What Elder Are and Do

The Lord's Day Morning

September 7, 2008

I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; Acts 20:28; Ephesians 4:11-16

“What Elders Are and Do”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Amen. If you have your Bibles, turn with me to I Timothy 3. If you have the handouts, you’ll note all the Scriptures that we’ll read from today printed on the inside flap. The topic today is what are elders, and what do elders do. We’re taking a break from our study of the Fourth Book of the Psalms (from Psalm 90-106) to consider this important subject, because we begin voting for elders today in the Congregational Meeting that will be called to order and will continue after the service today, and it's important for us to think about this biblically.

We’re going to look at four important passages…not the only passages in the New Testament, but four important passages that help us answer the question as to what elders are and do. I Timothy 3, and then Titus 1 and Ephesians 4 and Acts 20:28 give us important aspects of who elders are to be and what elders are to do. Let's ask God's blessing as we prepare to read and hear His word.

Heavenly Father, this is Your word. We ask that You would glorify yourself in our hearing of it, that we with the Thessalonians would receive it not as the words of men, but as the very word of God; that we would believe it; that we would embrace it; that we would act upon it. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear God's word, I Timothy chapter 3, beginning in verse 1:

“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.”

Thus far God's word.

Now we turn forward to Titus 1, beginning at verse 5:

“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you–if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”

Then we turn back to Ephesians 4, beginning in verse 11:

“And He…” [that is, the Lord Jesus Christ, upon His ascension to the right hand of the heavenly Father] “…And He gave the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part if working properly, makes the body grow so that builds itself up in love.”

And then finally, back to Acts 20:28. This is the Apostle Paul speaking to the Ephesian elders. He says to them this:

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

In the passages we've just read, we have heard two titles given to the same office. We've seen in Acts and in I Timothy the language of overseer, and we've seen in Titus the language of elder. Elder and overseer in the New Testament are interchangeable terms. Overseer is the word from which we get bishop or shepherd. Elder is the term…presbuteros or presbuteroi…you can tell that the word Presbyterian comes from that word. They are used interchangeably by the Apostle Paul. Elder is the title of the office; bishop or shepherd or pastor is the function of the office.

And what we want to ask today is simply this: What are elders, and what do they do? And so the message will have two parts. We’ll first ask and give a biblical answer to the question what are elders, and then second we will ask and give a biblical answer to the question what do elders do.

Well, the Bible teaches us this: Elders are men who are characterized by these six things (and I'm going to take this outline primarily from I Timothy 3:1-7, with reference to some of the other passages that we've read, as well).

I. What Elders Are: Elders are men
1. Who want to do the work, not just have the status of an elder.

Elders are men who want to do the work of the eldership, not simply those who have a desire for the status of the eldership. They’re not after a title, they’re not after honor; but what burns in their hearts is a desire to do the work of the eldership. Now we're going to describe that work in just a few moments, but if you have the outline before you, let me ask you to turn to the page where The Book of Church Order is listed to just give you a heads up on what this task is that these elders are to have a desire to do. And if you look on the page that says “PCA Book of Church Order on What Elders Are and Do” and look at Chapter 8, Section 1, it says this:

“This office is one of dignity and usefulness. The man who fills it has in Scripture different titles expressive of his various duties.”

And so The Book of Church Order says that the titles are given to the office tell you the duties of the office, and here they are — three titles:

“As he has oversight of the flock of Christ, he is termed bishop or pastor.”

[That's the overseer word, by the way, that we've read twice this morning.]

“As it is his duty to be grave and prudent, an example to the flock, and to govern well in the house and Kingdom of Christ, he is termed presbyter or elder.
“As he expounds the Word, and by sound doctrine both exhorts and convinces the gainsayers, he is termed teacher.”

So notice he is pastor, presbyter, and teacher. Those are the duties of the office and the Apostle Paul in I Timothy 3:1 says it is good for a man to aspire to do that work: to be a shepherd; to be a spiritual guide and guardian; and, to be a teacher of God's people. That's a good thing to aspire to do. It's a noble task, the Apostle Paul says.

