The Church: An Organic Picture of Its Life

by Robert Brow

Brow Publications, 1996

Chapter 11

Elders and Pastors

Government by elders is the oldest institution known to man. It has been basic to tribal organization in all ages and it is still found in all continents of the world. It is democracy at its best, since elders are from the people, accepted by the people, to govern for the people. It functions ideally when the group to be governed is small enough for everybody to know one another and when government is by word of mouth rather than by paper work. Once a nation or a city-state emerges, other forms of government, such as monarchy, oligarchy, republicanism, or a dictatorship take its place. According to the Bible the Jews had elders as a slave people in Egypt; their Palestinian towns were governed by elders; and eldership was a natural form of government for the synagogues that sprang up during the exile. Nationally the tribal eldership gave way to a senate or Sanhedrin during the Exodus. Except for a period of confusion when judges or chieftains were required, and another period when kings ruled, the Sanhedrin functioned continuously until the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.[30]

In the transition from synagogues to Christian churches, which we noted in Chapter 11, government by-eiders continued unchanged until the great persecutions forced the emergence of the bishop or chieftain system to give stronger leadership. As the church grew into a great national organization the emergence of a senate or Sanhedrin almost came to fruition at Nicea and the other church councils. In fact with the popes the church became organized as a monarchy, except that its priest-kings, being celibate, did not continue from father to son. Since the Reformation, the Sanhedrin, in the form of a general assembly, reappeared among the Presbyterian churches.

In this chapter we are not concerned with eldership at the general assembly level, or even in presbyteries. We must concentrate on the elder as he functions to govern a local church congregation. There is no need for us to quibble about names, since a parish council, a session, a Baptist board of deacons, or a committee of management by any other name are all of the same species. As in the tribal eldership, they are from the people, and appointed or accepted by the people to govern for the people. The parish priest of the Middle Ages who ruled his parish without elders was the by-product of the feudal system. This may survive in feudal Spain, but in Roman Catholic countries where the winds of democracy have blown, a revival of the eldership in some form has become necessary. The only question that makes a difference at the local level is whether the priest or minister is the esse of the local church and it is he who brings the local eldership into being, or whether a local church can constitute itself with its own elders and then call one or more ministers for specialized functions. As we saw in Chapter II, a Jewish synagogue governed by elders may or may not decide to call a theologically trained rabbi for teaching functions. This question may continue to divide the so-called Catholic traditions from the Protestant, though in fact many Protestant ministers also function on the assumption that they are the esse that calls the parish council or session into being.

Having cleared the ground, we can now look more exactly at the elder as he is defined for us in the New Testament. He is a man who has the spiritual gift of government, which is listed with other gifts of the Spirit in both Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12.[31] When the apostles felt the time had come for the Jerusalem Church to have its own elders, they said, "Pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty.[32] Before returning home after their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas appointed ciders in the churches that had grown up through their preaching (Acts 14:23; cf. I Thess. 4:12). When the Ephesian elders gathered at Miletus, Paul reminded them of their office. "Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians [episkopous, 'overseers, superintendents'] to feed [poimainein, 'shepherd, tend, lead'] the church of God" (Acts 20:28). Paul also outlined for both Timothy and Titus the type of man that is required. The main qualifications are dignity, uprightness, and respect in the community, and evidence of ability to manage his own household and children (I Tim, 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). There is also a doctrinal qualification that requires a knowledge of the faith and the ability to correct those in error.

Evidently the qualities required in a Christian elder are very similar to those required in a typical tribal elder. It is not a question of being an old greybeard, but rather of having the respect of the community. Just as a tribal elder may be illiterate but aware of the traditions of the tribe and able to recognize corruptions that may be introduced, so knowledge of Christian doctrine is required in the elders of a church. In pioneer missionary situations there is no reason whatever to require elaborate educational qualifications. If illiterate tribal elders can remember vast amounts of tribal lore, Christian elders can equally well learn the New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus, the Acts of the Apostles, and basic Christian theology and ethics.

Some of the elders may also have other gifts of the Spirit. Stephen and Philip from the Jerusalem Church both engaged in preaching. Paul recommends that elders who preach and teach, in addition to acting as members of the church board, should be counted worthy of double honor. In the same passage he indicates that if an elder labors full time in a preaching ministry he should be supported (I Tim. 5:17, 18). In a village or tribal situation this might involve help in harvesting his crops, or giving grain and fruit to his family when he is on a preaching tour. This again is no different from what is done in an African or Asian community when a local man is sent on a mission to a government center or to another tribe.

