Since a church will not progress beyond its leadership, appointing elders is a vital task that requires a clear understanding of Christian doctrine. As shepherds of the flock, elders work together to assure that God’s Word is taught, God’s Son is honored, and God’s people are edified. Alistair Begg explains that biblical eldership is pastoral, plural, spiritual, and accountable: diverse in giftedness and function, elders are accountable to God as they share the privileges and responsibilities of leadership.
Can I invite you to turn with me to Exodus and to chapter 18? Exodus chapter 18, and I’m going to read from verse 13 to the end of the chapter. In this chapter, the father-in-law of Moses is giving him counsel:
“The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, ‘What is this that you[’re] doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?’ And Moses said to his father-in-law, ‘Because the people come … to inquire of God; when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statues of God and his laws.’ Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘What you[’re] doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You[’re] not able to do it alone. Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.’
“So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves. Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went away to his own country.”
Having turned to the Old Testament, I invite you now to turn to the New, and to 1 Peter and chapter 5. And I’m going to read from there just the first five verses. First Peter 5:1:
“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to revealed: 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. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”
Father, we pray for your help, the help of the Holy Spirit, as we think along these lines now—that we come to you in our weakness, and we pray that we might find you to be more than all we need. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, the discerning among you will have already concluded that we are taking a brief pause from Ephesians chapter 6. That is correct. This is not an arbitrary decision; it is actually quite purposeful. But let me begin in this way.
Last Sunday morning, when I arrived in Dublin and picked up a rental car, I had decided that I wanted to go to church there, and I wanted to go to a particular church there, which I eventually found. But it wasn’t easy, because my ability to navigate the city was severely impaired by the presence of another clergyman—that other clergyman being none other than the Pope, regarded by some as the “Vicar of Christ” on earth. And that caused me to ponder as I was driving, and I began to think about the fact that this particular Sunday, in preparation for our meeting next Sunday evening and the affirming of elders in the church—with these things juxtaposed in my mind, I found myself saying, “How in the world is it that people are able to get from the clear instruction of the New Testament to a hierarchical construction like the Roman Catholic Church, where eventually power devolves from the virtual sole authority of an individual?” It made me think about how easy it is, when God’s people begin to exalt human wisdom above the Word of God, how easily and how quickly things can go wrong.
John Murray—who has now gone on to heaven—when professor at Westminster Seminary, he made a very telling statement in relationship to these things, when he was talking about the way in which the Bible teaches the importance of a shared leadership in the church and why it was so important that that would be maintained in the church. And he then said, “It is no wonder” that when men fail to adhere to the clear instruction of Scripture, how then “by logical steps” it results “in what on all accounts is the greatest travesty witnessed in the history of Christendom, namely, the pretensions and blasphemy of [the papacy.]”
Now, that’s a quite striking statement. But you’re sensible people, and you have a Bible, I hope, on your lap. And therefore, you have every reason to read the Scriptures and to assess both the times and the way in which history has unfolded. That is not to say, for example, that this is a peculiar responsibility within the realm of Roman Catholicism. The fact is that Protestantism, to a lesser degree, is equally prone to the same kind of arrogance and the same kind of tyranny which exalts individuals to places that they should never be. And you may have been in churches like that, and may we be saved from ever becoming a church like that, because there is a certain predisposition in the heart of man to arrive at that conclusion.
Now, as I say, we’re going to tackle this very briefly this morning, and selectively, in light of what awaits us as a church. Because there is nothing actually more important than the question of the leadership of a church. And no church can assume that it will safely make the transition from one generation to the next unless it takes peculiar care in making sure that those who are set apart to those responsibilities are marked not simply by the characteristics described in the New Testament but by their understanding of Christian doctrine and the place afforded to them. Because church history makes it clear that the church of Jesus Christ does not and will not progress beyond the spiritual progress of its leaders. It won’t make any progress beyond the spiritual progress of its leaders. And that’s why the New Testament places a very high value on leadership itself—why, for example, when Paul writes to Timothy in his first letter, he says, “[Now,] here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer,” or being an elder, “he desires a noble task.” “Desires a noble task.”
