I’ve recently joined the eldership team of our church. The process has been significantly different to my previous experience including when we joined our previous church and when I had a look around at potential church jobs back in 2021. This partly reflects the fact that I was not being considered for a paid role as we’ve chosen to give my time voluntarily to supporting this church as well as seeking to recruit and equip church planting and revitalisation meaning that any financial support I receive comes through donations. However, more importantly it reflects a different approach to identifying and calling leaders within the family of churches we are now part of. The approach is much more relational. So instead of filling in application forms and attending interviews, we spent the past 18 months getting to know the church family here and being given the opportunity to use our gifts to serve. As it happens, I think this is a much better way of approaching appointments.
I thought that this might be a good time to say a little bit more about my understanding of eldership and church leadership and what it’s about. I think there are two helpful images in the New Testament to get us thinking about this.
Church is a family and leadership is about parenting
1 Timothy 3 is the go to passage about appointing elders and deacons. Have you noticed that when we are evaluating potential elders, we are meant to look at their family life. It includes personal qualities such as self-control and sobriety but these are to be lived out with the household. An elder is to be faithful to his wife, managing the home, loving and caring for his children as he brings them up.
This maybe even gives us some context to the key required gift. An elder is to be “able to teach.” Notice that this is often converted to “able to preach” but that’s not what Paul says. He says able to teach and I wonder too if the context in which this has been proven is still in the home. Parents in Deuteronomy 6 were instructed to teach their children and grandchildren, to instruct them in God’s law. Teaching is a parenting role, it’s a dad’s job according to Deuteronomy.
The home becomes the model for the church. What a pastor/elder/leader’s life is like in the microcosm of the home will be reflected in the wider church for good or bad. A bully/tyrant in the home will be the same in the church. A lax/absent parent will be lax and absent in the church.
If churches are families, then it is also worth observing that they need mums as well as dads. I take 1 Timothy 3:11 to be best translated as “women” rather than wives. It’s not the wives of deacons described. It would be unusual for there to be expectations on them and not on elders’ wives. So, we have a description here of women deacons or possibly women leader/co-workers. Eldership is male but leadership is broader than eldership and includes both men and women. In Romans 16, it is clear that there are women like Priscilla, Phoebe and Junia who are prominent, co-workers with Paul who play a significant role in the spread of the Gospel and the care of churches.
I’m grateful that in our church family we have some fantastic “mums and dads” – male and female leaders. These are spiritual mums and dads and so this includes married couples with children, married couples without children and single people.
Church is a part of the flock and leadership is about shepherding
Frequently, the Bible uses the image of sheep and flocks to portray what it means to be part of God’s people. God himself is the Shepherd, so Jesus describes himself as “the good shepherd.” Leaders are likened to under shepherds.
In Acts 20:17-36, Paul gives a farewell address to the Ephesian church elders. He speaks to them as shepherds. He warns them that there is danger ahead, false teachers/leaders will turn up and so they are to be on their guard against these wolves.
The responsibility of the shepherd therefore is twofold, it’s about providing and protecting. A shepherd is to ensure that the sheep are fed and watered. An elder is to ensure that God’s people are fed with God’s Word. A shepherd is to guard and protect against wolves. An elder is to guard the church by looking out for false teaching ad false teachers as well as making sure that the church are kept safe from harmful, sinful behaviour.
Notice that there should be a costly, sacrificial element in both examples. In Ephesians 5:21-32, husbands are told to follow Christ’s example, he gave his life for his bride the church. Husbands and fathers should be willing to make sacrifices, even give up their own life to protect those in their care. The shepherd who faces down the wolf is willing to risk his life. It is rare in our context that an elder’s physical life is at risk, though that is literally true in places of persecution. However, the cost can be great in other ways, comfort, status, reputation.
What do elders do?
So, if eldership is about parenting and shepherding, if it’s about provision and protection then how do elders do this? Well, primarily, it’s through what we sometimes refer to as word ministry. They are to be able to teach and so any authority they have comes as they apply God’s Word to a situation.
Teaching will often include formal settings for most elders, although this is not necessarily the case. As I mentioned above, I think the requirement arises out of the family/parenting model from Deuteronomy and it doesn’t mean that all elders will preach. Teaching can include small group Bible studies and also a lot of 1-1 discipleship. In other words, there is something about intentional life together with the church family. So, 1 Timothy 3 talks about elders being hospitable, the idea is that the wider church family are welcome in and drawn into he physical home space of their leaders.
Teaching has both a proactive and a reactive dynamic if elders provide and protect. The primary defence that the church has against false shepherds and false teaching is found in Scripture. Elders should set aside significant time to study God’s Word and for wider study. This will include reading books, articles, blogs and listening to talks not just by those they trust to edify but by those they are likely to disagree with and have issues with too. Teaching must include warning as well as encouragement.
Elders should be leading by example. Again, this is why their home should be open so that their lives are visible as they grow in godliness. It also means leading by example when it comes to things like evangelism.
If eldership includes that sense of intentional life together, then elders should be there for church members for both the joy and the tears. It’s great to celebrate a birth or a wedding. However, there’ll be funerals too, there’ll be sitting next to a hospital bedside, attending an asylum hearing and praying through disappointments. Our desire is both to bring comfort and to help people not just survive situations but learn to be holy through them too.
It should be a joy and privilege both to have healthy leadership in your church and to serve as a leader in a healthy church.