Duties of Elders
When a person is ordained as an elder of the church, he is being entrusted with God-given duties to fulfil. His ordination is a public acknowledgment of his calling and equipping by the Holy Spirit to carry out the God-given duties of an elder. Following is a brief discussion of some of the major biblical duties of an elder.
Oversight of the Church
In conjunction with the pastor (the teaching elder), the elders take the oversight of the spiritual and administrative matters of the church. Elders are exhorted in 1 Peter 5:2 to “feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind”. The word “feed” translates a Greek word (poimaínō) which denotes the duties of a shepherd towards the flock. An elder is to be like a shepherd who cares for the flock of God in the local church where he is appointed to the office. His duty of shepherding means that he must willingly and readily “take the oversight” of the congregation. Exercising oversight – as denoted by the Greek word (episkopeo) – would mean that he cares for the nurture, protection and guidance of God’s people like a shepherd (Acts 20:28a).
Every elder must co-labour with the pastor and fellow elders to provide the necessary spiritual and administrative oversight. He must work with genuine pastoral concern for the flock of God. He must know the affairs of the flock and oversee their spiritual well-being. As part of the Board of Elders (or presbytery), he must personally and jointly labour to watch over the flock of God. The wise words of Solomon are applicable to every elder: “Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks, and look well to thy herds” (Proverbs 27:23).
The oversight of the flock would include visiting the poor, the sick and the afflicted. The elder must be willing and prepared to attend to the spiritual and temporal needs of the needy among the congregation. In fact, Scripture encourages the needy to call on elders – “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14). As under-shepherds of Christ’s flock, every elder ought to manifest Christ’s compassion and care, with much love and tenderness to His suffering sheep. He may minister to the afflicted with an appropriate hymn, or the reading of a portion of Scripture, or a brief prayer.
That is not all. He must also attend to the backsliding members of the church in order to correct them and nurture them back. Every elder must prayerfully work to avoid the spiritual decline of the congregation. He should admonish members who neglect the fellowship gatherings and sacraments, which are means of grace that are essential to spiritual growth and health. Without proper supervision, the members of the church can slowly slip into spiritual lethargy and degeneration. Every elder must labour to avoid having members of the church degenerate and fall away unnoticed. Though the pastor bears much of the responsibility of the pastoral care, elders are also called to share with him the pastoral supervision of the church.
Teaching of the Church
According to 1 Timothy 3:2, elders must be “apt to teach”. In Titus 1:9, elders are expected to be “holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.” The Greek word (parakaleô) translated as “exhort” can also mean “encourage”, “comfort”. Thus, the ruling elder’s teaching – though not formal or on a full-time basis like that of the pastors who are teaching elders – includes informal counselling and words of encouragement. The elder should also be able to “convince the gainsayers” by sound doctrine (Titus 1:9). The Greek word (antilegô) translated as “gainsayers” refers to “those who speak against”. Hence, elders must acquaint themselves with the biblical doctrines and practices of the church, that they may give a sound response to those who object to the doctrines of the Word of God.
This, of course, does not mean that every elder must be equally knowledgeable and gifted to perform the task of teaching. It is abundantly clear that there are some elders (being pastors) who are specially tasked to “labour in the word and doctrine” (1 Timothy 5:17), while others focus mainly on ruling the church. However, every elder must be able to communicate sound biblical knowledge. To fulfil such an important duty, elders must have a constant, prayerful commitment to equip themselves with sound theological knowledge. They must equip themselves to teach competently in Bible studies and to answer the inquirers wisely and adequately. They must labour to both propound sound doctrines and defend them for the purity of the church.
Rule of the Church
Elders are expected to rule well, and such are worthy of double honour (1 Timothy 5:17). As rulers, they are not to be “lords over God’s heritage” (1 Peter 5:3a), but rather as fathers who rule their household (1 Timothy 3:4). They teach the Word of God (Hebrews 13:7), and labour to admonish the church (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:12). They watch for the souls of God’s people (Hebrews 13:17b), and lead them by example (1 Peter 5:3b; cf. 1 Timothy 4:12). As men entrusted with responsibility for the well-being of the souls of the people, they will have to give an account to the Lord for them (Hebrews 13:17b).
Elders ought to be in charge of the admission, spiritual nurture and discipline of the members of the church. Their collective supervision as rulers of the church is crucial to maintaining the purity of the church. The special attention of the elders to catechise those who seek membership and to ascertain them to be credible followers of Christ is most needful. It is also their duty to admonish (with a loving and firm spirit) members of the church who walk disorderly. They are expected to carry out their roles as rulers with much diligence and labour (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:12).
In order to rule well, the elders also have important duties to perform in the meetings of the Board of Elders and the Church Session. In those meetings where the situation and needs of the church will be considered, the elders should confer together to find the best biblical way to manage matters at hand for the benefit of the church. Hence, elders must have a commitment to attend all such meetings and to participate in the discussions concerning the administration of the church with eagerness and patience. As the Board and Session meetings cannot be held in a hurried or perfunctory manner, much forbearance, tolerance and endurance are expected. Elders must not think of themselves as mere advisers in the Board or the Session, but as co-labourers together with the pastor to shepherd the flock of God. In this respect, elders must also be careful to avoid any misunderstandings, quarrels or alienation among themselves.
The importance of godly, able and dutiful ruling elders in taking the oversight of the church cannot be overemphasised. The apostle Paul knew this full well, hence he was not at all apologetic to write: “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour” (1 Timothy 5:17a). Indeed, such honour would be gladly rendered by the discerning church which recognises that only when the elders – who are the rulers of the church – endeavour to work together in sincerity and faithfulness, in harmony and love, and with zeal and patience can the church be effective in bearing a glorious testimony for the Lord.