Keeping Watch over the Flock
The Ministry of Elders at Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28)
Among the gracious gifts God has given his church is the gift of elders. The church is Christ’s bride and his flock. He is her groom and her shepherd, and she is most dear to his heart. He has bought her with his very own blood. He cares deeply for her, and he intends take good care of her and bring her safely to glory to appear before him pure, spotless, and without fault. But her earthly life is marked by dangers of all sorts, and for her protection and guidance the Lord has given elders.
At Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia it is our desire to take this responsibility seriously and to be faithful in it in every possible way. It is our purpose in this paper to acquaint you with the structure and function of the ministry of the elders of RBC, so that you may know what to expect of them and what they will expect from you.
Identity and Official Titles The New Testament knows of no official distinction between the terms elder, bishop, and pastor. These three terms speak of the same office. This is evident in Acts 20, where Paul addresses the “elders” at the church of Ephesus (verse 17) as “bishops” or “overseers” and commands them to “shepherd” or “pastor” the church of God (verse 28). The three terms are used of the same office. Each carries its own particular emphasis — “elder” stressing the man’s maturity, “bishop” or “overseer” his function and authority, and “shepherd” his responsibility to feed, guide, and protect. But the three terms speak of the same office. This may be observed in 1 Peter 5:1-2 also. An elder is a bishop is a pastor.
This is not to say that all elders function in exactly the same way or that all are equally gifted. Some are evidently more gifted specifically for the public ministry of the Word (1 Tim. 5:17; Eph. 4:11-12), and the New Testament seems to reflect a degree of priority given to those who speak the Word of God publicly (see 1 Tim. 5:17; Eph. 4:11-12; 1Cor. 12:28). All elders must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2), and all elders share in “ruling” (1 Tim. 5:17). But not all are equally gifted in each respect. Some specialize in the public ministry of the Word, while some may be especially gifted in one-on-one counseling, and so on. But in the New Testament usage of the terms, an elder is a bishop is a pastor, and the work of shepherding belongs to all elders.
Plural in Number The New Testament consistently refers to elders as a plurality of men who together exercise leadership in the local church (see Acts 11:30; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23, 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; Phil. 1:1; 1 Thes. 5:12-13; 1 Tim. 5:17; Titus 1:5; Heb. 13:7, 17; 24; James 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1). Indeed, Acts 14:23 informs us that it was the customary practice of Paul and Barnabas in their missionary work to appoint elders (plural) in each church (singular).
The New Testament writers never refer to the office as held by a single man, and the Lord has wisely provided that the work be spread out by a plurality of men serving in this capacity. That a plurality of men is necessary for maximum effectiveness in the local church is evident for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most obvious reason is that the nature of the work required is more than can be done well by one man alone. This is why such a condition is described as “lacking” (Titus 1:5). To spread a man too thin is to force him to produce inferior work in all areas of his service. The puritans of early America recognized this and so had in each church at least two elders: a ruling elder and a teaching elder. The ruling elder had the responsibility of the “pastoral” duties — personal teaching, visiting, exhorting, etc. The teaching elder was expected only to preach (but to preach very well!). Such an arrangement allows men to exercise their gifts to the best of their abilities.
The collective wisdom afforded by a plurality of men working together brings more effective service to the church also. And a plurality of peers working together in the ministry of a local church serves as a deterrent to a “Diotrephes” (3 John 9) who would otherwise become tyrannical in his leadership over the church.
The Bible has no stipulations as to precisely how many elders should serve in a given local church. These things are determined by need and by God’s sovereign provision of qualified men. And so at RBC we have no stipulated “minimum” or “per capita” regulation. God has provided well for us, and we presently have three elders serving this flock.
Qualifications for the Office The office of elder is not open to anyone willing to take it. No, it is reserved only for men who meet certain qualifications. These qualifications are formally spelled out for us in 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. In brief, these qualifications stipulate that elders must be men of exemplary Christian character and conduct. There must be no glaring faults but a consistent Christian demeanor and walk. That which is required of Christians generally must be evident in these men, or they cannot serve in this capacity. They must be men who can say, with the apostle Paul, “be imitators of me as I am of Christ.”
