When something is foundational – a ground-level, concrete, nonnegotiable part of who you are & what you do & why & how you do it – it's not only healthy, but essential to re-visit and remind yourself of it often. With that understanding in mind, I'd like to talk a little bit about what the Bible says about elders and why we have them at The Brook.
Let's begin by establishing what an elder is not: Someone who is older than you. Culturally this is what we have meant and implied when we say: “Respect your elders!” or "Take care of the elderly." This is not the biblical definition or implication of an elder.
Elders are also not a board of trustees or a management team. Jeramie Rinne, in his book Church Elders (from 9Marks) puts it this way: "When elders see themselves primarily as members of a board of trustees, they perceive their purpose as managing the organizational elements of the chruch. "Success" likely means keeping balance sheets in the black, maintaining the facilities, and sponsoring high-quality, well-attended programs and events. Trustee elders are tempted to emphasize managing the machine over maturing the members." Don't misunderstand: many of those things mentioned are important, but they are not the priorities of the elders of the church.
An elder (as described and defined in the New Testament) is a shepherd & overseer. It's the same word used for Pastor (poimen). When we read the New Testament as a whole, we understand there are certain aspects and characteristics of an elder. Pastors and elders are called by God to shepherd his people. The apostle Paul makes it clear to Timothy (1 Timothy 3) that any man who takes on this role without the calling of God will most certainly regret it; it is a weighty responsibility. He calls it “a noble task”. Paul gives Timothy and Titus (Titus 1) very similar, yet distinct descriptions of an elder. (You can take a look at those for yourself.) For our purposes in this post I would like to specifically address some FAQs and what I will call "frequently misunderstood ideas" about elders, while also addressing the specifics of the role and function of elders within our church.
One FAQ we have heard and addressed is this: If pastors and elders are from the same word, and both are shepherds and overseers, then what is the difference?
At The Brook, while pastors and elders primary calling and function overlaps (to shepherd, guide, and “pastor” the people of the church), there are also several functions and roles that are equally distinct. Specifically in our context, pastors are men who not only heed the call to shepherd God’s people, but also feel led to vocationally lead the strategy and ministries of the church. They have also answered a call to preach the Word of God, very closely mirroring what the disciples gave as the reason for appointing the first deacons: “we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Conversely, elders do not necessarily have this sense of vocational calling, nor do they feel called to preach. They do, however, have a burden and responsibility to attend to the governance of the church. They pay attention to how we are stewarding the gifts of the Lord; specifically our tithes and offerings. And while our elders may not preach on a Sunday, they are all capable of teaching (and are currently doing so in some capacity), and are responsible (along with the pastors) for ensuring that what we do preach is biblically, doctrinally correct. This is what Paul exhorted the Ephesian elders to do in Acts 20: guard the doctrine of the church.
Now, let’s get even more practical. Another FAQ is (to put it bluntly): So…what do our elders actually do?
Once a month (at minimum) our pastors and elders gather together. While our meetings will frequently involve discussions over current ministry strategies, decisions over present issues and/or future opportunities, that time will always be prioritized by our praying over and for one another, our church, and our people. To be candid, we spend much time laboring for marriages to be healed, for the Lord’s guidance and provision in decisions we must make, for the healing of those who are sick, and the deliverance of those who are burdened. This is the “noble task” Paul spoke of to Timothy. Our elders humbly serve. These men often lose sleep on behalf of our people. Their first and primary concern is for the spiritual well-being of the sheep because they know (ultimately) they will answer to the Good Shepherd. I don’t write this so anyone will pity or feel sorry for them. Actually, on the contrary, I exhort you to love and respect and pray for the men in your church who have taken on this burden and responsibility.
In my next post I’m going to talk about the process of finding, examining, and affirming elders at The Brook.