the perception of the congregation would change in short order.

    It would mean that we pass over some of the administrators, heads of “important” families, and popularity contest winners, but then again the church needs more of that kind of RE like it needs two broken legs and a lift pass.

    Your Servant in Christ,

    Andy

  3. [...] You can read Webb’s synopis in its entirety here. [...]


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