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.