Next, some of the most helpful instructions for what an elder should look like are found in the titles given the position: elder, overseer, and shepherd.
An “elder” was the ancient world’s equivalent of a city councilman and city court judge. They governed villages and cities, and even held special authority under the Law of Moses. In Numbers 11, God had Moses appoint 70 men as elders, and he gave them the Spirit to help them in their work.
An “overseer” is someone in middle management. That is, an elder must understand that this is God’s church and that he works on God’s behalf to fulfill God’s purposes. The elder owns nothing.
And “shepherd” is a title reserved in the Old Testament for God and the king — except in Ezekiel 34, where it refers to the king and others in power over Israel.
(Eze 34:2-4 ESV) 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.”
In context, God is condemning the rulers of Israel for leading the people into idolatry and other sins. It’s also a cry against social oppression, the powerful taking unfair advantage of the poor.
The prophets saw God as the true king of Israel and the human king as ruling on God’s behalf, to enforce the Law of Moses and to care for the poor, the widows, the fatherless, and the sojourners — those without political power.
These people are referred to as injured and starving because they are caught up in literal poverty and spiritual poverty — worshiping idols and seeking salvation from Baal and his ilk.
Ezekiel is not asking the king to comfort people going through an emotional crisis — but to lead the people toward the worship of the One True God and to care for those in poverty. Yes, this passage is all about worshiping the One True God and social justice.
I see it as all about being missional — that is, leaving the building and entering the surrounding community to be salt and light, so that that those who worship false gods will worship the True God and so that the church stands against injustice and indeed works for those in need.
This hardly rejects the idea that elders should also provide divorce counseling, attend funerals, visit the sick, etc. It’s just that this passage is not about those things — and the things that it mentions are really important when we talk about ordaining “shepherds,” because we should ordain men who have hearts like the heart of God — and the Old Testament is especially clear that God has a passion for the weak and helpless.
Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 2
Another part of the spiritual discernment process is to consider the qualities listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 — in connection with the job descriptions that God provides for elders. That is, it’s not just that a man is “not a brawler,” but would he deal with fellow elders and church members in a pugnacious way? When we consider whether he is “disciplined,” does he discipline himself in his relationships with other members and leaders of the church?
Running throughout all of the above is the idea that elders must be qualified to teach God’s word.
(Tit 1:9 ESV) 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
(1Ti 3:2 ESV) 2 Therefore an overseer must be … able to teach … .
In Acts 20, Paul spends most of his exhortation to the elders of the Ephesian church talking about the importance of the teaching ministry.
The point isn’t really whether the elder has occasionally taught a Bible class. It’s whether he can distinguish good teaching from bad and explain himself well enough to persuade others. Just getting up and asking questions out of a quarterly is not the test. He must be able to “give instruction in sound doctrine” and “rebuke those who contradict it.”
And all these passages arise within a time in church history when the church was fighting against Judaizing teachers who wished to create a legalistic Christianity. If he thinks legalism is a good thing, he’s not qualified.
It’s important to realize that no one elder can bring all the necessary gifts to the table. What you want is an eldership with all of the above gifts, able to work together to lead God’s church. The best teacher may not be the best counselor. The best conflict resolver may have little church-wide vision. A man with a heart for the poor may be a weak teacher.
Therefore, when a man is up for consideration, ask whether his gifts and maturity in Christ will add to or detract from the whole — not whether he is the ideal shepherd. God doesn’t give us ideal people, just people with gifts from the Spirit.
And if we would do this, we’d have far better congregations, led by men the members respect and want to follow. It would change everything.