Sermons preached on the qualifications of elders often, rightly, emphasize the importance of selecting men who qualify to serve. In the Lord’s church, covetous, inhospitable, intemperate, cold, imprudent, biblically ignorant, pugnacious, and newly-converted men (among others) have been appointed to that important work who should not have been. That hurts the local church! Many times it has been said that “bad elders” are worse than “no elders.”
Harboring unfair expectations of men who would serve as elders is another hurtful trend that occasionally surfaces. A hypercritical spirit is a quality of human nature, though a quality the spiritually-minded ought to fight to personally eliminate. Let us briefly consider what God does not expect of elders.
- More Than The Qualifications Specify. Gut feelings, intuitions, and hunches might work well when hunting, fishing, or making March Madness picks, but there is no call for them in selecting men to serve as elders. God does not need our help, tacking on additional requirements for an elder than He felt the need to supply for us. Adding to the Word of God carries a stiff penalty (cf. Rev. 22:18); therefore, our scrutiny of a man’s fitness to serve needs to stop where the Bible’s does.
- Sinless Perfection. He expects maturity (1 Tim. 3:6), ability (Ti. 1:9), and stability (1 Ti. 3:4-5), but not impeccability (the Latin origin of this word means “not to sin”)! If so, no man could ever conceivably qualify to serve. Gnat-straining can keep a qualified man from serving as surely as camel-swallowing can allow an unqualified man to sit as watchman. With a 1000-tooth-comb, some would inspect the minutia of his life and his family’s. Those searching for flaws, who look hard enough, will always find things. Yet, such findings do not necessarily prove anything except his humanity and fallibility (cf. Rom. 3:10,23).
- To Neglect Their Own Families. It is unfair to expect a man, as elder, to always place the needs of the congregation over those of his own family. Too many wives and children have been deprived of husbands and fathers due to disproportionate expectations of time, resources, and attention placed upon elders by members. Elders need the full cooperation and understanding of their families, while elders are obligated by God to supply the needs of their families (cf. 1 Tim. 3:4-5,7). Elders (and their families) are entitled to vacations and nights at home together. Elders will answer for not only their service as elders (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pe. 5:4) but also their influence and leadership in the home (1 Tim. 3:4-5; 1 Co. 11:3; Eph. 6:1-4).
- To Be The “Complaint-Receiving Committee.” It is impossible but that complaints will come, but woe unto him (or her) through whom they constantly come. Murmuring and complaining got Israel into trouble (cf. 1 Co. 10:10), and members who find it impossible to speak to elders without doing such may find themselves in the same predicament. How many times has an elder heard you say something positive about another member, a successful program, or their efforts on your behalf? How many of your complaints have they fielded? Elders will answer for our souls. Let us find ways and opportunities to encourage, praise, and support them. Complain whenever you must, but compliment whenever you can.
Did you realize members have qualifications to meet with regard to the elders?
- Love and appreciate them (1 Th. 5:12-13)
- Honor them (1 Ti. 5:17)
- Do not recklessly accuse them (1 Ti. 5:19)
- Obey and submit to them (He. 13:17)
As we examine who would serve as elders, let us not forget to examine ourselves (2 Co. 13:5). How spiritually fit are we? Jesus’ words about beams and specks apply to our relationship with elders, too (cf. Mt. 7:3-5). Let us have high expectations of elders, but let us have only those expectations God has!
Elders are identified with three broad terms. As Gary Hampton has put it, those who serve congregations in this honored way should not be offended that the term most often associated with them is the one that identifies them as old. Not only are they “elders,” but they are also “shepherds” and “overseers.” “Shepherd” describes their pastoral function: caring for the spiritual and emotional needs of the flock, knowing the sheep, and building relationships with the sheep. Too often, people confuse preachers as the ones associated with this role.
They are also “overseers.” In one way, this term is almost self-defining. They are to oversee the affairs and activity in the congregation they serve. In another way, there may often be confusion about what it means to oversee.
