A key question when discussing the role of elders, pastors and bishops in Jesus’ church is:
Which Christians does an elder / pastor / bishop have responsibility for overseeing, shepherding and leading?
In other words, biblically speaking, how should we determine which souls an elder is responsible for?
Before continuing, there are 3 prior posts which are foundational to this one. I recommend reading them first:
- Why the Phrase “The Church In…” isn’t Always Clear
- Examining the Church Concept of Placing Membership
- The Role of Elders in the Church
Consider a couple of key passages that speak to an elder / pastor / bishop’s responsibility:
1 Elders who [are] among you, I exhort, who [am] a fellow-elder, and a witness of the sufferings of the Christ, and of the glory about to be revealed a partaker,
2 feed the flock of God that [is] among you, overseeing not constrainedly, but willingly, neither for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind,
3 neither as exercising lordship over the heritages, but patterns becoming of the flock,
4 and at the manifestation of the chief Shepherd, ye shall receive the unfading crown of glory.
5 In like manner, ye younger, be subject to elders, and all to one another subjecting yourselves; with humble-mindedness clothe yourselves, because God the proud doth resist, but to the humble He doth give grace;
(1 Pet. 5:1-5 YLT)
28 `Take heed, therefore, to yourselves, and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit made you overseers, to feed the assembly of God that He acquired through His own blood,
29 for I have known this, that there shall enter in, after my departing, grievous wolves unto you, not sparing the flock,
30 and of your own selves there shall arise men, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.
31 `Therefore, watch, remembering that three years, night and day, I did not cease with tears warning each one;
32 and now, I commend you, brethren, to God, and to the word of His grace, that is able to build up, and to give you an inheritance among all those sanctified.
(Acts 20:28-31 YLT)
“Church” Confusion Strikes Again…
The way we understand Jesus’ church has a profound impact on the way we think about elders.
Because of the denominational fragmentation that has occurred—and the proliferation of church buildings that muddy the physical/spiritual waters—we tend to draw a distinction between:
- Jesus’ church, and …
- “our church” (i.e., the church we are “members” of … the group we routinely assemble with).
In fact, many people today commonly think about “church” in terms of three things:
- The name on the sign (i.e. a denomination or congregational title).
- The building where they assemble.
- The particular congregation where they have “placed membership” and/or where they give money.
It is common practice for individual congregations to appoint from among themselves elders.
Those elders are understood to have authority over (responsibility for) those Christians who have “placed membership” with this specific congregation, along with any children they have living at home.
When we consider our cultural view of “church,” our tradition of church-owned meeting places, centuries of division and congregational splits, and prevalent denominational thinking, this is really not surprising.
When I examine Acts 20:27-31 and 1 Pet. 5:1-5, I’m not convinced our traditional arrangement is what GOD intended.
In fact, I feel pretty confident it isn’t.
Our tradition seems to me to be a distortion of the Holy Spirit’s instructions to these elders in the two texts. It’s like we’ve made the verse say:
“Feed the portion of the flock who shows up at your building.”
“Feed the subset of the flock whose picture is on the bulletin board in the hallway or in the member directory.”
To be honest, I find our thinking quite comical at times. For example, consider the following scenario…
Consider this (Realistic) Scenario
Ted and Aaron are next door neighbors. Ted is a shepherd/elder in the church and regularly assembles with Christians at a church building located at 100 Main Street.
Aaron is a 35-year-old Christian and regularly assembles with a different group of Christians at a church building located at 5983 North Parkway.
Ted and Aaron both work with the same company and are around each other nearly 40 hours a week. In recent months, Ted has noticed several instances where Aaron has been being dishonest with the company owner.
Now, what responsibility does Ted have toward Aaron in this situation?
Well, Ted has the responsibility—which all Christians have—explained in James 5:19-20 and Jude 22-23:
19 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
(Jam. 5:19-20 NIV)
22 Be merciful to those who doubt; 23 save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.
(Jude 22-23 NIV)
But, given the fact that Aaron and Ted are “members” of different congregations, what authority does Ted have as an elder / pastor / bishop (of Jesus’ church, mind you)?
In today’s common view of elders’ jurisdiction, most would say that Ted has virtually no authority over Aaron.
If Aaron won’t heed Ted as a fellow Christian, Ted’s only course of action would be to contact the elders at Ted’s congregation to make them aware of Aaron’s sin and leave it to them to deal with the situation.
So, in this way of thinking, even though Ted is “among” (referring to 1 Pet. 5:2, quoted above) Aaron way more on a regular basis than Aaron’s own congregational shepherds, simply because they are “members” of different congregations, Ted has no authority or oversight for Aaron’s soul.
This simply sounds wrong to me, and I don’t think it’s what the Scriptures teach.
How it Ought to Work
Here’s what I believe.
First, consider this: What outcome is GOD interested in with regard to elders / pastors / bishops watching over other Christians?
The answer is that GOD is interested in having more people look like (i.e., have the character and behavior of) Jesus for the betterment of everyone—the individual themselves and everyone around them.
Elders / pastors / bishops accomplish this outcome by carefully and tenderly caring for and guarding Christians, helping them develop the character of Jesus while avoiding disaster brought about by sin.
Both Acts 20:28 and 1 Pet. 5:2 reference the entire “flock” of GOD, which is the whole body of Christ—the entire church.
Therefore, I conclude these verses are saying:
“Feed and watch out for those Christians who are around you.”
The biblical intent for elders in the Lord’s body is to watch over all souls of the Christians they are around, regardless of where they regularly assemble with other Christians.
Too often, it seems that elders end up serving more as boards of directors within congregations than shepherds of a flock of sheep.
True shepherds smell like sheep, whereas board members are often above the fray of everyday life, often being perceived as stuck up or aloof.
Sadly, many elders spend more time in a room debating various “business-like” matters than they do teaching, helping, shepherding, and overseeing the souls of the church. This definitely looks to me like a place where we need to separate what is from what should be.
What do you think the jurisdiction of elders should be, according to GOD’s intended purpose?