Every time I write the word elder or eldership on my iPad, the spell checker kicks in and automatically corrects it to leader or leadership. Living as we do in a culture obsessed with “leadership”—in business, politics, academia, and so on—many of us do roughly the same thing to the New Testament.
Luke, Paul, and Peter talked about “overseers,” “pastors,” and “elders.” We talk about “leaders.” The New Testament charges particular people to shepherd, care, watch, and teach. We urge people to lead. Scripture uses specific terms and gives specific instructions, but overall we prefer generic ones.
Biblical words require explanations that mainstream secular ones do not. Our modern language is simpler: Leaders lead, but elders don’t eld. And, to be sure, the concept of leadership is biblical: leader appears three times in Hebrews 13. Not only that, debate abounds over whether elders, overseers, and pastors perform different roles, or whether these terms describe one office. By contrast, the word leader is a catchall.
However, I don’t think these reasons sufficiently explain why we prefer leadership over eldership. Christians use all sorts of words that sound strange to modern ears: covenant, Messiah, anointing, atonement, and so on. We don’t abandon our language, however, because it’s rich. While the New Testament indeed refers to leaders, it talks five times as often about elders—not to mention pastors, teachers, and overseers.
I suspect we autocorrect eldership to leadership for two reasons. First, especially in larger churches, we think of ourselves in organizational terms, as a firm rather than a family, let alone a flock. So we look for vision-casters and managers instead of fathers and shepherds. Second, most of us don’t understand what elders are or what they are supposed to do. Are they like tribal chieftains? Advisers? Beard-stroking sages?
New Testament language about elders, shepherds, overseers, teachers, and even leaders is bound up with one key idea: serving the church by protecting her from harm. Elders, shepherds, and overseers (which I take as three different words for the same office; see Acts 20:17–37 and 1 Pet. 5:1–11) are guardians.
Shepherds guard sheep. A shepherd’s main task is to protect the flock from harm: wolves, injury, scattering, robbers. This thread runs through the Bible. David kills lions and bears to defend his sheep. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, lays down his life to save his people. Paul charges his listeners, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God” (Acts 20:28). To be a pastor or shepherd is to be a guardian.
The same is true of overseers. Many of us equate overseer with supervisor. But the Greek term suggests “keeping watch over.” It is closely linked to the Old Testament word for “watchman,” which is more a lookout person than a manager. This is the role Hebrews ascribes “leaders”: speak the Word of God, and watch over the church (13:7, 17).
Elders do the same. Elders are appointed to protect the church from false teachers. Paul’s charge to the elders in Ephesus (Acts 20:17–37) can essentially be summarized as: Wolves are coming, and you need to defend the church from them.
This doesn’t mean that elders are only guardians, or that the other duties church leaders perform—evangelizing, equipping, vision-casting, strategizing, managing, communicating, exemplifying, disciplining, exhorting—are trivial. Rather, it puts those functions in context so that elders’ essential role—protecting the church from harm—can be seen more clearly.
Vision-casting, strategizing, and managing, for example, can protect the church from fragmentation. Disciplining, exhorting, confronting, and exemplifying protect the church from sin. Evangelizing and equipping the church to evangelize protect the church from introspection, insulation, and lethargy. And preaching and teaching are crucial ways to protect the church from false doctrine.
It’s a high calling, and even the best elders protect imperfectly. But it’s a temporary gig that reflects the perfect work of Christ. Jesus is the Watchman over our souls, the great Shepherd of the sheep, the Elder of all elders, who will return and conquer all God’s enemies.
Andrew Wilson is an elder at Kings Church in Eastbourne, England, and author most recently of Unbreakable. Follow him on Twitter @AJWTheology.
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