"The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away" (I Peter 5:1-4).
Let us consider in more detail the function of elders. Of course, we cannot cover every detail, but we can gain a general vision of God's mind. I think we can summarize the functions as follows:
Example: God made Jesus Christ to be many things to us, but the first thing we notice in His life is that He was an example for us to follow. We did not know what God was like until Jesus revealed God to us. He told Thomas that "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). His whole life was a demonstration of the very character of God. "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). It was no longer just looking at nature or listening to the prophets, but rather beholding God in the flesh. In the scripture above, Peter says that this is one of the functions of elders: to be an example to the flock of a disciple and lover of Jesus Christ. Elders are called upon to lead, and they first lead by example. Elders should be able to say with Paul, "Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern" (Philippians 3:17).
The presence of a good example (testimony) among the elders is probably the most important factor in allowing them to lead effectively. To say, in effect, "Do as I say but not as I do" takes away the effectiveness and the authority that God wants to manifest through them. The members may "put up with them" and be kind and respectful, but they will not respond readily to instruction and direction. This creates frustration in both the elders and the members. That is why the matter of qualifications is so important. We cannot be overly critical and demand a perfection beyond what God requires, but there is nothing more powerful than a group of mature men of God, with a good testimony, who are responding to God and letting Him change them "from glory to glory."
Serving: An elder has a servant's heart. He has set others' needs before his own and delights in taking the lowly place to "wash the feet" of his brethren. "So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, 'Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them'" (John 13:12-17).
Such a lowly attitude in the lives of a group of brothers has a powerful effect in opening the door to hear further direction. Peter says that elders are not to be those who "lord over others" but rather serve with humility. Authority in the church is revealed in this humble place of caring and serving. Many times, the serving is in things that seem small and insignificant. If men are faithful in these small things, it opens the door for bigger things. But the opposite is also true--that is, if elders offend in small things, it has the effect of shutting down relationships in bigger things.
Oversight: We have already seen that the function of oversight is basically watching out over the functioning of the flock, so that all things may be done unto edification. This oversight is done in a very quiet and unobtrusive way. A strong visible leadership is usually only necessary when a problem arises that distracts the whole flock. Elders observe what is happening, and when problems arise, they provide leadership in such a way as to direct each member to respond to the Lord. They never exercise authority in a way that leaves men with men, but rather leaves men with God.
In carrying out this function of oversight, elders must sometimes exercise authority as they perform the function of the father for the heavenly family. Our spiritual Father is in heaven. How does He order His family? His design is through a plurality of men with His grace. They function underneath the authority of God. They hear God. They communicate what they hear in such a way that brothers and sisters are left with God. If the sheep are at rest, feeding and functioning under the Lord, then they are hardly seen. They are like a shepherd sitting under a tree, watching the sheep graze. If you don't look closely, you may not even see him. But watch what happens when a wolf comes out of the brush heading for the sheep. The shepherd springs into action with force. He is called on by God to protect the flock.
In our day, the mention of authority in connection with leadership often brings an initial negative response. "Is not Christ our head? Is God not our only authority?" The answer to these questions is yes, but the other half of the question is, "How does God exercise His authority?" If we search the scriptures with this question in mind, we will see that most of the time God exercised His authority through men. So the challenge then for elders is to move only in the authority of God, and for the flock to benefit, they must recognize God's authority coming to them through men. This is always a challenge, but it is God's chosen way, and we must remember that God always does things in perfection.
It is important to recognize that the elders do not do all of the work. Rather they oversee (watch out over) the work that is being done by each member. For example, suppose that one member has a good teaching ministry. They will want to encourage that brother in his ministry, that the flock may benefit. But if the ministry is not edifying for some reason, they should not take a "hands off" attitude, but move in grace and love to see it corrected in whatever way is necessary for the ministry to be beneficial. So many times, leadership is afraid to take action in this way. Instead, they let the flock suffer. This is not helpful either to the brother involved or to the flock. Why should we be afraid? We should be submitted to one another so that we can speak the truth in love and all can learn together. That is the beauty of the body of Christ. Elders must take the lead when action is needed.
Oversight is always quietly watching what is taking place among the members and seeking to move ahead of problems, not behind. Many times problems can be foreseen and action taken to prevent or minimize them. This takes sensitivity. It cannot be done with a "controlling" spirit. Rather it must be done in an unnoticed way as much as possible. As has already been stated, much of the work of elders is private and done in the spirit of serving and helping. Many times, a suggestion is all that is needed.
Counseling: As elders "shepherd" the flock, individual needs in members will always come to attention. The need may arise because of a member asking for help, or it may be observed. Either way, the member needs personal attention. The shepherd sees a sheep fall into a ditch. He goes to lift it out and care for its wounds. He nurtures it until the sheep is back to normal and able to fend for itself. He then pulls back into the shadows, not drawing attention to himself. If elders are functioning properly, you may be in a gathering for weeks and not be able to detect who they are. They are not "up front," but behind the scenes. The Lord Jesus is exalted, not the elders. You know when a leadership is functioning properly by observing that all focus is on Jesus. He is to be lifted up in every way. He is the only one who can handle that attention properly. He is God.
If elders are moving in the right spirit, it will open the hearts of the flock to feel comfortable in coming when they have a problem they do not know how to deal with. On the contrary, if elders move in a wrong spirit, the members may not feel they can approach them and get help. This is not to say that every member will always be open, but simply to encourage those in leadership to move in love and care. In the natural family, the father is mindful of each child. It is the same in the spiritual family. Our heavenly Father is mindful of each child, and part of His care for each member will come through the eldership. This is a great responsibility and can only be done in the grace and power of God.
I believe a good step for any gathering to take in the process of recognition is to study the scriptures and come to a common understanding of the function of elders. Without that understanding, we may fear. Perfect love casts out fear, and understanding God's plan is part of that perfect love. We cannot have wrong expectations of elders. They cannot do what every member must do, but every member cannot do what only a recognized eldership can do. If we diligently search the scriptures in these things, I believe God will be faithful to clear up misunderstanding so that we can move together in faith.