Being Elder or Doing Elder?

Presenter: Chuck Gianotti

“Many men want to be president, but very few want to do president,” says Steve Sample, president of the University of Southern California. “Some of the unhappiest people I know are those whose aspirations for a high-level leadership position were finally satisfied, and who only then found out that they didn’t really want to do what it is that the position required” (The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, Joey-Bass Publisher, 2002, p. 160).

Most elders I know really do want to do elders’ work, and many have a passion for it. However, sometimes people outside of the elders’ group have the wrong impression of what it is all about. This can lead some to desire the position rather than the work of being an elder.

Could it even be that some are unhappy being elders because they have discovered it was not what they thought it would be? Possibly somewhere along the line a sanctified but unguarded heart gave way to a worldly notion of what leadership in the church is about. Such a mindset sees visible leadership in the church as having power, prestige, and perks. And there is the danger that these things can be desired more than doing the actual work of that elders.

Elders and Power

Sometimes eldership is seen as a power position, where one can finally wield decision-making authority, receive respect from other Christians, and “get the inside scoop on what is happening around the fellowship.” One elder wryly refers to the “Sanhedrin” of the local church! The idea of power positions entails those offices or roles that exercise control or official influence over the lives of others.

I recently heard someone refer to the elders as the “center of power” in the church. This kind of thinking and terminology reduces the biblical function of elders to the level of political theory, with its subtle implications of selfish ambition, control struggles, and personal rights.

This is not the tone of Scripture when describing elders. Peter, who certainly had a propensity for taking control of a situation, cautioned elders against “lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3 NASB).

The power center of the church is the Holy Spirit working through those who are fully submitted to His leading in their lives and ministries! And that may or may not include the elders, depending on who is walking closely with the Lord.

One does not need to be an elder to have a significant influence in the church. Each believer has a direct line to the Master Shepherd. If God can turn a king’s heart, He can certainly turn the affairs of the church!

Certainly, when elders make decisions that affect the whole church body, one could call that “power” in the sense of having authority to make the decision. However, elders are to guard the flock, and this means making decisions that will affect everyone for their good, according to the Lord’s leading. For example, elders may make decisions about ministry, speakers, doctrinal error, small group leaders, meeting facilitators, etc.

But with decision making comes enormous responsibility. Elders will have to give an account to the Master Shepherd some day for their leadership. It is His church, not ours; we are accountable to Him. The center of power resides not with us, but with the true Head of the church. Eldership requires the humility to be sensitized to the Holy Spirit’s leading and not to just assume our decisions are automatically identical to the Lord’s guidance.

Desiring the position of elder because of the “power” involved is extremely superficial. One of the most difficult aspects of being an elder is submitting to God’s will, particularly when things don’t go “our way.” The man who seeks the elder position to get power will soon discover that he has very little spiritual power from God to validate his ministry and credibility as a spiritual leader.

Elders and Prestige

Yes, there is prestige (or “honor”) in serving as an elder. The dictionary defines prestige as “a person’s high standing among others; honor or esteem.” Biblically, this honor is to be associated not with “being” an elder, but with “doing” elder work: “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching”(1 Tim. 5:17).

In the general sense, believers should honor all who serve sacrificially: “Welcome him [Epaphroditus] in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me”(Phil. 2:29-30 NIV).

But what is the proper biblical balance to this issue of honor? Does it feed a person’s pride? Doesn’t this work against humility?

There are several wrong responses:

  1. To divert attention away from our own secret desire for honor by withholding honor from those God has told us to honor. In that case, envy, insecurity, and lack of faith in God’s blessings on our part are the real issues. Maybe we secretly want to be honored—and if we don’t get it, then we don’t want anyone else to get it either.
  2. To avoid honoring anyone, for that would take away from their reward in heaven. Regardless of how “spiritual” this sounds, it flatly contradicts Scripture! Some might feel that honoring a person will tempt them to pride. It may, but it may not. We simply must get beyond the juvenile jealousy that prevents us from giving honor where honor is due. It is not up to us to judge another person’s pride, for there is plenty to keep us busy searching our own hearts in this regard. We must be careful that our human notions don’t lead us to violate the clear commands of Scripture to honor others.
  3. To respond to honor from others with a false show of humility. That’s what I call the “Ah shucks, ‘twert nothing” routine. It can sound disingenuous. False humility is behavior that intentionally presents itself as being humble.
  4. To outright reject the honor we receive. That is like refusing a gift at Christmastime—it’s an insult to the giver.

It seems to me the right response to being honored is the attitude Jesus indicated in Luke 17:10, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” The biblical basis for being an elder is because God has so directed you. If doing the work of elder is something you were “told to do” by God, then “doing elder” is a matter of obedience—it is not about the honor of “being elder.”

To put it another way, if you are an elder because it was your decision to become an elder and a result of your aspiration for the associated honor, then you will never be satisfied with the honor of being an elder—plus you will make a lousy elder!

If you truly know that you are, at best, simply an obedient servant doing what your Master has told you, then you can have a true heart of gratitude for the honor, which you know you don’t deserve. Your thoughts might be like this: “I am only doing what God has commanded me to do. Don’t we have an amazing God that He can use even someone like me? If anything of worth has been accomplished in my ministry, it is simply the evidence of His grace working through me. In the same way that I thank God for His gracious, undeserved salvation, I thank God for honoring me as an elder, undeserved as it is. He deserves all the credit.”

Isn’t that the essence of Paul’s thought? “God considered me faithful putting me into service . . . I was shown mercy . . . and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant . . . Now to the King . . . be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Tim. 1:12-17).

Becoming an elder to gain human prestige is superficial. True spiritual honor is experienced only by the man who works not for his own honor, but for the honor and glory of God. Whether or not honor comes through human recognition, you know by faith that when you do the work of elder well, you are satisfied not with the human prestige, but with the honor that comes from the God who has commanded you. Such honor is deeply fulfilling.

Elders and Perks

There are some perks to being an elder. Some of you may laugh as you read this, for you can relate more readily to Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 4:9, “I think God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world . . . to men.”

But there are perks to being an elder, at least to the superficial perception of a worldly mindset. Elders “get to do” much of the “up-front, visible stuff” such as giving announcements, controlling or chairing meetings, being given places of preference, being treated better than the average Christian in the pew, getting named in the bulletin, etc.

I remember the president of a para-church group who came to meet me at the chapel building one day. He literally stepped over a young brother who was repairing the front door.  Briskly ignoring him, this “esteemed” leader strolled through the building, and upon finding me, warmly greeted me and acted like I was an old friend. The young man at the door, a new believer, later told me what had happened and was quite upset about it. Disingenuous as the show of friendliness by the “esteemed” leader was, the reality was there: I was treated better than the young brother. Though I may eschew such treatment and point out the hypocrisy, the need to do so proves my point. Being a leader in the church sometimes means you are treated better than the average Christian.

Sometimes this favorable treatment may be understandable, like one church that asked for volunteers to provide child care for elders with young families so they could go visiting as husband and wife. Now that’s a perk!

Such things, however, should never be the motivation for being an elder. Jesus said that He came “not to be served, but to serve” (Matt. 20:28). At times elders will be served, in order to help them in their work. We don’t want to be like Peter, who responded poorly when the Lord wanted to serve him by washing his feet.

So there you have it—the privileges, power, and perks of being an elder. Seeking these things will make you a miserable elder, because you will not really get what you are looking for. Yet Paul still asserted, “Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1).

It is good to desire the “task” or “doing” of elder work. This will bring the privilege of being God’s under-shepherd, the power of God’s Spirit working through you, and the perks of God’s blessing in your work.