God’s Plan for Church Leaders

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A Message for New Presbyterian Church on the Election of their Officers, Call of the Pastor, and Organization of the Church. All officer candidates were elected and a call was extended to the prospective senior pastor with a 97 percent vote. The bulletin is here.

Exodus 18:13-27; 1 Samuel 16:1-7; Titus 1:1-11

Dr Michael Milton, Chancellor/CEO Elect and James M. Baird Jr. Professor of Pastoral Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary

Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina

Mark Dever, the pastor of a great congregation, Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, also 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).[1]

I believe that too. The local church embodies the gospel and reflects the shepherding heart of God for His people. That is why this is such an important day in the life of this church. You are preparing to vote on potential ruling elders.

In the Bible there are two offices we find in the local church: 1) deacons, ministers of mercy who assist the ministers and elders in the shepherding task by taking care of the physical needs of the congregation, and 2) ruling elders, who join with the pastor (who are also elders: teaching elders) 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 the important role of an elder. And in seeing what God says about elders, we will learn more about the heart of God for His people.

The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.” Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.” So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves. Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went away to his own country (Exodus 18:13-27).

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling and said, “Do you come peaceably?” And he said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:1-7).

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior; To Titus, my true child in a common faith: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior. This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you– if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach (Titus 1:1-11).

Finding God’s Man

You remember Bonanza, don’t you? Well, when I read about how the prophet Samuel was called by God to sanctify himself and go out to find the man that God had chosen to be king, I think of Bonanza. I imagine 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. As Samuel looked at Jesse’s boys, to me they might have been like Ben Cartwright’s boys. Maybe Eliab was like Adam: tall, dark, and handsome; confident; articulate; a 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 had a heart as big as his hat. People are drawn to fellows like him, 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 Samuel moved on to a fellow who might have been like Little Joe. His name was Shammah. He might have been a good-looking lad, a fine horseman, a noble but feisty spirit, and like Little Joe, maybe he had a little bit of playfulness about him. But God said, “No.” There were other sons that Samuel considered as well. Seven in all. Now, we come to the part that only the most die-hard Bonanza fans know about. Pa Cartwright had another boy named Jamie. He was the fourth son, but not many people know about him. You see, in the twelfth season of the series, Dusty Rhodes, a ranch hand, brought an orphan boy to Ben Cartwright. Ben took the boy in and, eventually, lovingly adopted him. The boy’s name became Jamie Cartwright. Now Jamie might be 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 here we learn one of the most important lessons in the Bible:

“…For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1Samuel 16:7, NKJV).

The truth of this Scripture should ring in our hearts as we as we think about the nomination of elders, and it should ring in the heart of every believer as we consider what it is to be a leader. 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.

I can think of no more important time in the life of a church than the nomination of leaders, particularly elders, to work as a team with the pastor to provide spiritual oversight of the flock of God, to encourage and strengthen them so that they may fulfill their role as believers in the world.

This morning we are going to see what the Bible teaches about God’s plan for leadership in the local church, God’s purpose for leadership in the local church, and finally, the portrait of an elder approved by God.

I.  God’s Plan for Church Leaders

We think evangelism is important, we think missions are important, but church government? But as we see in the Word, it is important to God because the Lord Jesus Christ has purchased a people with his own blood. And He has separated out men of God to shepherd those people, to equip them for the work of ministry, to promote the work of the gospel in the lives of people in a setting that is healthy and rich with the gospel of grace and the teaching of the Word of God, equipping and empowering people to do the work of ministry.

In many places in His Word, God tells us 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 God’s plan for leadership.

  1. Leadership reflects God’s will to God’s people.

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 exists in order to reflect the will of God, to reflect God’s precepts, to reflect God’s principles as they are found in His Word. Leadership reflects God’s heart to God’s people. Titus 1:7 refers to elders as God’s stewards. Elders, pastors, deacons, Sunday school teachers, parents—those who lead the Church, those who lead the family—are to reflect the heart of God, the love of God for His people. This is done through shepherding.

In Ezekiel, God speaks through the prophet to Israel’s shepherds to tell them that they had not shepherded the flock and that they were guilty before Him for not caring for them.[2] The shepherds were not reflecting the love of the Lord to the people. In Acts 20 as Paul was on his way to Jerusalem, he reminded the elders at Ephesus that they should

“…shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28, NKJV).

2.  Leadership reflects God’s fatherhood to God’s people

In the passage before us, Titus is told that to appoint elders was the last thing he needed to do to complete that which was started. The word “elder” is used for older men, but it is also clearly used for an office. In the Bible, the word “elder” is used to reflect God’s fatherhood, and this is why we understand that we are to nominate and elect men to this position. In 1 Timothy 2 Paul talks about how he would not have a woman to rule or govern in the church, to teach or have authority over men. The context is clearly the church, but the context is also teaching that the mantle of doctrinal authority must rest on male leadership. He then rests this strong statement, not in society or the way things are done in this or that social structure, but he marshals forward the creation ordinance 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 men—not all men, but certain men who are anointed of God—to reflect His fatherhood and governance in the local churches. That is what church leaders are to be.

