Skot, “I believe you have what it takes to be an elder of the city.”
I had been meeting with this 40-something man for years. Skot has demonstrated his passion for God, love for his family and wisdom – the application of biblical truth in real life situations. He has all the makings of an elder of the city – our city and I told him so.
He was stunned because he’d never heard the term before and wasn’t quite sure what that was, so I laid it out for him.
An Elder of the City
A modern day elder of the city is a layman (or laywoman, as I’ll clarify in the Q&A tomorrow) who is concerned about the health of the Christian community at large – beyond a specific church. His roles may include counseling, teaching, conflict resolution, leadership, mentoring and the calling of Christians to greater holiness, regardless of their specific church affiliation and even ministering to non-Christians.
Elders of a city are not elected or appointed, neither are they self-appointed. An elder of a city’s authority is given by the Holy Spirit and affirmed by other believers as being self-evident from a man’s life, witness, wisdom and conduct. This is not a formal office, but an informal, spirit-led recognition that an elder of a city has been gifted by God and seasoned by life to such a degree that his counsel is often sought out by believers, and pastors of other local churches.
The fact that Skot had never heard the term elder of a city isn’t surprising. The only frame of reference for most Christians are the elders in their own church, generally elected by the people to govern their church, and with no responsibility for other Christians or churches in their city. (And, as a point of clarification, elders of the city have no authority to govern others – they are influencers of other churches and believers by virtue of their godliness and wisdom.)
Skot was honored that I would think of him in this way, but the concept was foreign to him and he felt unworthy to be an elder of the city, so I gave him some more background.
Elders in the Old Testament
In both the Old and New Testaments, the term “elder” indicates an older, wise man, who had a position of leadership within the people of God. We have no idea exactly what the origins of this position were, but elders are not unique to the Bible (Gen. 50:7; Num. 22:7). It probably developed from the existing tribal structure.
Elders were capable men who feared God and were upright (Exod. 18:21, 25); they were to be wise, understanding, and experienced (Deut. 1:13); and they were empowered by the Holy Spirit (Num. 11:16-17). Elders could serve locally as elders of a city (Judg. 8:14), regionally as elders of a tribe (Judg. 11:5), and nationally as elders of the nation (Exod. 3:16). Elders were sometimes appointed, but most appeared to simply be the wisest male members of the community and were deemed to be so by common consent rather than formal election.
Elders in the New Testament
The office of elder in the New Testament church cannot be fully understood without this background of the Old Testament local elder, an office still functioning in Jesus’ day (Luke 7:3). That’s probably why Luke didn’t have to explain his reference to Christian elders in Acts 11:30.
New Testament elders were generally the leaders (pastors) of the local house churches and later some of those elders became bishops, overseers of churches in a city or of a geographic area. A distinction is made in I Tim. 5:17 between those elders who rule well, especially those who labor in the preaching and teaching (those who we now think of as paid pastors), and others (who we think of today as elders – volunteers directing the affairs of their local church).
However, in most cases, modern day elders have morphed into a spiritual board of directors, elected by the members to serve a specific term and sometimes chosen more for their leadership and administrative gifts than spiritual wisdom. Because of this focus on the needs of a particular church, there is a vacuum of spiritual leadership for the life and vitality of the “church” (all true believers living in that city). To be honest, the New Testament does not specifically teach or promote the idea of elders of the city, but neither does it ever promote the “board of directors” concept prevalent today. However, it was the practice of the early church to appoint bishops, who were elder/pastors with responsibility for churches in a geographic area.
“The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” Titus 1:5
An Elder of the City Today
What does an elder of the city today, do?
• Calls groups of churches together occasionally to help organize a specific ministry too big for any one church to accomplish or as a demonstration of unity to the world.
• Provides godly counsel to individuals on a wide range of faith and practical Christian living issues.
• Helps resolve conflicts between churches, ministries, businesses and members of several churches.
• Raises the corporate conscience of the Christian community for social, economic, justice and holiness issues. They are advocates for the poor.
• Mentor’s leaders in a variety of churches for the common good of the Christian community.
• Serves as advisors to Christian ministries, churches and individuals, apart from formal board membership.
• Advances, encourages and champions the spiritual health of the kingdom of God in their city.
How being an Elder of the City actually works in real life
One of the most counter-intuitive aspects of being an elder of the city is this; he is often pro-active rather than reactive to situations. While he’s usually invited in to situations – not always. Occasionally something is going on that appears to have fallen through the cracks and elders of the city I’ve known have stepped in, uninvited to try to resolve a problem or speak truth. The following are some real life examples of how elders of the city I’ve known have served proactively.
• Upon hearing that a Christian from one church was suing another believer from a different church, an elder of his city called the elders of the two different churches to make them aware of the situation and offered his help. He was then asked to help arbitrate or resolve the conflict and did so effectively.
• Hearing that a pastor of a local congregation had a moral default, another man I consider an elder of the city, simply called the pastor who he’d never met and asked how he could help. Eventually he helped pull together a restoration team for the pastor, with the blessing of the church elders, to provide prayer and guidance in this healing process.
• One elder of the city routinely calls pastors of other churches in his city, takes them out to lunch and simply asks, “How can I help you?” As a result, he has served dozens of pastors as an informal, safe advisor and counselor and has been invited into a number of situations in those churches to give advice.
• One elder of the city invites groups of young seminarians to dinner in his home to build relationships with these future leaders. Years later, many have called to ask this elder’s advice and counsel on all kinds of issues, or have sent their friends to him.
• Several elders of my city exercised discipline against a man, a good friend of each of them, who appeared to be having an emotional affair. At the time he was not a formal member of any church. After months of meetings, prayer and using every means available, they met and “ex-communicated” the man in the spirit of I Cor. 5 and cut off fellowship. In the end, after several years, great patience on his wife’s part, and true repentance on his, the marriage was saved, most of the friendships were restored and he and his wife now help minister to other couples in similar situations.
• Elders of the city I’ve known have people calling them, often a friend of a friend, for advice on all kinds of spiritual, relational and faith practice issues. They have reputations in their city as men of wisdom and integrity and they’re the, “go to” Christians in the city.
Breaking from my “I post every Monday” policy, tomorrow in Part II, I’ll do a Q and A about elders of the city. (I thought it would be more helpful to post this the next day, while it’s still fresh in your mind and perhaps some of your questions will be addressed.)
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