And when you read your Bible, you realize that the story of the New Testament is the story of how the good news of the gospel penetrated the communities of the time as a result of the preaching of the apostles. And as the apostles preached, people were converted; they became the followers of Jesus. And having become the followers of Jesus, they gathered in fellowship with one another. And as they gathered in fellowship with one another and began to read, initially, the Old Testament Scriptures and to ask how they were going to function in going forward, the apostles, both by their practice and by precept, made it perfectly clear that leadership was absolutely vital. So you read again and again in the Acts how Luke is saying, you know “Paul and Silas,” or “Paul and Barnabas went to such and such a place, and when they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they came back around again in order to appoint elders in the church.” And these people were, under God, entrusted with the privilege and the responsibility of making sure that God’s Word was applied, that God’s Son was honored, and that God’s people were edified.
Now, when we read here in 1 Peter chapter 5, we were at the end of Peter’s letter, a letter that he had written to the scattered believers of his day—those he refers to as the “elect exiles of the Dispersion” in all of these places: “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia … Bithynia.” You can still take a map, an atlas, and look at it and find these places, albeit with a new and more contemporary name. And what had happened was that they, as I say, had understood themselves in an entirely different way. Whereas previously they may have identified themselves particularly by dint of their background, their ethnicity, their abilities, their tasks in life, and so on—because that’s the way people get together, isn’t it? By and large, the people who like to do CrossFit go to CrossFit. The people who don’t, don’t. The people who like to visit the library and sit around deep into the afternoon pondering things are a special group as well.
But this is not what is happening in the Christian community, because in the Christian community, you find some of these library people and some of these CrossFit people. How in the world did they bump into one another? Well, it wasn’t at the library, and it wasn’t in the gym. Where was it? Well it was actually at the Communion table. “Oh, the Communion table! You mean the sort of place where community is really expressed?” Yes, exactly. And they bumped into each other, they were doing something very, very strange. They were all sitting together in a group and listening to a monologue. But that doesn’t happen hardly anywhere in the entire Western world! Even when you have the president trying to do one, it’s punctuated by applause all the time. This, there’s no applause—and even if you do, you get in trouble, so why would you?
But think about the group. Look who’s sitting here. What is this? Well, Peter tells us. First Peter 2:9, he says, “You[’re] a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” You see, he’s using all these Old Testament pictures, as relates to the people of God. And he’s doing in his letter what Paul is doing elsewhere: he’s magnifying the wonder of the fact that in Jesus God has taken two, if you like, and made one new man out of the two. And it is in that context that they find themselves—whether they are among the educated group or the less educated, whether they have come from the same ethnic background—they find themselves singing the same songs, singing the Psalms together, submitting to the Scriptures together, and looking to the Lord together.
Now, it is in that context and in that community that the principles of church leadership are then worked out. And when we ask the question—and find the answer in the Bible—“How is the church to function?” then we can be in absolutely no doubt. The pattern throughout Acts is that men and women were converted, churches were established, and elders were appointed. And that’s why, here, we read 1 Peter chapter 5: “I exhort the elders among you.” He says, “I’m really a fellow elder as well, and here’s what I have to say to you.”
Now, in this section, he’s not dealing with the qualifications of the elders. He’s dealing, if you like, with the administration of eldership. You can read the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and elsewhere. That is not my brief this morning. I want to give you just four words concerning this leadership. Here they are: we want to think of it in terms of being pastoral, accountable, plural, and spiritual. And I’m going to move swiftly through each one of them.
It is, first of all, ministry that is clearly and obviously pastoral. You will notice here in the opening couple of verses of 1 Peter 5 what I can point out to you from the strength of my Greek New Testament, and that is that in his terminology here, Peter is using words interchangeably to establish the nature of this pastoral leadership. So, for example, the first time you see the word “elders” there, that in Greek is presbuteroi, which gives to us our English word presbyter or presbyterian. It is a word which expresses largely the notion of spiritual maturity. That spiritual maturity may not necessarily be akin to the age of the individual, because clearly it is possible to have grown old and yet to be relatively immature. It is also possible to be young and to have advanced greatly under God. So, there it is: the issue of maturity.
