An Old Testament Example of Eldership

One of the greatest blessings that I have in my life in the ministry that I am in is the sweetness of serving along with a team of elders. Our church, unlike any I have ever served in, recognizes that God has called the body to be spiritually led by a team of men who all work together to accomplish the task of ministry. The elders in our church are not my underlings or servants, they are my partners and friends. Our elders are godly men who bring different gifts and perspectives to the table.


Sadly, in so many churches, the model of ministry is that of a single pastor wielding all the authority and owning the work. The model is more that of an American corporate CEO and his company. Perhaps there are assistants on staff. Perhaps there are deacons who act as a board to either help or check the pastor. But in so many cases, the pastor plays the role of the solo leader.


Moses, as he led the nation of Israel through the wilderness, made the mistake of trying to be the solo leader. Moses acted as though every decision needed to be his. He burdened himself and the nation by owning responsibility for all the things that the people did.


But, one day, Moses’ father-in-law came to him, saw what he was doing, and offered him both rebuke and advice. Now, this is not a picture of the New Testament church. But it is a great example of the principle of how elders ought to work, or at least how they ought to start to work.


Exodus 18:13-23 – 13 The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. 14 When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” 15 And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; 16 when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.” 17 Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. 19 Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, 20 and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. 21 Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 22 And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23 If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.”


Jethro saw something that many churches do not see in their structure. To fail to surround a pastor with other leaders who can take responsibility for ministry is not wise. It will wear a pastor out. It will prevent a people from growth. It will not honor the Lord.


Moses had a major role to still play. He, as a prophet, had the responsibility to communicate the word of God to the people. Remember, the Scriptures had not been written yet, so Moses carried direct revelation to the people. In fact, this is also why Moses should have decided the hard cases, because he had a direct line to God that was not there for every other person in the nation.


How is what Jethro told Moses like and unlike elders in the modern church? Jethro saw that no moderately large group of people in a spiritual context is wise to be led by only one man. It is a task that is beyond us. Notice that Jethro brought the leadership down to groups of tens. There was a hierarchy in the nation, there had to be, but no person would have been responsible to individually oversee any more than ten people in Jethro’s plan of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. One can assume that this would have been properly expanded so that people were called to serve and oversee a manageable group.


I would also argue that Jethro’s plan is unlike elders in the modern church in the role that Moses played. Moses served the role of Old Testament prophet. He spoke to God for the people and spoke direct words from God back to the people. Praise God, we are not in such a world. In a solid church structure, the elders, all of the elders, have access to the completed word of God and can communicate it to the people. In the church, the burden of teaching should not fall on the shoulders of one man as if he, like Moses, is the only one with access to God’s words.


Of course, I am not saying that, among a group of elders, there may not be one or two who teach more often. It may be that a church particularly pays one of the elders to be the primary preacher. But it is not healthy for a church to see only that elder in the pulpit while all the others play what appear to be secondary roles. This is why I love the fact that, in our church, other elders regularly preach and I sit in the congregation, hearing the word of God and being challenged and encouraged like the rest of God’s people. It would paint a poor picture for our congregation if they never saw me sit under the authoritative teaching of the word of God done by one of our elders. 


Also, I would suggest that the New Testament congregation has a role to play in their own leadership in a way that simply could not work in the political situation of the nation of Israel. The only congregational business meetings Israel had led to disaster. But, in the New Testament, there appears to be a call for the congregation to take part in affirming the leadership of elders. We see this clearly in how Paul writes regarding church discipline in 1 and 2 Corinthians. The congregation in the New Testament church also had the requirement to rebuke elders in sin, though such a thing was only to be done under very controlled circumstances and with the greatest seriousness.  


Of course, this passage is not the primary argument for biblical eldership. But, as I said, this passage is a great example of the basics of why elders are proper and needed. If your church has only one teacher, only one wielder of authority, your church may well not be doing things in a wise and loving way for the congregation or for the pastor. If your church only sees someone else in the pulpit when your pastor is on vacation, you may well not be functioning in a healthy way. In the New Testament, writers constantly write about the “elders” in the local church and not about the individual pastor. God knew what he was doing, and he showed us in various ways why it is so very good for us to have a plurality of elders to lead the congregation by the word of God and for the glory of God.