What a Godly Church Wants Elders to Know about the Church
J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI, no question about it. As a result, almost all of his subordinates were on the lookout for ways to impress their powerful boss. A young FBI man was put in charge of the FBI’s supply department. In an effort to cut some costs and impress his boss, he reduced the size of the office memo paper. One of the new memo sheets soon ended up on Hoover’s desk. Hoover took one look at it, determined he didn’t like the size of the margins on the paper, and quickly scribbled on the memo, “Watch the borders!”
The memo was quickly passed through the office.
For the next six weeks, it was extremely difficult to enter the United States by road from either Mexico or Canada. The FBI was watching the borders. Why was the FBI watching the borders? They thought they had received a warning from their chief. But they hadn’t. They had transformed an innocuous comment into a solemn warning.
While I cannot vouch for the authenticity of that illustration, it makes the point quite well that we need to be careful how we communicate. In any organization it is imperative that people communicate.
Have you ever been having a discussion with your spouse only to realize sometime later that you two were talking about two vastly different things? Perhaps we’re a little like the lady who went to file for a divorce. She sought out an attorney and met with him one morning. “Do you have any grounds?” he inquired. “Oh, yes,” she replied, about three-quarters of an acre.” The lawyer paused for a moment, then asked, “do you have a grudge?” “No,” the woman answered quickly, “but we do have a lovely carport.” Again, the lawyer paused and then asked, “Does he beat you up?” “No, I get up before he does every morning,” the woman reported. Finally, the lawyer blurted, “Lady, why do you want to divorce your husband?” “It’s because,” she explained, “that man can’t carry on an intelligent conversation.”
In the church, we need communication to keep us healthy and working together for the cause of Christ. We find a very clear example of the power of communication in Scripture; as men were building the Tower of Babel following the Flood, the LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” (Gen 11:6). Tonight, we’re going to begin a short series intended to help our communication with one another. Tonight, we’re going to discuss what the church wishes the elders knew, next week, we’ll think about what elders wish the church knew, then about what deacons wish the church knew, and finally, what preachers wish the church knew.
So, tonight we ask the question, “What does a godly church wish elders knew about the church?”
A Godly Church Wishes Elders Would Seek the Good of the Church
Peter, an elder himself, wrote, “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Pet 5:1-4).
Let me give a caveat right here and now: I know our two elders, and I know these two men are deeply about this church and her welfare. Yes, I am preaching about the obligations of the elders tonight, but the reasoning is that we can all come to understand precisely the details God has outlined for his church. I am not preaching this sermon or any of the others to follow because I think the elders or the deacons or anyone else is not fulfilling his God-given role. I don’t want you to leave here tonight and think that: (a) I think there are problems with our two elders or (b) I have chosen this venue to deal with such issues (the biblical approach would be to meet with them privately and discuss it, not to do so in this venue).
These words are some of the most pertinent words in the entire New Testament about the role of elders, for Peter writes as a fellow elder. Paul says a lot about the role of elders under the guidance of the Spirit and those words, of course, are as much Scripture as any other words concerning the role of elders. However, Peter is writing here as an elder himself, so what he is saying here comes from both his own experiences as well as the Spirit. In other words, what Peter writes has much “moral authority.”
Notice that the apostle says that elders are not to lord it over the flock. “Lording it over the flock” means to insists on your own way, not what’s best for the church.
Have you ever known elders who functioned that way? I’m fortunate in my experience, for I cannot tink of a single instance where the elders I have known have ever said in word or deed, in regard to the church, “Here’s what I think, so here’s the way things are going to be.”
How could elders lord it over the church rather than seeking what’s best for the church? A few years ago, some of you approached the elders and said it would be better for you if we met at 7:00 on Wednesday evenings rather than at 7:30. Our elders, in their wisdom, asked several of you what would be better for you and then decided it would be best for the congregation if we started meeting at 7:00. If the elders had lorded it over the church, they would have said, “We’re meeting at 7:30, because that’s what’s best for us at our age.”
Elders might lord it over the church, rather than seeking the church’s best interests, by saying, “Here’s what we want, so here’s what we’re going to do, period.” In seeking the church’s best interests, elders are always going to ask, “What’s best for this congregation?” not “What’s best for us?”
In Ezekiel 34, the prophet spends much time rebuking the shepherds of Israel. While the context is not church elders, there is much which applies to them. Years ago, I had an elder who came into my office and spent a good time talking with me about this text and how he could be a better elders from these words. As Ezekiel begins his prophecy, God comes to him and declares: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?” (Ezek 34:2).
A Godly Church Wishes Elders Knew the Word of God
Scripture teaches that elders must be ready to teach the Word of God and defend it from attack. “Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2). “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Tit 1:9).
We are blessed here to have elders who know the Word of God, and the church the world over needs elders who know Scripture.
A Godly Church Wishes Elders Would Lead, Not Just Direct
There is a big difference between managers and leaders. A manager might tell you how to do something, when you need to be at work, what vacation days you’re going to get, and the like. A leader is going to set an example of how to do something—he’s not going to tell you how to do something, he’s going to show you how to do something; he’s not just going to tell you what time you need to be at work, but he’s going to be there when he’s supposed to be at work; he’s not just going to tell you what vacation days you get, but he’s going to make sure everyone has what vacation they want before he starts scheduling his own time.
Scripture teaches that we need leaders, not just people telling us what to do and what not to do. Notice what Jesus says, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Matt 23:2-3). Elders are not to lord it over the flock, but they are to be examples to the flock.
We never, ever need elders who say, “Do as I do, but not as I say.” We need elders who lead the congregation by their example.
A Godly Church Wants Elders to Serve as Shepherds, Not Administrators
The New Testament teaches that elders are to shepherd the church. “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” (Acts 20:28). “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve” (1 Pet 5:2).
In my experience, we have made elders more like a board of trustees than shepherds of the flock. I’ve been in elders’ meetings in various congregation where I’ve served, and we’ve talked about paving the parking lot, whether or not we need to be a new hymnal, whom we should get to mow the grass, and other such things. In those meetings, I have said, “Guys, we’ve got a couple out here about to file for divorce, we need to work with them” or “I know that so-and-so is really struggling with whether or not to remain in the church” or some other spiritual problem. I’ve had elders say, “We know, Justin, we’ll get to that stuff when we can, but we’ve got a roof leaking. We’ve got to take care of that first.” Brethren, that is wrong! Elders are shepherds of the flock, not administrators. We have borrowed the idea of elders as a board of directors from the business community, not from Scripture.
How do shepherds function? Jesus talked about the Good Shepherd in John 10:
- Elders know their sheep. The Good Shepherd “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (v 3). If a shepherd calls his own sheep by name, he has to know them. Because elders know the sheep so well, when one is missing, he knows it and goes to reclaim him: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” (Lk 15:4).
- The Good Shepherd also leads by his voice. “When [the Good Shepherd] has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice” (v 4); this seems to go back to the idea of teaching we discussed earlier.
- The Good Shepherd defends his sheep at the cost of his own life. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scattered it” (vv 11-12). This goes back to defending the sheep from error, as we’ve already mentioned.
Our elders are to function as shepherds, yet there is a Shepherd over them—Speaking to his fellow elders, Peter says, “When the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Pet 5:14).
The context of those words applies to elders and elders only. However, we know it to be the case that Jesus is bringing a crown of life for each one of us. Are you going to get that crown?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.