This article will explore the functions of church elders from the shepherd metaphor mentioned by the apostles Peter and Paul, as well as the teaching of the New Testament regarding the nature of church elders as overseers.
Although the early church took the name “elders” from Judaism, elders in the Christian church appear to function differently than the elders of Judaism. For example, during the meeting of the elders at Ephesus and the apostle Paul, there were some specific declarations that reveal the elders’ functions: “Take heed of yourself 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 the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28).
The first instruction of the apostle was that the elders pay attention to themselves. The expression “take heed of yourself” probably suggests that an elder’s entire life was to be in harmony with the teachings contained in Scripture. Elders were local leaders of the people, so they needed to be faithful to the Lord, His Word, and His church. Indeed, Paul was warning them that apostasy would arise even among them; therefore, they must be prepared and alert (Acts 20:29-31).
Second, they must pay attention to the flock. The text explicitly uses the word “all” before “flock” to denote the care of the whole church—the body of Christ. Elders must include all believers—families and children—in their ministry. Therefore, it implies the ministry of visitation and nurture. How did elders care for the whole congregation? Two important aspects could be considered: first, there was a plurality of elders in each local congregation (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 6, 23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; 1 Peter 5:1, 2; 1 Tim. 5:17-19). It seems probable that the elders would have followed Paul’s example and distributed among themselves the responsibility for visiting the members. The early church developed ministries in homes. There were no church buildings; people worshipped in “house” churches. Paul declared that he taught them “in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance of God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:20).
The apostle Paul pointed out that elders under the direction of the Holy Spirit were to be overseers, “to care for the church of God” (Acts 20:28). The word “overseers” suggests that elders were supervisors—or guardians—of the flock. In other words, the term is used to explain the first part of verse 28, in which Paul says, “Take heed . . . to all the flock” (Acts 20:28a). The last part of verse 28 gives insight into the responsibility of the overseers. They were to “care for the church of God which he [God] obtained with the blood of His own Son.” The overseers were responsible for caring for the souls that were redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Mark 10:45).
Elders also needed to be watchful. The apostle Paul admonished them to be alert, declaring, “After my departure, fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29). In his epistle to the Hebrews, he reminded the members to “obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account” (Heb. 13:17). The essence of the apostle Paul’s message is this: guard the flock—wolves are coming. Protecting the flock includes seeking the lost sheep. Elders must continually guard the congregation from false teachers and teachings. A good shepherd is always alert to danger.
The apostle Peter also told the elders how to fulfill their ministry. “Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1-3). Three important points are mentioned here. First, the elders’ ministry had to be without compulsion; that is, their pastoral ministry would be achieved through love and tenderness, not force. Second, being an elder was not a paid position; elders needed to feel drawn to the work and be willing to spend whatever time was necessary to do it. Finally, they were to serve and lead the flock with humility, “being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). In other words, the elders should teach by example.
Elders and apostles were responsible under God and the church for the care of souls. When they fulfilled their ministry, they were functioning under Christ, the “Shepherd and Guardian of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25). Apostles and elders are the overseers and shepherds of the souls in their care, just as Jesus Christ Himself is the Shepherd and Overseer of all souls.
Although in the Old Testament the work of the Lord is illustrated by the shepherd metaphor, Psalm 23 illustrates how elders may also function as shepherds. According to the metaphor of the “shepherd and the sheep,” elders are spiritual leaders who feed, nurture, protect, lead, and comfort the believers.
In the New Testament, Jesus cited the same principles in His discourse on the good shepherd (John 10:1-21). In this illustration, the shepherd is shown to have an intimate knowledge of each sheep (John 10:3), providing food for the sheep and leading them to good pasture (verse 9). Shepherds have a supreme responsibility to care for their sheep even at the cost of their own lives (John 10:11). Using the shepherd metaphor and the inherent functions of church elders as described by the apostle Paul (Acts 20:28), it is reasonable to describe an elder’s functions from the shepherd metaphor perspective.
Moreover, Jesus’ illustration goes beyond gentle pastoral care. Shepherds should not be afraid of confrontation (John 10:12; Acts 20:29-31), despite considerable personal cost, because ministry is a selfless sacrifice. And because there are other sheep not of the fold implies that elders will have to reach out to people who do not know the “eternal gospel” (Rev. 14:6, 7).
Paul mentioned another elders’ responsibility in his letter to Timothy: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). The word “rule” gives the twofold meaning of those who simultaneously lead and care for souls. In addition, they were preachers and teachers of the flock.
How can churches ensure that elders fulfill their roles as presented in the Scripture? The New Testament model emphasizes church elders in their qualifications, character, and spiritual gifts. It appears that the apostles chose local leaders whose Christian character and spiritual gifts matched the function to which they were called. Moreover, it seems that the apostles followed a “training model” given by Jesus Christ because they were constantly preparing others for the work of ministry. For example, the apostle Paul recruited coworkers (Timothy and Titus), who functioned at the same leadership level.
Noting the functions of local church elders as described in the New Testament, we see that counseling skills are important. Because elders are confronted with a variety of problems—adolescent crises, divorce, single-parents issues, family conflict, and child relations— they need a knowledge of counseling principles. This preparation will help elders fulfill one important role of elders as shepherds.
To fulfill their teaching ministry, elders also need to be well-versed in both the content of the message (Scripture) and the method for communicating it. Therefore, they should be taught the principles of hermeneutics and exegesis in order to grasp the meaning of the Scripture. This would include a knowledge of fundamental Adventist beliefs, beliefs centered in the ministry of Jesus Christ. Another important aspect of teaching is understanding how people learn; therefore, a study of lifespan psychology and psychology of learning would be most helpful.
After planning a curriculum for training church elders and deciding who will teach, the pastor should develop an annual training calendar. The Elder’s Handbook suggests that the training curriculum include the following: church organization and administration, including spiritual gifts; church growth; care of new converts; worship leadership; preaching; visitation; the function and chairing of committees; and the pastorelder partnership.
The study of Paul’s messages gives excellent guidance as to the responsibilities and duties of elders. These insights will guide pastors as they train elders to grow and mature in their service as shepherds to the congregation.
Northern Asia-Pacific Division Ministerial Association Secretary