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What an Elder Is Not

by Tim O'Hearn

My home congregation is about to select men to join those who are already elders of the congregation. During such a time we often read those passages that describe what an elder is, and what the qualifications are for that office. There are discussions over what is meant by “the husband of one wife,” or “having believing [faithful] children.” There is often mention that, as a pastor (shepherd) of the flock, an elder must be a good leader and have a good knowledge of the Bible. We talk a lot about what an elder should be, but we rarely discuss what an elder should not be.

Elders are not, or at least are not supposed to be, the first resort when one member has a problem with another. Unfortunately, many people seem to think they are. In congregations where I have worshipped, for instance, several times elders have told me that somebody had a problem with what I taught or how I ran my Bible class. To the credit of those elders, they asked the individuals if they had come to me first. (They had not.) These individuals, whomever they were, either chose to ignore scripture, were intimidated by me (who “wouldn’t hurt a fly”), or they were under the mistaken impression that going to the elders was the proper first step in dealing with a problem.

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. (Matt 18:15-17)

Nothing in that passage says to go to the elders first, or even second. The first resort is always supposed to be a private conversation between the offender and the offended. The only way an elder should be involved is if he is one of those two people.

In modern America we have improperly made elders into the “board of directors” of a congregation. They make decisions about spending the church treasury. They decide whether to build a new building, or recarpet the old one. In some cases they are even asked to pick out the color of the carpet. Sometimes men who are elders may become involved in decisions about finances or the physical property of a church, but that should be because of their specialized expertise, not because they are an elder. The apostles determined it was “not fitting that we should forsake the word of God, and serve tables.” (Acts 6:2) An elder is charged with the oversight of the church regarding the word of God. (Acts 20:28-32; 1 Peter 5:1-3) If it was not fitting that the apostles, who had been with Jesus, forsake the word of God, how much less fitting is it that men without special revelation should do so. If the men chosen in Acts 6 can truly be called the ministers (deacons) of the apostles, then the details of the physical aspects of the church should rightly belong to the deacons.

An elder once told me that they were “busy enough” without adding unnecessarily to their duties. That is probably true in most congregations. Let us not add to their burden by complaints that we should try to resolve ourselves, first. Let us not further burdening them with matters that could be properly handled by the deacons. Being an elder is a hard, responsible job. As far as is within us, let us honor them and not burden them.