THEIR FOUR AREAS OF INFLUENCE
Let us now consider the four areas of influence of the New Testament elders in parallel with and illustrated by the Old Testament elders. The Old Testament elders functioned in:
(i) Every assembly of dwellings, whether villages, towns or cities1
(ii) Every tribe and region2
(iii) The whole nation3
(iv) Counselling the king4
Let’s start with counselling the king. In the New Testament, who is the king? Are New Testament elders to counsel Jesus who is ‘the Lord of lords and King of kings’?5 No, because we’ve seen that around ‘the throne of God and of the Lamb’ are already seated twenty-four elders, so which kings are the earthly elders to counsel? Well, who are the kings of whom Jesus is the King? You could say today’s national leaders, our Kings and Queens, our Governors-General or Prime Ministers, Presidents and the like, and it is certainly true that Jesus reigns over them, and we will look at that when we come to elders on a national level.
There is another kind of king that elders should be counselling whenever asked – every believer, whether male or female, young or old, is a ‘saint’ and a member of the ‘royal priesthood’, called by God to ‘reign in life’. Their reign requires a special attitude in the elder’s heart and a particular way of working, the understanding of which is essential to the proper functioning of both elders and saints.
COUNSELLING A NEW TESTAMENT KING
We must be very clear about this – how does God see the average, everyday believer? Certainly He accords him or her a great deal more respect, and has a much higher expectation of him or her, than some church leaders today. Early in my ministry, I was talking with a leading elder about his church and his attitude was astonishing, and yet unfortunately not uncommon. He told me very earnestly: “You can’t really expect people to hear God for themselves – they’re just a bunch of sheep who need us to tell them what to do!” He was half-right, since God’s people are Biblically described as sheep but in that very description, Jesus goes on to state that ‘My sheep HEAR My voice’.6 Who should we believe – this man who said they can’t hear Him, or Jesus who says they can and do?
In fact we can’t have faith to become His sheep UNLESS we actually do hear Him in the first place, since ‘faith comes by hearing’.7 Jesus’ much quoted response to Satan that “man shall not live on bread alone” goes on to state “but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God”8 so that if the people of God can’t hear the words from God’s mouth, they can’t have the life He offers. Our spiritual life is totally dependent on hearing Him. I believe in that elder’s case, his low respect for and expectation of the people of his church actively created the exact problem he was seeing; by his very attitude and the way that he then led, he discouraged the people from listening, so many stopped hearing. We who are leaders must ALWAYS be encouraging our people to listen to God Himself, often reminding and explaining how to.
Counselling a New Testament king illustrates this perfectly because we are commanded to:
(i) ‘Honor one another above yourselves’9
Elders must be clear as to whom they are talking and how they should be treated. Remember, those often quoted, or rather misquoted, words ‘Do not touch My anointed ones, and do My prophets no harm’ were NOT spoken to the people of God regarding their leaders, but to Gentile kings, prophets, and leaders regarding His people!10 All the people of God are the children of the King of Kings, they are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation’11 so anybody dealing with any one of them is required by God to honour them.
In fact, Christian leaders are called to be exactly opposite their counterparts in the world. Jesus noted that unbelieving leaders are “lords to their people and exercise authority over them” but He added, “NOT SO with you… let the leader become as the servant”.12 So then, if these words mean anything more than pious nonsense, elders are to serve the people as if their people are kings and they as leaders are servants.
Some have protested that this will cause the people to become arrogant but consider this: the same God who calls the leaders to lead in this way, calls His people to follow their example! If the leaders keep acting in a superior way, how do people behave who are following their example? If on the other hand, the leaders show a genuine respect and honour, those following their example are far less likely to be arrogant!
