Advice to a New Elder: They Smell Like Sheep, Part 7 (Boundaries)

shepherd3At last we get to the pastoral part of an elder’s job description. First, a few boundaries —

Power under submission

There is no reason to insist that all elders take on pastoral duties — unless you also insist that all elders teach and all elders participate in administrative decisions.

There is simply no scriptural warrant for putting our understanding of “shepherd” above the equally biblical terms “elder,” “overseer,” “leader,” and “ruler.”

(1 Tim. 5:17 ESV) Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.

BDAG defines the Greek word translated “rule” as “to exercise a position of leadership, rule, direct, be at the head (of).” Liddell-Scott gives “to be set over, be the chief power.”

The commentators point out that the church adopted the term “elder” from the synagogues, and so we start with gathering our understanding of the word with the historical context —

The presbyteroi exercised full jurisdiction over civic as well as religious life. They decided what type of disciplinary action was appropriate, whether flogging or—most serious of all—the ban or excommunication. … they did take the seats of honor and officially enforced the Law. They also administered both village and synagogue affairs, making decisions in a wide variety of situations. Often the president of the synagogue was an elder, and the office went beyond the hereditary leaders of the noble families to encompass elected lay leaders of the community (probably chosen annually).

G. R. Osborne, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 1992, 202.

So elders are analogous Jewish village elders or elders of the synagogue where the Jews lived in a largely Gentile city. They were not mere religious or spiritual leaders. They had very real civil authority. For example, we read of the elders (the Sanhedrin) having the apostles arrested, jailed, and beaten (Acts 5:40).

The way elders exercise their authority is, of course, greatly changed by Jesus’ teaching on Christian leadership —

(Matt. 20:25-28 ESV)  25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,  27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave,  28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 

Whatever authority the elders have, it’s to be used solely in service to Jesus and his church. It’s power under submission — the kind of power that causes Jesus to wash feet.

(Jn. 13:3-5 ESV)  3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God,  4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.  5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 

Jesus did the work of slave. Remember: the city streets were filled with manure and human excrement. This was not mere dust that Jesus was washing off them.

Notice that in v. 3 the reason for Jesus’ actions are found in the fact that “the Father had given all things into his hands.” God was preparing for Jesus’ glorification in heaven, and so Jesus — quite naturally — washes the filth off the feet of Judas Iscariot.  He was given ultimate power, and his mind, the correct response to ultimate power over the Creation is service to those who least deserve it.

Now, Jesus did not surrender his authority and power — and when he gave instructions, he expected them to be obeyed. He was no mere example (although he was that and more). He wasn’t merely a comforter in times of crisis. He had “all things” in his hands. The point of Matt 20 and John 13 is not the Jesus lacked authority or gave up authority or could never use his authority. The point is that he used his authority in service to others.

Elders as teachers

We see far more in the NT about elders teaching than performing pastoral duties.

(1 Tim. 5:17 ESV) 17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.

Paul emphasizes teaching and preaching (gospeling) as the role that merits double honor (payment of wages?). We would be sorely tempted to reward elders for their shepherding/pastoral work, but Paul sees teaching as the role having special value to the church.

Elders as purveyors of goods and services

One of the great dangers of our recent efforts to convert elders into pastors is the temptation for pastoral care to become a fringe benefit of church membership, even a marketing gimmick.

Here’s the test: are elders/shepherds training and equipping the members to join them in their pastoral care, or is it a one-way street in which the elders act as counselors and consolors while the members figure they get a surrogate grandfather in exchange for their attendance and contributions?

You see, there is nothing in scripture that says only elders are charged with comforting those who mourn or helping couples to heal their marriages.

I imagine that nearly every eldership in the Churches of Christ has struggled with how to handle the needs of the church when there are usually so few elders. The usual response is to have the elders “deputize” the staff and/or small groups leaders to handle some of the pastoral care. And this is not wrong.

What would be wrong would be seeing this as the desired end result. In fact, it should be a step toward a self-pastored church. That is, rather than expecting my preacher and favorite elder to visit me in the hospital as part of the deluxe package I bought with my attendance and contribution, I should be in training to visit the hospitals and funeral homes, too. In fact, to me, the ideal church would be filled with people who pastor each other, who help each other build their marriages, and so on.

Yes, the elders should model this behavior, just as Jesus did. But, no, it’s not uniquely the job of the elders to provide counseling services to their fellow members. That’s a church-wide job, and the elders should spend some time teaching the entire congregation to serve each other.

This is also amply demonstrated from the several “one another” passages in the NT —

(Jn. 13:34-35 ESV) 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” 

(Rom. 12:10 ESV)  10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.

(Rom. 12:16 ESV) 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.

(Rom. 15:5-7 ESV)  5 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus,  6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

(Rom. 15:14 ESV)  14 I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.

(1 Cor. 12:24b-26 ESV) But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it,  25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.  26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. 

(2 Cor. 13:11-12 ESV)  11 Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.  12 Greet one another with a holy kiss.

(Gal. 5:13-14 ESV)  13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

There are many more. The NT model is not the elders consoling and comforting the members. It’s everyone serving everyone.


I know that nearly everyone on the planet disagrees with me. But I think we’ve inherited the single-pastor system from the Catholic parish priests in Europe. We replaced the priest with a preacher and gave him the same job description. Then we realized that the church has desperate pastoral needs that one man can’t handle all by himself — and so churches began to reorganize themselves so the elders could meet the need. But the elders can’t meet the need either.

