In this age of rebellion and litigation, when Americans are more and more exerting their “free choice” and “rights.” the divinely-instituted structure of Christ’s body (the Church) is coming under fierce attack. Our response to this “man-is-autonomous” challenge must be a tenacious holding to Biblical prescriptions of order. Yet our maintaining this divine structure, i.e., rule by elders) must be done with sensitivity and compassion for the genuine feelings of God’s people over whom we rule (1 Peter 5:2-3).
Because of the Biblical prescriptions and because of the authority challenge and because of the Petrine exhortation to rule with kindness a great burden is placed on the elders of God’s church It is this presbyterial pressure to which I address my remarks in this article. I believe the Scripture speaks to this pressure, and the encouragement and solutions it offers to us elders is needed at the present time.
I believe Paul speaks of this pressure in the context of presbytery in several places in the New Testament. In 2 Cor. 1:8 he writes to the believers at Corinth, “We [i.e. Timothy and Paul—elders] do not want you to be uninformed, brothers [elders of the church at Corinth?], about the hardships (thlipsis) we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.” Again in 2 Cor. 6:4 we read, “Rather, in every way we show ourselves to be servants of God; in great endurance, in pressures (thlipsis), hardships and distresses.” The “we” in this verse clearly refers back to 2 Cor. 5:20 and “ambassadors” which is a reference to the apostolic band of elders. In 1 Thess. 3:7 we see the following: “Therefore, brothers (Thessalonian elders?) in all our pressures (thlipsis) and persecution we (i.e. Timothy, Silas, Paul—elders) were encouraged about you because of your faith.” One might also look at Acts 20:23 and 2 Cor. 2:4 for other references to this presbyterial pressure or burden (thlipsis).
The key word in these passages has been thlipsis which is translated “a pressing,” “pressure,” “anything which burdens or afflicts the soul or body.” To limit this word only to bodily affliction destroys applicability of apostolic teaching and example in many passages, e.g. Rom. 5:3: 12:17; James 1:27; Rev. 1:9. Consequently, the word thlipsis must be seen in its context as to whether it refers to bodily persecution or to anguish of the soul (or perhaps even to both).
There are other presbyterial passages which support the conviction that anguish (pressure) of the soul goes with the territory of being a biblical elder in the body of Christ. See, for example, the following passages which speak of the pressures of being an elder: 2 Cor. 11:28: Gal. 4:19: Phil. 2:15-17; 1 Thess. 2:19: Heb. 13:17.
Having shown, I trust, from Scripture the existence of that which all conscientious elders experience in their pastoring responsibilities (i.e. pastoral pressures ) I turn now to the question of how this pressure, this burden of being an elder, is caused.
I believe this thlipsis is caused by the conscientious exercising of our responsibility to shepherd God’s people under our care. Jesus tells Peter to “feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). Paul tells the Ephesian elders to “shepherd the church of God” (Acts 20:28). Peter tells the elders in Asia Minor to “shepherd the flock of God” (I Peter 5:2). In the Old Testament, God tells Israel in Jer. 3:15. “Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you on knowledge and understanding” (cf. 23:4). In Ezekiel 34 we have the “shepherds” (i.e., spiritual elders) of Israel addressed by God. And in Psalm 23 we not only have a picture of Jesus as the Great Shepherd but also a picture of every conscientious elder as under-shepherds.
It seems to me that Hebrews 13:7 teaches that there are three major areas of accomplishing this shepherding responsibility which is the source of thlipsis among elders:
1. Declaring God’s word and work
2. Disciplining God’s flock
3. Directing God’s kingdom
Let us look at these three major tasks very quickly. Remember these areas are primarily the obligation of the duly ordained elders.
1. Declaring God’s word and work
Paul writes to Timothy: “Preach the word, be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2). The apostle writes to. Titus: ” (an elder) must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9). See also the following passages which are helpful in pointing out the word-preaching responsibilities of the elder: Acts 5:42; 20:28-31; 15:22¬29; 16:4-5; 1 John 1:1-3; 4:14 (“we” — apostolic elders); 1 Tim. 2:7: 1 Tim 1:11; 1 Cor. 12:28.
