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Concerning our Elders


Acts 20:28-38



[1] Many people who become elders speak to me months later and tell me how disappointed they are. They are disappointed over what happens (or doesn’t happen) at our elders’ meetings (more commonly known as Official Board meetings.) What did they expect to happen? One thoughtful, godly woman told me she expected to discuss doctrine at elders’ meetings. Doctrine is rarely discussed at our meetings; and when it is, only briefly to correct moderator Phipps or others like him who are theologically challenged. Some new elders have assumed we spend no little time envisioning together where our congregation should be moving or what new ventures we should be testing. These new elders too have been disappointed.

On the other hand, many new elders have told me how disappointed they are at what does happen at our meetings: a great deal of time is spent on money matters and property matters. I should be the last person to undervalue the importance of property issues (we have to worship somewhere) or money issues (bills have to be paid somehow.) Still, I sympathise with newer elders who wonder why these two items seem to fill the horizon of our imaginations.

Later in our service today we are going to induct elders, as we do once per year. Will these people be disappointed as well a year from now? Will they say so then, or will they simply inform Mr. Turvey (chair of our personnel committee) that they are too busy to find a few evenings per year for the official board? Whether or not this is the case a year from now depends, I think, on whether our elders own their profoundest responsibilities as elders, insisting on nothing less, or settle for being property-managers and money-managers.

Before we can expect elders to own their responsibilities we must ensure that they know what elders are. What are they?


[2] By way of helping ourselves let’s look at the elders in the church of the old city of Ephesus. The apostle Paul’s address to the elders there is a word to elders in any congregation anywhere at all. Paul exhorts the Ephesian elders, “Take heed to (i.e., keep watch over) yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God….” (Acts 20:28) Elders are overseers who care for the church of God. The Greek word “care for” is the ordinary, everyday verb “to shepherd.” Elders, therefore, are overseers who shepherd the church of God. As overseers who shepherd, says the apostle, elders are to watch over themselves first. Then, and only then, they are to watch over (take heed to) the flock or congregation. Let me say it again: elders can keep watch over the congregation only if they first, and always, keep watch over themselves.

I’m speaking now of the spiritual qualifications of elders. Elders are to be possessed of throbbing faith in Jesus Christ. The gospel is to shine so vividly for them as to “light them up” even as the gospel illumines for them all matters great and small. Elders must be convinced of the truth of the gospel and convicted by the power of the gospel and confirmed in the reality of the gospel. Elders, in a word, are to be possessed of spiritual apprehension, spiritual maturity, and spiritual ardour.

Water, we need to remind ourselves, never rises higher than its source. Gospel-indifferent elders will never give rise to a gospel-invigorated congregation. Spiritually anaemic elders will never give rise to a congregation able to resist the blood-poisoning that weakens the church repeatedly. Water never rises higher than its source. A congregation is never going to be more perceptive of the truth of Christ and more attuned to the mind of Christ than are the elders who govern it. John Wesley used to say that all he ever needed to have the church revived was a handful of people who hated nothing but sin and feared no one but God. As much can be said of any congregation. We must be sure to note, however, that sin must be hated and God must be feared. Elders are charged first to keep watch over themselves. The qualifications of elders are above all spiritual.


[3] The point just made is crucial, for it’s often assumed that the qualifications of elders are chiefly natural. Elders, it’s commonly thought, have been asked to be elders inasmuch as they have natural gifts, natural talents, natural abilities that are eminently useful in congregational life; not only useful, even necessary in congregational life.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m not putting down natural gifts and talents and abilities at all. They are helpful; more than helpful, they are necessary. Congregational life would be impossible without such natural gifts as bookkeeping, building repair, letter-writing, telephone-calling (it has to be wooing rather than jarring), and storm-stilling. In view of the storms that arise in congregational life, those people who have a natural talent for storm-stilling are utterly necessary. No one here is going to undervalue natural gifts and talents and abilities.

At the same time, all such gifts are useful and necessary precisely to the same extent (but only to the same extent) that they are useful and necessary in any group: a service club, the Women’s Institute, the Streetsville Historical Society, the Red Cross Auxiliary, the “Justus” singing gang. Without the deployment of natural gifts the corporate life of any group wouldn’t last two weeks.

The church of God, however, is qualitatively different from any other group. While community groups do much good, none of them is the body of Christ. While they do much good, none is charged with exalting godliness. While they do much good, none of them is essential to the eternal blessedness of a human being. For just this reason the qualifications of elders have to be more than natural; more than natural gifts and talents and abilities are needed.

Lest anyone accuse me falsely let me repeat myself: there is no natural gift that isn’t both useful and necessary to the corporate life of the church. At the same time, natural gifts of themselves don’t exalt the militancy of the gospel within a congregation or magnify the efficacy of the Holy Spirit within a believer. For this reason, graces are needed as well as gifts. Therefore in addition to an elder’s gift of bookkeeping and storm-stilling there has to be an experience of Jesus Christ that eclipses doubt. There has to be a conviction of truth that remains impervious to the corrosiveness of secular saturation. There has to be a relish for the gospel, a taste for it that finds the taster forever satisfied but never satiated, always hungry for more.

