Assembly Characteristics - 05 Elders

Chapter 5

Elderhood in the Local Assembly

1 Corinthians 4

Among the assembly’s unique features that we can see in 1 Corinthians would obviously include the importance and work of brethren raised up by God in the assembly to provide spiritual care for the saints. While elders are not directly addressed or mentioned in this epistle, we see some characteristics in 1 Corinthians 4 that pertain to those who function in this vital capacity. We must constantly reinforce the fact that Scripture gives us no teaching or principle to support the practice of one or even two men functioning in an official position, paid or otherwise, as a “pastor” or “minister” in a local assembly. This unscriptural practice began early as churches departed from simple New Testament principles and as men began to rise to prominence in local churches or over groups of local churches. Such departure might have been welcomed by some as being an improvement over the pattern of the New Testament assembly. To have a plurality of brethren doing the work of elderhood and being exercised by the Spirit of God in view of assembly service is not as easy as hiring one man for that work. However, the present corruption of doctrine, principle, and practice in Christendom is largely traceable to men in prominence and authority who have introduced teachings that reinforced their position and brought in the leavening influence of wrong doctrine among the saints.

Though, as we have said, the direct teaching of 1 Corinthians 4 is not referring to elders or deacons, we can see that there are indications of functioning conditions that would involve these men. Paul is speaking of himself and others who labored among the believers, but the same principles are true of like men who take responsibility in an assembly, having been raised up of the Holy Spirit for that work. They are seen in a fourfold way:

Ministers Rendering Service (1 Corinthians 4:1)

A minister is not a man with an official position or title, but he is one who is actively involved in service. The servant is seen here in relation to his Lord as he acts to carry out his Master's will. In other places (1 Corinthians 3:5), he is acting in relation to the work he is doing, fully and actively laboring in that work. This work entails not only ministering the Word of God to the saints by their teaching, but it also involves the careful, attentive, concerned labor directed toward the spiritual needs of the assembly in any way.

It is important to emphasize that elderhood or oversight is a work, not an office or position to which one is appointed. The spiritual health of an assembly is dependent on the Spirit of God working through these men to supply the need of the assembly. The zealous, unflagging, toil of such men is absolutely essential, and any man who would aspire to the work without realizing the scope of it would only bring weakness at the best and harm at the worst to the assembly and its testimony.

Elders are constantly looking out for men among the assembly who are giving evidence that the Holy Spirit has raised them up and equipped them for the work of elderhood (Acts 20:28). It is much easier and clearer when there are brethren who are already exercised in that work and who are seeking to perform it in some degree. Some seem to think that they cannot and should not do any of the work of caring for God's people until they are “officially recognized.” Such an attitude by any man seems to show he lacks understanding of what is involved and perhaps indicates that he is not a candidate for this important work. The incessant and dedicated labors of the apostle Paul among the Ephesian believers, as recorded in Acts 20, graphically depict unceasing, sacrificial, and earnest toil to protect the saints and develop them in the things of God. These men also are

Stewards Discharging their Responsibility (1 Corinthians 4:1)

Elders are entrusted with a responsibility before God about which they will have to give account. The steward was not concerned with pleasing men, even those who were under him. Nor was he occupied with other servants’ opinions, for he realized that in view of the precious things or work with which he was entrusted, all that mattered was the account he would give and the evaluation of his Master. The elder is called a “steward of God” in Titus 1:7. We must see this work in the local assembly as one for which the men involved will give account to the Lord (Hebrews 13:17). The first steward in Scripture is Eliezer (Genesis 15:2), and if he is the same man as in Genesis 24, he shows that the first responsibility of the steward was to implicitly carry out the will of his master. Another beautiful example of a steward is Joseph in Potiphar's house. His faithfulness to his master sets a pattern for all stewards. Responsible brethren are charged with knowing the will of the Lord and seeing that it is carried out in the assembly. For this reason, the overseer cannot be a man pleaser. His first concern must be to please His Lord. The steward is also entrusted with precious things which are not his own, and he is responsible to use them and care for them for his Master. Surely such local brethren are aware of the very precious things with which they have been entrusted: the welfare of the saints, the condition of the assembly, divine and spiritual truths, and testimony that is linked with the name of the Lord Jesus along with other things. The burden is heavy and the conditions stringent, for a full account will have to be given in that coming day. These men are also seen in this passage to be:

Instructors Imparting Truth (1 Corinthians 4:15)

This instructor was not just a teacher giving knowledge as in a classroom, but the word indicates an individual who was charged with the welfare of a child or of children. He was responsible to protect them from danger, to show them by his example the behavior they were to emulate, and to make sure they got the training and teaching which the parent intended. The only other instance of the word is in Galatians 3:24-25, where the law is seen serving as a guardian in its relation to Israel in times prior to Christ. Part of the function of elders in an assembly includes guarding the saints from all that would bring spiritual ruin. They must be alert to the efforts of Satan to introduce grievous wolves among the saints (Acts 20:29), or cause men to rise up to cause trouble in the assembly. They need to know the spiritual condition of the believers and what is needed to preserve and help them. Another aspect of this work is that of displaying a moral and spiritual pattern that the believers should follow in their lives. If these men are not able to give teaching themselves, then they are responsible to invite capable men who could give the teaching the assembly needs for its blessing. Again, these men are seen in this chapter functioning in the important capacity as

Fathers Exercising Care (1 Corinthians 4:15)

The character of fathers would surely indicate a closer and more important relationship between saints and the elders than those already considered. The father feels a bond, a unity, a greater and rightful concern that the son develop into an adult who would reflect something of his character and desires for him. He would feel the greatest disappointment if there were departure from the principles he had sought to instill in him. He would take delight in the son making progress and developing responsibility as well as showing some resemblance to his father in his purpose and character of life.

Paul displayed this character toward the saints here as well as those in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 2:7-11) and we see the need for this character in those who would take a responsible place in the work of the assembly.

The need for spiritual fathers who take personal interest in the development and welfare of the saints is evident today. This need cannot be met by “hirelings” or those who only think of an office or a position which they can hold over the people of God. This need can only be met by brethren who are fully involved with the welfare of the saints of God, feeling a close and personal bond that moves them in sacrificial care to saints. It is a great privilege and responsibility to see that the assembly that God has put them into thrives spiritually, is healthy, prosperous, and is being brought on to the full purpose God has in view for it. There are such brethren among us, and they grieve over the failure of some of their children when they do not honor the Lord or go on in faithfulness to Him. Their concern is very personal and the tears they shed over wayward saints are known now only to God, but will perhaps be revealed in a coming day.

With these examples in view, may God stir up men with such a heart to care for the saints, and may He give them encouragement in the work He has for them to do!