Elder work is all about leading. People are like sheep and sheep tend to go astray. That’s one reason the church is sometimes referred to as “the flock.” Sheep find security in those who love them and yet have authority to correct them when necessary. In his winsome description of the Lord as his Shepherd in Psalm 23, the first verbs David uses are, “He makes me… He leads me…” That is, He protects me from the wrong way, and directs me in the right way. Thank God for elders who do that same work of leading people “in the paths of righteousness” today.
Unfortunately, in some places that are fully while speaking to a men’s conference discussion group, an older man interrupted me: “Please use the term “elders” and not “leaders.” I pointed him to Hebrews 13:7, 17 and 24 where the writer repeatedly uses the Greek word “leaders” as seen in the NASB and Darby’s translation. The man crossed his arms and sat down with a scowl muttering, “I still don’t like it.”
“Leader” is a good word. It can be useful when referring to those who are supplying direction in a young assembly that has not yet publicly recognized elders. Or according to the definition of the word, “a person of influence,” both elders and deacons in established churches, are men of influence, or leaders in the assembly.
As all elders know, leading people can at times be a difficult and thank- less job. True, the church belongs to the Lord, and He is the builder. But a growing church imposes a demanding schedule on those who lead, not only in teaching, visitation, and various ministries, but also in making decisions that can affect the direction of the work. Skill, experience, and the power of the Holy Spirit are needed.
Given the importance of the subject, have you ever wondered what spiritual gifts God has provided to help those who lead to do so effectively? We might quickly think of evangelists, pastors, and teachers (Eph. 4:12), as notable, public (i.e., ‘high visibility’) gifts. But while these are valuable and necessary gifts found in many elders, they pertain primarily to the finding, feeding and care of the flock. But what gifts address matters of vision and direction of the assembly? In the various lists of spiritual gifts, there are two that provide special help for this need.
Two Gifts for Leaders
In Romans 12:8, we find a gift called “ruling” (KJV) or “he who leads” (NKJV). In I Corinthians 12:28, we read of “governments” (KJV) or “administrations” (NKJV). What are these about? For many years, when I taught on spiritual gifts, I treated them as synonyms, but they are not! Let’s look briefly at each.
The Greek word in Romans 12:8 is “prohistemi” which is a combination of “pro” (forward), and “histemi” (to stand); literally “to stand forward.” One of the more common words for leading, it offers a beautiful word picture of one who moves to the front to help show the way. It is used for example in I Thessalonians 5:12, “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord…” Paul uses it three times in I Timothy 3 in reference to both elders and deacons, and again in I Tim. 5:17, when he instructs Timothy concerning the honor due to “the elders who rule well….”
The less common word, found in I Cor. 12:28 is “kubernesis,” which is defined in the lexicon as, “to steer as a ship; pilot; helmsman.” Both Acts 27:11 (the account of Paul’s voyage to Rome by ship) and Rev 18:17 (“every shipmaster”) involve the use of this word, by way of example.
Now here is a fascinating thing! Of the approximately 20 spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament, the two pertaining directly to leadership, which might at first glance seem mere variations of a common idea, i.e., leading or steering, describe men who function from opposite ends of the church; one in the front and the other from the rear. This is one of the many exquisite accuracies of Scripture that reward attention to detail in noting what preachers of a bygone era called “things that differ.”
The first word (prohistemi), by its very makeup suggests someone at the head of the group, out in front, leading the way and therefore giving the impression of someone with authority and a sense of direction. As to the second word (kubernesis), anyone familiar with boats and ships will know that the forward direction of the entire craft is deter- mined by the rudder which is located in, and controlled from the back (stern) part of the ship. In fact, in smaller boats the “helmsman” or “pilot” sits at the very back with his hand on the tiller, and thus by a small movement of hand, can change the direction of the boat. The apostle James makes the point that a ship’s rudder is, in fact, a very small part of the whole boat, yet has a profound effect on it (see James 3:4).
Applications for Elders
Like all the spiritual gifts, these two are not meant to compete, but to compliment one another. Whether we think of the general on land leading his troops from the front, or the pilot at sea guiding his ship from the stern, we can see the connection with spiritual work in the church. Some men are outgoing, “up front” leaders who can gather the people, forge unity, and inspire effort to pursue a vision for learning, serving, or outreach. Other men, being no less leaders, prefer a position out of the limelight, in the back of the boat, so to speak. But far from being ineffective, the time spent in solitude laboring “in the word and doctrine” (1 Tim. 5:17) can make a substantial contribution to the health of the church, by steering it away from false doctrine and in line with “ the paths of righteousness.” Of course this is not to say that the “up front” man does not so labor, but only that God surrounds the church with leaders whose gifts and personalities differ but together supply the need.
No battle is won on a single front; elders must be team players. Those with outgoing personalities must pur- pose not to dominate the elders’ meeting. Those with a quiet demeanor and who can easily go unheard must realize that their perspective may be the one needed, but it will be no help unless expressed. For the health of the church, it is important that each elder on the team live by the principle, “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4).
The old adage, “As leadership goes, so goes the church,” is generally true, but suggests another important question: is the ship moving? Is it going somewhere? Turning the rudder on a motionless ship will never change its direction! But that’s a subject for another day!