Jul 7, 2005

What Is the Church and Why Should I Care? - Part 3

III. The Church Is Overseen by Elders Appointed by the Holy Spirit

The church, as we have seen, is not just an informal meeting. Nor is it disorganized and haphazard in the way it conducts its work. The Lord has established a way for the church to be organized and properly managed. This God-given organization is outlined in the Book of Acts at the end of Paul’s First Missionary Journey.

They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God," they said. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. (Acts 14:21-23)

Notice that before the apostles left these churches in God’s hands, they appointed elders in each church. We learn more about biblical elders from Paul’s farewell speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. In verse 28, Paul says to them, "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood." There are several things we learn about elders from this text and the earlier one in Acts 14. First of all, each church had a plurality of elders. That is, there was more than one elder appointed in each church.

Second, we have a job description of the elders. The elders are said to be both overseers and shepherds. An overseer is a leader, a supervisor. A shepherd is one who cares for the flock, feeding them, comforting them, and guiding them. As shepherd of God’s flock, a pastor is one who teaches, warns, corrects, and encourages the members of the church. The elders/pastors, then, are the spiritual leaders of the local church. It is their responsibility to provide direction to the ministry of the church, and to guide the spiritual growth of each church member.

Third, notice that Paul says that it is the Holy Spirit who put the elders in their leadership positions. Though the church is involved in appointing elders, ultimately it is the Holy Spirit who puts them in office. And this means that the elders are ultimately responsible to God, not the church. It also means that church members have solemn duties to their pastors. Paul outlines some of these duties in his first letter to the Thessalonians:

Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. (1 Thes. 5:12-13a)

There are two duties required of Christians in this text:
(1) Christians are to acknowledge their pastors' right to lead. The NIV translates the Greek as "respect." Other translations say "appreciate" or "know" your pastors. But, the Greek carries more the idea of "acknowledge" or "recognize." The idea here is that church members are to acknowledge that their pastors are indeed their pastors! They are to consciously submit to the elders’ leadership.

(2) Christians are to esteem their pastors. The NIV says it well when it tells Christians to hold their pastors in "the highest regard." Pastors deserve to be respected, not so much because they are anything special in themselves, but because of the noble work they have been called to do. The author of Hebrews echoes Paul’s instructions, writing,

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb. 13:17)

This verse commands Christians to obey their pastors. Why? Because the pastors have the difficult task of watching out for the souls of God’s flock, and Christians are called to make their job joyful and not burdensome. This requires obedience on the part of the congregation.


Zane said...

Steve, wonder why the principle of multiple elders has never really caught on, at least in practice? I'm referring to true eldership parity which is seldom practiced though frequently given lip service to.

Btw, I have been working with house churches and encourage eldership rather than "just gimme Jesus." Jesus, the Great Shepherd, is the one who appoints the under-shepherds. Surely, there is no contradiction. Godspeed!

House Church Network

Dr. Steve Cowan said...

Zane said,
Steve, wonder why the principle of multiple elders has never really caught on, at least in practice? I'm referring to true eldership parity which is seldom practiced though frequently given lip service to.

Plural eldership has fallen on hard times in the last couple of centuries, to be sure. But, it is making a comeback, even in my own Southern Baptist Convention. The church of which I am a member practices plural eldership, and the parity of that eldership. The church I pastored in Arkansas for 8 years also practices plural eldership. For what it's worth, the recent book that I edited, Who Runs the Church? 4 Views on Church Government, contains a strong defense by Sam Waldron of Plural eldership.