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.
The above words, spoken by the Apostle Paul to the elders of the Ephesian congregation, demonstrate the awesome gravity of the elders’ work and responsibility in the church. When a man becomes an elder, the Holy Spirit makes him an overseer or shepherd in the congregation wherein he is ordained. With this role comes a great, divine expectation and responsibility to which the elder is exhorted to always “take heed’ – that is to give earnest and unfailing attention.
What is this lofty work that God has charged to elders?
In a previous post, we examined the various terms and titles used to describe and elder – to define what an elder is, officially. Each of those terms and titles also sheds tremendous light on the work of elders within a congregation (In the next post we shall consider what exactly a congregation is, according to the Bible, and how the congregation must regard the elder in order for God’s plan for organization to function).
One of the most important titles for elders in the New Testament is pastor, or shepherd. Only once is this word used as a noun in reference to Elders (Ephesians 4.11), most of the time it is a verb – that is an action word describing the work of an elder (Acts 20.28; 1 Peter 5.2). The analogy of shepherd and sheep to describe God’s ideal relationship between His people and those He appoints as leaders is very common in scripture. Reading some of the passages, we get a powerful and vivid picture of the elders' work (See Psalm 23; Ezekiel 34.1-23; John 10.11-14).
Below we shall examine the implied and expressed work of elders, as seen in the various titles used for them in the Scripture.
Elders - Rule
In our last article, we observed that the term elder was first used to describe the men Moses chose to help him govern the affairs of Israel. Later, the word described those also called “rulers” in the synagogue. That the same kind of role is intended for elders in the church is evident from the following scriptures:
“Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13.17).
“Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine” (1 Timothy 5.17).
All of these scriptures imply some appointed authority. All authority is in and from Jesus, thus whatever authority elders have they have from Jesus and not from themselves. However, the scripture legislates the manner in which the elders are to exercise their authority – “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” (1 Peter 5.2-3).
In the previous post, we noted how this word, usually translated overseer or bishop in the New Testament, was used in other ancient Greek writings to describe provincial governors, choir conductors, and construction foremen. Thus, the work of the elder includes managerial and supervisorial duties.
For this reason, Paul gives as a qualification, that the elder be “one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?)” (1 Timothy 3.4-5).
“The word overseer indicated to both Jew and Greek, that the persons so styled were appointed to superintend the affairs of the church to direct the activities of the members, to see that everything was done that should be done, and that it was done by the right person in the right time and in the right way.” – J. W. McGarvey
Shepherds – Protect and Feed
If you read suggested scriptures concerning the relationship between shepherds and sheep and how that relationship mirrors what God expects of the spiritual leaders of His people, you saw that the work of shepherds can be summarized in two words: protect and feed.
The shepherds of Palestine spent the whole year with the flock – leading it to the places where it could be nourished in safety – and most importantly protecting it: against the attacks of wild beasts from without and disciplining unruly rams within. The shepherd was even equipped with a rod – sometimes to serve as a weapon, sometimes to serve as a disciplinary tool.
To the Ephesian elders, Paul explains why constant, careful attention to their work was so vital: “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20.29-30).
To guard against dangers from without and within, the elder must master his rod of defense and discipline – the Bible. Thus, to Titus, Paul says that the elder must be a man, “holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict” (Titus 1.9).
For the elder, the Word is not only a rod, it is also a staff – to lead and guide the flock into the green pastures of truth where they can be nourished and strengthened – thereby growing in their love and loyalty to God. The elder must be, “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3.2). Teaching, of course, comes in many forms. It may be done publically or privately – but the elder must be equipped with the Bible knowledge and the mental and physical acumen to guide others to the truth.
These are the works of an elder, and whomever the congregation may select for this service, they must be men who are both able and willing to “take heed” – to give earnest and unfailing attention – to these tasks.
Certainly, we can see the need for elders and the dreadful instability that comes with their absence! Jesus said that sheep without a shepherd are bound to scatter (Matthew 9.36). No matter how hard a congregation may work and labor to grow, the growth will always falter, the work will always suffer from anemia if not absolute impotence, if there is no God appointed rule, management, protection, and nourishment. God help all his congregations to ordain elders according to His will! - CED