Elders are to guard and protect the church

In Acts 20:17, Paul sends for the elders (note plural) of the church in Ephesus to come and meet him at Miletus as he travels back to Jerusalem.  There he gives them instructions about how to continue serving the church when people like Paul are no longer around to visit and write letters. He tells them:

“28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God,[c] which he obtained with his own blood.[d] 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears.”[1]

Elders are to “care for the church.” This is shepherd imagery. Just like shepherds were to provide for and protect the sheep, so too elders were to provide and protect.  This imager of care including provision and protection is also found in Genesis 2:15 where Adam is to “work and keep” or “tend and guard” the garden of Eden. 

Just as shepherds had to be constantly on their guard against wolves that might at any point in the night attack, seeking to come in, cause panic, scatter the flock and then pick off isolated lambs for their dinner, so elders had to be ready to face and to protect the church from incoming danger.  Fending off wolves was dangerous and costly to the shepherds too as they risked their own life.Being an elder is costly.

For the Ephesian elders, there were three sources of danger.  I wonder if you noticed them?

The elders themselves

They are to “pay careful attention” to their own lives. This includes through accountability to one another as a plural leadership but it also includes taking time to examine themselves to ensure that they are walking with the Lord and growing in Godliness. 

As a church leader, I need to recognise that I am probably likely to be the biggest risk to the church.  This is because I am trusted, watched and listened to.  If I am not following Christ closely and seeking to grow in godliness then this is the example I will set, leading others astray. If I am not careful about what I teach then errant ideas will be heard by church members and what may start as a small error may well grow into heresy destabilising a church and shipwrecking the faith of individuals. If I fall into serious sin or error, then it will send shock waves through the church causing the flock to scatter and putting isolated individuals at risk.

Enemies from  the outside

Wolves will seek to come in from the outside.  This will include both the risk that their teaching will come in.  In the 21st Century, I can listen to a podcast or read a blog article from anywhere in the world. Even before the dawn of modern social media, we saw how particular ideas could start in one place and be disseminated by word of mouth, books and conferences quickly around the globe.  An elder needs to be alert to what is being taught and propagated outside of his own congregation. 

However, wolves will turn up at your church as well. Sometimes they will not even know that they are wolves yet. However, their primary desire and motive is not for the well-being of the church family. They will be coming for what they can get, not for the Gospel and not to grow in Christ. And elders need to be on the lookout. That’s why things like membership interviews matter.  First of all, does the person have a clear testimony of God’s saving grace. Secondly, are they sound on the basics of the faith, thirdly are they willing to serve, fourthly, are they looking for opportunities to change the church to their own agenda.

Home grown problems

Yet often, just as the danger can be with the elder’s own heart, so too, the biggest risk and our greatest blind spot is to do with what happens within the church.  Paul warns the Ephesian elders that trouble will arise on the inside from some of their own number.  The risk is that people who have grown up (physically and/or spiritually) within the church may stray away from the truth and lead others into error. The focus here is on error caused by false teaching but we also need to be aware of wrong practice, sin and even abusive behaviour.

We can assume that because someone grew up with us and sat under our teaching that they will be okay. Or we can go softer on people because we’ve known them  long time. We make excuses for them that we would not for newcomers. There can be a fear of confrontation. Longstanding friendships may be lost. Not only that, long term members are likely to have powerful allies within the church, especially in smaller churches where one or two families dominate.

Yet, the elder has a responsibility to guard against this danger too and it starts right back in Sunday club! You see, that’s often where the seeds are sown that come to fruition later.  It means keeping a watchful eye on who teaches the kids and the teens. It means that you don’t subcontract the content of the teaching programme too. 

Finally, it means that when you see that someone is going astray that you do have to, lovingly but firmly confront and that an eldership needs to be united in that.  It means not ducking the hard conversations or the hard decisions. If church membership interviews are a crucial protection against wolves from outside then the church discipline process and removal from membership is a crucial protection against enemies within.

Conclusion

The call to be an elder is a noble one. It is a great privilege but also a great responsibility and not to be taken lightly. Elders cannot simply enjoy their title nor pick and choose the nice bits of the job. Sometimes you have to confront and sometimes you will find yourself making unpopular decisions. It means that you will also be grumbled about and complained about, slandered even. It is important to know this up front and this is why a united, plural eldership is essential.

Yet if this burden seems to costly, we remember that Jesus is the great and good shepherd and that he did not duck the cost but willingly laid down his life for the sheep. Elders need to be willing to lay down their lives too.


[1] Acts 20:28-31.

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