Brothers, We Are Not Managers
We have forgotten the Bible’s rich language for loving the church.
Every time I write the word elder or eldership on my iPad, the spell checker kicks in and automatically corrects it to leader or leadership. Living as we do in a culture obsessed with “leadership”—in business, politics, academia, and so on—many of us do roughly the same thing to the New Testament.
Luke, Paul, and Peter talked about “overseers,” “pastors,” and “elders.” We talk about “leaders.” The New Testament charges particular people to shepherd, care, watch, and teach. We urge people to lead. Scripture uses specific terms and gives specific instructions, but overall we prefer generic ones.
Biblical words require explanations that mainstream secular ones do not. Our modern language is simpler: Leaders lead, but elders don’t eld. And, to be sure, the concept of leadership is biblical: leader appears three times in Hebrews 13. Not only that, debate abounds over whether elders, overseers, and pastors perform different roles, or whether these terms describe one office. By contrast, the word leader is a catchall.
However, I don’t think these reasons sufficiently explain why we prefer leadership over eldership. Christians use all sorts of words that sound strange to modern ears: covenant, Messiah, anointing, atonement, and so on. We don’t abandon our language, however, because it’s rich. While the New Testament indeed refers to leaders, it talks five times as often about elders—not to mention pastors, teachers, and overseers.
I suspect we autocorrect eldership to leadership for two reasons. First, especially in larger churches, we think of ourselves in organizational terms, as a firm rather than a family, let alone a flock. So we look for vision-casters and managers instead of fathers and shepherds. Second, most of us don’t understand what elders are or what they are supposed to do. Are they like tribal chieftains? Advisers? Beard-stroking sages?
New Testament language about elders, shepherds, overseers, teachers, and even leaders is bound up with one key idea: serving the church by protecting her from harm. Elders, shepherds, and overseers (which I take as three different words for the same office; see Acts 20:17–37 and 1 Pet. 5:1–11) are guardians.
Shepherds guard sheep. A shepherd’s main task is to protect the flock from harm: wolves, injury, scattering, robbers. This thread runs through the Bible. David kills lions and bears to defend his sheep. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, lays down his life to save his people. Paul charges his listeners, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God” (Acts 20:28). To be a pastor or shepherd is to be a guardian.