Not that we must be theologians, able to grapple learnedly with all heresies or controversies; but we should be well read in our Bibles, and able to do what Aquila and Priscilla did to Apollos. Elders should be men to a certain extent “established, strengthened, settled” (1 Peter 5:10), not “novices”, whom the elevation to office in the church is likely to make heady, forward, crotchety, conceited. For very young men and very young Christians, other useful though humbler spheres are more suitable. It is a very great help to an elder to have been for some years previously a Sabbath-school teacher, and thus accustomed to study the truth and to apply it. Such work will also test his intelligence and interest in divine things.
What should elders be like? Outside of the Bible, you’d be hard pressed to find a better, sweeter, more uplifting explanation than the one given by David Dickson The Elder and His Work. Chew on these words. Be encouraged. Be challenged. Be inspired. Pray for grace.
1. The office and work being spiritual, it is necessary that elders should be spiritual men. It is not necessary that they be men of great gifts or worldly position, of wealth or high education, but it is indispensably necessary that they be men of God, at peace with Him, new creatures in Christ Jesus; engaged in the embassy of reconciliation, they must be themselves reconciled. We must love the Master, and the work for the Master’s sake. If we do love it, it will be a happy service because it is a willing service. And as our souls prosper, our work will prosper; the joy of the Lord will be our strength…
2. We should have a good knowledge of the Word of God, and be able to give a reason for the hope that is in us. Not that we must be theologians, able to grapple learnedly with all heresies or controversies; but we should be well read in our Bibles, and able to do what Aquila and Priscilla did to Apollos. Elders should be men to a certain extent “established, strengthened, settled” (1 Peter 5:10), not “novices”, whom the elevation to office in the church is likely to make heady, forward, crotchety, conceited. For very young men and very young Christians, other useful though humbler spheres are more suitable. It is a very great help to an elder to have been for some years previously a Sabbath-school teacher, and thus accustomed to study the truth and to apply it. Such work will also test his intelligence and interest in divine things. If an elder is to discharge the duty laid upon him in Scripture – “to reprove, rebuke, and exhort” (2 Tim.4:2), to “be able by sound doctrine to exhort and convince gainsayers” – the Word of God must be the man of his counsel, his daily companion…
3. Elders should be men of common sense, knowing when to speak and when to hold their tongues. Even grace does not give common sense, a little of which would settle many controversies and heresies in the church of Christ. Men of points and pugnacity are very annoying in a session or congregation, and they may rise to be the terror of presbyteries and other church courts. They may love the truth at heart – and we believe they often do – but they love fighting too. For such men the grave and quiet duties of the eldership have little or no charm. A carping, censorious spirit is to be watched and prayed against in all of us: it is often the precursor or companion of backsliding in doctrine or life. An uneasy conscience likes to find faults in others. Having many different characters and tempers to deal with, we need as elders to be men of a meek and quiet spirit, not going from one extreme to another – men of practical wisdom and sanctified common sense, and thus able to judge matters calmly and not as partisans.
4. We must be consistent in our life and conversation; we must be clean that bear the vessels of the Lord; men of good report, both with those who are without and those who are within the church; model members of it; “examples to the flock” in faith, hope, and charity, ruling our own children and our own houses well. In these days wolves find it profitable to put on sheep’s clothing, for a certain amount of religious profession is a help and not a hindrance to a man’s worldly prosperity. the church and the world are thus in danger of fraternizing, and it is always the church that loses…
The usefulness of an elder will depend in the long run more on his character than on his gifts and knowledge. Quiet Christian consistency will give weight to his words of advice and be a daily lesson to all around. His walk and conversation, his style of living, his companions and friends, his geniality, his amusements will all have an important influence, not only on his own family, but on the people of his district and congregation. young people especially notice, and get good or evil from, much that they do not speak about to others. They should learn from us what a Christian is like, not by the frequent use of pious expressions, but by the clear, transparent outflow of a life “hid with Christ in God”. Brethren, “what manner of persons ought we elders to be in all holy conversation and godliness?” (2 Peter 3:11).
5. Last, not least, we should be men of deep sympathy – having not only human kindness in our hearts, but that sanctified and consecrated. Having experience of the ups and downs of human life, we should have sympathy with human hearts, ready to “weep with them that weep and rejoice with them that rejoice” (Rom.12:15). The world is not governed by logic, and to do much good in it, especially as Christian men and elders, the words of truth we speak must come warm from our hearts, or they fall cold and pointless.
It was once said to me of another, ‘He’s a good man, but somehow he never reminds me of Jesus.’ Much of our usefulness will lie not only in knowing the wants, natural and spiritual, of our people, but in our having that heart-sympathy with them that will make us open our hearts to them, and will lead them to open their minds and hearts to us in return. We can best learn this by living in fellowship with him who was displeased with his disciples when they rebuked the mothers for bringing their little children to Him, and when they wished the hungry multitude to be sent away unfed.
Taken from David Dickson, The Elder and His Work, pages 30-38.
Kevin DeYoung has been the Senior Pastor at University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan since 2004. Kevin blogs at the Gospel Coalition, and this article is reprinted with his permission.