Then, in exhorting them to “shepherd the flock of God,” the verb that is used there is a routine verb for that whole notion. And it speaks, if you like, to the peculiar responsibility of what’s going on. In other words, if you use that word “shepherd” or “pastor,” it quickly takes it away from the realm simply of administration or of being able to bring to bear certain giftedness that may be part and parcel of an individual’s everyday work life. With that or without it, the role is to shepherd the flock.
And then, thirdly, to exercise oversight, as you will see: “exercising oversight.” And that word there is episcopoi, which gives to us, as you would identify, episcopal. And so it is that when we use these various words, we’re actually speaking about the exercise of the same office, if you like. And what you find in 1 Peter, you also find in the writer of the Hebrews. And in Hebrews chapter 13, he says, “Remember those leaders,” and then he says, what they did was, “they spoke the word of God to you.” What do the elders do? They speak the Word of God to you. “Oh, no, well isn’t that the pastor?” Well, the pastor’s just one of the elders. All the elders should be able to speak the Word of God to you. That doesn’t mean they speak it from here. But it means if you address them, they will be able to turn to the Scriptures with you and being “apt to teach.” They spoke the Word of God to you, and by speaking the Word of God to you, they gave you leadership. So, if you like, here’s the deal: they are there both to feed you and to lead you. Further down in the passage, he says, “And you should be aware of the fact that they keep watch over your souls.” So they exist to feed you and to lead you, to watch you and to warn you. That’s what they’re supposed to be doing: “keeping watch over your souls.”
And as Peter has said here, the manner in which this is to take place is both challenging and at the same time helpful. They’re to exercise this oversight. Notice three nots and then a but: “not under compulsion, but willingly”; “not for shameful gain, but eagerly”; “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” It’s very important, isn’t it? Because he’s already said that whoever desires the office of an overseer—Paul has, at least—“desires a noble task.” But then you have to say, “Well, why would I like to be an elder? Why would I be prepared to allow somebody to entrust me with this privilege? I need to check myself against these areas, at least. Is it because I want to just domineer, dominate? Do I think there’s a way that I can use this as a sort of mechanism for gain? Am I actually willing to do this?”
Now, all those questions are very important questions, because the leadership is pastoral, but secondly, it is accountable. It is accountable. You see, the elder who takes this calling seriously lives under the constant pressure of knowing, as Peter says here, that “the chief Shepherd”—verse 4—is going to appear; there will be an “unfading crown of glory.” Okay, well, that’s very encouraging; that’s something to anticipate. But when he appears, we will “give an account.” They keep watch over your souls as men who give an account.
Now, we all give an account to one another. There’s a mutual accountability that exists within the body of Christ. But this is talking about something different. You see, what the New Testament is teaching is not some form of democracy—certainly not of autocracy, such as in a hierarchical structure—but is teaching theocracy. In other words, that God mediates his rule through the singularity of his Son, who is the Chief Shepherd, by the Holy Spirit, by means of the Bible, so that the people of God are tutored under the Word of God, they are led by the Word of God, they are committed to the Word of God, they realize the importance of the Word of God. That is why we do what we do. Why is it that we continue to work through the Bible again and again? “How long are you gonna keep doing this?” Forever and ever! For as long as we have breath. Why? Because the future of the church depends upon it! And the absence of the leading and feeding of the people of God by those who’ve been set apart to the task is obvious to see, and tragically so.
That’s why Paul, in 1 Corinthians 4, when he’s thinking along these lines, he says quite helpfully, “We should really be regarded simply as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. And remember, it’s required of stewards that they be found faithful.” Not necessarily successful. “But with me it’s a very small thing that I should be judged by you—or by any human court, in fact. I don’t even judge myself. My conscience is clear; that doesn’t make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.”
So when the Scriptures say that “they keep watch over you as men who must give an account,” they’re not talking here about an account to you: whether you liked the sermon, you thought it was too long, too short; whether you liked the personality of the elder; whether you liked the way the baptism happened; or anything like that. That’s fine; we can have all those conversations, and more beside. No, it’s something far more significant. You think, all of the words spoken from the pulpit: you will give an account. Every private counsel: you will give an account. Every time you jested with the Bible instead of being serious: you will give an account. Every time you presented to someone what you would not live by yourself: you will give an account. And who will give an account? Those to whom is entrusted the leadership. Loved ones, do you understand what we’re doing when we set apart people to the leadership positions in our church?
