In my last post, What is an Elder Really? I discussed how the meaning of the word “elder” has changed over time to mean something which was not intended in the New Testament. I concluded with this paragraph: An elder, then, is a more mature Christian. And such a mature Christian would use their maturity to serve others, coming from a position of humility and weakness, not from any position of apparent strength, title, power or positional authority. To do otherwise would be to set aside Jesus strict instructions about how “greater” (i.e. more mature) people were to behave. In my next post I’ll talk about how such people actually behaved and the important role they play in organic church.
How New Testament elders behaved
A New Testament elder was a more mature Christian. As such, they had much to give those who were less mature. Their goal was to lead newer, less mature Christians to maturity, which, in reality, meant lead them deeper into a relationship with Jesus. In doing so, they watched over the younger Christians. This is where we get the word “overseer” episkopos, which is also translated “bishop”. Sadly, even in translating it into the word “overseer” we get the idea in English of being over someone else positionally or having power over them. That’s not the idea. They watch over new Christians the way a shepherd watches over sheep. Here’s how James put it:
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock (I Pet. 5:1-3).
A good elder led not by power, but by example. You don’t need power, position or control to lead by example. You just need to be a good example. Furthermore, elders watched over the less mature Christians like a loving shepherd watched over sheep; looking out for trouble, finding any way they could to protect them. Again, no power is needed to serve in this way. What was needed was a servant’s heart and influence. Influence needs no power. It is a gift given to those who have it, by those who are being influenced. You have influence when people give it to you. No amount of power, position or title can give you influence. These things can only give you coercive power. To use coercive power is to “lord over,” what Jesus told us never to do in Luke 22: 24-27.
One last thing should be said about this verse. Elders or overseers are to shepherd the flock. The word shepherd is the same word we also translate pastor. Here it is being used as a verb, denoting the action a good elder takes. This verse has been used to suggest that an elder, a bishop and a pastor are all the same thing. That’s not actually true. A pastor is a person with the spiritual gift of pastor, mentioned exactly once in the New Testament (Eph. 4:11-13). A person with the pastoral spiritual gift is gifted to take care of the emotional and relational needs of those in the flock. This behavior is also easily explained using the metaphor of a shepherd. Elders watch over the flock through maturity and influence; those with the pastoral spiritual gift care for the flock through the use of their spiritual gift. The word pastor is never used in the New Testament as a noun, or as a verb, to describe someone with positional power, as it is commonly used today.
How New Testament elders reproduced organically
To lead a person deeper into a relationship with Jesus, the main function of an elder, is to disciple them. This is the basic function of discipleship. But it is discipleship though life, by example, not the mere downloading of information, which has become so common today. It is better described as training. It is the way a kind, wise master carpenter would teach an apprentice. No amount of book learning will teach someone how to build a house. For that you have to handle wood, hammers, nails and saws until you are good at it.
In the same way, elders discipled less mature Christians to become closer to Jesus. They taught them the skills necessary to actually follow Jesus himself in a new covenant relationship. When they showed the deep lifestyle maturity described in I Tim 3:1-7, which is the natural outflow of being in an abiding relationship with Jesus, they were mature enough to be considered elders themselves. Note that this is measured by life skill/godly behavior, in other words, spiritual maturity. Oh, and one other thing, the ability to teach or train others to mature spiritually the same way. When elders teach immature Christians to become elders, they have reproduced themselves organically, because they have reproduced according to their own kind.
- Most of us don’t think about pastors, elders and bishops this way even though that is what is being described in the New Testament; why?
- Nowadays it is much more common to use the word “elder” as a member of a congregational churches board of directors. Can you see this described anywhere in the New Testament?
- Does it make sense to you how in organic church no titles, positions or human power is necessary?
- In the New Testament the descriptive words for Christians were an issue of maturity “elder,” function “overseer,” or spiritual gift “pastor,” “apostle,” “prophet,” etc. None carried the idea of power or position. Could you be comfortable in such a spiritual ambiance?