Wise, Discreet and Experienced Men to Guide God’s People
“And I will give you shepherds in agreement with my heart, and they will certainly feed you with knowledge and insight.”—Jer. 3:15.
1. What led to Moses’ action described at Deuteronomy 1:12, 13?
ISRAEL was on the plains of Moab, poised to cross the Jordan and enter the land of Canaan. For their benefit, Moses recounted God’s dealings with them during their 40 years in the Sinai wilderness. The early part of that period had been a stormy one, particularly for Moses, due to wrong attitudes prevailing among the nation. Now, Moses reminded them that, feeling unable to carry any longer the burden of a quarreling people by himself, he had followed the counsel of Jethro and had said to the people: “Get wise and discreet and experienced men of your tribes, that I may set them as heads over you.”—Deut. 1:3, 12, 13; Ex. 18:17-26.
2. Why was the use of such men in handling problems not something radically new and different?
2 In selecting these men, Moses was drawing on what appears to be the oldest form of community direction. Bodies or councils of elders are shown to have functioned among ancient peoples from the earliest stages of human history. In their own experience, the Israelites, as descendants of Jacob, had earlier contact with elder bodies of Egypt, Moab and Midian. (Gen. 50:7; Num. 22:4, 7) Sheiks of Arabian peoples were also tribal elders, for the Arabic word sheikh means simply “elder,” or “older man.” (Gen. 36:15) Before Moses was commissioned to lead the people, Israel already had such elders, and it was to them that Moses was instructed to present the evidence of his divine appointment. (Ex. 3:16, 18) So Moses’ later action in Sinai, availing himself of the aid of elders to decentralize the handling of problems, was not a major innovation.
3. (a) What provision for congregational direction did the Greater Moses make? (b) How do the qualifications compare as regards the elders Moses selected and those serving as Christian elders?
3 In God’s due time, the Christian congregation was formed as a spiritual people, one that spread over all the earth. God’s Son, as the Greater Moses, caused direction to be provided through congregational bodies of elders. It is interesting to note the qualifications that Moses looked for in assigning Israelite elders to do responsible work and to compare these with the qualifications looked for in Christian elders. The similarity is evident in the accompanying chart:
4. What role did bodies of Israelite elders carry out in the Promised Land, and what role do Christian elders fulfill?
4 After Israel became established in the Promised Land, living in cities and villages, all the different communities were guided and aided by bodies of elders. (Josh. 20:4; Judg. 8:14, 16; 1 Sam. 16:4) They were to give wise counsel, help with problems, protect against apostasy and thus serve for the peace, good order and spiritual health of their respective communities. At times they were called on to fulfill judicial roles in settling disputes or in acting for the protection of the community. (Deut. 16:18-20; 19:12; 31:9; Ruth 4:1-11) They were to be a source of comfort and strength in times of crisis. (Isa. 32:1, 2) But they were not the taskmasters of their fellow residents nor were they authorized or responsible to try to live the personal lives of others for them. In bearing weighty responsibilities, Christian elders serve in similar ways. (Compare Acts 20:28-35; 1 Corinthians 3:4, 5, 21-23; 2 Corinthians 1:24.) Added to all of this, the Christian congregation has the commission to make known the good news of God’s kingdom to all persons.
FINDING QUALIFIED MEN TODAY
5. What may help today in making a wise selection of elders?
5 Keeping in mind the past history of the elder arrangement can help us to use good judgment in the selection of elders today. We might think of an individual congregation as though it were like a small village in Israel. The question may be asked: If that were the case, who are the men in the congregation that would serve well as village elders, able to give wise and sound direction, those showing themselves to be discreet, with good balance and judgment?
6. How can the illustration of a family also aid in weighing the qualifications of men to serve as elders?
6 The worldwide congregation of God’s servants is spoken of at 1 Timothy 3:15 as “God’s household” (“God’s family,” The Jerusalem Bible). So, we might also think of an individual congregation as a large family. In a family, if the head of the house is not personally present, the family members often look to the older sons to represent and uphold the standards and instructions of the family head. We may therefore ask: Who are those in the “household” of the faith who are like older brothers in a family to whom the family members would naturally turn for sound counsel and sensible help?—Compare 1 Timothy 5:1, 2.