There is also the aspect in the proclaiming role of the elder to declare the work of God as the word of God. We do this second type of proclamation in prayer and in testifying of God’s grace. In Acts 6:4 the twelve disciples told the Jerusalem church to appoint seven deacons so that the disciples could give their “attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” Throughout the New Testament we have examples of the elders praying for the flock; e.g., the session at Rome (1:8-10), the session at Corinth (1 Cor 1:4) ; the session at Galatia (6:18); the session at Ephesus , Eph 1:15-16): the session at Philippi (1:4, 9), the session at Colossae (1:3) and the session at Thessalonica (1 Thess. 1:2-3). Additionally, we have James’ encouragement to the flock in this regard in James 5:14.
We also find the apostolic elders giving testimony to God’s grace in acting in history. When Paul arrived in Antioch, the apostolic band “gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). We also see reference of this testifying in Acts 11:21-24: Gal 1:11-2:21 and Phil. 1:12-26.
2. Discipling God’s flock
It is this task that separates the elder-pastor from the elder-teacher, for it is with this task that the elder kneads the gospel into the warp and woof of the life of the sheep. The word “discipling” is found in Matthew 13:52; 27:57 ; Acts 14:21, and most importantly in the great commission passage of Matt 28:19; “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” The word literally means “to make a disciple of” or “to become a disciple of” and has scriptural reference only to followers of Jesus and his kingdom.
This process of “discipling” involves the interpersonal relating of the elder and the gospel to the individual sheep. Counseling falls under this heading (Rom 15:15). Living an exemplary life is included here (1 Cor. 4:16- 17; 11:1; Heb. 13:7; 1 Peter 5:3). A proper sense of identifying with the people of God (1 Cor. 9:22-27; Acts 20:18) and helping share the burden of the local ministry (1 Thess. 2:5-12; Ez. 12:17-20) is inherent in this task. Paul gives some “discipling” guidelines in 2 Tim 2:24-26; 1 Tim 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9.
The goal of this “discipling” task is preeminently expressed by Paul in Gal. 4:19: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (cf. Ezra 10:9-14).
3. Directing God’s kingdom
It is this task which is commonly referred to as “ruling” God’s church. Perhaps the key passage is 2 Cor. 5:20: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (cf. Eph 6:20; Philemon 9). The Greek word for “ambassador” comes from the same root as “elder” (presbuo). It is in this role that elders are called “overseers” or “bishops” in the New Testament (Acts 20:28; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:1-2; Titus 1:7; 1 Pet 5:2). In fact, to act as a “shepherd” (poimaino) can even mean “to rule” as is shown in Matt 2:6; Rev 2:27: 12:5. 19:15. The following passages also refer to this particular task of the elder: Jer. 2:8; Acts 6:1-4; 11:30; 14:23; 15:1-16:4; 1 Tim. 3:5; 5:17; Heb. 13:7,17.24.
The goal of all of our activity as elders organized into presbyteries is the same now as it was in the first century as epitomized by the results of the Acts 15 general synod: “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew in numbers”, Acts 16:4). May our actions as sessions, presbyteries and a synod result in the same growth in our congregations!
This brief review of the pressures or burdens of our shepherding responsibilities brings us to the question: what can we do to assist one another and to encourage one another in our respective local shepherding? In other words, what ought we as elders to be doing to and for each other in our sessions, presbyteries, and synod” I believe we elders need continually to demonstrate to the flock of God that we are worthy of the anointing by God and the respect and trust of God’s people by living that great love principle given in John 13:34-35. Indeed, this passage ought to be reflected in our times together as rulers of the church of Jesus Christ.
Embodied in this love principle I see four areas of responsibility as elders within the context of presbytery:
1. Responsibility toward God: admonish each other (i.e. other elders) to live holy lives.
2. Responsibilities towards each other: subject ourselves to each other.
3. Responsibilities towards others: stimulate each other to do good works.
4. Responsibilities towards ourselves: strengthen each other’s faith.
A brief look at these four basic relationships as they are found in the presbyterial context will help us to see their importance for us today
1. Admonish each other to live holy lives.
Elder Paul admonishes elder Timothy: “But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness” (1 Tim. 6:11) (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1; 4:7, 12, 16; 2 Tim. 2:22). Paul writes to elder Titus: “An elder must be blameless . . .” (Titus 1:6). Paul writes to the church at Thessalonica about the actions of the apostolic elders: “We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow” (2 Thess. 3:9). Peter gives a like-minded exhortation in I Peter 5:3. May our presbytery meetings and our session meetings and our synod meetings be times of admonishment to godly living before God and his flock.
