Elders: Presbyters and Overseers

Acts 20:17-38

October 8, 2017

Well, it’s that time of the year again. Summer is over, our students and teachers are back in school, Harvest is in full swing, and our Nominating Committee has begun to meet, which means that before long some of you men will be getting phone calls, asking if you will serve.

For those of you, who perhaps, have not yet served on the church council, let me tell you up front that you are making a two-year commitment to serve Christ in the context of this church. The Council is our ruling or governing body here at Burry’s and it is these 11 men that you (as a congregation) elect that sets vision and makes decisions that affect the future of our congregation. Chuck and I have the privilege of advising Council, but we wield no votes, thus it is truly the Council that decides matters that shape our church life.

Council service is not always easy, but things that are easy do not stretch or grow us, helping us to mature in our faith. So, to paraphrase the words of President Kennedy, “We do this precisely because it is hard, because things that are hard bring out our best.”

There are qualifications to serve as a Councilman:

First, the Bible lists character traits that Elders and Deacons must strive toward. And, we understand the office of Trustee to require the same level of character as that of Deacon, they apply to him as well.

Further, he must be 21 years of age (Bylaws V.1) and to be nominated to the office of Elder, he must have previously served a term as a Trustee or as a Deacon (Bylaws V.II). Finally, he must affirm the theology of our statement of faith (Constitution VII.4).

In a broad-sweep, our constitution also lays out six duties assigned to the Church Council as a whole:

1) Watch over the teaching and life of the church

2) Receive and dismiss members

3) Promote the peace and welfare of the church

4) Assist the Pastor in his rights and duties

5) To elect or dismiss salaried employees

6) to prepare a budget for the congregation to support

That’s a lot, when you think about it, but I want to add one more note as we are talking about the Council as a whole, and that is while the Bible clearly sets forth the principle that males should govern Christ’s church (and thus the offices of the Council are male offices), we recognize the value, the sacrifice, and the commitment of the wives of our Councilmen that allows our Councilmen to serve Christ’s church in this way.

You ought to be familiar with Proverbs 31 and the poem of the “woman of noble character.” One of the points for which she is honored is that her husband is known in the gate and sits amongst the Elders of the city (verse 23).

Why is the wife praised because the husband sits amongst the Elders? It should be obvious: she orders her home in such a way that he is free and able to serve. Thank you women for ordering your homes in such a way as that your husbands can serve this church.

So, as we head into “Nominations season”, I wanted to spend some time talking about church leadership.

First, because you will be electing men to these offices in just a few months time…making it important to remind you occasionally of the roles that God calls these men to play.

Second (and more importantly), most of you have heard me talk about the German Evangelical Protestant movement that this congregation has historically been a part of and as best as I can tell, is the last remnant that intentionally self-identifies as part of that model. And, as I have been asking myself, “what happened?” “why did all of these other churches collapse into theological liberalism and generic evangelicalism while Burry’s stayed intentionally Biblical and Reformed?

The conclusion that I have been drawing as I read more and more of the early documents of this movement ties back to the first duty of the Church Council: to watch over the teaching and life of this church. It is my conviction that the reason we still have a Biblically faithful church is not because we have had Biblically faithful pastors (though that helps), but because we have had a Biblically faithful Church Council. And we are here because of their commitment and service. So, in stepping into the call to serve on Council, you are becoming a part o fa long list of men who have been willing to sacrifice their time and energy to preserve Christ’s faithful witness here on the hill. And that, folks, is a legacy worth leaving behind to your children and to a generation that follows you.

So, with ideas regarding the Council as a whole before you, let us talk more specifically about the office of the Elder.

To begin with, we need to be clear about the idea that Elders governing the church is not something that was invented at Pentecost or in the Christian age. In fact, if you go all of the way back to the book of Exodus, when God was sending Moses back into Israel to deliver the people from bondage, God sent Moses to speak with the Elders (Exodus 3:16). And by the way, when “Elders of the Sons of Israel” was translated into Greek, they translated it as “Council of the Sons of Israel” — a reminder that Moses was sent to Israel’s leadership, not to Israel’s old men.

Since the New Testament church saw themselves as the continuation of True Israel, the Old Testament church, they chose terminology that would have been familiar to the Israelite’s ears.

The second thing we should say (hence our passage this morning) is that the New Testament uses two terms interchangeably to refer to those who serve in this office: presbuteros which means Elder; and episkopos which means “overseer.” Bishop is from the Latin word for episkopos.

Now, we see that these are used interchangeably in verses 17 and 28 of our passage this morning… Verse 17, we find Paul meeting with the Ephesian Elders in the city of Miletus (notice that these men are referred to as Elders — presbyters — presbuteros. Yet, in verse 28, Paul (addressing these same men) refers to them as overseers — episkopoi — bishops. Simple notion — there are two titles for one office respecting two aspects of the same leadership.

More importantly than just the title, Paul gives a commission to these men. He says in verse 28: “pay attention to yourselves and to all of the flock.”

This phrase, “pay attention,” when used in the New Testament as a command, always refers to paying attention to the well-being of your soul. Why does he instruct them this way, then? The next verse: “Wolves will come after my departure.” What is the character of these wolves? First, they destroy the flock. Second, they speak twisted things, seeking to create a following of their own within the flock.