3.  Leadership is to be collegial

Biblical leadership needs to be collegial because it is a heavy burden to bear. That is why Moses was told to bring others with him. This did not mean that Moses was not the leader of Israel, or that James was not the head of the church at Jerusalem, or that Timothy was not pastor of Ephesus. 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, someone to help carry the burden.

In Acts 6 when a burden arose in the early congregation, the Apostles told the people to choose from among themselves seven men (the beginning of the deacons), and they too, were to govern and to rule and to carry out their ministry in a college, in a collegial fashion. Here in the Titus passage they are to appoint elders (plural of elder). Why? Because there is only one leader, one ultimate voice in the church of Jesus Christ and that is Jesus Himself. In every level of church government there should not be just one man (or woman) who governs and rules. Our forefathers had it right when their rallying cry was, “No king but Christ.” So God’s will for biblical leadership is a leadership that is shared without blurring the offices.

4.  Leadership is recognized by God’s people

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, in the Bible the people of God choose their own leaders. God could have chosen David directly, except that is not how God works. In Acts 6 the Apostles could have appointed the deacons, but they told the people to choose from among themselves seven men of God. And even in the Titus passage, the Greek word used when Paul tells Titus to appoint elders in every city does not rule out the ultimate election of pastors and elders.

So the plan of God is for the church to have leaders: pastors, ruling elders (both of whom are elders), and 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.

    II.  God’s Purpose for Church Leaders

Let’s also consider God’s purpose for church leaders. There were problems in Crete: insubordination in the church, idle talkers, deceivers, teachers who teach only for financial gain, people in need of rebuke, people given to wanton living; in short, a congregation in need of being redeemed through sound oversight, sound teaching, and pastoral care. This was a church that needed tending. Titus was to appoint elders so that he would have help in the work of teaching, so that he would have help in the work of tending. Church leaders exist in order to provide a safe haven, a loving community which reflects Christ and from which people can carry on ministry in their own lives. They 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.

When I was growing up in South Louisiana there were so many potholes in the roads that you could not avoid hitting them. The experience of going down a road was somewhat like driving across an unending field of speed bumps! I asked my Aunt Eva why they couldn’t fix the holes. She said that she feared that there were problems in the political machinery of our parish that was keeping us from getting things fixed. But then we elected this certain sheriff, Odom Graves, who was a straight-up kind of guy. Aunt Eva had raised Odom most of his life, like she had kept so many other boys who were now running the parish for either good or ill. But Aunt Eva said, “Son, you watch, when that ‘boy’ comes into office he will bring stability. And I suspect we will get some potholes fixed.” Odom Graves was elected. And while there were still potholes in some roads, there were fewer of them. And when Odom Graves walked into the café or the hardware, people looked up with respect. A man of integrity was in the room. And my little old raggedy Ford didn’t have to have as many front end alignments as before! Sheriff Odom Graves brought stability!

An elder brings stability. He fixes the potholes. That is what Paul was saying to Titus. Appoint elders—and that was done in a certain Apostolic way since there was no congregation established—and when you do they can take on the theological and practical “potholes” that are before them. Officers in Christ’s Church are there to bring Biblical, Spirit-filled stability to the Church and ease the way for the preaching of the Gospel and the evangelism and discipleship of human beings.

But how do we choose them?

III.  God’s Portrait of a Church Leader

In the Book of Titus Paul instructs Titus to appoint elders in every town. Then in Titus 1:6-9 he describes what that person must look like.

Not too long ago I saw a show about a man who was to meet his long lost father. His only point of reference was an old photograph. As he made his way through the crowds at the train station, he held that photograph in his hand, first looking down at the photo, then looking up to examine the face of this man and that man until, finally, he saw a man who fit the portrait.

This is how we nominate ruling elders to represent us at this church. God has given us a portrait of an elder approved by God. How foolish it would be if we disregarded the photo and went in search of just any man. We want the man whom God has already laid hands on, and you are integral in the process. God has called you to pray, to search His Word, and to discover those already called of God, and offer your life to be a conduit through which the Holy Spirit will separate out the man He wants to serve.

The photograph is simply the faithful, ancient Word of the Living God. In Titus 1:6-9 we will find a portrait of an elder approved by God.

Let’s consider three features of the portrait: his life, his faith, and his willingness to serve.

