The Counsel of the Elders

Robert S. Rayburn

"Prepare chains, because the land is full of bloodshed and the city is full of violence. I will bring the most wicked of the nations to take possession of their houses; I will put an end to the pride of the mighty, and their sanctuaries will be desecrated. When terror comes, they will seek peace, but there will be none. Calamity upon calamity will come, and rumor upon rumor. They will try to get a vision from the prophet; the teaching of the law by the priest will be lost, as will the counsel of the elders. The king will mourn, the prince will be clothed with despair, and the hands of the people of the land will tremble. I will deal with them according to their conduct, and by their own standards I will judge them. Then they will know that I am the LORD" (Ezek. 7:23-27).

I chose this text because in the shortest possible compass it describes the duty and the calling of an elder in a Christian church. Ezekiel is, of course, describing in that vivid, ominous way that is characteristic of the Old Testament prophets, the judgment of the Lord befalling the faithless people of Israel. And in the midst of describing that calamity—the calamity fulfilled when Babylon captured Jerusalem, razed it to the ground, and led its people off into exile—he describes how at that time the people will be bereft of the Word of God. Heaven will fall silent and they will be left to make their way through the desolation of their world without the guidance, the encouragement, and the sustenance of the voice of God in their hearts and lives.

He puts it this way: "They will try to get a vision from the prophet; the teaching of the law by the priest will be lost, as will the counsel of the elders." There, in this prophecy of doom, is the calling and the function of the biblical elder in a nutshell. What elders are for is to give counsel; what the church receives from them is counsel.

The Counsel of the Elders

Now what does that word "counsel" mean? It is the Hebrew term etsah, and it is an important and interesting word.

The first instance of its use in the Old Testament is in Exodus 18:19. You remember that incident. Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, observed the way in which Moses was exercising his leadership of the people and immediately detected a problem. Moses was trying to do everything. He was hearing every case, every complaint, every request for advice. So Jethro asked him: "What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?" Moses answered, "Because the people come to me to seek God's will. Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God's decrees and laws." Jethro then replied, "What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. Listen now to me and I will give you some advice" (Ex. 18:14-19).

That word "advice" is our word etsah, the word rendered "counsel" in Ezekiel 7:26. Jethro's counsel to Moses, if you remember, was to appoint some able men, men who feared God and who hated dishonest gain, and to share the ministry of oversight, judgment, and rule with them (Ex. 18:21-22). The eldership existed before this as a feature of the life of family and clan. But it is at this moment that we may begin to speak of the elders of the church, of "elder" as an ecclesiastical office. Jethro gave wise counsel to Moses, and the result of that counsel was the establishment of an office of counselor in the church. And from that time on, that was the elder's role: he was an adviser and a counselor of the people of God.

You may remember the incident reported in 1 Kings 12, when the young king Rehoboam, Solomon's foolish son, rejected the counsel of the elders who had served his father and followed instead the foolish advice of his friends. That is our word "counsel" again. The word appears again in the case of Absolom's rebellion against his father David, when he rejected the wise advice or counsel of Ahithophel, David's longtime counselor, and accepted instead Hushai's foolish counsel, which David had planted and by which he destroyed Absolom's conspiracy against him.

Very often in the Bible, the counsel of men is compared with the counsel of God. In Psalm 33:10-11, for example, we read: "The Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever."

In both instances, the word the NIV translates "plans" is our word etsah. Of course, in the case of the Lord, we are not speaking simply of advice or considered judgment, but of plans that are perfect and backed up by omnipotence. His plans become his unalterable purpose and so a transcript of the history of the world as it will and must unfold. So it is that this word counsel becomes a synonym for the Lord's will, his plan, his purpose that is brought to pass in the world. As Paul says, God is the one who works out everything according to the counsel of his will.

Now you notice that the term elder almost never occurs in the singular in the Bible. Except in places where individuals are referred to or refer to themselves as an elder, or are identified as holding the office, or in passages on the qualifications of an elder, the term universally occurs in the plural. Elders give their counsel, by and large, together as a body. And the principle behind that is expressed in Proverbs 11:14: "For lack of guidance a nation falls, but many advisers make victory sure."