We declare the elders to be “running the church like a business” because they can’t meet all the needs. You see, the “shepherding” model that relieves the members of their responsibilities to each other is a business model. We try to attract customers by offering a service other churches don’t — for no extra charge.

The elders’ job is not to do the members’ jobs for them. It’s to empower and equip the members to do serve each other.

(Eph. 4:11-14 ESV)  11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,  12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,  14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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8 Responses to Advice to a New Elder: They Smell Like Sheep, Part 7 (Boundaries)

  1. David Himes says:

    I think you’ve focused on a really important point-of-view here, Jay.

    An example from my personal experience. For years, I was striving, professionally, to secure a high-level leadership position in the companies in which I worked. And I finally achieved that when I was promoted to Chief Operating Officer. I was finally in a position to make decisions.

    As I contemplated the new role, I finally realized, my job was really to get other people to make the decisions I would make, without having to make those decisions myself.

    Our Western culture is heavily influenced by the idea of “centralized” leadership or control. But, in fact, I think the community of disciples is more decentralized.

    As you point out, each disciple is responsible for teaching, preaching, serving, shepherding, etc, as they have those gifts.

    “Elders” might be more analogous to coaches and mentors, seeking to help other disciples do the things Jesus would do — on their own.

    And this overlaps with your other series on mission — because we each of us was doing what Jesus would do, I don’t think we’d wonder what the mission of the community is, or how to be more missional

  2. jes says:

    Jay, you have hit on a very important point that has been missing in “religion”, our tribe included, for a long time.

    My small group has been studying the migration of the church for a few years now, and it has become evident to all in this class that by the second generation of Christians, the church leadership was about some form of control. This “creep” from servanthood to control has taken the church down a path different than what we read in scripture and what the Lord intended. I am so pleased that you are also seeing that another gospel has been enacted over our original roots.

    I believe that we can turn this trend around if elders “take back” their role as servant leaders and again, start equipping ALL Christians to serve one another. This will entail a whole new attitude in church structure and relinquishing the reins that have been placed on the deacons in doing their jobs; along with equipping the WHOLE congregation to pastor one another. In most cases, this will also require “demotion” of the pulpit preacher to an equipping minister (deacon possibly) instead of the “Spiritual Leader” of the congregation. This may be the second hardest obstacle to achieve after getting the elders to accept that they are to lead by service, not drag the congregation along; especially where you have a “Head Elder” among the leadership.

  3. Alabama John says:

    And we really think this will happen in the churches of Christ that exist today? Not a chance!!!

  4. JES says:

    I thought the same thing when Trump through his wig into the race!!!

  5. dwight says:

    I would point out that at least in the Jewish world Elders were not leaders in the sense we think of leaders as being out-front public directors, as the King, the princes, the governors, etc took those roles. They were the people that the people went to for the handling of issues on a local basis and who disseminated information on a local basis, usually when given information from a prophet. And even though they helped in putting forth and enforcing the law when it was broken, they didn’t come between the people and the law. They were not lawyers and they were not judges. They acted when they needed to act, but they didn’t usually act first or over act. One notable thing is that when the people are addressed by God, in good or bad, the elders are not addressed separately or in lieu of. They taught, but they weren’t “the teacher” or “the preacher”. At least this is how I understand them to be from the OT. In the NT they didn’t so much oversee the church in directing the saints, as the saints all ready had prime directives, but did oversee the people to make sure the integrity of the scriptures was upheld. It also is notable that the letters weren’t written to the elders, but the people, the saints in the city. It was all about the people and the elders were to help them as a part of them.

  6. Larry Cheek says:

    I can only find that there were seventy men who were appointed as elders in Israel. Other than those it appears to me that the elders were exactly that the eldest men. They did have some authority but they did not exercise authority over a body of people and never used that authority individually.
    It was some of these men who banded together (possibly called the Sanhedrin) who fought Christ and His Church.

  7. Larry Cheek says:

    This seems to be a very true statement, “The NT model is not the elders consoling and comforting the members. It’s everyone serving everyone.”

    I sometimes wonder about this passage of scripture. As to its application in the environment of today.
    (Eph. 4:11-14 ESV) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.
    We don’t have the Apostles or the Prophets as they were in the days of these writings. We now have evangelists, shepherds and teachers in place, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ”, But all three of these are subject to and must be held accountable to the “Word” which is available to anyone today. Thus, anyone who is experienced with the Word can be advanced to a greater responsibility than an evangelist, shepherd or teacher to insure that the Word is followed. The knowledgeable in the Word is given the authority and responsibility by the Word to instruct and reprove any of these who are exercising positions of authority. When those in authority will not submit to the Word, those who are knowledgeable in the Word cannot submit to them and be true to Christ. In many cases knowledge of the Word will force an individual from serving along with those who are not upholding the scriptures as the ultimate authority.

  8. Alabama John says:

    I agree with Dwight, there are in reality two kinds of elders. Those that meet all the qualifications required to officially be appointed and called an Elder by the church. Then there are those men of an older age with plenty of experience in various things that the younger folks in the church and also those of the community go to for advice. This last bunch in many cases do not meet the qualifications for various reasons but can still serve a useful purpose. The church named elder has a much harder position. Both these elders can obtain heaven just as well.

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