(ii) ‘As each one has received a gift, employ it in serving one another’13
How does an elder serve a king? Certainly not by giving him orders, usurping his place, or by undermining the king’s right to make his own decisions before God. He serves a king by offering him the gift he has to offer, i.e. wisdom and understanding, so that the king can make HIS decision with all available information. After all, it is the individual believer who is going to give account of himself to God14 and if he doesn’t accept the wisdom he is offered, he will suffer the consequences, just as our Old Testament example Rehoboam lost the majority of his kingdom! This way of elders serving is in accord with Solomon’s wisdom where he says to every reader:
By wise guidance you will wage war,
And in abundance of counsellors there is victory.15
The phrase ‘wage war’ is literally ‘make battle for yourself’, which of course means we all have our own battles to fight, but in order to win those battles we all need counsellors to help in our decision-making. Indeed, these verses are so well-quoted that we can overlook the fact that waging war and using counsellors in this way was a kingly pursuit. Jesus certainly saw it that way when He gave His parable about our becoming His disciples:
What king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and take counsel whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks terms of peace. So therefore, no one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.16
The meaning is plain: the king coming with twenty thousand men is Jesus and each of us is a king with ten thousand men. In considering His claim to reign over us, we may look for every possible way to avoid it but if we want to be at peace with Him, His terms are unconditional surrender; His reign is to be over every element of our lives. But consider how God views us – even in our rebellion against His righteous authority, He regards us as kings, even though everything under our control may appear to be minute in comparison.
This of course is because when God created mankind He not only made us in His own image, and that image includes His kingship, but He gave us real dominion over the earth, and even if we are in rebellion He still respects that dominion:
The heavens are the heavens of the LORD,
But the earth He has given to the sons of men.17
THE LIMITS OF THE ELDERS’ RESPONSIBILITIES
The main advantage of this way of working is that it more clearly defines both the extent and the limits of the responsibilities of the people of God and of the elders of those people. On the one hand, the people have an individual responsibility to walk in the ways of God which includes NOT following leaders who are going wrong. We are plainly warned: there always will be ‘many false prophets who will mislead many’,18 ‘false teachers among you… and many will follow their sensuality’,19 false shepherds and hirelings who are motivated more by money than love of the sheep20 and elders who are ‘speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them’.21 Accordingly all leadership and all leads offered are to be carefully examined before acceptance, and this is the responsibility of every individual adult.22 On the other hand, elders have the responsibility of delivering what wisdom they have to offer before leaving the individual to make their own decision. Paul certainly understood these limits on his ministry as we see:
I testify to you this day, that I am innocent of the blood of all men, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.23
He had served them with the truth which could save their lives and he had always ensured that they understood his words, arguing long and hard to persuade his hearers, and thereby had completed his responsibility. He also understood that how they received and applied that truth was now their responsibility, their life or death was now in their hands, and he respected their free-will, as God Himself does.
To use a mundane example of this, let’s consider a normal example of serving – how does a waiter in a restaurant correctly serve his customers? The customers are usually there because they have heard of what the chef can do and are eager to try his best efforts, but suppose having received the meal one customer finds that he is allergic to something in it. He is willing to pay for the meal but he is unwilling to eat it. What can the waiter do? Force-feed him? Throw a tantrum and declare that he will never serve him again? The choice of what, when, or even if, responsible adults eat is to be left to every individual to decide. So too in the spiritual realm. This of course raises many questions that are answered in How Leaders are to Lead.
In the meantime, to summarise, we see that any and every believer in Jesus who comes to an elder for counsel should receive the respect that King David had for the people of Israel:
As for the saints who are in the earth,
They are the majestic ones in whom is all my delight. (Psalm 16:3)
- Deut 19:12, 21:3-4
- Judges 11:5, 1 Sam 30:26-31
- Ex 3:16, Deut 27:1
- 1 Kings 12:6
- Rev 17:14
- John 11:27
- Rom 10:17
- Matt 4:4
- Rom 12:10, NIV
- Psa 105:14-15
- 1 Pet 2:9
- Luke 22:26, Matt 20:25-26
- 1 Pet 4:10
- Rom 14:10-12
- Prov 24:6
- Luke 14:31-33
- Psalm 115:16
- Matt 24:11
- 2 Peter 2:1-2
- John 10:1-17
- Acts 20:30
- Matt 24:4, Col 2:8
- Acts 20:26-27