Elders in the church are chosen to be representatives. In our republic that is the United States of America, governing officials are elected by the people to represent the people. Elders of the church serve as representatives who are elected by the people and from the people (see Acts 6 as an example of officer elections in the New Testament), but they are chosen primarily to represent Jesus to the people. The authority of Christ is administered by elders who represent him. Thus, the members recognize that the risen Jesus is himself the one leading the church even in the present age.
What does it mean that elders are to represent Jesus to the people? Jesus as the God-man is the head of the church (Colossians 1:18). He is presently reigning at the Father’s right hand (Acts 7:55-56, Ephesians 1:20, Colossians 3:1). He has not appointed one man as his vicar on earth, as Roman Catholics believe. Instead, Jesus, in his humanity, still reigns over his church. Jesus gave the office of elder to supply representative leadership until he comes again. This leadership is always subject to the only final rule for faith and life, the word of God. He has appointed that a plurality of elders rule his church so that no one man dominates and so that there is always accountability (e.g. Acts 15, 1 Timothy 4:14, Titus 1:5, 1 Peter 5:1-5). Jesus gets the glory through the leadership structure he has ordained, and, rightly applied, all of his children understand that they submit to his leadership.
Conscientious elders feel the weight of this calling profoundly; and so we need to pray all the more for those who shepherd us. Sadly, it is possible for elders to misrepresent Christ, and many saints have been deeply hurt over the centuries from such misrepresentation. Because local elders and churches are responsible to the authority of the presbytery (Acts 15), there should always be a provision of checks and balances with opportunities for appeal so that the sheep are protected and Jesus’ desires for his church are honored and implemented. When the functions of the office are performed faithfully and humbly, the sheep personally sense the love of their Savior and Chief Shepherd.
Here are some of the ways in which elders, then, represent Jesus to the people:
- Elders oversee Jesus’ flock and lead, especially in worship (1 Timothy 3:1, 5; Hebrews 13:7, 17).
- Elders proclaim and minister the word of Christ (Acts 6:2; 1 Timothy 5:7).
- Elders administer the sacraments (Matthew 28; Acts 2:42).
- Elders shepherd the flock (1 Peter 5:1-5).
- Elders administer church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5; Titus 1:9).
- Elders adjudicate disputes and study to determine pure doctrine (Acts 15:22; 1 Timothy 5:7).
- Elders train, examine, and ordain new leadership that is also chosen by the congregation (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6, 2:2; Titus 1:5).