2. Who are godly men- for holiness is God's great qualification for an elder.

Secondly, elders are men who are godly, because holiness is God's great qualification for an elder. Elders are gospel men. Elders have met the Lord Jesus Christ savingly as He is offered in the gospel. Their lives have been changed by Christ. They have been forgiven their sin, and they have been transformed. And they have a burning desire to pray and live and share the gospel, and it shows in their character. Just in two verses in I Timothy 3:2-3, Paul gives eleven character qualifications. We won't go through them in detail. They’re listed for you in the outline. But the overriding concern of the Apostle Paul is for the holiness of elders. It is the character and quality of their lives that commends itself to the people of God that they are indeed elders.

3. Who are able to teach.

Third, elders are men who are able to teach. The only qualification that Paul lists in I Timothy 3:2 in terms of duties of elders is this: they are able to teach. Now, in I Timothy 1 he expounds on that and says the elder

“…must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”

So there Paul makes it clear that an elder needs to understand sound doctrine so that he can teach sound doctrine, and so that he can correct those who are not teaching sound doctrine or who are following after things which are not sound doctrine. And so an elder is able to teach. All elders are called to be pastors, to be elders, and to be teachers. It's all part of the job of the eldership.

4. Who have godly homes and families.

Fourth, elders are men who have godly homes and families. The Apostle Paul makes this clear in I Timothy 3:4-5: “He must be one who manages his own household well.” And then Paul says, “If a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?” It's very interesting that Paul doesn't ask us to look at a man's public vocation and judge from his performance in his public vocation whether he would be a good elder, he asks us to look at a man in his home. How does he manage his household? How does he serve as a spiritual leader? That's where you determine whether a man has the qualities necessary to be an elder.

5. Who are spiritually mature and not recent converts.

Fifth, Paul says that elders are men who are spiritually mature. They’re not recent converts. He doesn't mean they have to be old, but it does mean that they have to be spiritually mature–“not a new convert.”

6. Who have good reputation with local non-Christians.

Sixth, Paul tells us that elders are men who have a good reputation with local non-Christians. Look at what he says in I Timothy 3:7: “He must have a good reputation with those outside the church.” So this is a person who not only is recognized as a person of integrity inside the congregation, but even unbelievers look at that man and say, “You know, that is a man of character. He is responsible, his word is his bond, and the witness of his life is one of dignity.” He is above reproach. That is, he's free from scandalous sin that would bring him into public disrepute.

All six of these things Paul says are required for those who are elders. That's what elders are. They are men who long to do the work of the eldership, to pastor, to guide and guard, and to teach. They long to do that work. They’re godly men. They’re able to teach. They have godly homes. They’re spiritually mature, and they have a good reputation with non-Christians. That's what elders are.

II. What Elders do

Now what do they do? Okay, you have these men, now what is it that they’re supposed to do? And it's very simple. In fact, I'd like you to look at Ephesians 4:12-13, because Paul spells it out so beautifully there.

Elders are shepherd/teachers who basically do two things. They edify and they protect…they edify and they protect.

1. Elders edify (discipleship)

They are called to lead in the work of discipleship in the church, and they are called to give spiritual oversight to the church. Here's what Paul says in Ephesians 4:12-13:

“He gave some as pastors and teachers…” [that's right at the end of 11] “…for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ….”

Now notice what Paul does there. He lays out six things that elders do there.

First, he tells us that elders teach. What are they called? They’re called pastor/teachers. So they teach. That's Thing No. 1. But why do they teach? What is that they’re after? What is it that they’re aiming for in their teaching? Look at what he says: “…for the equipping of the saints….”

So they teach in order to equip you.

Now the next question you ask is, “Equip me to do what?” And Paul tells you, well, they equip you to do two things. They equip you to serve one another and to grow. Their goal in teaching is to equip you, and their goal in equipping you is to equip you to serve and to grow. And what happens if you serve and grow? Well, the Apostle Paul tells you [here's the fifth and the sixth thing] if you serve one another and you grow, what will happen in the congregation is there will be unity in the congregation, and there will be maturity in the congregation. So elders teach so that you are equipped to serve and to grow, so that there will be unity in the congregation and maturity in the congregation and will glorify Christ together. That's what elders do. They’re shepherd/teachers who see to edify and disciple so that these things will happen.

