Timothy Witmer’s book, The Shepherd Leader, is a helpful resource for elder training – for initial training and ongoing training. One section I found helpful is where Witmer explains what the Bible means when it describes elders as having a position of authority in Christ’s church. Here are Witmer’s five observations on the authority and elders in the church. I’ve summarized and edited them to keep them brief.
1) All human authority is derived. Ultimately, all authority is the Lord’s (Matt 28:19). As shepherds of the church, elders have been given the authority to lead and protect the local church (Acts 20:28). All authority comes from the Lord and is exercised on his behalf. Ultimately it is his authority.
2) The exercise of authority is designed to serve the well-being of those under its care. Certainly, in the Lord’s flock, leadership among God’s people is always servant leadership. Peter writes that those who shepherd God’s flock should be ‘eager to serve’ (1 Pet 5:2). This follows the way of Christ, who came not to be served, but ‘to serve and give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matt 20:28).
3) This authority is to be directed by God’s Word. In the shepherd-elders’ ‘right over’ the sheep and ‘right to act’ they are under the authority and direction of the Good Shepherd himself. Elders are responsible to look to Jesus for wisdom and direction in caring for the flock. This wisdom and direction is to be found in God’s Word through the illumination of the Holy Spirit. The exercise of authority in the church must always be grounded in the Scriptures.
4) All who hold derived authority are ultimately accountable to the One who gave that authority. Elders are answerable to Jesus for the manner in which they act. It is an accountability to the Lord for their care for his flock. Elders watch over Christ’s sheep as ‘men who must give account’ (Heb. 13:17). They ultimately do not have to answer to the flock, but to the Great Shepherd.
5) The flock is called to submit to the authority of the elders. ‘It is the Holy Spirit who has made them overseers, and they are delegated by the head of the church.’ Paul encourages the church in Thessalonica to respect those who were ‘over’ them in the Lord, those who ‘admonish’ them (1 Thes 5:12). Clearly, Hebrews 13:17 says that God’s sheep must ‘submit to’ the men who lead the church – the elders. As the elders are to submit to Christ and his Word, caring for his sheep, so his sheep are to submit to Christ and his Word – and after that, submit to the leaders he has given them.
For the full helpful discussion, see chapter four of The Shepherd Leader by Timothy Witmer.