Elders: The grownups in the church.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 July
ELDER 'ɛld.ər adjective. Of a greater or advanced age.
2. [noun] A person of greater or advanced age.
3. [noun] A spiritually mature Christian, usually consulted as part of a church’s leadership, often entrusted with ministerial or priestly responsibility.
[Eldership 'ɛl.dər.ʃɪp noun.]

After Jesus was raptured, his church had to continue without him physically here. Which is fine! He’d already trained apprentices, and designated 12 of them as apostles. One was dead, so the other 11 picked a replacement Ac 1.26 and went back to 12. (It’s God’s favorite number, y’see.)

Running the church with only 12 leaders quickly became unsustainable, because the church immediately surged by 3,000 people, Ac 2.41 and soon after another 2,000 or 5,000; it’s debatable. Ac 4.4 In any event that’s a lot of people to train to follow Jesus. The food ministry alone was chaos, with accusations of prejudice against Greek-speakers. Ac 6.1 The apostles recognized they needed more leaders, and told the people to select their ministers based on their honesty, wisdom, and spirituality. Ac 6.3 In other words their spiritual maturity.

When Paul of Tarsus wrote to Timothy of Lystra about 20 years later, the apostle reminded the youngish bishop that spiritual maturity is still a requirement for leadership. Y’don’t pick leaders because they’re friendly, popular, magnetic, and entertaining. (Or even because they’re family!) You pick them because they’re fruity. Because they’ve been letting the Holy Spirit develop them into people of good character: He’s making them resemble Jesus, and only christlike people should lead and run Christ Jesus’s churches. Nobody else is appropriate.

And arguably only christlike people should run anything. No, I’m not at all talking about Christian nationalism; I’m not saying the only people who should ever run things in this country must be Christian. I’m saying they oughta have good character. “Christian,” sad to say, does not automatically mean good character, spiritual maturity, or even any kind of maturity; some Christians are the whiniest snowflakes you ever did see, throwing tantrums and claiming “persecution!” about the smallest of hurdles—especially the ones generated by their own dickishness. Nope; I’m saying non-Christians can often be as patient, thoughtful, gracious, kind, and self-controlled as any Christian, and any pagan who has these traits is much preferred to any Christian or pagan who doesn’t.

My point is the grownups need to be in charge. That’s especially true in Christ’s churches, but oughta be true everywhere.

The Christianese term for grownup is elder, which comes from the New Testament’s word πρεσβύτερος/presvýteros, “elder.” It’s also where we also get our Christianese word presbyterian, “elder-run,” meaning a church run by elders, instead of by voting members or solely by the head pastor. Yeah, “elder” makes it sound like the church is being run by its old people (and yeah, such churches totally exist). But whenever the apostles who wrote the New Testament discussed a presvýteros, they meant the longtime, devout, spiritually senior Christians. These are the folks they could legitimately trust to give sound advice about following Jesus. The folks we oughta be able to trust.

Maturity. Not age, not talent.

No, elders don’t have to be senior citizens. Any 30-year-old who grew up Christian (i.e. Timothy) is frequently gonna be much further along in their walk with Christ, than any 90-year-old new convert.

Though sometimes you’ll get senior-citizen Christians who are convinced they oughta be elders, solely because they’re old. In one of my previous churches we had a woman who insisted everyone call her “Grandma.” (Including people the same age!) She expected everyone to come to her for advice. We didn’t. Because she stressed us out! She lacked gentility: She was a fearful creature, terrified by so many things. Devils were everywhere! Her fears were really off-putting, and exacerbated by the obvious fact she didn’t know bible. But she’d gone to church all her life, so she presumed this automatically makes her an elder. It doesn’t. Age or not, she lacked spiritual maturity. And the fact nobody took her seriously, really frustrated her—exposing her lack of patience too.

Eldership is about maturity, not age. And every Christian, including youngsters, should aspire to become spiritually mature. How we do that is by following Jesus: Learn what he teaches, and do as he does. Come under the guidance of a number of his wiser followers. Produce good fruit. Practice good works. Live wisely. Be responsible. Obey. (Obey Jesus—not necessarily the folks who offer to guide you.)

Yeah, we won’t be perfect. But what God cares about is the fact we’re trying.

After a certain point our fellow Christians notice. They see us trying. See the Spirit’s work in us. Start to naturally defer to our spiritual maturity: We don’t have to tell them we’ve developed in maturity; they can tell. (It’s not all that good a sign if we are telling everyone within earshot, “Y’know, I’ve been a Christian for a number of years, and know tons of bible, and I’m tight with the Holy Spirit, so you if you need any help I’m available.” Humility’s a fruit too.) They begin to naturally ask our advice, ask us to take leadership roles, and treat us like the grownups in the church. Because that’s what we’ve shown ourselves to be.

True, people’ll get nudged into leadership for other reasons. They show talent. They’ve gained some level of financial or physical success, or fame. They’re attractive. This sort of stuff happens all the time in dysfunctional churches—’cause they’re don’t know they’re meant to look for spiritual maturity, or don’t care.

Likewise people’ll try to nudge themselves into leadership. Some zealous kid will imagine God wants him to become a pastor. (Which is fine; sometimes God does tell kids that.) But when God tells you something like that, it doesn’t mean you’re to immediately get a job as a pastor; it means get ready! Get an internship. Go to seminary. Work on your character! But too many kids demand a leadership role right the heck now, and figure their zeal makes up for their character deficiencies. They truly don’t realize their reckless zeal is a character deficiency.