The Nature and Purpose of the Office Os Guiness in his book Dining with the Devil relays the comment of a Japanese businessman to a visiting Australian. What he said was painfully insightful: “Whenever I meet a Buddhist leader, I meet a holy man. Whenever I meet a Christian leader, I meet a manager.” What a shame that this seems to be the mark of Christian leadership today. Elders are indeed to be “managers” of the church — this is implied in the title “overseers.” But the focus of their work is not administrative and organizational; their primary role is one of spiritual and Biblical oversight. It is the responsibility of elders to “keep watch” over the church, to “shepherd” or “feed” the flock and protect it from “wolves” and all kinds of spiritual dangers. To be sure, the authority of their office entails such administrative functions such as settling church disputes and establishing the church’s ministry structure (Acts 6), overseeing the distribution of the church funds (Acts 11:30), and appointing deacons, elders, teachers, and other ministers (Acts 6:3; 14:23; Titus 1:5). But their reason for being is spiritual oversight. Their solemn duty is to “keep watch over your souls,” and for this God will call them into account (Heb. 13:7).
What this means, of course, is that God has given Elders to the church so that they may bring the Word of God to bear on the lives of his people in every way. They are to feed the flock of God (Acts 20:28; cf. Jer. 3:15; Ezek. 34:1-16), declare to them the whole will of God (Acts 20:26-27), warn (Acts 20:31), correct, rebuke, encourage (2 Tim. 4:2), and in every way direct the people of God according to his Word.
Elders may fulfill this duty in a variety of ways. The public ministry of God’s Word is primary, in which the Scriptures applied to the exposed lives of God’s people. Such faithful preaching is not always “comfortable,” but it is a necessary function of spiritual oversight. But this spiritual oversight is not carried out in the worship service, Sunday School class, or small group meeting only. It is often in one-on-one conversation also. But in whatever forum, elders are held responsible by God to for spiritual oversight.
Here are some specific examples of this spiritual oversight:
• Elders must labor for the conversion of those who are lost. • Elders must counsel those who are under conviction of sin. • Elders must build up those who are genuinely saved. • Elders must encourage God’s people to higher levels of service and commitment. • Elders must correct and as necessary even rebuke those who are in sin or unfaithfulness. • Elders must watch over families. • Elders must encourage the sick or faint-hearted. • Elders must be faithful in the exercise of church discipline.
All this is part of faithful elder oversight. At RBC you may expect the attention of elders when you are discouraged or hospitalized or in any kind of struggle. They will be there to pray with you and for you and to encourage you in the Lord. You may expect their attention when you need counsel or spiritual guidance of any kind. And you may also expect their attention if you become slack in your attendance at church or in any other Christian duty. Elders are given for the purpose of spiritual oversight, to bring God’s Word to bear on your life in every possible way.
Moreover, this oversight is all-inclusive — “Keep watch over all the flock.” No individual in the church can ever be exempt from this oversight (not even the elders themselves!). And the same is true organizationally — elders must keep watch over Growth Groups, the Sunday School ministry, the children’s ministry, the youth ministry, all the various ministry teams, and so on. They are responsible for oversight of the whole church, and they must leave no detail unnoticed.
Your Responsibility What is your responsibility in all this? You might begin simply by recognizing that you need this kind of spiritual oversight. You need to be taught so that you may grow in Christ. From time to time you also need encouragement, exhortation, correction, and even rebuke. God has ordered and provided this for our good, and each of us should be thankful for it.
God also calls us to show our elders the respect their office deserves, and joyfully submit to their leadership. Hear what God says in this regard:
Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other” (1 Thes. 5:12-13).
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses (1 Tim. 5:17-19).
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. . . . Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you (Heb. 13:7, 17).
Concluding Thoughts The Elders of Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia are not perfect men, and they are keenly aware of their limitations. They have no mistaken notions of infallibility, and they do not lead out of a sense of superiority. They lead out of a sense of responsibility to serve God and out of love for you. Your prayer for them and cooperation with them in their ministry is deeply appreciated, and (as Heb. 13:17 reminds us) it makes their work joyful and of benefit to you. May God bless us in this work together, for his glory.