A Message to Prepare our Congregation for the Election of Ruling Elders
Exodus 18.13-27; 1 Samuel 16.1-7; Titus 1.4-9
Mark Dever is not only the leader of a great congregation, Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC, but he leads a ministry that focuses on church health. Mark Dever says:
“We believe God designed the church to be fundamentally a display of His own glory and wisdom (Eph 3:10). And we think He has deliberately structured that display in the shape of a loving community that illustrates for a watching world the close fellowship of the Trinity and the redemption that He has accomplished for us in Christ Jesus (John 13:34-35).”
I believe that too. The local church is to be the embodiment of the Gospel and is to reflect the role relationships that reflect the shepherding heart of God for His people. That is why today is so important in the life of our church. We are preparing to nominate ruling elders.
In the Bible there are two offices: deacons, ministers of mercy who assist the ministers and elders in the shepherding task by taking care of physical needs of the congregation, and ruling elders, who join with the pastor in overseeing the shepherding of the flock and the advancement of the Gospel in the world.
Today, we will look at what the Bible says about this important role. And in seeing what God says about elders, we learn more about the heart of God for His people.
Finding God’s Man at the Ponderosa
Ya’ll remember Bonanza, don’t you? Well, when I read about how the prophet Samuel was called by God to sanctify himself and then go out and find the man that God had chosen to be king, I think of Bonanza. I imagine the prophet Samuel going out to a place like the Ponderosa to locate the next leader of Israel. I think of Jesse as a sort of Ben Cartwright who had those boys out there. And as Samuel took a look at Jesse’s boys, to me, they must have seemed like Ben Cartwright’s boys. Maybe Eliab was like Adam. Tall, dark and handsome, confident, articulate¾a real man of culture. Samuel thought that Eliab was God’s portrait of a leader, but God said no. So the prophet moved on to Abinadab. I wonder if Abinadab was like Hoss Cartwright. He might have been¾well, let’s say¾a well-rounded sort of fellow who was quick with a smile and a heart as big as his hat. People like those sorts of fellows and he would have made a great king. But God said, “No. That is not the portrait of the man I want to lead my people.” So he moved on to a fellow who may have been like Little Joe. His name was Shammah. He may have been a good-looking lad, a fine horseman, a noble but feisty spirit, and, like Little Joe, maybe he had just a little bit of playfulness to him. But God said no. There were other sons as well that Samuel considered. In all seven. Now, we come to the part where only the most die-hard of Bonanza fans know about. Pa Cartwright had another boy. His name was Jamie. He was the fourth son but not too many people know about him. You see, in Season Twelve of the series, Dusty Rhodes, a ranch hand, brings this orphan boy to Ben Cartwright. And Ben takes the boy in and eventually lovingly adopts him. The boy’s name becomes Jamie Cartwright. Now Jamie is like Jesse’s other boy¾his other boy named David. You would never think of him. He simply wasn’t on anyone’s radar. No one ever thought of him as being a king. No one that is, except the Lord. And we learn one of the most important lessons in the Bible:
“The Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16.7 NKJV).
Today we are beginning, in our church, the process of nomination for the election of ruling elders. This is one of the most important times in the life of a congregation. For we are to look for the man whom God is anointing to this ministry. And so we need to see as God sees, to look for the elder, not of our choice, but as Samuel learned, a leader approved by God.
This morning, then, we are going to see what the Bible teaches us about a Portrait of such a man. But before we do, let me say a word about God’s Plan for Leadership in the local church and then a word about God’s Purpose for Leadership in the local church and then I will address God’s Portrait of an Elder.
God’s Plan for Church Leaders
First, while you may not think that leadership in the Church of our Lord is as important, as say evangelism or something else, God thinks otherwise. For He tells us, in many places in His Word, about His Plan. From just the Scriptures we read this morning, and there are many more that speak to the matter, we learn several things about the Plan for Leadership:
Leadership reflects God’s will to the people of God in this life.
The work of Moses in leading Israel in the wilderness or the work of David in leading a nation under God, or the work of Titus in remaining to plant the church in Crete was to share God’s Word with God’s people. That is why church government exists: to carry on the work of instructing the people of God in the direction they should go, so that they may reach the place God wants them to dwell.
Leadership reflects God’s heart to God’s people. And the way this is done is through shepherding. In Ezekiel, God speaks to Israel’s shepherds to tell them that they have not shepherded the flock and were guilty before Him for not calling for them. As Paul was on his way to Jerusalem, in Acts 20, Paul reminded the elders at Ephesus that they should
“shepherd the Church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20.28 NKJV).
We also learn that:
Leadership reflects God’s fatherhood.
