Elders are often considered leadership in the church. In fact, elders are usually held responsible for spiritual, financial, personnel, business, and organizational decisions. In fact, “leadership” is often used synonymously with “decision-making”. Elders are certainly supposed to be leaders. But, what kind of leadership should elders offer? And, is this leadership unique to elders?
When we think about leadership, I think we should start with Jesus’ statements concerning leadership in the gospels (Matthew 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 22:24-26). I have suggested in previous posts (for example, see “Leaders and Servants” and “More on Leaders and Servants“) that Jesus turned “leadership” upside down. No longer are we to follow those who are good decision-makers, or well-educated, or charismatic, or good communicators, or talented. Instead, Jesus instructed us to find those who are serving others and then follow them. If we are thinking in Jesus’ terms, then we cannot think of leaders without thinking about their service, and we cannot think of servants without knowing that we should follow their example. In other words, our “leaders” lead us into serving because they serve themselves. This does not mean that “leadership” (decision-making) is a new type of service. Service means getting your hands dirty by doing something for someone else. We should follow those who do this regularly.
In every passage concerning elders (and there are only a few passages), the focus of the passage is on elders caring for other people (more on this in later posts in this series). There are no instructions for elders to make decisions for other people. There are no instructions for elders to cast a vision or set the direction for a group of believers. Decision making, vision, and direction are the responsibility of each believer through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, service is the responsibility of each believer through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. This does not preclude believers moving in the same direction or serving in the same way. However, an elder is not responsible for directing these believers to work together; the Spirit directs these believers to work together.
As believers are recognizing elders, they should recognize those who live according to Christ-likeness in character and in service. Thus, we should recognize those who serve others. In recognizing them, we are also recognizing our responsibility is serving in a similar fashion, that is, in “following” them. We do not follow their decisions; we follow their example. We do not follow what they say; we follow what they do. Teaching and preaching are important, but they are not primary. Those who lead should be known more for their service than their words.
But, once again, elders are not the only followers of Christ who are called to serve. Instead, every child of God is called to serve others. This service is a direct demonstration of our love for God and our love for other people. John says in his first letter that a person who does not demonstrate love for others is not a child of God:
By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:10 ESV)
We practice righteousness and demonstrate love for our brothers and sisters by serving them. According to John, this should be “evident”. So, every follower of Jesus will serve others. And, as we serve others, we become leaders to those who are observing us and who are learning to serve in God’s love.
Just as an elder should be known by a consistent Christ-like character, an elder should also be known for a consistent attitude and practice of service. Just as an elder is not held to a higher standard of character, an elder is not held to a higher standard of service (leadership). Every believer – if they are following Jesus Christ – will be serving others and, therefore, leading by example. We should recognize elders because they are actually humbling themselves and becoming obedient as a servant – not that their service removes our responsibility, but so that their service can be an example for us to follow.
Series on Elders
1. Elders (Part 1) – Introduction
2. Elders (Part 2) – Character
3. Elders (Part 3) – Leadership
4. Elders (Part 4) – Teaching
5. Elders (Part 5) – Shepherding
6. Elders (Part 6) – Overseeing
7. Elders (Part 7) – Conclusion