When people are considering the invitation to become elders I’m sure they ask themselves, “What ability can I bring to the Official Board and the congregation?” The profounder question is “What is it of Jesus Christ that I have proven true time and again? What is my experience of the Lord that I covet for any man or woman?” And needless to say, the minimal qualification for elders is that they be people much given to prayer.


[4] Let’s look at the second responsibility of elders. (Their first, remember, was to keep watch over themselves.) Their second responsibility is to keep watch over the flock, shepherd it; specifically, to look out for wolves. In addressing the elders in Ephesus Paul writes, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock, and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert….” (Acts 20:29-30) Everywhere in scripture, in Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, the gospels, the epistles, the book of Revelation; everywhere the shepherds of Christ’s people are to be on the lookout for wolves.

The wolves are false teachers. False teachers are legion; they come from every direction. False teachers are relentless; they never give up. Plainly, elders are to be thoroughly acquainted with the gospel (that is, intimately acquainted with Jesus Christ himself) and thoroughly sensitive to the subtlest attacks upon it. Most tellingly, elders are to safeguard the congregation from the wolves that arise from within the congregation.

Two years ago this month I preached a sermon, “You asked for a sermon on Voices United’, Voices United being the new hymnbook. I had been asked to preach on it months earlier, but hadn’t planned to, since I was tired of exposing the illogic and the theological error of United Church documents produced since 1988. I thought I could avoid preaching the sermon that had been requested.

Then some people approached me, upset at an attempt to infiltrate the book into our midst. Now make no mistake: the book is treacherous. It denies the gospel at point after point. (If you want to reacquaint yourself with the sermon please see the secretary or the web page.) Several of us met several times concerning the attempted infiltration. Several people met several times with one person in particular. I felt that all of this was getting us nowhere, and the only effective way of handling the issue was for me to preach the asked-for sermon on Voices United. I did. After this the issue was dead.

Another way of handling the issue, a better way, is to put it in the hands of elders who are gospel-informed, spiritually alert, and able to recognise the wolf’s threat to the flock. This approach presupposes elders who are gospel-informed, spiritually alert, and wolf-sensitive.


[5] Paul says he admonished the elders in Ephesus, night and day, with tears, for three years. Imagine it: the apostle reminding the elders without interruption, with tears, for three years, and not only reminding them but warning them, urging them, exhorting them (as the verb noutheteo implies.) Obviously the apostle regarded the elders as crucial to the church. Obviously he regarded their responsibilities – shepherding the congregation, looking out for wolves from without and wolves from within, remaining spiritually vigilant over the flock but first spiritually vigilant over themselves – as immense responsibilities.


[6] And yet in it all Paul never suggests that he shares their responsibility. They are elders; he is not. Then what is he? He’s an apostle. He never suggests that he’s an elder like them, a player on their team now giving them a pep-talk. He isn’t an elder like them; he’s an apostle.

What’s the difference? While elders have spiritual responsibility for a congregation, apostles are normative with respect to the faith and obedience of all Christians everywhere. Elders have jurisdiction over a local congregation; apostles are the benchmark for the faith and obedience of Christ’s people in all places, in all circumstances, and at all times.

Apostles, we know from scripture, are eye-witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus. Apostles are those whom the risen One has stopped in their tracks, has called to apostleship, and has commissioned to be the source and norm, the benchmark, the standard of what is faith in him and obedience to him.

Or think of it this way. By Christ’s appearance, call and commission the apostles are the normative witnesses to Jesus Christ himself. The content of their witness, the substance of their testimony, the totality of their confession, we now have in the form of scripture. To say that we acknowledge the authority of scripture is to say that we acknowledge the authority of the apostles, acknowledge the authority of their confession of Jesus Christ. To be sure, faith is always faith in the living person of our Lord; faith is always faith in Jesus Christ alone; obedience is always obedience to him alone. It is always to the person of Jesus Christ that we are intimately related. Still, the form our faith and obedience takes is always the form of the apostles’ confession. To believe in Jesus Christ is to believe in him as the apostles believed in him and therein to find that we are now intimately related to the living person of Jesus Christ himself. It’s never the case that the apostles believe one thing about Jesus Christ but the church believes something else. Either the church believes in conformity with what the apostles believe or it isn’t “church.” Plainly, then, the apostolic confession stands above the church; it determines what is church.

