The office and responsibility of an elder are recurrent topics in both the Old and New Testaments. When the Israelites left Egypt, elders assisted Moses in leading Israel as they advanced through the desert. The elders acted as judges, sitting at the city gates to solve individual or collective cases. The office of leaders and judges has perpetuated in the New Testament with some small variations, especially due to the political loss at the hands of the Romans, which limited the absolute power they had.
In the New Testament, Paul and Peter write about the significant participation of the elders in church leadership. Elders are the local church leaders. They represent an important element in the church organization and structure. They are the main leaders in a local church and in a community of believers.
In the New Testament, two words are used to describe those who serve in this way: “elders” and “bishops.” Both words are used as synonyms to refer to the office of elder. We find an example of this in Titus 1. In verse 5, the word “elders” appears; in verse 7, the word “bishop” refers to the same person: the elder.
WHAT MEANING DO THE WORDS “ELDERS” AND “BISHOPS” HAVE?
When the word “elder” is used, it means “watchman.” According to God’s Word, the responsibility of this watchman is to carefully observe the well-being of others. He is a guardian or keeper. He is like a superintendent who is charged with seeing that things are done correctly.
The second word is “bishop.” This term doesn’t just mean a person who is superior to others; a bishop is an honorable official who, in past times, belonged to the local council, the Sanhedrin. In the New Testament, the word “bishop” refers to a church leader.
We can understand from the meaning of these words that the elder has an important function in caring for church members. Paul exhorted the brothers in Ephesus, saying: “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28, emphasis added).
The Holy Spirit has placed over the elder the task of caring for the Lord’s church. In many parts of the Bible, the elder’s task is amplified and defined as a metaphor for shepherding. As a person responsible for God’s flock, the elder is charged with shepherding or pastoring the church. In this sense the elder should develop abilities to efficiently care for and lead God’s church.
HOW DO WE PASTOR A CHURCH?
There are four ways the elder should pastor God’s church:
1. Prayer and preaching. When the apostle Peter was pressured to deviate from his spiritual obligations of pasturing the church, he affirmed: “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4, emphasis added). Praying and preaching are the main tasks of an elder. The elder should work to deepen his relationship with God, expand his knowledge of God’s Word, and improve his preaching abilities. To fulfill this task, the elder should focus on the following goals:
• Plan a daily schedule, answering the following questions: How much time do I want to dedicate to intercessory prayer? Do I know the needs of my church members enough to present them to the Lord? As we read Paul’s writings, we can observe the importance of intercessory prayer. Paul wrote to the believers in Rome: “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers” (Rom. 1:9). When addressing himself to his disciples in faith, Paul exclaimed: “I thank God, whom I serve with a pure conscience, as my forefathers did, as without ceasing I remember you in my prayers night and day” (2 Tim. 1:3).
Effective pastoral ministry begins in the secret chamber with God, when in reverence the soul cries for God’s intervention for those for whom Christ died. It would be fatal and destructive for a church leader to forget that pastoral ministry begins with prayer.
• The second aspect that follows prayer ministry is preaching. To fulfill this ministry, the elder should ask: How much time do I dedicate to Bible study? What will my special study be? Which books of the Spirit of Prophecy should I study? What sermons will I preach? Which Bible version will I use? Where am I going to preach? A preaching ministry is powerless without prayer, but a prayer ministry without preaching would be useless.
2. Visitation. Some people feel very confident about the importance of preaching and prayer, but they underestimate the task of visitation. Why? Perhaps they have been influenced by the technological and virtual world we live in and have forgotten about the human and the real. Many people assume that technological advances are enough, but they are wrong. All too often a machine comes between human beings with hearts full of dreams and sorrows. These individuals remain isolated from what is around them.
Another aspect of visitation is people as individuals. People love multitudes; their vision for the masses prevents them from realizing that masses are formed by individual people. Jesus is an example of a valuable individual. He was as willing to help an individual as He was to help the multitudes.
People who stop visiting miss out on the following benefits:
• A person may be just “one” member, but he or she is part of the multitude.
• Getting to know an individual’s private needs allows the elder to focus more effectively on the ministries of prayer and preaching.
• A personal visit can strengthen an elder’s relationship with a church member.
• A visit from an elder can affirm the bond that unites people with the church.
• Personal visits affirm an individual’s faith by clarifying doubts.
• Praying with an elder can strengthen a member’s faith.
• Talking with an elder can help a church member reach important decisions.
“As the shepherd of the flock he [the minister] should care for the sheep and the lambs, searching out the lost and straying, and bringing them back to the fold. He should visit every family, not merely as a guest to enjoy their hospitality, but to inquire into the spiritual condition of every member of the household. His own soul must be imbued with the love of God; then by kindly courtesy he may win his way to the hearts of all, and labor successfully for parents and children, entreating, warning, encouraging, as the case demands” (Ellen G. White, Evangelism, 347, 348).
3. Teaching. One of the most important tasks of a leader is to make disciples. When Christ gathered His 12 disciples, He dedicated time to teach them and organize them and share His teachings with them. Teaching is a very important task in the spectrum of pastoral responsibilities. Teaching is considered an important quality of a leader:
• “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2, emphasis added).
• “Holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict” (Titus 1:9, emphasis added). Teaching was a practice of the leaders:
•“And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:42).
• “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine” (1 Tim. 5:17).
• “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).
According to the apostle Paul, leaders should practice their teaching skills as part of their leadership.
4. Leadership. Every leader should answer the following questions before the church: What are we going to do and how are we going to do it? It was through inspired leadership that God blessed and brought His people out of Egypt. Joshua’s leadership led the people to conquer the land. Paul allowed the gospel to expand through his leadership. Ellen G. White was used by God to give a message to lead the church. James White led the church into organization.
How do we lead? Through organization and planning. Nehemiah organized and planned to build the walls of Jerusalem. The elder and the pastor help the church to become organized with a plan to fulfill the mission of Christ.
The leader should remember that “it is essential to labor with order, following an organized plan and a definite object. No one can properly instruct another unless he sees to it that the work to be done shall be taken hold of systematically and in order, so that it may be done at the proper time” (Ellen G. White, Evangelism, 94, emphasis added).
“Well-defined plans should be freely presented to all whom they may concern, and it should be ascertained that they are understood. Then require of all those who are at the head of the various departments to cooperate in the execution of these plans. If this sure and radical method is properly adopted and followed up with interest and good will, it will avoid much work being done without any definite object, much useless friction” (ibid. 94).
After observing these four important aspects of the elder’s task, the question is: How is the elder fulfilling the four aspects of his or her mission? Are preaching and prayer, visitation, teaching, and leadership present and basic in the elder’s ministerial work? As in ancient times, the elder—the congregational shepherd—has a great responsibility before God. Faithful fulfillment of the elder’s tasks results in a successful church; negligence results in an irreparable spiritual deterioration of the church’s condition. Leaders hold the key in their hands.
Josney Rodriguez is president of East Venezuela Union Mission in the Inter-American Division.