Application: Elders are overseers of the flock, they are charged to take care of their own souls first so that they are able to take care of the souls in the congregation. So, Elders must be orthodox in their doctrine and orthodox in their practice — you cannot be an Elder and a hypocrite, living one way in the church and another way elsewhere, whether at home or in the community.

In the time that I have left this morning, I’d like to move away from our passage and spend some time talking about the Bible’s “job description” for an Elder. In other words, things that the Bible speaks of the Elder being responsible to do.

My purpose again is two-fold

1) For those considering running for the office of Elder, God is saying that these are his expectations that are upon you if you take that office

2) For those planning on voting this January, God is saying to make sure you call men who will strive to fulfill these expectations.

Note that I am not so much focusing on the qualifications for the office this morning — you have the list in front of you and a series of devotions working through Titus’ list of qualifications to be an Elder….so, this morning, a job description, starting in the early church.

Jesus, of course, had appointed 12 Apostles that would form the backbone of the Christian church. Judas fell away and Peter replaced him with Matthias. Then God appointed Paul to be the Apostle to the Gentiles.

But the Apostle was only meant as a temporary office, one that died off with the death of the last Apostle, probably in the mid to late 90’s AD. So, when the church ran into its first real matter of debate, recorded in Acts 15, the question of how much of the Jewish ritual that the gentile converts were expected to practice. Rather than to give a blanket decree (which was the Apostles’ right to do), the Apostles gathered all of the Elders from the churches together to have the debate in Jerusalem…in this case, giving the Elders the full authority to speak and engage in the matter.

The conclusion they came to was that the Gentiles needed to abstain from four things:

1) things polluted by idols

2) sexual immorality

3) food where the animal had been strangled

4) eating blood

You can read more on this in Acts 15, but for our purposes, this established a precedent that as the church grew and developed, when such questions arose, the process should be one where the Elders gather together in prayer and debate over the scriptures to make a ruling for the church to follow.

This means that Elders must students of the Word and men committed to prayer — mature and discerning enough to be able to make decisions as a group that will guide the church of Jesus Christ in a Biblical way.

Next, I would like to shift from the Jerusalem Council to the various references that are found in the Scriptures, and in 1 Timothy 4:14 we discover that it was the Elders of the church (not the Apostles) that ordained Timothy…implying again that this became the role of the Elders and not the Apostles, that when one was called to serve as a pastor or other officer of the church, it was the responsibility of the Elders to ordain these men for service.

In Presbyterian circles (out of which I come) an din our own German Reformed tradition, the ordination of ministers is done by area ministers joined by area Ruling Elders. This represents the ancient tradition and the principle that ministers are peers along with Elders in the church, though ministers will have more specific training in the Bible and Theology.

Paul then comes back to the idea of the Elder in 1 Timothy 5:17-19… and I need to confess that for me, verse 17 is uncomfortable for me to preach…and is arguably the reason that in 20 years of preaching, I have never preached through Paul’s letter to Timothy.

He states in verse 17 that Elders, especially those who preach and teach the Word, are worthy of “double honor.”  In Greek, the word we translate as “honor” literally refers to one’s financial compensation — from which we get the notion of an “honorarium.”

The idea is that the church should value the Word so greatly the they compensate the one who faithfully brings the word in accordance with that value placed on the Word. It is the same reason that no charge is to be brought against an Elder except that which can be substantiated by 2-3 witnesses — protecting him from frivolous accusations and nit-picking.

Now, let me say this. I am not asking for a raise. I have been grateful for the provision that the church has afforded me not just in terms of my finances but also in terms of the care that the church has given to my family when we have faced times of crisis.

That said, I have shied away from this text because I have felt it was rather self-serving as I am the one who would benefit from a right understanding of it. I also recognize and claim with the Apostle Paul, the right to reject said “double honor” so as to not be a burden upon the congregation…just as Paul did in Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 9:12-18).

And so I will leave that text where it stands.

Now, while the passage primarily applies to those Elders who preach and teach the word, the principle of respect, dignity and not bringing up frivolous charges applies to all who serve in the office of Elder as well.

The application, then, of this should be obvious…don’t harass the men you elect to the office of Elder. Don’t vote for those to whom you are not prepared to give such honor and respect.

Changing gears somewhat, we now move to James 5:14, where we are told that if you are sick (not speaking of a runny nose or a cold, but the Greek word used here applies to a debilitating sickness or to a severe injury that would handicap or disable you) you are to call for the Elders and they will pray over you and anoint you (literally, “smear” you) with oil.

Oil in ancient times was used both for its ceremonial value but also for its medicinal effects as oil can serve both as a muscle relaxer and as an antiseptic. And thus, the promise that by the prayer of the faithful, you will be saved and healed deals with one’s spiritual healing and forgiveness.

So, applying the text again, Elders are called to be care-givers to the sick and to the dying. We will talk more about the care-giving role next week when we talk about the office of Deacon, but again, I want you to ask yourself, “Are these men that I would want with me on my deathbed? For that is part of their calling.

I’d like to close this morning with one more passage that is pertinent to our discussion about Elders. This really doesn’t fit into the “things that an elder does” category so much as it fits into the “way an elder does what he does” category…and that is from 1 Peter 5:2-3…and if you pay attention to the vows the Council takes when installed every year, they should sound familiar to you, for it is from here that several of the vows comes.

“Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly, not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” (ESV)

Amen and Amen.

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