7. (a) What will usually prove to be the case with those who are found to qualify as elders? (b) Is it an appointment that gives a man the qualities of an elder, and what does it accomplish?
7 In reality, in most cases a man who is recommended to serve as a congregational elder should be one whom the congregation members have already come to view as an ‘older brother,’ in the sense that he has already gained their esteem and confidence as one showing insight, balance and judgment. No one can actually “make” someone an elder, but he himself must become such through spiritual growth, development and experience. (Prov. 1:2-5; 4:7-9; Jas. 3:1, 13) When such a man is selected to serve in this capacity, his appointment is, in actuality, an acknowledgment and recognition of the desirable qualities of an elder that he already manifests. In ancient Israel, as in other lands, it was evidently the case that when a man was noted by the local council of elders as manifesting qualities of godly wisdom, judgment and discretion he was then invited to form part of the council and share in its discussions and decisions.—1 Tim. 5:22, 25.
8. What can one earn by serving faithfully for a period of time as a ministerial servant?
8 Of “ministerial servants,” the apostle writes, “the men who minister in a fine manner are acquiring for themselves a fine standing and great freeness of speech in the faith in connection with Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim. 3:12, 13) No man should think that this means that he can, simply by working at a certain assignment, “earn” the right to serve as an elder within God’s congregation. What he can truly earn is the respect and appreciation of his brothers for his diligent and faithful service, as well as gaining a confidence toward God that enables him to speak with “great freeness of speech.” This is, in itself, a fine reward for faithful service.
9. (a) What do the Scriptures indicate as to the factor of age in the qualifications of an elder? (b) What truth should be recognized about youth in this respect?
9 No age limit is specified in the Bible for those serving as elders. The term “elder” of itself implies age, though it must be recognized that the emphasis is on spiritual, rather than physical, qualities. Age alone is not the determining factor; yet, even as Moses recognized, experience is certainly a valuable asset for men caring for serious responsibilities. (Deut. 1:13) Proverbs 20:29 says: “The beauty of young men is their power, and the splendor of old men is their gray-headedness.” While youth may manifest much energy and enthusiasm, this is not proof of wisdom. But the years of life represented by gray hairs generally give reason for expecting an increased measure of wisdom, even as Job said: “Is there not wisdom among the aged and understanding in length of days?” (Job 12:12; compare 12 verse 20; 32:6, 7.) A young person may be willing, even eager, to serve and show promise for the future. But lack of experience in life can put him at a severe disadvantage when it comes to helping those older than himself with the serious problems of life. His words, however sincere, cannot be expected to carry the same weight as those of one with more years behind him.
10. Does the responsibility placed on Timothy minimize the value of age and experience among elders?
10 Timothy was likely in his 30’s when the apostle Paul wrote the words: “Let no man ever look down on your youth.” (1 Tim. 4:12) So, even at that age, many persons of his time would still incline to view him as “young.” It should be noted, too, that Timothy’s advancement and the responsibility accorded him were exceptional, unusual. He had known the Scriptures from infancy and had already shown fine progress before the apostle Paul selected him as a traveling companion. (2 Tim. 1:5; 3:14, 15; Acts 16:1-3) Thereafter the years that he spent with Paul and others contributed a wealth of valuable experience and knowledge that few persons would gain at his age.
11. How can those who are elders aid others to take on heavier loads of responsibility?
11 Paul encouraged Timothy to aid other elders to benefit from what he had learned, saying: “And the things you heard from me with the support of many witnesses, these things commit to faithful men, who, in turn, will be adequately qualified to teach others.” (2 Tim. 2:2) In a similar way, elders can help other brothers in the congregation to develop spiritually, endeavoring to pass on to them the benefit of their experience and knowledge. It is not simply a matter of helping them to learn some clerical duty within the congregation but of aiding them to develop in judgment, insight and ability to communicate the sound principles of God’s Word to others. As Paul had Timothy accompany him while he carried out his commission as an apostle to the nations and as he served as a shepherd in God’s flock, so elders can invite other developing men in the congregation to accompany them as they serve in similar ways.—Prov. 1:4, 5; 13:20.
12. (a) What part does experience play in qualifying to serve as an elder? (b) Why was Paul’s counsel at 1 Timothy 3:6 especially appropriate in Ephesus?
