[Just a quick note as we begin, the terms "elder," "overseer," and "pastor" are basically interchangeable. For the sake of this post, I'm just going to use the word "elder." Also, my intent is not to look at qualifications; see I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 for those.]
I have left this post for last in this "Church Reform" series for one reason: many folks (including some elders) would place this post first because they view elders in too important of a light, almost like priests. For that reason, I decided to place it last - just to keep elders from getting too lofty of a view of themselves.
However, I will say that much good reform in the church occurs when elders push for it. For this reason, they are very important in either change occurring or not occurring.
There are three key passages (you may think of others) that come to mind when discussing the biblical role of the elder. These are Acts 20:28-30, Ephesians 4:11-13, and I Peter 5:1-3.
Acts 20:28-30 says, "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."
Ephesians 4:11-13 reads, "And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ."
I Peter 5:1-3 says, "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: 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; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock."
When we look at these passages, several things stand out. You may see things differently than I do, so if you disagree please let me know. In the Acts passage, we are reminded that the church belongs to God, which He bought with His blood. By implication, elders have no ownership over the church. Paul tells the elders that they need to watch out for false teachers. These teachers will come from both inside and outside the church. One of the duties, then, of the elders is to protect the church (including themselves) against false teachers.
When we look to Ephesians 4, we see that some men are gifted in different ways. For our purposes, it is clear that some are gifted to be "pastors and teachers." It is important to recognize that these two words go together here. All pastors are teachers. Why are they gifted this way? The purpose of the elders is to equip the body of believers so that they can do ministry. The goal of this ministry is that the church will all grow to become more like its head, Jesus Christ. Elders, then, have the awesome responsibility of assisting the flock to grow in Christlikeness.
Finally, in I Peter 5, Peter directly exhorts elders. Peter tells them to take care of and look after the church. They are to do this willingly. They are to perform their duties eagerly, and not in a dominating, controlling manner. In all things, the elders are to be an example to the church.
So what picture do we get of a biblical elder? He recognizes that the church belongs to God. Therefore, he shows no ownership over it. The elder is to watch over the flock and defend it against false teachers. He is to recognize that he is gifted for a purpose - to equip the saints to minister to the entire body, with the goal being spiritual maturity in Jesus Christ. The elder must shepherd the flock of Christ. He is to do this graciously and according to the will of God. As an example to the entire church, the elder is to not be controlling over those he serves.
Elders will also be wise to look to Christ for an example for living amongst the flock. Jesus was the ultimate servant-leader. In Mark 10:42-45, Jesus said, "You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Jesus was a servant; He did not look out for His own gain even though He certainly deserved it. Philippians 2:5-11 clearly states this.
Jesus was also the Good Shepherd. In John 10:11-15, Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep."
Since elders are to shepherd the flock, and Jesus was the best shepherd, elders would do well to follow the example set by Christ.
Is this what we see in our churches? In some cases the answer is "Yes," but in others it is "No." So how can reform occur in those places where the elders are not following the model set forth by Christ?
Since elders are members of the body and not the head, they are accountable to the body itself. It is the responsibility of the body to exhort the elders to shepherd the flock as Christ would have. Elders must care for the church according to scriptural standards. It is up to the body to make sure this happens.
Of course, what I am suggesting can be done well or incompetently. This is the case when any confrontation takes place. Members of the body must lovingly confront any elder who is performing his functions in a manner that is outside biblical guidelines. This should be done with the goal being a transformation in the way the elder shepherds.
All elders have a model to follow: Jesus Christ, the servant-leader and Good Shepherd.
Regardless of whether or not we are elders personally, we should also follow the model set forth by Christ.