Nope. The ancient Christians knew better, and tried to always put mature believers in charge. People who are grounded in the faith, solid in their practices, who have their fleshly attitudes tamped down by the Holy Spirit. People who realize leadership is service: It’s not bossing others around, nor wielding power and making things happen. It’s being helpful.

1 Peter 5.1-4 NASB
1 Therefore, I urge elders among you, as your fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and one who is also a fellow partaker of the glory that is to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not with greed but with eagerness; 3 nor yet as domineering over those assigned to your care, but by proving to be examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 5 You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT HE GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE. Pr 3.34

NOT UNDER COMPULSION; VOLUNTARILY. As mature Christians we’re obliged to help and guide immature Christians. It’s our duty. But we need to avoid the grudging attitude which too often comes with the duty: “I gotta work with them? Ugh. They’re so selfish and dumb.” True. But once upon a time, so were we. Thank God we knew patient, loving elders who helped set us straight.

We were immature once. We did a lot of really stupid things before the Holy Spirit snapped us out of it. Some of us still do stupid things; I’ve met many a Christian who presumes because they know their bibles, they know people—and they turn out to be just plain idiots when it comes to worldly stuff. (Which Jesus warned us against. Mt 10.16) It’s our duty to get ourselves, and other immature believers, beyond this point.

And do it in love. And joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, and other fruit of the Spirit, which mature Christians oughta have lots of. We should serve them because Jesus would; because we want to please God, because we love God, because we love the people whom God loves. We should want to take God’s love and graciously pay it forward.

NOT WITH GREED; EAGERLY. Sad to say, a lot of elders greedily only look out for themselves. It makes them feel good to dispense wisdom and instruct newbies. It makes them feel important to be honored and put in charge of things. Some elders arrange everything for their benefit, and justify it by saying, “I’m a worker in the kingdom, and the worker is worthy of their wages.” 1Ti 5.18 Or they claim everything is for our mutual benefit… but y’notice they benefit way more than newbies do.

Elders need to think of our ministry as charity. Like Jesus instructed his students, we were given loads of freebies, and we should give things away in the same manner. Mt 10.8 I have no business whatsoever charging newbies a fee for the stuff the Holy Spirit taught me for free. For that matter, whenever somebody made me pay for it (and shouldn’t have, ’cause way too many “shepherds” rip off their flocks for profit), I should all the more turn round and give it away, and undercut those thieves.

NOT DOMINEERING; AS AN EXAMPLE. Also sad to say, a lot of elders keep newbies beneath them. They wanna stay on top, and do not want these other Christians to become equals. They act as though they’re Lord, not Jesus, and turn our freedom in Christ into slavery.

The Spirit’s fruit is ἐγκράτεια/engkráteia, “self-control.” Ga 5.23 All of us need to learn to govern ourselves! Newbies won’t learn to independently function as a Christ-follower when an elder always has to sign off on their every act, or demand they be accountable for every thought. Not that we’re not accountable to one another, but elders have no business putting people beneath them. Yeah, I might tell newbies to confess their sins to someone else, Jm 5.16, 1Jn 1.9 but of course it doesn’t have to be me. And I shouldn’t have to constantly check up on them: They can figure out for themselves whom they trust to confess to, and when, and what they oughta confess, and so forth. God’s not a micromanager, so I shouldn’t be one either. It’s hard enough managing myself! I’m too busy working on my own behavior; I have no business judging anyone else’s.

If elders are the church’s grownups, we need to act like grownups. We need to practice a lot of humility. We still answer to Jesus, after all.

Are you cut out for leadership?

Often Christians wonder about God’s will for our lives, and whether we oughta move into ministry, or some position of church leadership. Well, that’s a no-brainer: Every Christian should already serve others in one way or another, and every Christian oughta be maturing our way up to eldership. Including you. So yes, you oughta move into ministry. Start serving.

But when Christians talk about “going into ministry,” they don’t really mean ministry, i.e. serving others. They mean getting a job. Getting trained, getting an internship, getting hired as a pastor, that sort of thing. That’s another ball of wax: Sometimes God does want us to make a career of it. For most, he just wants us to serve wherever we’re at. But either way, we’re meant to become elders, and minister.

That means work on your spiritual maturity. Get rid of fleshly behavior. Get your family in order—they should be your first priority, long before you start pitching in at church. If your family’s a mess, they’re the ministry God has for you: Work on your family. Minister to them. Lead them long before you lead others.

That done, go ahead and volunteer for things at your church. Pitch in where you see a need. Churches beg for help all the time: Be that help. Demonstrate your willingness to serve. Demonstrate your willingness to take orders. Your obedience reveals your maturity. So when they start looking for deacons, you’ll come to mind. (Unless you’re disobedient, immature, and more of a pain than a help. But you’re gonna work on that, right?)

You’ll find the more you serve, the more obedient you are, the more mature you become, and the faster your fruit—and faith!—will grow. That’s what Paul meant by,

1 Timothy 3.13 NASB
For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

In context, this verse isn’t about God giving you a high standing, and granting you great confidence. This is about the standing a deacon has in their community: Other people esteem them as worthy people. And the confidence in one’s faith in Christ comes from actually following him, letting the Holy Spirit develop your character, and learning of course you can trust him. You become a solid Christian—and others can see it without you broadcasting it.

So aim for this Christian maturity. Start ministering.