That word "advisers" is another form of our word counsel. Many counselors make for victory in life, and the counselors of all counselors for Christians are elders. And why? Precisely because of what the word elder suggests. It is the word for "old man." But the accent on age is not an emphasis on the number of years per se, but on the assumption that a man has lived long enough to acquire wisdom, has walked with the Lord himself long enough to have gained understanding, has studied his Bible long enough to have gained some mastery of its teaching and the way to apply it to the issues of life, and has practiced his faith long enough and through sufficiently varied circumstances that he can advise or counsel another Christian with wisdom, understanding, sound judgment, authority, and spiritual savoir faire. He knows the ropes. He has been around the block. He knows what ought to be done in a specific situation, he can detect the pitfalls in someone's plan, he can see through to the spiritual issues in someone's behavior, and he finds the proper way through a particular ethical question.

The Great Blessing of Godly Elders

When I entered the ministry, I had no idea how many situations I would face that required this kind of wisdom making possible this kind of counsel. And I tell you frankly, I made some serious mistakes early on in my ministry, giving advice and counsel or giving it in a way that was not right or helpful. And I have learned what a tremendous benefit it is to have a group of godly men hammer out the proper counsel to give in a particular situation.

The elders of this church will tell you without hesitation that we have learned from our mistakes. There have been times when we have realized that the counsel we gave was not as wise, not as biblical, not as searching, as it should have been. But, if you had faced yourself some of the situations we have faced, if you had had to decide what must be said to, or asked of, a person, even of a person going through terrible trials—if you had had to decide in certain of these cases what you would require a person to change, on the one hand, perhaps something very difficult to change, and, on the other, what you would tell a person that he or she must accept as impossible to change—then you would appreciate how vexing and how humbling this responsibility is to give counsel to the Lord's people.

It is a favored people who have elders who can give true counsel, who can tell them what is right and wrong, who can give them an accurate evaluation of their own faith and life, who can confront them wisely and well when they are living in disobedience, and who know how to restore Christian people to godliness who have wandered from the way. It is a favored people whose elders are so committed to the teaching of the Word of God that they would never permit the church to embrace any doctrine or idea that was contradicted by, or out of harmony with, Holy Scripture, and would always insist that the church be forever conforming itself—in life, fellowship, ministry, charity, witness, worship, and discipleship—to the standard of God's Word. It is a favored congregation whose elders are men of faith, who love the Lord Jesus, and who can both tell and show others why and how they may love him too.

I have had plenty of opportunity to observe churches whose elders were much less than that. They were not such men as Paul describes in 1 Timothy 3. Their own experience of walking with God was so haphazard—if not entirely nonexistent—that they had nothing to share of wisdom or experience or virtue or faith with others. I remember years ago a minister whose judgment I respected highly, telling me that he was not sure how many of the elders on his church session were actually Christians. There are a great many churches around the world of which that might be said. What counsel can a person receive from a man who does not know God himself, does not revere his Holy Word, and has no true understanding of life?

But, through the years, there have also been many godly men who have served in this post, men whose lives and whose ministries have forever ennobled the office of elder. When he was an old minister, Alexander Whyte recalled that one of the first pastoral calls he made, just after coming to Free St. George's in Edinburgh as Robert Candlish's assistant—he would remain as the pastor of Free St. George's for almost fifty years—was to one of Dr. Candlish's elders. They used to say that no one had elders like Robert Candlish at Free St. George's. They were men of profound biblical learning, men of spiritual experience and substance, men of great and godly authority. Well, he found this elder on his deathbed, and open on the pillow beside his head was the Westminster Confession of Faith opened to the chapter on justification by faith. "I am dying on that gospel chapter," he told the young minister. And no sooner had young Alexander Whyte read that chapter to him than the old elder breathed his last. There is the kind of man who could give me counsel!

Alexander McColl, a Highland pastor, once asked his congregation in a sermon: "What kind of minister would you like as your minister?" Then he answered his own question. "For myself, I would like a minister who had been scorched by the law, melted by the gospel, and much sifted by the temptations of Satan." Well, I would like to receive counsel from an elder who was the same sort of man and who had had the same sort of spiritual experience. He could tell, out of his own personal experience, what the Lord means by what he says in his Word, how best to resist temptation and the devil, how to trust in the Lord and his Word, how to make my way through a difficult set of circumstances. Life is simply too complicated, and I am simply too weak, to make it through by myself without the counsel of others, their correction, their advice, their encouragement. I need wise and godly counsel, and who can give that to me except a man who, as Paul says, holds to the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.

Listen to Thomas Boston describe William Biggar, one of the elders of the church he pastored in Ettrick:

He died in hopes of eternal life through Jesus Christ. Among his last words were, 'Farewell, sun, moon, and stars; farewell, dear minister;—and farewell the Bible;' which last words especially made a great impression on me. [No wonder, I might add. For a man who thinks to say farewell to the Bible when he is about to die is obviously a man to whom the Bible was a close friend, a man in whose life the Bible played a prominent role, a man who knew and loved the Bible as the lamp for his feet and the light for his path.] He blessed God, that ever he had seen my face; which was no small comfort to me....