It is not only pastoral and accountable, but it is plural. It is plural. I’m gonna have to leave you to work much of this out for yourself. You can go and find it; it’s not difficult to find. But the Chief Shepherd—namely, Jesus—appoints undershepherds to lead his flock by the crook of his Word. So it’s his flock, and it is his Word that is the crook by which we both correct and exhort and encourage and so on.
And because this doesn’t fall to an individual but it falls to a group, it’s important to realize that the requirements are shared requirements. There’s not a distinction of standard for one who does something and the other one where you don’t really have to—no! The requirements are shared, the privileges are shared, and the responsibilities are shared. But that is not the same as saying that everybody in a local church eldership is equally gifted. Because that’s clearly not the case! We know that. If you took any group of people out of the congregation just as a random sampling, you would find there is diversity among them. So the sense of equality that is enjoyed under God, the sense of equality and mutuality that is part of a shared responsibility, does not set apart the diversity in gifting. So that when we say that the elders are on a par with one another—that we would never consider them in isolation from one another—we’re not saying that they can all do everything. Because they can’t. None of us can do everything. That’s why team is so important.
But when we read the Bible and when we read the Gospels, we realize that there are always leaders among leaders. You take eleven boys and put them all together with a soccer ball and leave them for a while, they will choose a captain. They will choose a captain. It will become apparent. And so Jesus called twelve, but then we know Peter, James, and John. They were the ones on the Mount of Transfiguration.
And so, when we think in terms of plurality of leadership, we need to recognize too that there is a distinction in function—a distinction, actually, which the New Testament itself pays attention to. First [Timothy] 5:17: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor”—and then here’s the distinction—“especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” “Especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”
Now, if you take our eldership at the church, not everybody labors in preaching and teaching. Some of us do, but I think equally, most don’t. The distinction, then, does not elevate the person’s stature before God, or even, actually, before the congregation. Those of us who do might like to think that’s the case, but no, I don’t think we can say that from the New Testament. And it’s very, very important. Because there is a peculiar temptation that is involved in being entrusted with the privilege of doing the preponderance of the teaching from the Bible. It’s a devastating thing, but it also is a very opportunistic thing.
What, then, will protect the person who has the balance of the Bible at his fingertips and on his lips from becoming an arrogant, tyrannical, domineering, autocratic rascal? “Well,” you say, “well, Mrs. Jenkins, she can handle that. She did it before with the previous minister.” No. She will not be sufficient for this. The corrective is built in, into the eldership itself, so that it is the responsibility and privilege of the elders together to make sure that none of us ends up in that position. So that although somebody may be able to lead with a kind of persuasive zeal, those individuals at the same time need to be obviously subject to their fellow elders, because their fellow elders are equally responsible to God, to whom they will give an account. And part of what they will give an account for is making sure that none of their number, whoever they might be, ends up in that domineering position.
So, it’s pastoral, it’s accountable, it’s plural, and finally and obviously, it’s spiritual. It’s spiritual. It’s always spiritual. Why do so few people pray? Well, it’s a spiritual issue. Why is the singing rather poor? Well, it’s a spiritual issue. Why are the numbers diminishing? Well, it’s a spiritual issue. Why does there seem to be a lack of interest in x or y? It’s always a spiritual issue.
You see, this is not an organization. We’re not trying to put a club together here. This is the church for which Jesus has shed his own blood. This is the church of the Lord Jesus Christ in a particular location. And what then is the responsibility and role of the congregation? Well, again, Hebrews helps us. What are we to do? Well, we are to love the leaders who spoke the Word of God, we’re to “consider the outcome of their way of life,” and we’re to “imitate their faith.” Wonderfully helpful, isn’t it? In other words, how’s this thing working out for them that they’re telling us all about? Is it making a difference in their life? If it’s not making a difference in their life, then we can’t be sure that they’re really telling us the Word of God. And what should we imitate, their personality or whatever? No, no, no. We should “imitate their faith.” The fact that when difficulty and darkness comes, when danger overwhelms us, when we lose loved ones, when we ourselves are struck by this and by that, where are these characters? Are they telling us again that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever”? “Well, yes, they are.” Then I want to “remember” them, I want to “consider” them. And I want—further down in the chapter—to “obey” them and “submit to them.” Why? ’Cause I really like them! No. Because they’re “keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.”
