Some words from the service of ordination of elders in the Church of Scotland. ‘There are different gifts,
but it is the same Spirit who gives them. There are different ways of serving God, but it is the same Lord who is served. God works through different people in different ways, but it is the same God who achieves his purpose through them all. Each one is given a gift by the Spirit, to use it for the common good. We have the joy of using our gifts as members of the Church of Christ, which is his body continuing his ministry in the world today. Those who are chosen for the office of the eldership have the particular responsibility of caring for God’s people and exercising oversight and leadership. Christ calls us all to share in his ministry. Over the last year, possibly more than ever in our lifetimes, the role of the elder tending their flock has never been more needed. Over the fifteen months or so I have written updates to session members and asked that elders pass this on to their district members. Keeping, or at least, trying to keep everyone up to speed with what is happening has been a challenge for many people in many areas of life but we, the church, have this readymade network that ought to have allowed all of this to operate more smoothly.
Reading: 1Peter 5:1-11
There are few passages which show more clearly the importance of the eldership in the early church. As Peter writes to the elders he does not hesitate in calling himself a fellow elder. The history of eldership is an important and ancient office across society. Jewish origins of eldership can be traced to the days when the children of Israel were journeying through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Remember in the Old Testament when the burdens of leadership became too heavy for Moses to bear on his own.
Seventy elders were set apart and granted a share of the spirit of God. Elders became a permanent feature of Jewish life, they are to be friends of the prophets and advisors to the kings. They are colleagues of princes, involved in the administration of the affairs of the nation. Every village and every city had its elders. They met at the gate of the village or city and dispensed justice to the people. Elders were the administrators of the synagogue overseeing good government and order within the synagogue. The supreme court of the Jews, the Sanhedrin, included elders along with the chief priests, the scribes and the Pharisees. In the book of revelation there is that heavenly image of twenty-four elders around the throne elders are woven into the very structure of Judaism in its civil as well as its religious affairs. There is also a Greek background. Within Egyptian communities we find elders to be leaders of the community responsible for the conduct of public affairs. In Asia Minor the members of councils and corporations were called elders, similar to our local councils dealing with particular issues that have a more direct effect on our daily living. Long before Christianity both in the Jewish and in the Greco-Roman world the title of elder was a title of honour. When we turn to the Christian Church we find that the apostle Paul ordaining elders in every community to which he preached, and in every Church which he founded. In his farewell letter to the elders in the church at Ephesus Paul sees them as the overseers of the flock of God and the defenders of the faith. We learn from James that the elders had a healing function in the church through prayers and anointing with oil. And from the pastoral letters we see that the elders were rulers and teachers. When someone enters the eldership, the oldest religious office in the world, no small honour is conferred upon them. When someone enters the eldership, no small responsibility falls upon them. That person is ordained to be a shepherd of the flock of God and defender of the faith. What Peter writes is applicable not only to the eldership but also to all Christian service. The office is to be accepted not by coercion but willingly.
This does not mean it is to be entered into lightly for the person entering must firstly engage in some self-examining. The office of eldership is not to be seen as a means of making personal gain. Peter makes a point that is for ever valid, no person should accept office or offer service for what they can get out of it.
The driving desire must always be to give and not to get. The elder is to accept office as a shepherd and as an example of and to their flock. The great characteristics of the shepherd are selfless care and sacrificial love for the sheep. Anyone who enters the office with the idea of exercising authority or becoming a powerful ruler has got their whole point of view upside down. For the office of eldership is given by the grace of God and not earned by any merit of our own. Peter identifies himself as a fellow elder. He does not speak down to them, he speaks alongside them. He does not separate himself as somehow being raised above them. He shares the Christian problems and Christian experience with them. He, of course, has his memories of Jesus and it is these memories that colour the whole passage. You can imagine him as he speaks his mind being filled as the memories come flooding in. Peter was a witness to the suffering Christ, eager that the people be resolute in their loyalty and faithful in their service. Peter is remembering both the experience and the promise of glory. The reference to Jesus as Shepherd would come to Peter from a whole series of conversations. But I wonder if the greatest influence of all comes from Jesus calling himself the good shepherd ready to lay down his life for the sheep. The privilege of being the shepherd of the flock of Christ was for Peter the greatest privilege that any servant of Christ could enjoy. The reward of love was the appointment as a shepherd.