It is a good thing for an elder to give study from time to time to his role in the work of the church and to the relationships that exist between elder and members. Why in our church do we have elders? What is the work of elders? What do the members have a right to expect from their elders?
According to the New Testament elder is "a spiritual overseer," "one who is in charge of a church or parish." The work of an elder is that of overseeing the flock of God. He is the one, along with pastors, who has been entrusted with the responsibility of leading the church members along the pathway toward the kingdom and feeding them the words of life that will nourish their souls.
Preach the Word
Of His own ministry, Jesus said, "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep" (John 10:10, 11). The elder is interested in leading his people into the more abundant life. He is interested in his people to such an extent that he will give his life in service for them. In his charge to the young pastor, Timothy, Paul said, "Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine" (2 Tim. 4:2). This is the first work of the elder. He is to "preach the word." Jesus, when He commissioned His disciples, said, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature: (Mark 16:15).
The word "preach" comes from a Greek word meaning "to herald." A herald was an official messenger who proclaimed publicly the decrees of a king or government official. Paul compares a gospel preacher with such a messenger. The elder is to proclaim the good news of salvation from the King of the universe.
Many things are expected of an elder today. He must help in administrating. He must be a good social mixer, a good visitor; but above all his other duties he must be a preacher. This is his chief work. His primary responsibility is not to gather funds, to raise goals, to lead financial drives, to promote special projects, or to be an entertainer. His main work is to preach. Other things have their place in the overall program of the church, but they must be secondary to the work of preaching the gospel. Jesus did not commission His disciples to go into all the world and raise money, build buildings, conduct campaigns, or promote some new program. He commissioned them to preach in all the world.
Ministry more than a profession
We say correctly that the ministry is not just a profession, but a calling. By that we mean that the man does not choose the work of eldership. God chooses the man. It is a work for which men are ordained. When a man is ordained he is ordained to preach the Word. This is God's way of communicating truth to mankind. To the church at Corinth, Paul wrote: "For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. . . .For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe" (1 Cor. 1:17-21). In the eyes of the world, preaching is foolishness, but to those who are saved it is the power of God.
The preaching that saves is the preaching that is Christ centered. Paul did not win people in his day by preaching a fanciful message based on sensational disclosures or ear-tickling doctrines. He preached the cross of Christ, repugnant though the thought of it was to many of his hearers. "We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1:23,24).
Meet needs of flock
To preach the Word means to preach a message that is adequate to meet the needs of men and women who are wrestling with sin day by day. People come to church from all walks of life, with all kinds of problems pressing in upon them. They face problems that run the gamut of human experience. Some are wrestling with temptations that are overpowering; some are burdened with guilt that keeps them from feeling accepted with God; still others have home and family problems. The preaching of the Word is to help them meet the problems of life in God's way. It is to help them gain spiritual strength, new insight into themselves and their problems, and to receive the assurance that God cares and understands and is willing to forgive all manner of sin. In preaching such a message there is no place for levity, storytelling just for the story's sake, or words that please but do not reach the heart. The elder is a living link between the all-sufficiency of God and the needs of men. His sermons will not only be pleasing but they will lead the hearers to the Word of God which contains the answer to all men's needs.
Timothy was admonished to be "instant in season, out of season." He was to be ready to minister the grace of Christ at all times. The elder is not only to preach at the designated hours of worship but he is always to be ready to minister to the needs of his people. He is on call at any time his services are needed.
The elder is a counselor on many subjects, but he is not just an information service. Routine calls for information about church members should be directed to the church clerk, or someone designated to provide such information, and elders should spend their time in a spiritual ministry of helping people who need his unique contribution to their spiritual growth and wellbeing.
Ministering in times of sickness and trouble
The elder also stands by the side of his members in any crisis experience in which his presence as a representative of God can be of help. He likes to share their experiences of joy that call for giving thanks to God. He is happy to talk with people about their personal problems and provide a sympathetic, listening ear when they feel they must share their innermost feelings with someone who will understand them.