This takes us all the way back, actually, to our studies in Ephesians 5 and 6. Because remember when we studied that and we said, “Now, wives are supposed to submit to their husbands.” The culture in which we declare that doesn’t simply recoil from it; it advances against it. So when you have people who become members of your church who are not prepared to live within the framework of God’s appointing within family life, and then you put them within the context of church life, and they don’t understand the principle of submission in their home, what chance do you have of them understanding the principle of submission in the church? And that’s why sometimes people—especially ladies—are very disappointed when they come here, and early on they ask, “And I would want to be an elder of this church,” and we say, “Sorry, you can’t be an elder of the church.” “Why?” “Because only men are to be in leadership in the church.” And then we have this big, long discussion about it, which comes down to the matter of the Bible itself. They say, “Well, Jesus never said that. That was Paul.” I said, “Yes. Paul wrote the New Testament, under the direction of the Holy Spirit.” And so it goes.
So this idea of submission is difficult, but it is clear. It doesn’t overturn the mutual submission that is to be part and parcel of our relationships with each other, and the writer to Hebrews is not urging some kind of mindless obedience. That’s the way it’s often portrayed: “Well, I’m not just gonna take my brain out and listen to that.” No, no, no, no. He’s already said in verse 9, “Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings.” “Do[n’t] be led away by diverse and strange teachings.” In other words, keep your brain on! Keep thinking. Keep taking your Bible to church. Keep reading your Bible in the Life Group. Keep making sure that the leadership of the church is exercising the rule which is the sole rule, of the singular rule, of Christ, reign of Christ, by the Holy Spirit through the Bible. That is not a personality issue. This is not a peculiar idea. No! The submission that is called for is to the rule that is exercised in the name of Jesus, by the direction of Jesus, and by the rule of his Word. And if and when leadership in the church departs from those biblical guidelines, then it is due neither obedience or submission. It is for this reason that the leaders are identified as “those who taught the word of God to you.”
Newton, in the eighteenth century, says to his congregation in the morning,
I [count] it my honour and happiness that I preach to a free people, who have the Bible in their hands. To your Bibles I appeal. I entreat, I charge you to receive nothing upon my word, any [further] than I [can] prove it from the word of God; and bring every preacher, and every sermon that you hear, to the same standard.
Structure alone is like a body without breath in it. That is why the spiritual application of these biblical principles is foundational.
Having just come from the other side of the ocean and seeing how easily and how quickly traditions within even what were good local churches can become the basis of a form of fossilization, I want to say to you again that if you care about Parkside Church—not today—if you care about Parkside Church, should the Lord not return ten, twenty, thirty years from now, understand something: the election to the Supreme Court of the United States of America is nothing in comparison to the election of local leadership in a church so that generations yet unborn will be nurtured, led, fed, watched, warned, as a result of decisions made in a moment in time now that have longevity in history and then actually are eternal in their significance.
We say with the hymn writer,
O Breath of Life, come sweeping through us,
Revive your church with life and pow’r;
O Breath of Life, come, cleanse, renew us,
And fit your church to meet this hour.
To him who is able to keep you from falling, to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, be to the only wise God, majesty, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.
 John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 2, Select Lectures in Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977), 346.
 1 Timothy 3:1 (NIV 1984).
 See, for example, Acts 14:21–23.
 1 Peter 1:1 (ESV).
 See Ephesians 2:14–15.
 Hebrews 13:7 (paraphrased).
 1 Timothy 3:2 (KJV).
 Hebrews 13:17 (paraphrased).
 Hebrews 13:17 (ESV).
 1 Corinthians 4:1–4 (paraphrased).
 Hebrews 13:17 (NIV 1984).
 Hebrews 13:7 (ESV).
 Hebrews 13:8 (ESV).
 Hebrews 13:17 (ESV).
 Hebrews 13:17 (ESV).
 See Ephesians 5:22–24.
 John Newton, “Of a Living and a Dead Faith,” in The Works of John Newton (1820; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1985), 2:558.
 Bessie Porter Head, “O Breath of Life” (1920).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.