It is the responsibility of every saved man to serve the Lord according to his capacity and in his own sphere. God did not appoint elders to do the work on behalf of their brethren. After the appointment of elders, as before, it is still the brethren’s duty and privilege to serve the Lord. Elders are also called bishops (Acts 20:28; Titus 1:5, 7). The term “elder” relates to their person; the term “bishop” to their work. Bishop means overseer, and an overseer is not one who works instead of others, but one who supervises others as they work. God intended that every Christian should be a “Christian worker,” and He appointed some to take the oversight of the work so that it might be carried on efficiently. It was never His thought that the majority of the believers should devote themselves exclusively to secular affairs and leave the church matters to a group of spiritual specialists. This point cannot be overemphasized. Elders are not a group of men who contract to do the church work on behalf of its members; they are only the ones who superintend affairs. It is their business to encourage the backward and restrain the forward ones, never doing the work instead of them, but simply directing them in the doing of it.
The responsibility of an elder relates to matters temporal and spiritual. They are appointed to “lead,” and also to “instruct” and “shepherd.” “Let the elders who take the lead well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in word and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). “Shepherd the flock of God among you, overseeing not under compulsion but willingly, according to God; not by seeking gain through base means but eagerly; nor as lording it over your allotments but by becoming patterns of the flock” (1 Pet. 5:2-3).
The Word of God uses the term “lead” in connection with the responsibilities of an elder. The ordering of church government, the management of business affairs, and the care of material things are all under their control. But we must remember that a scriptural church does not consist of an active and a passive group of brethren, the former controlling the latter, and the latter simply submitting to their control, or the former bearing all the burden while the latter settle down in ease to enjoy the benefit of their labors. “That the members would…care for one another” is God’s purpose for His Church (1 Cor. 12:25). Every church after God’s own heart bears the stamp of “one another” on all its life and activity. Mutuality is its outstanding characteristic. If the elders lose sight of that, then their leading the church will soon be changed to lording it over the church. Even while the elders exercise control in church affairs, they must remember that they are only fellow members with the other believers; Christ alone is the Head. They were not appointed to be lords of their brethren, but to be their examples. What is an example? It is a pattern for others to follow. Since they were to be a pattern to the brethren, then obviously it was neither God’s thought for them to do all the work and the brethren none, nor for the brethren to do the work while they simply stood by and commanded. For the elders to be a pattern to the brethren implied that the brethren worked and the elders worked as well. It also implied that the elders worked with special diligence and care, so that the brethren should have a good example to follow. They were overseers, but they were not lords of their brethren, standing aloof and commanding; and they did direct the work, but they did it more by example than by command. Such is the scriptural conception of the leading of the elders.
But their responsibility does not merely relate to the material side of church affairs. If God has equipped them with spiritual gifts, then they should also bear spiritual responsibility. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Let the elders who take the lead well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in word and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). It is the responsibility of all elders to control the affairs of the church, but such as have special gifts (as of prophecy or teaching) are free to exercise these for the spiritual edification of the church. Paul wrote to Titus that an elder should “be able both to exhort by the healthy teaching and to convict those who oppose” (Titus 1:9). The preaching and teaching in the local church is not the business of apostles but of local brethren who are in the ministry, especially if they are elders. As we have already seen, the management of a church is a matter of local responsibility; so also is teaching and preaching.
On the spiritual side of the work the elders help to build up the church not only by teaching and preaching, but by pastoral work. To shepherd the flock is particularly the work of elders. Paul said to the Ephesian elders, “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among whom the Holy Spirit has placed you as overseers to shepherd the church of God” (Acts 20:28). And Peter wrote in the same strain to the elders among the saints of the Dispersion, “Shepherd the flock of God among you” (1 Pet. 5:2). The present-day conception of pastors is far removed from the thought of God. God’s thought was that men chosen from among the local brethren should shepherd the flock, not that men coming from other parts should preach the gospel, found churches, and then settle down to care for those churches. A clear understanding of the respective responsibilities of apostles and elders would clear away many of the difficulties that exist in the church today.
THE PLURALITY OF ELDERS
This work of leading, teaching, and shepherding the flock, which we have seen to be the special duty of the elders, does not devolve upon one man only in any place. To have pastors in a church is scriptural, but the present-day pastoral system is quite unscriptural; it is an invention of man.
In Scripture we see that there was always more than one elder or bishop in a local church. It is not God’s will that one believer should be singled out from all the others to occupy a place of special prominence, while the others passively submit to his will. If the management of the entire church rests upon one man, how easy it is for him to become self-conceited, esteeming himself above measure and suppressing the other brethren (3 John). God has ordained that several elders together share the work of the church, so that no one individual should be able to run things according to his own pleasure, treating the church as his own special property and leaving the impress of his personality upon all its life and work. To place the responsibility in the hands of several brethren, rather than in the hands of one individual, is God’s way of safeguarding His church against the evils that result from the domination of a strong personality. God has purposed that several brothers should unitedly bear responsibility in the church, so that even in controlling its affairs they have to depend one upon the other and submit one to the other. Thus, in an experimental way, they will discover the meaning of bearing the cross, and they will have opportunity to give practical expression to the truth of the Body of Christ. As they honor one another and trust one another to the leading of the Spirit, none taking the place of the Head, but each regarding the others as fellow members, the element of mutuality, which is the distinctive feature of the church, will be preserved.
(The Normal Christian Church Life, Chapter 3, by Watchman Nee)