If you aspire to be a pastor, aim to be mistaken for an elder before you are appointed an elder.
All pastors are elders, and every elder is a pastor. For some elders, pastoring is their job. But not all. And much confusion and harm results from treating pastoring like any other job. Hence John Piper’s famous line, “Brothers, we are not professionals.” Even when pastoring is a job, it differs radically from all other jobs.
So let’s work with the broader category, the office of elder. You do not apply to be an elder, get hired, and only then start to do the work. Instead, a church appoints elders. Though the term is not explicitly used in Scripture, I think it is helpful to say that a church “recognizes” elders. No individual or church can make a man an elder. Sure, a church can appoint whoever it wants to the office, but if a man does not fulfill the biblical qualifications, if a man does not desire and do the work of an elder, then whatever you call him, he is not an elder. A man is an elder only if his character and spiritual labor say so.
A man is an elder only if his character and spiritual labor say so.
That means every elder is an elder before he is an elder. Every legitimate elder shows himself qualified in character and competence before being appointed to the office. This brief essay will focus on competence.
What Do Elders Do?
The fundamental work of every elder is bringing the Bible to bear on Christians’ lives and the life of the whole church. An elder leads by exemplifying obedience to God’s Word, teaching God’s Word, applying God’s Word to the struggles and sins of individuals, and, together with other elders, directing the church’s overall work and mission in accord with God’s Word.
Exemplify, teach, counsel, lead. Only the last is restricted to the formal exercise of the office. You cannot lead the church as a whole unless the church asks. But you don’t need anyone’s permission to set a godly example and to teach and counsel God’s Word. In fact, Scripture teaches that all Christians should set godly examples, teach each other, and counsel one another.
Paul commends the Chrisitans in Thessalonica for imitating the apostles and the Lord himself by receiving the gospel “in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” With what result? They “became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thess. 1:6–7). In doing this, the Thessalonians “became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea” (1 Thess. 2:14).
And Peter exhorts us to resist Satan and stand firm in faith, “knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Pet. 5:9). So elder before you elder by setting a godly example now. As you do, you are doing what all Christians should, which is precisely the point of being an elder.
But Scripture also expects all Christians to teach and counsel each other. Paul, writing to all the Christians in Rome, says, “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14).
And to the church in Colossae: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).
Finally, Paul exhorts the church in Thessalonica, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thess. 5:14). All these passages exhort all Christians. Every Christian should teach and counsel other Christians.
So what are you waiting for? You can start now.
Four Ways to Begin ‘Eldering’
Discipling is simply helping others follow Jesus. Deliberately do spiritual good to others to help them grow in conformity to Christ. Ask other members of your church spiritual questions, and patiently explore their answers. Pray with others. Read Scripture with others. Find another believer who seems eager to grow and regularly read Scripture together. You could meet once a week and take turns teaching each other a chapter of Romans. Discipling is speaking truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Discipling is sharing with someone else not only the gospel but also your self (1 Thess. 2:8).
Deliberately do spiritual good to others to help them grow in conformity to Christ.
Discipling can be formal or informal, regular or irregular. You can meet at the same table of the same coffee shop at the same time every week. Or you can bring someone along when you go grocery shopping, asking questions about their walk with Christ on the way there and back.
2. Extend Hospitality
Most scriptural exhortations to hospitality require material support for Christians with whom you have no prior relationship. For instance, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:2; cf. Rom. 12:13; 3 John 5–8). But 1 Peter 4:9 makes hospitality a mutual obligation: “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.”
So how can you provide practical help to other Christians with a view to the glory of Christ and their growth in Christ? Jeremy Mueller, a single brother who recently interned at my church, would regularly make a dinner to bring to other church members. From the other side, many families in our church will not just ask a member to babysit their kids, but will invite them to have dinner with their family before they go out, to get to know them and encourage them.
What needs can you meet? How can you make your home a hub for service and fellowship? How can you help others spiritually while serving them physically?
Some men concede to a minivan when the abundance of their children constrains them. Me, I started with one. My first car was a silver 1996 Mercury Villager that my parents generously let me take to college in Los Angeles. That minivan uncannily resembled its current successor, a silver 2011 Honda Odyssey.
But during my undergraduate days, in addition to hauling surfboards and musical instruments and camping gear, my Villager was also the unofficial bus ministry from the University of Southern California’s campus to Grace Community Church. Students needed rides, and the Villager had seats.
Church started at 8:30 a.m. and was 20 minutes away. To park and find a seat we had to be there by 8. So, for a couple years, just about every Sunday morning, I rose before 6 and got in the car before 7, to start making my rounds. Responses to the inevitable phone calls from dorm parking lots were predictable and uniform, as if scripted. “[Muffled by pillow] Oh, what? Already? I’ll be right down.”
3. Do Evangelism
As Paul charged Timothy, “Do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5). As Mack Stiles puts it, “Evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade.” And while an elder’s ministry of the Word primarily aims at the members of his congregation, every elder, especially a full-time preaching pastor, should set an example of personal evangelism. Consider starting an evangelistic Bible study with non-Christian classmates or coworkers. Pray for opportunities to evangelize and make opportunities to evangelize.
Pray for opportunities to evangelize and make opportunities to evangelize.
Learn to care for souls. Consider again 1 Thessalonians 5:14: “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” What are the causes and symptoms of idleness? What words can strengthen the fainthearted? Can you help the weak, or does your eager zeal tend to trample them?
Learn to diagnose diverse spiritual ailments, and to dispense the precisely tailored prescriptions that stock the shelves of God’s Word. Take spiritual initiative toward a wide range of Christians: young and old, eager and indifferent. Learn how to do spiritual good to people who are less and less like you.
Every Christian has a certain spiritual profile. People’s personality, culture, upbringing, family, season of life, material circumstances, vocations and responsibilities, hopes and fears, sins and struggles, physical and emotional suffering, spiritual gifts, and spiritual maturity—all this shapes what they bring to God’s Word and what they get from God’s Word. All this informs what they need to hear and whether they are willing to hear it.
The saints’ gifts and graces are wildly diverse, as are Satan’s devices for snaring them. So learn not just to speak truth, but to speak it in love. Learn to find the lock that fits the key. Learn to serve struggling sheep not just the truth, but the right truth, at the right time, with the right tone. Be as ambitious to listen well as you are to speak well.
Charles H. Spurgeon once observed, “A man who is to do much with men must love them, and feel at home with them.” So make yourself at home among many sorts of sheep. Learn to love the saints in all their almost fantastic variety.
Elder before you elder.