In 1 Timothy 2.12 Paul writes:
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man…”
He goes on to ground his words, not in social constructs, but in the role relationship of men and women at creation. The creation ordinance of God is that males should reflect loving, caring headship over the family and thus it is to be so in the House of God. So, God’s plan is for men¾not all men, but certain men anointed of God to do so¾to reflect His fatherhood and governance in the local churches. This doesn’t restrict women all of the other things in the Body of Christ, but God calls faithful men to lead His flock. That is not very palatable today, but it is the Word of God.
Another though about Biblical leadership is that it is to be collegial.
By that, we do not meant to say that Moses was not the leader of Israel, or James was not the head of the Church at Jerusalem or Timothy was not pastor of Ephesus or I am not the pastor of this church. But we do see, in the Exodus passage, as well as in the Titus passage, that God wants his Church to be led by a company of anointed men of God. The reason is to share the load in Exodus. Jethro’s advice to his son-in-law Moses is a principle which is seen throughout the Word of God. In the Old Testament we see the office of Prophet, Priest and King. In the New Testament, after the same thing functioning: there are those who tell forth the Word¾prophets, which are ministers, the pastors; there are those who take care of the Temple of the Lord¾priests, or deacons as they are called; and kings¾those who govern and provide spiritual oversight. And these are the elders. The Elders include, according to 1 Timothy 5.17, those who rule and those who both rule and teach doctrine. They became known as ruling elders and teaching elders. Our Session is comprised of the senior pastor of our church and the elected elders of our church.
Now this leads me to the final thing I want to say about the Plan for leadership and that is:
Leadership is to be recognized by the People of God.
In the Bible, the principle of headship is the norm. As Adam fell, all mankind fell. That sounds pretty unfair until you also hear that in Christ, Man is redeemed. One man representing many. Likewise, the people of God in the Word of God choose their own leaders. God could have chosen David directly, except that is not how God works. The Apostles, in Acts 6, could have appointed the deacons themselves, but they told the people to choose from among yourselves seven men of God. And in even in the Titus passage, the Greek work used when Paul tells Titus to “appoint” elders in every city does not rule out the ultimate election of pastors and elders. It is just that new works always start with an evangelist and then move to the ordinary offices.
So the plan of God is for the Church to have leaders: pastors, ruling elders¾both of whom are elders¾and deacons. They are to be men of God chosen by God, recognized by the people, set apart for the work, for the purpose of reflecting God’s Word and God’s care.
God’s Purpose for Church Leaders
For one moment, let’s also consider God’s Purpose as we see it in Titus. In the Book of Titus, as in the Letters of Paul to Timothy, there are major problems to be addressed in the Church. Just look a moment at what we see in Titus verses 10-16:
Insubordination in the church, idle talkers and deceivers, bad teaching, unscrupulous teachers who teach only for financial gain, a people in need of rebuke, a people given to wanton living: in short – a congregation and culture that is in need of being redeemed through sound oversight, sound teaching and pastoral care. Paul will go on in Titus Chapter Two to show the qualities of a sound church, but the picture is quite clear: this is a church that needs tending.
That is the purpose of church leaders. Church leaders are there to be a reflection of God’s will so that men and women and boys and girls will come to know the life that God intends for them to have.
We have a missionary, Sandy S_____, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I spoke with her husband, H_____, this week by telephone and prayed with him. He then asked if I would like to speak with his wife. I was then blessed to hear this woman of God speak of the faithfulness of God to her in the midst of this last great trial of her life. And she spoke of how God has given her opportunities to share Christ with others in the hospital. Her husband was there to care for her so that in the midst of troubles, she could be freed to live out her mission. Husbands should do that. Daddies should do that. And church leaders should do that. That is the role of church leaders: pastors are to equip, elders with pastors are to provide a nourishing, loving community of Christ, so that we can live out our calling before God and Man.
But how do we choose them?
God’s Portrait for God’s People (to Choose Church Leaders)
I saw a show not too long ago about a man who was to meet his long lost father. He had only an old photograph. He was at a train station. He held that photograph in his hands as we made his way through the crowds: first looking down at the old photo, then looking up to examine the face of this man and that man, until finally, he saw a man who fit the portrait.
That is how we nominate church leaders. That is, specially, how we nominate ruling elders to represent us at this church. How foolish it would be if we disregarded the photo and went in search of just any man. We want the one God has already laid hands on. We are integral in the process. God is calling you to pray, to search His Word, and then to nominate that man, present his name to those already called, and allow the Holy Spirit to begin to separate out the Man He wants to serve.
Now, the old photo is simply the faithful, ancient Word of the Living God. Again, I draw your attention to Titus. Look in Titus 1.5-9. Here we will find a portrait of an elder approved by God. What are the features of the portrait? Let’s consider three: his life, his faith, and his willingness to serve.