Just as in the gift of teaching, there are many levels at which the gift of administration may be exercised. Basically there is a capacity for spiritual discernment and decision making. An elder should be able to recognize the gifts of others, encourage them to use them in the church, and to maintain the unity of the Spirit between the different gifts. Like James, the presiding elder of the Jerusalem Church, he should be able to bring a committee to a spiritual decision acceptable to all. At other levels the gift of administration is needed in many functions of the worldwide missionary enterprise. As with the other gifts, it needs to be developed, used, and sharpened to be an effective instrument in the life of the church. It does not depend on academic qualifications, or appointment from above, but on the freely given respect of those whom it serves.

If this is the function of local church eldership, it is evident that in the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Anglican churches much confusion has been caused by the misuse of words. On the one hand the Greek word episkopos, which refers to an overseer, superintendent, foreman, supervisor, has been tied to the Bishop, the episcopate in the ecclesiastical sense. As Bishop J. B. Lightfoot has pointed out in his article on the Christian ministry, all elders were originally episkopous or bishops.[33] When, however, men came to positions of vast authority as the Bishop, and these became part of a hierarchy down from the pope through archbishops, bishops, and priests, then the function of local church elders was completely obscured. The low church Anglicans objected to the term priest in a sacrificial sacerdotal sense, and insisted that it was connected with the word presbuteros, or elder. This may be true, but it still does not help us to recover the true function of government by a local board of elders. Presbyterians do have elders in the New Testament sense, but the category of minister is retained as an automatic presiding elder, and communion services are not normally held without a properly ordained minister as opposed to a less properly ordained elder. Baptists have elders in the true sense, who can perform all that is needed for a local church without the need of an imported minister, but strangely they usually call their elders "deacons." It would simplify matters considerably if all Christians agreed that the group of persons who govern a local church should be called elders. When these elders call in a minister, pastor, teacher, or preacher to work in their community, he could be named according to the main work which he is expected to do. When representatives from a group Of churches meet together for a conference, the one presiding could then be called bishop, chairman, president, superintendent, or moderator as interchangeable terms. How he was appointed and the tenure of his office, whether for one year, two years, or for life would still vary in different traditions. At least at the local level, which is where the vast majority of Christians need to function, the importance of local eldership could be understood and recovered.

What then of pastors? We are not thinking of the Pastor in the Baptist or Pentecostal sense, which is equivalent to the Minister among Presbyterians, and the Parish Priest among the higher churches.. We are considering a function in the body of Christ, a gift of the Spirit. It is the gift of those men and women who have a shepherd heart. They know how to weep with those that weep, and are truly happy with those that rejoice. They have a gift of sympathy, of paraklesis or coming alongside to encourage, to comfort, if necessary to correct. if we go to a Bible teacher to learn our theology and answer theological questions, we go to a man with a shepherd heart when we need pastoral help.

Unfortunately we have given the impression that the Minister, or the Pastor, or the Priest, is the only man suited for this. Some of them are, but others may be more suited to preaching or theological debate, and the sheep stubbornly refuse to open their hearts to them. Even if the Minister has a shepherd heart, and men and women come to him with their deep heart needs, the situation immediately gets out of hand because he is too busy. If people know he is available he will soon be swamped with counseling and then has no time for the healthy, since he is crushed with the problems of the spiritually sick. Every church needs several men and women who are pastors in this sense, and there is no reason why a big congregation should not have many. Some of the elders may also have pastoral gifts, but not necessarily so, and there will be others who can shepherd but cannot cope with committees. The fact is that hundreds and thousands of men and women in our churches have the pastoral gift, but they are never encouraged to exercise it. Too often they are told that they should either go to seminary and obtain a B.D. or they should sit quietly in their pews and listen.

How will these pastors be trained? As with the other gifts, all Christians will on occasion be called on to listen, to comfort, to feed the newborn lambs with milk. Some will find particular delight in this, and they will find their help is appreciated. "To him that hath shall be given." Having begun they do more: experienced pastors can teach them to listen better, to choose the right Scriptures to read by a bedside, to pray with understanding, 'to discern the heart troubles that need psychiatric or specialist care, to avoid the approach that is patronizing or causes unnecessary dependence instead of self-development. The pastor is essentially a local man. He or she knows the sheep by name and is available at short notice. If he is sent away for long periods of training or is continually absent for committee work or too busy preparing Sunday School lessons, the sheep will avoid bothering him and they will suffer and die alone.

When a church has those with an incipient gift of shepherding, the elders should recognize them. They can be encouraged to care for a special group of members, or to go out and look for the lost. If a minister is swamped with his own calls, he can delegate instead of trying to carry the burden alone. Those who are busy with individuals should not be pressed to teach in classes, sit on committees, or organize activities of various kinds. They should be freed to be the friends and shepherds that the community so desperately needs. At least they can listen, hear the heartbeat of the lost, and often even this will be appreciated. If they can bring a sheep back into the fold and feed a lamb until it can feed itself, they will share in the joys of heaven. Even if a church lacks great preachers, it can transform a community just by pastoral visits and shepherd care.

"And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some Pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ" (Eph. 4:11f.).

Chapter 12...