- They should not be “over hearers.” They must be communicators and “contactors.” They cannot rely solely on hearsay and rumor. They cannot afford to be so detached from sheep life that they are uninformed. While they rely on information from preachers, deacons, and the “general membership,” that cannot be their sole means of information regarding church life.
- They should not be “over meeters.” I have heard it said that elders should visit two hours for every one hour they meet. Although that may be unscientific, is it not saying that personal contact with church members is at least twice the job that coming together and making decisions about those members is? How can anyone best decide about sheep with whom they have not spent quality time? Certainly, lengthy meetings are draining and frustrating to elders. Often, overseers are in danger of burn out from marathon sessions.
- They should not be “over workers.” God has not placed the entire workload of the church on elders’ shoulders. Almost always, men are appointed elders because they have proven themselves diligent workers in various areas of church life. Yet, as it was in Moses’ day, when elders are overloaded with the church work “alone” (Ex. 18:14) what they are doing “is not good” (Ex. 18:17), it is “too heavy” for them (Ex. 18:18), and they “are not able to do it alone” (Ex. 18:18). That means elders should not be doing deacons’ work and deacons, by definition, should.
David E. Smith, an elder with the Birdville congregation in Heltom City, Texas, said, “Let me confess up front that I’m guilty. Guilty of not letting deacons do their jobs so I’ll have more time to do mine. I think most elders fall in this category from time to time. There is an urgent need for us to change our “modus operandi”! …Sometimes I get overly involved with our deacons’ work which distracts my attention from spiritual matters. And there is never a lack of spiritual matters needing attention” (“Questions Of Eternal Consequences,” Ft. Worth Lectures 1999, pp. 267-268). With regard to church work, let overseers be delegators of work rather than devourers of it all.
- They should not be “overreactors.” Faith is vital to effective pastoring. Financial contribution is vital to church work. Disgruntled members are an unpleasant reality from time to time, and some can never be placated short of letting them always have their way. People are growing older. Most every church should be more evangelistic and all churches could be growing more. These are some of the burdens God’s shepherds must bear.
Elders no doubt regularly lose sleep and generate stress over such matters. Yet, as God makes elders overseers (Acts 20:28), He will supply their needs (Phil. 4:19). It is God’s work, and He blesses all Christians who step out in faith in service to Him. That certainly applies to the valiant work and oversight of His shepherds.
We cannot “over praise” elders. They are definitely not over-rated. They work over time. It is amazing that they are not overcome by the heavy task they execute. Let us all be reminded of what these special men known as overseers are truly called to do. It takes extraordinary men to do this heavenly task. “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb. 13:17b).
Elders are not infallible, and most of the men I’ve known who serve as elders do not think they are. On the whole, the rank and file of elders I have known are humble, selfless, sacrificial, magnanimous, and spiritual men who embrace the often difficult work of herding and leading that often strong-willed species of us known in biblical terms as “sheep.” They are so often second-guessed and may be the most commonly backbitten group of people among God’s people. I have found that there are a few—sadly too often a “vocal minority”—who, in practice, are hesitant to submit to eldership’s decisions. In my experience, here are some of the reasons why:
- They do not agree with the judgment call(s) made by the eldership
- They do not understand why the elders have decided as they have
- They feel they would or could handle a situation better than the elders did
- They feel that they would be immune from perceived pressures or weaknesses
- They see some deficiency in them
Such attitudes are very frustrating to encounter. I would go so far as say that these are bad attitudes. They reflect more on the sheep than the shepherds. Here is what they often fail to understand:
- The elders probably have privy to more information than they do
- They are likely privy to sensitive information they cannot share
- They are almost always involved in more than anyone else
- Since they will give an account to God for their work, they face the reality of making choices for which they have to answer
- They submitted to a congregational process and found qualified to lead
- We are commanded to submit to them, and that necessarily implies in matters of judgment even when we do not agree with their judgment
The vast majority of elders are sensitive to the concerns and objections they hear from the sheep. Should we not exercise an equal measure of humility, selflessness, sacrifice, magnanimity and spirituality in our words and attitudes regarding our shepherds? Remember, “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” (Heb. 13:17).