II. Elders protect (spiritual oversight)

But they also do something else, and you see this in Acts 20:28. Here's Paul speaking to a group of godly elders, and he says to them, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, to shepherd the church of God.” In other words, they are to protect and guard and watch over and give spiritual oversight too the congregation, because Paul says that even from among themselves are going to come ravenous wolves that try and lead the congregation astray and devour them. And the elders are given to protect, to give spiritual oversight, to guard, to watch over, to shepherd, to care for that congregation.

And so the Bible says the reason Jesus gave elders to the church is for the purpose of discipleship and spiritual oversight. This is why God gave elders.

Now let me pull back and look at the big picture, and I want to draw your attention to two or three things.

The first thing that I want you to see is that it is Jesus who gives elders to the church. If you look in Ephesians 4 — and let me just ask you to take your Bibles out and turn to the few verses in Ephesians prior to the verses we've just read — Ephesians 4, you’ll see that when Christ ascended (Ephesians 4:8) “He gave gifts to men.” And those gifts begin to be listed at the beginning of verse 11. He gave some as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (or pastor/teachers). So the first thing I want you to recognize is that even though you’re going to be voting today (if you’re a communing member of this congregation), what's really happening here today — though it is important that you vote, and though you are partnering with the building up of the kingdom in your voting — what's really important for us to understand is that Jesus is getting ready to give this congregation gifts. We are participating in something that He is doing. He is going to gift this congregation with elders. It's important for us to recognize this because Jesus doesn't give gifts that we don't need. If Jesus is giving a gift, you can be assured that we need it!

Okay, that leads us to the question, “Why do we need this gift?” Because growth in grace in the Christian life doesn't just happen automatically. It happens in the context of people that are devoted with a passion to promoting that Christian growth and who are holding us accountable in that Christian growth. And that is what elders do. They promote with a passion our Christian growth, and they hold us accountable.

Let me just ask you to take your outline again and look at what The Book of Church Order says that elders do. It's a beautiful description. It's on the page that says “What the Session Is and Does.” Look at Chapter 12, Section 5:

“The church Session is charged with maintaining the spiritual government of the church, for which purpose it has power…”

[And then it says is has power to do six things, but I want you to see especially the first thing.]

“To inquire into the knowledge, principles and Christian conduct of the church members under its care; to censure those found delinquent; to see that parents do not neglect o present their children for Baptism; to receive members into the communion of the Church; to remove them for just cause; to grant letters of dismissal to other churches, which when given to parents, shall always include the names of their non-communing, baptized children.”

And so it emphasizes the spiritual oversight that they have of the church in order to hold us accountable to the profession that we make when we take vows of membership in the church. That's what elders do.

Now one more thing. I want you to understand that elders do this because they themselves have been gripped by the gospel. They are gospel men in that they have trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation as He is offered in the gospel. And as a result, Christ has forgiven them and He has grown them in grace, and He has planted in their hearts a burning desire to do two things. One, a burning desire to build up the saints for the work of service and for growth in grace so that the body will be united and mature. Elders have a burning desire to make their own small contribution to that. They want to be a part of building up Christ's church. But they also want to have a part in reaching out for the gospel. Let me ask you to look at that same page we were just looking at before, and look under letter “d” — 12-5-d. They have the power to do what?

“…To promote world missions; to promote obedience to the Great Commission in its totality at home and abroad….”

They’re gospel men. They want to see believers built up, and they want to see sinners converted. They've got a fire in their belly for this!

And we need this, my friends, because the way that the gospel works itself out in our lives and in our church isn't through flipping on an autopilot switch. It's through a body of men that have been given by Christ to the church pouring out their souls and their lives into you, to encourage you to serve one another and grow up in the Lord Jesus Christ, and to reach out to a dying world with the gospel. That is how we grow and mature in the Christian life. It's what God calls His means of grace, and He has given elders to the church to foster this building up the saints and the bringing in of sinners. It's His way. It's been going on not just since the New Testament, but stretching all the way back to the time of Moses, God has given elders to the church to assist in the ministry in this way.

And so, my friends, as we vote — as we begin to vote — today, let us remember that as men are announced to this congregation to be their servants as elders, you are receiving a gift from the Lord Jesus Christ himself. And all of those men will be gospel men.

Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word, and thank You for elders. Bless this congregation with godly gospel men who have learned and lived the faith, to edify and build us up and to reach out to the lost. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

Would you take your hymnals in hand and turn with me to No. 353, I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord.

[Congregation sings.]

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

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