Elders as Pastors, One More Time…

One of the things I have learned the hard way is the importance of repeating the important things often, simply, and dearly. For example, preachers like me will fail to preach gospel expositions of passages like John 3:16 because we personally become bored studying and repeating what we might consider simple basics. Or churches will fail to energize their people with a regularly repeated vision for “every member ministry,” assuming that everyone in the congregation grasps the radical Reformation doctrine of the office of every believer. But neither are righteous assumptions or attitudes.

Some years ago, I began this monthly column with an article on the calling of elders. In it, I made just a couple of points which still drive my understanding of, my training of, and my work with elders. I repeat the article now, without apology, because as you begin a new year in the Lord’s service, it is good to reflect on foundations.

Next month, I’ll repeat one of the early articles on the office of Deacon. Forgive me if you’ve read this all before. But do me a favor. Read it again. Do it with the Bible open. And learn with me a critical point. Then do something about it in your local church!

Acts 20:17ff: Elders, Bishops, or Pastors?

My thesis is simple: elders are pastors, not administrators. They are to care for the flock of the Good Shepherd, not merely to “manage the affairs” of a corporate entity. Let’s look at Scripture, specifically at Acts 20:17–38, to discover whether my thesis is biblically valid. In this passage, we read Paul’s well-known farewell to the Ephesian elders whom he had summoned so as to give them his final instructions (v. 13ff). In this important passage, Paul uses several words to describe the men to whom he speaks:

• In v. 17 he refers to them as “elders” (using the the Greek word “presbuteros,” from which comes the English words “presbyter” and “presbyterian”);

• In v. 28 he calls them “overseers” (from the Greek word “episkopos”; in English “bishop,” the root word for “episcopalian”);

• Also in v. 28, he charges them to be “shepherds” (the Greek word is “poimein,” the word for “shepherd” or “sheep-herder”).

Must we speak of elders, bishops, or pastors, or should we speak of elders, bishops and pastors? Are there 3 distinct offices, or is there only one with three names? What is important to note is the relation of each of these biblical words to the others. Read the passage carefully. The office (commission, authoritative assignment) is that of elder (v. 17). The passage simply but significantly calls these men “the elders of the church.” A few chapters earlier, in Acts 14:23, we were told that “Paul and Barnabus appointed elders for them in each church.” (Also see Titus 1:5.) The point is clear: the apostles and members of the early church viewed these men as “elders.” The work or duty of that office and of those elders holding it is described in v. 28 as the “oversight” of self and of flock (“episcopos,” from “episcopos,” meaning “on” or “over,” plus “scopos,” referring to “vision” or “sight.” An English parallel would be “supervision”). Finally, the spirit, the character, or, if you will, the heart with which the elders are to do the work of oversight is that of “shepherd” (an English equivalent is “pastor”).



What may we conclude? The elders who oversee the flock are the pastors of the church! The Lord’s church is a flock that faces savage wolves who would tear the sheep and devour the lambs with the bloody fangs of false doctrine and worldly lifestyle (v. 29–30). Caring for that flock requires diligent oversight and alert watchfulness. Yet the oversight and watchfulness assigned to the elders of the church is a waste of time if it does not arise from a genuine and hearty caring for the flock. Pastoral care—shepherding—is never content with mere management of livestock resources. It demands genuine concern and love (look at Paul’s own example in v. 31. For further insights, read the delightful little volume by Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23). Pastoral care demands the involvement of the elder’s total being in careful attention to the well-being of each individual of the flock. It reqUires heart—a shepherd’s heart, one quite different from the reluctant spirit and diffidence of the hiredhand. (ReadJohn 10:11–13 to refresh your memory of the profound and important difference between the two.)

In contrast, what we see in many churches today are administrators. The senior pastor functions like a CEO who “markets the vision”; the deacons (usually by committee) fulfill the corporate role of the CFO (Chief Financial Officer); and, in such a modern corporate or business model for the church, the elders become the Board of Directors. To them falls the administrative responsibility of setting direction for the life of the corporation. They commission’ or develop a “marketing plan” for church growth, and hold the CEO accountable for the implementation and success of that growth plan. They oversee and direct professionally-run fundraising programs for building or operations budgets. They delegate any and all pastoral duties to the professionals trained to handle such contingencies.

All genuine followers of Jesus will agree that the church must preach and teach the Word of God so as to evangelize the nations, incorporate them through baptism into the body of believers by way of repentance, conversion, and faith, and disciple them thoroughly unto disciplined Christian living. That’s the mandate of the Great Commission in Matthew 28. When trying to fulfill the Great Commission in our rapidly changing age, the church meets new ideas, embracing some of them. Not all are bad either. The corporate business model, for all the criticism I level against it, often arises out of a desire for an efficient use of the church’s resources and a visionary and purposeful approach to reaching biblically-assigned goals. But efficient or not, goal-oriented or not, it has come at a high price: the transferral of her “pastors” to the new department of “administration.” And the flock suffers for it.

I Peter 5:1–4: Organizational Passion or a Willing Heart?

The pastoral character of the eldership is a theme not only found in Acts 20. It is perhaps put even more forcefully in I Peter 5:1–4: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be.” Here the radical difference between administering and pastoring is most clearly seen. Administration is a managerial function, applying resources to reach carefully articulated goals. It is preeminently organizational and intellectual. Pastoring, however, is a nurturing function, involving care, demanding both strength and tenderness, arising out of a passionate love for the well-being of the flock. While good shepherding will involve the shepherd’s callused feet (today bald tires?), his skill with both rod and staff (both the ability to discern, and the communication skills necessary to challenge, rebuke and call people to repentance), and his courage as he faces the predators of the flock (willingness to make the tough calls that generate “cotton mouth” fear?), good shepherding is preeminently a work of the heart, and depends greatly upon the intimate bond between the flock and the shepherd as they hear and follow His Voice. “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Pastoring focuses the flock on the voice of Jesus—the Bible as it shapes understanding and faith—and directs the flock to follow, to live in faith as the people of God.

Before I close, I leave the reader with the following questions. I challenge you to wrestle with them personally; let them stimulate you to self-examination and church-examination in your local congregational setting, and perhaps use them for a time of study in an upcoming elders’ meeting.

1. If you are currently an elder, what occupies most of the time you spend in your official duties: administration (meetings, committees, organizational details) or pastoring (meeting with God’s people, praying with and for them, admonishing them, instructing them)? Discuss with others how those time demands might be adapted so as to reflect a more biblical view of office.

2. If you are not an elder in your local church, think about the visible work of the elders who do hold office. Are they involved in pastoral care, or is their visibility only that of “meeting-attender” or “committee member”?

3. On paper, make a list, based on Acts 20:28–31 and I Peter 5:1–4, of specific duties that arise from an understanding of the eldership as a pastoral office. Discuss this list with others, comparing your findings with your perceptions of the practice of elders in your congregation.

4. Ask yourself whether you genuinely love the people of God in your local church? (Yes, warts and all, lovable and unlovable alike! Be honest, and admit it if you view them more as porcupines or skunks than as precious lambs.) If you can’t state that you do, allow me to challenge you today to pray that God will forgive your sin, and that God will grant you the grace to enable such love!

Dr. Sittema is pastor of Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Dallas, Texas, and a contributing editor of The Outlook.