Titus 1.6-9 as well as 1 Timothy chapter 3.1-7 describes the qualifications of an elder and in both cases they show that God wants, first and foremost, men whose lives are sold out for Him. Paul uses the word, “blameless.” Now that is not the word “perfect.” Nor does it mean that the world does not blame him for being sold out for the Lord, for Christ and His disciples were constantly blamed. Nor can it mean that there is no blame in his background, for Paul, who was guilty of heinous crimes against Christians, is the one writing. It means that the overarching character of his life gives testimony to the work of the Holy Spirit. His family life, his relationship with the women must be that he is, literally in the Greek, “a one-woman man.” His stewardship, his character traits¾in short, his relations with God and Men are all mentioned in verses 6-9 and they are critical, first features of this man. It is not to be missed that the Spirit of God lists his qualifications in his personal life first before moving to doctrine. For a man may have a right understanding of doctrine, may know the Bible, and yet be known to be constantly on the prowl for other women, or have unbridled anger, or an attitude that is lacking in love, or a quarrelsome spirit.
Having established the critical first feature of this man, his life, we must not miss the feature of his faith. For we read in Titus 1.9:
“Holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, they he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.”
Now I believe that Titus is primarily dealing with elders who are teaching elders¾men who would have to serve as pastors. But all elders should hold to sound doctrine and the reason is clear: the flock must be guarded from error creeping into the church and the church must be built up in the faith.
There is another great reason that we find in Scripture. We read:
“Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so” (Amos 3.3 NIV)?
In order for a session to effectively feed the sheep, guard the sheep, reflect the heart of God, there must be strong agreement in the things of the Word of God.
So, according to this passage, the portrait of an elder approved by God begins with life, moves to faith, but must come together in this:
His Willingness to Serve
Paul says that these elders who are to be appointed in every city in Crete, are to exhort and to convict those who contradict. Now Paul will go on and talk about what we might think of as more positive concerns, like in chapter 3.14, where he writes:
“And let our people also learn to maintain good works, to meet urgent needs, that they may not be unfruitful” (3.14 NKJV).
But the whole of the matter is elementary but must be shown: they must do the work.
I have been both a teaching elder, that is a minister, as well as a ruling elder. I was a ruling elder with a family at home, with an aging relative with us, and served as I worked as a manager of sales and operations in the Midwest for a Fortune 500 organization. Folks, supporting my pastor, encouraging the flock, dealing with tough issues on the Session, representing my church to the presbytery and the general assembly took time, and took energy and sometimes took tears. To go to General Assembly each year took vacation time! I took my wife with me every time I went and that took money! What I am saying is that to be a leader in the Church is not to just get your name on a roll. There is Gospel work to be done in evangelism, in discipleship and in missions. There is work to be done in administration of the church. There is work to be done in prayer and spending time before Christ for His Bride.
But let me say this clearly: the work of a ruling elder is a work of joy. It may not be fun always¾it is often¾it may not be fun, but it is a joy. Is it fun to meet to discuss budgets and plans? Sometimes but not often. It is fun to hear a disciplinary case and be called upon to provide care for a woman and her children whose husband has left her? Of course not. It is not fun to make tough decisions that the congregation may not like, but which the Session feels is the best for the spiritual health of the Body. It is not fun for a ruling elder to have the burden of encouraging and caring for a hurting pastor. But all of these things are a joy to the man who is approved by God. It is a joy because deep in his heart he knows that God has called him to the work. He knows that he doesn’t represent just a congregation; he first and foremost represents God. This is his calling. And living out his calling gives him joy.
That is the plan, the purpose and the portrait of an elder approved by God.
This week, as I thought about this portrait, I thought about the men with whom I serve right here. I can’t tell you what it is like to serve with men I consider heroes. But rather than pick out one of them to show you, which would not be fair to all of them, I want to show you a portrait of an elder approved by God.
If I took the old photo of God’s elder from this passage and went looking for a father in the faith I would go to a man named J_____ S_____. We called him the Italian Stallion of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. This man owns an air conditioning business that works on yachts down in Fort Lauderdale. He looks like Hoss Cartwright on steroids. I mean, you don’t want to fool with this guy! He is now close to blind and walks with a cane, but I still would not take him on. He is as tough as nails. He was led to Christ by Dr. Kennedy and later became a ruling elder at Coral Ridge. He has served for many years down there. That big man became a giant ruling elder: in life, in faith and in service. Just like the photo. But one thing he does reminds me of how important it is to look for God’s choice and lay hands on that man. Jim Kennedy has severe back problems. I have back problems and I know Ben Haden had them and I think there is something in the Bible about preachers having to be predisposed to back problems before being ordained. But every now and then, Dr. Kennedy can’t get up out of bed. And Ann, Dr. Kennedy’s wife, telephone’s Jerry Stapella. And Jerry comes and lifts Dr. Kennedy up out of bed. He then carries his pastor.
The truth is: sometimes pastors need to be carried. And we need strong but loving elders who can help carry him and carry the ministry.
You see, the portrait of an elder approved of God is the portrait of a Man who looks like Jesus, who lovingly comes to us and carries us…all the way home.
Choose Him. And choose an elder who looks like him.
Let us pray.