2. Subject ourselves to each other.
Peter, in his address to the elders (Asia Minor presbytery or various sessions?) writes: “Young men (elders -1 Tim. 4:12), in the same way be submissive to those who are older. Clothe yourselves with humility (cf. 1 Cor. 8:11 toward one another, because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” 2 Peter 5:5). Again, to Timothy Paul writes: “(The elder) must not be a recent convert or he may become“ (1 Tim 3:6). To Titus Paul writes, “an overseer . . must not be . . overbearing. . rather, he must be … self-controlled. . .”.On the basis that (Christ is the “Chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4), we under-shepherds come under special (and perhaps unique) application of Phil 2:5-8 (cf. Eph 4:1-2). This is exemplified by Paul in 1 Cor 15:9 and Acts 20:33-34, by Peter in 1 Peter 5:1 (“fellow elder”), by John in 2 John 1 and 3 John I (“elder”) and by the Acts 15 general synod: “it seemed good to us (elders) having come to one accord (or having had a meeting of the minds) to choose some men and send them to you . .” May our session meetings, our presbytery meetings and our synod meetings be characterized by a spirit of humility and a willingness to be taught our Lord’s truth by any elder, young or old.
3. Stimulate each other to perform good works for others.
While the passage is most often used in reference to congregational involvement, Heb 10:24-25 can be equally applied to session, Presbytery and synod meetings: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” This elder-to-elder responsibility is demonstrated by Paul to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:35), by Paul to Timothy (2 Tim 1:6), by Paul to Titus (Titus 1:5), and by Paul and Barnabas to various sessions (Acts 14:23). Again in the Acts 15 general synod we read where the public debate among the elders crystallized the theological position of the group so that there could be a godly ministry coming out to that synod (15:7 and 16:4). May our people look with joyful anticipation to our session meetings, our presbytery meetings and our synod meetings because good works always ensue from such assemblies.
4. Strengthen each other’s faith
We turn now to the benefit our times together ought to have on our own lives. This strengthening ministry is accomplished in three primary ways: teaching each other, testifying to each other, and demonstrating the eldership to each other.
We read of elders teaching each other for the sake of each other’s faith in Acts 20:27: “For I (Paul) have not hesitated to proclaim to you (Ephesian elders) the whole will of God” (cf. Acts 20:20). Paul writes to Timothy: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men (Ephesian elders) 1 Tim 1:31 who will also be qualified to teach others” (cf. 2 Tim 1:13-14). Paul writes the same thought to Titus (Titus 1:9) and exemplifies this teaching ministry to Peter and the Antiochan elders in Gal 2:14-21. In the Acts 15 synod we read: “And after there had been much debate — elders teaching elders in the give and take of theological debate!
We also read of elders testifying to each other in the apostolic church of God’s gracious acting in history. In the Acts 15 general synod we read: “The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them” (15:12). We read of the same testifying going on in Acts 15:4, 11:1-18; and 21:18-19.
Finally, we read of the apostolic elders demonstrating to each other the qualities God demands for his shepherds. Paul reminds the Ephesian elders of his example to them while he was with them as a fellow elder (Acts 20:18, 34). He calls his example to the mind and heart of Timothy (2 Tim. 3:10-11 and to Titus (Titus 2:6-8; 2 Cor. 12:18). The apostle makes mention of his living testimony to James, John and Peter (Gal. 2:9), and Luke records Paul’s living witness to the disciples gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 9:26-28) and to the Jerusalem elders (Acts 21:26). May our session meetings, our presbytery meetings and our synod meetings be imbued with the teachings of God’s work, the testifying of God’s work, and the demonstrating of God’s grace.
There is a word which closely resembles the word for Biblical church government. The word is “presbyopia” (literally “old eye”) which is the inability to focus on small print (i.e., far-sightedness) and which generally occurs in advancing age. With the RPC, ES gaining a measure of stability and wisdom as it enters its venerable years let us not forget what many in Christendom consider the “small print” of Christian doctrine—church government. As we constantly (and properly) adapt to meet the challenges of our age we must remember that only Scripture provides the antidote for the rebellious nature of man, be that man Christian or not.
The Christian community around us (to say nothing of the secular society) is constantly emphasizing the trendy and the fashionable in evangelical thinking. Most of this current thinking has little to do with a shepherding ministry consistent with the revealed will the Chief Shepherd. As we elders continually face the onslaught of ministering to a negligent and disobedient disposition we need the pastoring of each other if we are successfully to fulfill our anointed responsibilities of shepherding God’s sheep. May our times together be used to cultivate each other’s image-bearing divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).