The elder calls on those of his flock who are ill. Illness is a traumatic experience that can cause great anxiety. A person who is confined to his bed has a lot of time to think about the meaning of life and its ultimate values. Sometimes his thoughts are not healthy thoughts. His past sins and mistakes rise up to haunt him, and he is filled with guilt and remorse. He wonders whether this illness is in punishment for his sins. He needs to hear the assurance from someone he trusts about God's forgiveness and remember them no more. Hhe needs the opportunity to talk out his anxiety and remorse, and this in itself is often a healing process. Every elder has head the experience of being thanked for the help he was to a person, when in reality the only thing he did was listen. There is an art to listening at the proper time and with the proper feeling. The elder should visit people who are going to have surgery. It is helpful for him to visit before an operation as well as after.
Our old world has never been so full of sorrow as now. Among the throng next Sabbath morning, how many hearts will be free from grief and fear? How many will simply be existing from hour to hour, filled with all sorts of suspense? How many will spend the rest of their lives without the support of loved ones dearer than all else on earth? Whatever the other needs of the parish, nothing except soul-winning can be so vital as comfort for friends in sorrow.
Does every elder know that grief lasts on through many years? Take a concrete example. During the War Between the States, the eldest son of the Watterson family went away as a soldier. All at once he ceased to write home, and his loved ones could only surmise what had befallen their boy. Years later, long after the peace of Appomattox, they learned that he had been taken prisoner and had died at Andersonville. He had been the pride and joy of his mother's heart. During those years of suspense she contracted " shaking palsy." For a whole generation after the war she went to church every Sabbath Day. What did she wish most of all? Comfort! When her pastor went to the home, she wanted to hear about heaven.
1. The hope of heaven
In the past the typical spiritual leader dealt much with heaven. To this Biblical truth we all should now return. In time of stress the church is the depository of comfort, and the elder is its agent. The elder presides over the one altar to which the sorrowing can flee. I am disturbed when I hear preachers indulge in a flippant contrast about being more interested in good tenements on earth than in many mansions in heaven! Why set in opposition things that belong in one Gospel? It is simply dreadful to drop the eternal note. A Gospel for this world is only a tiny fragment, if Jesus spoke truly. Gibbon was right when he declared that one of the reasons for the spread of our faith was its glorious dogmatism about the eternal life.
My dear professor of preaching, in a stirring way, used to call for more of the burning heart in public worship, including the sermon. When people come to church today they need hymns and prayers full of Christian feeling. The same holds true in sorrow at home, when the elder brings the consolations of God. The heart of the whole matter proves simple: except for evangelism, nothing in the elder's work these days ought to bulk so large as comfort. That means to strengthen hearts in God.
The defection of many members today usually springs from lack of care, especially in times of stress and sorrow. Why are some congregations not affected by such falling away? Is it not because elders and pastors mingle with the people day after day until they know the needs of breaking hearts? Then on the Sabbath morning the services in the sanctuary show the people how to get right with God even when they must walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
2. The kindness of the shepherd.
How can an elder help members who are passing through experiences he has never known? For one of various answers let him read The Life and Letters of Phillips Brooks. How could that Boston clergyman well, strong, and unmarried enter into the spirit of Helen Keller, a blind girl ten years of age? At any rate, Brooks did so enter. He put himself in her place; he looked out on her little world as she should have looked; and thus he led her to God as a Heavenly Father. In much the same fashion we the elders must often have deal with people, one after another, when their eyes are blinded by sorrow. In short, the elder who wishes to excel as a comforter must know God and love people.
We need to be sure what we believe. Do not make the mistake many are doing today. Many can speak much more convincingly about the "nature of man " than about his "destiny." The New Testament deals more fully with the destiny of men than with the nature. Why not rest content with recent erudite speculations about man's soul, and take time to discover what the Savior and His apostles teach about the resurrection and the life everlasting? True comfort can be found only the in the words of our Lord.
Harold E. Fagal was the pastor in Miami Temple when he wrote this article.