Elders are all over the pages of the New Testament. When new churches are established, Paul and Barnabas quickly return to “appoint elders in every church”(Acts 14:23). Paul gives the elders at Ephesus a lengthy sermon of exhortation in Acts 20. Peter gives elders an outline of their work in 1 Peter 5. Timothy and Titus are given qualifications by which men are to be accepted as elders. The Hebrew Christians and the Thessalonians are told how to relate to their overseers. It is clear that these men, who have authority over a local congregation, are of crucial importance. So where do elders come from?
#1 They are taught. Paul sends Titus to Crete with the express mission of setting in order “the things that are lacking, and (appointing) elders in every city”(Titus 1:5). He outlines what God is looking for in such men, and gives one key qualification: “holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict”(Titus 1:9). “As he has been taught” means that elders do not grow on trees, but are produced by a long process of education and practice. An elder needs more than a surface knowledge of the word—he needs a deep intimacy with the things of God. Why? “that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.” The elder has a responsibility to stop the mouths of the insubordinate who would question his authority and trouble the flock. He needs to do more than mouth good words about Jesus or give a book report on the Bible. He needs the kind of knowledge of the Bible that also prepares him to use it as the “sword of the Spirit”(Eph. 6:17) in combating error and evil. No amount of rapport with people, kind disposition, or worldly wisdom can make up for a lack of biblical knowledge. This originates with solid, sound teaching. Elders are taught.
#2 They are examples. “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct”(Heb 13:7). Because they have been taught well, these men begin to follow the sound teaching, and develop genuine faith. Over time, their firmness in following Jesus is noticeable, and others see that their conduct is beyond reproach. They are not perfect, yet their pattern of life is admirable. God tells us to look at them and “consider the outcome of their conduct”—see where their path is headed and follow! Elders shepherd “not as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock”(1 Pet 5:3). These verses show that elders are not simply men who reach a certain age and want to be in charge, but men whose lives produce a natural leadership that we all long to follow.
#3 They have disciplined themselves. Consider how many of these qualifications involve personal discipline: “temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior…not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, not quarrelsome, not covetous”(1 Tim. 3:2-3). Elders are men who vigorously attack their personal flaws and are trained to be in control. While they are not perfect, they also are not merely campaigning for an office and showing others what they want to see. They are men who have demonstrated the ability to control their tongue, and their desires, and their tempers over a long period of time. This discipline is essential, since they will have opportunity to misuse money, or become quarrelsome, or loosen their tongue. Yet these men have—through a life of hard work in their personal lives—gained the respect and trust of the flock.
#4 They have proven themselves as leaders. God has not put His local churches in the hands of men with good ideas and no experience. “one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil”(1 Tim. 3:4-5). Elders know what it is to lead—they have done it before, at home. They know what it is to have others in submission to them—and how to maintain that submission by example rather than by force—because they have done it at home. They know how to put others first and watch out for them—and so they are ready to “watch out for your souls, as those who must give account”(Heb. 13:17). God will not have any willful Rehoboams to lead local churches, and immediately divide them in their foolishness. God wants men who have proven themselves to be worthy leaders.
Where do elders come from? Elders come from men who have put the Lord first over many years. They have been taught the word of the Lord, followed it carefully, disciplined themselves after His image, and proven themselves as godly leaders. They did not simply do this to impress people for a month or two; it has become who they are. Over time, they have proven themselves.
But beyond simply submitting to our elders, we have an obligation to help make more! We must encourage our young men to pursue this noble goal early in life. We should stress a focus on personal understanding of Scripture. Young men must learn to demonstrate sincere faith rather than living for selfish pleasures or cozying up to sin. Flaws need to be addressed and discipline established. The home should be the focus of our young men because it is not only essential to their children’s spiritual life, but is also a proving ground for godly leadership.
Elders come from within the Lord’s church—where else would they come from? Are we working to become and encourage the next generation of God’s elders?
A Helpful Quote: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes up short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of the high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat” —Teddy Roosevelt
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