We all know the story of God sending quail to the Israelites to provide them meat to eat in the desert. But much less well known is that God responded to the complaints of the people by ordaining 70 elders for a special service by giving them the Holy Spirit.
(Num 11:16-17 ESV) 16 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting [tabernacle], and let them take their stand there with you. 17 And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone.”
The elders’ job was to “take their stand” with Moses (who was the victim of the complaints) and to help Moses “bear the burden of the people.” They were to help Moses defend himself from criticism. It was to help Moses provide strong leadership despite grumbling and complaining.
The elders who received the Spirit responded by prophesying — evidently some sort of ecstatic utterance — and Joshua complained to Moses. Moses retorted —
(Num 11:29 ESV) 29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!”
Well, of course, Moses’ retort has proved prophetic ever since Pentecost.
Many commentators equate the 70 elders with the judges appointed by Moses in Exodus 18 in response to the advice of Jethro, his father-in-law.
By the First Century, the 70 elders had become the Sanhedrin — a council of 70 men who ruled Judea under the Romans. The high priest presided over their meetings, thus making it a group of 71 (see Acts 22:5) (like Moses, the high priest was a Levite). The Sanhedrin served as the Jewish government — as supreme court, executive branch, and legislature, deciding cases, having supposed heretics arrested, and enacting laws.
In Acts, we see that the Sanhedrin persecuted the church, and as a result, the Jewish elders are spoken of very negatively by Luke. Therefore, it’s somewhat surprising that the early church chose to refer to their leaders as “elders,” given how badly the elders of the Jews were treating them.
You have to figure that the choice of “elder” as a term for congregational leadership carried a certain intentional irony — that these men, of little distinction in the Jewish world, were the true elders of the church because they were truly gifted by the Spirit for this role, in contrast to the Sanhedrin, which was often far more political than spiritual.
On the other hand, the choice of term in that cultural context clearly indicated a place of positional authority. “Elder” didn’t mean simply “a wise old man” in the minds of the Jews who composed the early congregations. Indeed, in Acts 15 we read of the apostles and elders gathering to decide a critical doctrinal issue — whether Gentiles must be circumcised to become Christians — and acting very much like a council that makes doctrinal determinations and even adopts legislation for the practical guidance of the church.
Hence, the old arguments of Lipscomb, Sewell, and others that there is no “office” of an elder carry no water. There most certainly was such an office, and the early church could not have chosen a term more clearly saying so. (Of course, “overseer” means “superintendent,” and “shepherd” was a common metaphor for the king as well as for God himself — meaning all three terms carry a strong sense of positional authority.)
On the other hand, Jesus and his apostles also plainly taught that this particular office would be very different from the political office among the Jews. The true elders would lead both by instruction and by example. They would not lord over the church.
But we go too far — and ignore a great deal of evidence — when we assert that the role of an elder carries no authority other than that of a good example. That attitude comes, not from the scriptures, but from the Western notion of radical, individual autonomy — because we Americans struggle mightily to submit to anyone at all and so sometimes create doctrinal interpretations that allow us to avoid submission to the authority of the leaders of God’s church.
The reality is that any group of people has to have leadership to be effective at anything. And if we don’t accord appropriate authority to the elders, then the authority will go to the preacher, the editor of some church periodical, the large contributors, the long-term members, or someone else. Authority will always reside somewhere, or there will be no organization. We can pretend that no one other than Jesus has authority over us, but it just won’t be true. We would only be fooling ourselves.
Now, much of the problem results from our doing a poor job of training and ordaining elders — either because we’re so divided and small that the talent pool is just not there or because our teaching does not produce the kind of men we’d like to follow. Scary, isn’t it, that decades of teaching can sometimes fail to produce someone we’d care to follow. (Even scarier is that, if someone truly like Jesus were to show up, we might be even more reluctant to follow!)
So what do we do about it? Well, step 1 is to test our own hearts and be absolutely certain that we aren’t the problem. After all, it could well be that the elders in your church are entirely sufficient — less than perfect, flawed like all humans, but capable of leading well if well supported. Maybe the problem is that the sheep don’t want to be led, or that the sheep want to go a different direction from their shepherds. That’s not very sheep-like, you know. A lack of leadership is sometimes the result of a lack of followership.
Of course, this isn’t always the case. If you really are willing to follow Christ-like leadership, ask whether the leaders are attempting to follow Christ or not. Judge their hearts. Don’t apply some doctrinal litmus test. Doctrinal disagreements can be resolved. Wicked hearts are something else altogether.
If the elders have good intentions and are trying to do what they think God wants (even though you disagree or they are doing so clumsily), then what they need is your support. Maybe they need a private conversation to understand your disagreement or their clumsiness. If they have good hearts, they’ll listen. They may not be persuaded (after all, you may be the one in error), but they’ll listen.
Now, it’s essential that you show the same respect (at least) that you expect. You expect to be listened to with an open mind, and you expect them to be willing to change their minds if you persuade them — even though it may involve a change in a public stance or even a public apology. You have to go to them with the same attitude — and not just as a matter of rhetoric. You have to really and truly be willing to be persuaded that you are the one in error.
You see, sheep have to be humble. But so do shepherds. Shepherds have to be humble enough to change course when they find themselves going the wrong way. Sheep have to be willing to accept the rod and the staff. They have to be willing to accept a course correction, too.
And, I’m convinced, that when sheep and shepherds have good hearts and are willing to talk honestly, they’ll find a path they can walk together.
But notice this. Paths to still waters and green pastures aren’t found by politics. The goal isn’t an easy or popular walk. The goal is God’s word, the image of Christ. The goal is to go where God calls, even if it means going straight uphill or through brambles and shards.
Literal sheep would prefer to go downhill. It’s easier. It’s more pleasant. But downhill often leads into a wadi — where floods kill instantly. The still waters aren’t always reached by going downhill.
We cannot let the very understandable desire for easy, peaceful solutions keep us from going where God wants. Therefore, we cannot be selfish. What we want for our own sake is really quite beside the point — making church politics a very poor guide to truth.
Hence, the person at the table who is most likely right is the one talking about what God wants in the most unselfish, most submissive, most sacrificial way. Those who are willing to give up their likes, preferences, tastes, and pleasures for the far greater joy of seeing the Kingdom grow and seeing Christ grow within the members are surely the ones at the table with hearts closest to Jesus — be they sheep or shepherds. Those with selfish motivations, who are worried about their own interests even at the cost of others, well, they sure aren’t shepherds, and if they’re sheep, they’re lambs. Adult sheep should know better.