Though he was a poor man, yet he had always a brow for a good cause [that is an old use of brow, meaning he always looked favorably upon a good cause], and was a faithful, useful elder; and as he was very ready to reprove sin, so he had a singular dexterity in the matter of admonition and reproof, to speak a word upon the wheels, so as to convince with a certain sweetness, that it was hard to take his reproofs ill. (Memoirs, p. 212)

Think of the record of the pastoral work of the ministers and elders of the church in Geneva in John Calvin's day. All sorts of the same problems we face—disintegrating marriages, fornication among the young, adultery among the married, people who are not responsible with their money, folk who have had a falling out with other Christians, and on and on. And, sometimes, even having seen other situations of the same type, you scratch your head and wonder what in the world we ought to say to this person, what we ought to demand of that person. What is the proper balance of severity and mercy? What can we fairly demand? What must simply be borne and endured? How can we encourage without minimizing the sin, or confront the sin without casting a tender soul into despair?

How wise those Genevan men were! How firm! They so often in their day took on the men of the church—men who were permitted by their culture to be harsh with and unfaithful to their wives—to such effect that Geneva came to be called "le paradis des femmes" (the paradise of women). But they were also tender and understanding of the frailties of the flesh. And they were patient, often correcting the same situation time after time.

I have met men like that many times in my life. Men of prayer. Men of spiritual experience. Men who are always speaking to others about Christ. Men who love God and who love walking with God. Men who are wise in the ways of this world and wise in ways of God with the soul. Men of deep and godly affections and emotions. Men who are humble and yet men who know how to exercise authority at the same time. I thank God to have such men in the eldership.

The Challenge

Now, there is the challenge for these men and for your present elders—to be such men as can give wise and godly counsel to the saints, counsel they can safely follow in the confidence that it is the way of Christian faith and obedience, in the confidence that it is the right way and the safe way for them to go. That is no simple calling and responsibility. Elders are men who must give an account, who will be required to account for the counsel that they gave to God's people and for the way in which their own lives either recommended that counsel or detracted from it. They know for a certainty that while he who desires the office of an elder desires a good thing, he also desires something that will demand everything that he is and has as a Christian. It will demand large measures of God's grace to him.

But here is the challenge for you. Ezekiel says that it will be a catastrophe for the people of God to be without the counsel of the elders. It will be the evidence of a silent heaven! Do you think that way? Do you prize the counsel of the elders to the extent that its absence to you would be a mark that God has withdrawn from you?

I suspect that in our individualistic day there are few evangelical Christians who think that way, even if they may appreciate the fact that there are wise counselors leading their church. We have not been taught to see our lives as so intertwined with the life of the church, the house of God, as God's Word says they are. We have been inclined to think that everyone's Christian life is pretty much of his or her own making. Not so the Bible!

And you know in your heart it is not so. You would never think that about your children. You would never leave it to them to find their way through the world. You would consider a parent derelict who did not teach and advise and lead his or her children into the ways of righteousness and faith. Well, so it is with the children of God in the church of God. Indeed elders are like parents. That is why they have to show themselves effective parents in their own home before they can be given responsibility for the household of faith.

And in Deuteronomy we read: "Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you" (Deut. 32:7). In that text, "father" and "elders" are in parallel. They occupy a similar place in the life of God's people. Indeed, after a fashion, the elders take the baton from the parents when a child becomes an adult.

Some of us don't want parents any more after we have left the home and are on our own. But that thinking is foolish and juvenile, not mature and wise. Just as we must obey our parents, that we may live a long and prosperous life upon the earth (Eph. 6:3), so we read in Hebrews: "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you" (Heb. 13:17).

We never cease needing to have someone over us in the Lord. What matters, what matters for time and for eternity, is that that someone who is over us is wise and godly and experienced in the ways of God and man, in whose counsel we can count on hearing the voice of Christ himself.

The author is the pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Tacoma, Wash. This article is a sermon that was preached on the occasion of the ordination and installation of elders. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2002.

New Horizons: May 2002

How the Good Shepherd Cares for His Sheep

Also in this issue

The Heart of Presbyterianism: Christ's Saving Rule

By His Word and Spirit: How Christ Exercises His Saving Rule

Shepherds and Sheep

Your Pastor: Shepherd or CEO?

Weak Shepherds and Hirelings

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