Removing lousy elders can be really ugly. It’s never pleasant for the man being removed or for those confronting him and asking him to step down. It’s far, far better to ordain men who will make into good elders.
Lots of books and articles have been written coming up with ways of picking elders. The usual concern is to make sure that a spiritually weak eldership can’t perpetuate itself by picking other weak men.
And usually the idea is to make sure that the men are “spiritually qualified,” meaning that they meet the standards of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. However, these are astonishingly low standards. In fact, it’s been often remarked that, except for the supposed requirements to be married and fertile, these are requirements every Christian should meet!
I mean, we have such standards as “not given to drunkenness, not violent” (1 Tim 3:3). These aren’t high standards! But, again, we’ve been biased by Campbell’s idea that the New Testament is like a constitution, and so we focus most intently on those passages that we can force to read like laws — and we ignore far more important passages.
Worse yet, to avoid embarrassing the guys who allow their names to be put forward, we insist that no objection will be heard unless it’s a “scriptural objection,” defining that as solely an objection found in those two passages. As a result, men who are well known to be mediocre, if not downright useless, sometimes slip in — all just to be nice.
To do a better job, we need to undertake two reforms:
* We need to do a better job of training our members on what to look for.
* We need to do a better job of preparing men to serve as elders. If the church doesn’t produce capable men, it’ll pick the best it has, which may not be good enough.
Training members on what to look for
Let’s start with the familiar three words for elder: elder, shepherd, and overseer. Manifestly, no one should be ordained an elder, a shepherd, or an overseer if he is not qualified for those three roles. Some will be more gifted in one role than in another, of course, but all men under consideration should be capable of doing the job!
Well, we can’t make the standard too high. No one — or very, very few — are great at all these roles. But anyone ordained must bring something to the table — and not get in the way of those with gifts in areas where he’s not gifted. It’s fine not to be a great scholar, so long as you don’t imagine yourself to be and interfere with the leadership of men who really do know their Bible!
I mean, if we wanted to hire someone as a secretary, and if the job description read something like “kind to visitors, moral, and a good wife,” we’d still want her to be able to type! Some things should be so obvious they don’t need to be said.
“Overseer” in the Greek refers to a manager, typically someone in middle management. Think “supervisor.” It’s someone who’s been given oversight of a particular task or person. They act by someone else’s authority.
Elders were older men that the community appointed to govern a city. They served as judges and city council. They sat at the city gates and people brought disputes to them to be settled. They made certain the laws of the community were followed. They were qualified by years of experience and the respect of the community.
God called himself the Shepherd of Israel. Jesus is referred to as our Good Shepherd. Hence, the elders are actually under-shepherds, serving in the field under the oversight of the true Shepherd.
The shepherds’ first task is to protect the sheep from wolves and other predators. Second, the shepherds are to lead the sheep to water and food. Thus, shepherds are particularly charged with teaching the flock sound doctrine, and so we often read that some elders were particularly tasked to be teachers.
(Titus 1:9-10) He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.
(Acts 20:28-30) Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.
(1 Tim 5:17) The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.
(Jer 3:15) And I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding.
Manifestly, shepherds, as under-shepherds, must be men who will seek God’s guidance.
(Jer 10:21) The shepherds are senseless and do not inquire of the LORD; so they do not prosper and all their flock is scattered.
“Truth” means gospel, the truth about Jesus. Paul is particularly concerned to protect the flock against false teachers.
(Isa 40:11) [The LORD] tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.
The Old Testament describes God, as a shepherd, being tender and compassionate. A shepherd is much more than a protector and a teacher. He cares for his flock when the sheep are hurt or lost.
And a shepherd keeps the flock together, not allowing them to be scattered —
(Jer 23:2-6) Therefore this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the LORD. 3 “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number.”
You see, when sheep are scattered, they are easy prey — and they’ll even starve. Sheep cannot survive without a shepherd. The same thought is powerfully expressed in Ezekiel —
(Ezek 34:2-31) “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
7 “‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 8 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9 therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 10 This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock.
Finally, Jesus tells us about shepherds —
(John 10:1-5) “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. 3 The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”
Too many churches are “led” by strangers whose voices the sheep do not recognize.
A true shepherd is followed, not because God has given him authority, but because the sheep recognize his voice. They honor him because they see Jesus in him. They accept his counsel because they know wisdom when they hear it.
This doesn’t mean elders are without office, but it means their authority comes from the lives and their hearts — and Jesus in them — not their office. They have the office because they are followed — not the other way around.