12 As with age, the length of one’s experience as a Christian disciple is not of itself a determining factor in eldership. It is a relative factor, its importance being governed at least partially by the prevailing circumstances. Paul wrote Timothy that, in selecting elders for the Ephesus congregation, he should guard against the selection of “a newly converted man, for fear that he might get puffed up with pride.” (1 Tim. 3:6) True Christianity had been established in Ephesus for about a decade by that time and so it would be especially inappropriate there to select one of the newer disciples to serve among the elders of the congregation.
13, 14. (a) What examples illustrate that circumstances can play a part in determining how to view an individual’s degree of experience? (b) What factors should nevertheless receive prime consideration in all cases?
13 In writing to Titus in Crete, Paul evidently did not feel the same urgency for this cautionary admonition and did not include it in his remarks about the selection of elders. The fact that true worship had been established in Crete for only a relatively short time may have had some bearing on this. We note that in Paul’s first missionary journey he and Barnabas proclaimed the “good news” in cities such as Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch and then, during the same journey, they returned and ‘appointed older men for them in the congregation.’ (Acts 13:14, 42-52; 14:1-7, 20-23) Since the entire missionary journey likely covered only parts of two years, it is evident that at least some of these men did not have long years of experience as Christian disciples. But since there were Jewish believers among them, no doubt many, if not all, of those selected had a good background of Bible knowledge and experience in applying the principles of the Hebrew Scriptures even before their becoming Christians. They would, of course, have to adjust their thinking to the truths resulting from the developments in pure worship that Christianity brought. The apostle Paul himself was selected by Christ Jesus right from the time of his conversion as one who would be used in a special way and later showed the qualities sought for in an elder. (Gal. 1:15–2:2; Acts 13:1-4) But in his case also his Scriptural background as a devoted Jewish worshiper of Jehovah God made rapid development possible once he had been helped to recognize and accept the Messiah.—Acts 9:15-18, 20, 22, 26-30; Gal. 2:6, 7.
14 So, rather than endeavor to establish fixed limits, we must be governed by wisdom and sound judgment, weighing the circumstances as to a prospective elder’s experience in true worship. In a congregation where many members have been in the truth for decades, the man who has been baptized for only three years or so might seem relatively “new.” But in a newly formed congregation where most of the members have themselves only recently embraced the truth, the experience of such a man might seem reasonably long in comparison to theirs. Whatever the case, at all times it is vital to keep ever in sight the need for wisdom, discretion and sound judgment to be manifest by a man if he is to carry out the weighty responsibilities involved in shepherding the flock of God.
PROGRESS IN MANIFESTING WISDOM AND DISCERNMENT
15. What spirit should elders show regarding improvement as to their own qualities and abilities?
15 Timothy was already an experienced elder when the apostle Paul exhorted him to be absorbed in spiritual matters that his “advancement may be manifest to all.” (1 Tim. 4:15, 16) The wise person does not become heady or feel that he can no longer be taught or improve. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” wrote the disciple James, adding, “Let him show out of his fine conduct his works with a mildness [modesty, New English Bible] that belongs to wisdom.” Such a spirit will produce harmony within a body of elders, eliminating any spirit of discord, jealousy or contentiousness.—Jas. 3:13-18.
16. (a) In what sense are elders equal? (b) How can their advancement be manifest with great spiritual benefit to all in God’s flock?
16 While elders may be “equal” in their responsibility and authority to serve and work on behalf of the flock, they are not necessarily equal in other respects. Some have far greater experience, both in life and in the truth, and have made advancement in wisdom as a result of years of serious study and effort. Each has his strengths along with his weaknesses. If we will appreciate and benefit from the strengths of others we, too, can ‘let our advancement be manifest to all.’ (Rom. 12:3-10, 16) By means of the aid given through such humble, earnest, God-fearing shepherds possessed of knowledge and insight, the prophetic word will prove true and God’s flock today will indeed “become many and certainly bear fruit in the land,” all to God’s eternal praise.—Jer. 3:15, 16.
[Chart on page 17]
Israelite elders Christian elders
To be capable, wise To be qualified to teach, able
to exhort and reprove
fearing God righteous, lover of goodness,
holding firmly to faithful
word in teaching
trustworthy free from accusation, loyal,
fine testimony from outsiders
hating unjust profit not greedy of dishonest gain
or lover of money
discreet moderate in habits, sound in
experienced father of family (in many
cases), not new convert