Let me say it again: the apostles are those whom the risen Lord arrests, addresses, calls and commissions. For this reason when Paul speaks of “his gospel” he reminds the wayward Christians in Galatia, “No man gave me my gospel; no man taught it to me; it came as a direct revelation from Jesus Christ.” (Gal. 1:11 J.B. Phillips)

No man “gave” it to Paul. But this isn’t to say he’d never heard the gospel from human lips prior to his seizure on the Damascus road. He’d heard the gospel from human lips many times over. He’d heard it so often and understood it so thoroughly (albeit disagreeing with it) that he’d harassed Christians relentlessly. He’d been present at the stoning of Stephen. He’d heard the gospel from human lips time without number. Nevertheless he insists, “No man gave it to me; no man taught it to me; it came as a direct revelation from Jesus Christ.” What he means, of course, is that his apprehension of the gospel isn’t second-hand. Regardless of how many times he’d heard it from how many people, he was personally visited with a resurrection-appearance of our Lord; he was personally arrested, subdued and thereafter sent into the world as an apostle; sent as an apostle of Jesus Christ with a commission from the hand of the living-crucified himself. In other words, Paul was an apostle by direct appointment from Jesus Christ. He was not an apostle because the church made him such, the way the church makes elders. He was made an apostle the way all apostles are made.

For the next three years Paul worked as a missionary in Syria, Arab territory. Then he came back to Jerusalem for two weeks, he tells us, speaking only with Peter. Then he went back to Syria for fourteen years. When he returned once more to Jerusalem he spoke, this time, with the three “pillar” apostles (as he calls them, tongue-in-cheek), Peter, James and John. These three “pillar” apostles were satisfied that Paul was genuine, a bona fide believer in Jesus Christ, a real apostle, not a “phoney baloney.” With the approval of the three, Paul didn’t go back to Syria; this time he began working among the congregations in cities whose names are familiar to us: Ephesus, Philippi, Colosse, Rome.

For the next minute or two let’s pretend something; let’s pretend that Paul comes back to Jerusalem after seventeen years of faithful missionary work in Syria. He meets with Peter, James and John, and this time they don’t approve him. Let’s pretend they tell Paul they don’t think he’s an apostle at all. What does Paul do next? Does he fall into depression and mumble despondently, “For seventeen years I’ve done apostolic work and now you fellows tell me I was never an apostle like you at all. I must have fooled myself. I’ve wasted all those years. What’s more, I undertook the work because the risen Lord accosted me and commissioned me. At least I thought he had, but I must have been mistaken about that too. In fact, I’ve been mistaken about everything. I need a career change. Perhaps I can be a public relations specialist (since I get along well with Gentiles) or even a private detective (since I used to be good at sniffing out secrets.) But in any case I’ve been deluded and I need a career change” – would the apostle ever say this? If the three pillar apostles had not approved Paul, had not recognised him as fellow-apostle, he would have said to them as he said to the church in Corinth, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? (1Cor. 9:1) Well I have, fellows, and if you won’t admit this, too bad for you. Just stay out of my way and I’ll stay out of yours. But you are wrong if you think I am any less an apostle than you.”


[7] I’m not an apostle. I’m an ordained minister. As a minister do I stand closer to the apostles or to elders? Am I first cousin to the apostles or first cousin to elders? I am first cousin to the apostles. A minute ago I said that the apostles’ confession of Jesus Christ is the benchmark for everyone’s faith; that is, the apostles’ confession (scripture) separates true faith in the living Lord Jesus from sheer fantasy. As an ordained minister my responsibility is to hold the congregation to the apostolic confession of our Lord. Left to itself, a congregation drifts. It will drift of itself in any case; and when shoved by Bill Phipps and Howard Mills and Voices United, a congregation will be thrust away from the apostles and thereby thrust away from the Lord. As an ordained minister my responsibility is to hold the congregation to the conviction of the apostles and thereby keep the congregation within the orbit of him to whom the apostles always pointed.

Let me say it again. I am not an apostle. Still, under the apostles I’m charged with a normative task: ensuring that the congregation honours those whose testimony differentiates authentic faith in Jesus Christ from sheer fantasy.

I’ve spoken frequently here of my vocation to the ministry. Like the summons with which the apostles of old were summoned, my call to the ministry is a call “from above.” The church did not create it. The church can only recognise it. Ordination to the ministry is ultimately ordination at the hand of the Lord. The ritual of ordination is a denomination’s attempt at recognising a vocation from God. But in no case can a denomination either confer it or rescind it. If tomorrow morning The United Church ceases to recognise my vocation, that vocation remains unimpaired, as surely as Paul’s remained unimpaired whether the “pillar” apostles recognised him or not.


[8] There is no implied superiority in any of this. Paul never suggested he was humanly superior to the elders in Ephesus. He merely insisted that he was an apostle while they were elders. The nature of his authority differed from theirs. In this, however, he never undervalued them. On the contrary, just thinking that the elders might fail in their responsibilities caused him to weep, night and day, for three years.


[9] Today we are inducting elders in Streetsville United Church. What are their responsibilities? They are to be spiritually vigilant concerning themselves. They are to be spiritually vigilant concerning the congregation as they shepherd it under the care of the Good Shepherd himself. They are to look out for wolves, false teachers, whether the wolves come from without or arise from within. In all of this they are to be ministered to by the ordained ministers so that they will always have before them the apostles’ confession of Jesus Christ, thereby ensuring that the congregation is forever acquainted with the living person of the master himself.

Modern-day Ephesus is located in the country of Turkey. It seems a long way away from Streetsville. In fact, it’s right next door.


                                                                          Victor Shepherd

February 1999