  1. His Life

The first feature of the portrait is the man’s life. Notice that Paul doesn’t immediately move down to verse 9, which is his doctrine. He begins with the man’s life because a man can have all of his doctrine right and his life can still be in shambles. What we know about a man and his relationship with his wife, with his children, with those who are on the outside, tells us the kind of man he will be with us. So the first part of the portrait we look for is his life.

As you read the words “if anyone is above reproach,” remember that this was being written by the man who stood by while Stephen was murdered, who persecuted believers, who was guilty of at least being an accomplice in the persecution of Christians, if not directly involved. In other places he hid his own past with words because it seemed to be too painful for him to talk about, but clearly he was guilty—the chief of sinners. But now something had happened in Paul’s life and the overarching sustained character in his life was that of being above reproach. Above reproach from unbelievers who wanted to attack him? No, he would be attacked. Above reproach in that he didn’t have a past? No, this man had a past, as did Peter, as did the others. But now the sustained overarching character of his life had been shown within the Christian community.

And that is what the man’s life should be. No one is perfect, but his life should now be reflecting the characteristics of Jesus Christ. His family life, his relationships with women, must show him to be, as the literal Greek says, a one-woman man. His stewardship, his character traits, the critical first features of this man are laid out in verses 6-9.

2.  His Faith

The second feature of the portrait of a leader is his faith. Paul spends a considerable amount of time describing the life of this man, describing his family and his home, describing the interior parts of the man. But then he moves to verse 9.

He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9).

So this man must be grounded in the Word of God. If he is a pastor, surely he must be acquainted with the Word so that he can preach the Word. If he is a ruling elder, he must be acquainted with the Word so that he can recognize error when it happens in the life of the church, for he is being given guardianship in the place of Jesus Christ over the things of Christ in His flock.

In order for a church 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.

The portrait of an elder approved by God begins with life, moves to faith, but must come together in the next feature.

3.   His Willingness to Serve

The third feature of this portrait is the picture of servant hood. As we look at the text, we see that being an officer in the Church is a tough job. According to this passage, the elder that Titus was to appoint had to rebuke people whom he called insubordinate, empty talkers, deceivers. And he says that they must be silenced. They are upsetting whole families. They are teaching what they ought not to teach. So this third feature is critical. Incidentally, if any one of these three features is missing (his life, his faith, his willingness to serve), it invalidates the whole.

I have been both a teaching elder, that is, a minister, as well as a ruling elder. When serving as a ruling elder, I had a family at home, an aging relative living with us, and worked as a manager of sales and operations in the Midwest for a Fortune 500 organization. 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, energy, and sometimes tears. To go to General Assembly each year took vacation time. I took my wife with me 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 in 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 always be fun, but it is a joy. Is it fun to discuss budgets and plans? Sometimes, but not often. Is it 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.

A Hand on my Shoulder

That is the plan, the purpose, and the portrait—indeed, the Plan for Church Leaders—approved by God.

This week, as I thought about God’s plan for church leaders, I thought about the men with whom I have served. I can’t tell you what it is like to serve with men whom I consider to be heroes. It is a high and holy honor. But let me reach down into my church experiences and pull out a portrait of an officer whom I believe is approved of God

He met me the first day I was ever at First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga. His name is Lewis. At almost 90 years of age, he could out-walk, out-run and out-work men half his age. He could also out pray most preachers. He met me and asked me if he could pray with me before every service. And for six years, he did. When he prayed, he put his hand on my shoulder and his grip was so strong he would often pinch a nerve! But he wanted to impress upon me the seriousness of the Day and of our going before the Father for the work of prayer. He prayed that the Holy Spirit would come down, that people would be saved, that I would be overwhelmed by the presence of God in my preaching so that my preaching and ministry to the people would be supernatural and that my words came from a personal encounter of God’s grace. He then always prayed for the Church of Jesus Christ scattered around the world and he prayed for missionaries and pastors who would preach that day. But his hand on my shoulder was so strong that I always entered into the sanctuary of our church with the feeling of his hand still on my shoulder and his prayer still in my ears.

Pastors need elders and deacons who will lay their hands on their shoulders and pray for them. Indeed, the ministry of an officer of the Church of Jesus Christ could be summed up in the impression of faith and prayer that he leaves with the pastor, so that ministry is done God’s way.

The truth is that we all need a strong hand on our shoulder. We all need prayer. We are all weak, and we all need to be encouraged in the faith. Each and every one of us ought to think not only about church leadership, but also about our response to Christ and to recognize that we are prone to wonder, that we need our Shepherd.

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 invites us into the presence of God.

When we all look to Jesus Christ, we will fulfill our vows as officers and will enjoy the blessing of the strong hand of Jesus Christ on our church.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] Mark Dever, (http://www.9marks.org).

[2] Ezekiel 34

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About Michael Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D. (University of Wales, Trinity Saint David's College), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author. He is, also, an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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