How Do You Define an Elder

Nelson Kidder – October 11, 2023


By Nelson Kidder

“How do you define an “elder?” When you hear someone in the church called an elder, what do you think that means? This word may bring different thoughts to different people. I serve as an “elder” for the Versailles Church of Christ. In this “reflection,” I want to share with you what being an elder in the Lord’s church means to me.

First, let’s consider how the Bible uses or defines this position or “office.” (1 Tim. 3: 1) The New Testament was primarily written in the Greek language. Flavil Yeakley, Jr., in his book “SHEPHERDING GOD’S FLOCK,” says this: “There are three Greek words for leadership roles or functions in the congregations: two nouns, presbuteros and episkopos; and one verb poimeno. Most modern English versions of the New Testament use familiar words of Anglo-Saxon origin: “elder,” “overseer,” and “shepherd” when translating from the Greek. Yeakley goes on to show that New Testament passages (Acts 20: 17-28 and 1 Peter 5: 1-3) clearly teach that in the early church, these three terms were applied to the same individuals: [“Presbuteros – elder”; “Episkopos – overseer”; and “Poimeno – shepherd.”] He concludes by stating, “Elders” and “overseers” is what they were called. Shepherding is what they were told to do.”

A shepherd by definition is one who tends or cares for a flock of sheep. Throughout the Bible, the metaphor of God or Christ “shepherding” (tending, caring for) their people is used extensively, i.e., Psalm 23, John 10: 11 & 14, 1 Peter 5: 4, etc. The New Testament uses the analogy of a congregation of the church being a “flock of sheep” and of elders being shepherds to care for them. Paul spoke to the elders of the church at Ephesus with these words, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for (NKJV – “shepherd”) the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” (Acts 20: 28, ESV).

I have often shared with you that one of my grandfathers was a shepherd. His primary livelihood was raising and caring for a flock of sheep on a farm in eastern Ohio. As a boy, I spent much time on that farm, watching Granddad tend and care for his flock. I learned a great deal about sheep and shepherding from my grandfather. I believe I can better understand the role of an elder because of these experiences. Please do not misunderstand what I am saying here! I am not saying that I am a better elder than other men who serve as elders because of this! I am saying that I believe my childhood experiences can make “me” personally a better elder, as I reflect on lessons I learned from my grandfather.

In my opinion, an elder first and foremost should strive to be the best “shepherd” he can be to the flock that he is part of overseeing. And what are things that I learned about “shepherding” from Granddad that stand out to me? There are several. But I want to share one significant point in this reflection: There is much more to tending and caring for a flock than just “feeding them.”

Was providing food for his flock (sufficient pasture, hay, grain) important for Granddad? Yes, absolutely! But he did so much more than just provide food! Let me share other things that a true “shepherd” does for his sheep.

Sheep are very susceptible to stomach worms. If a sheep gets these worms and is not treated with medicine, they quickly lose weight, become weak, and can die. I learned from my grandfather that he had to watch his flock carefully for signs of stomach worms. Usually if one sheep became infected, several others would soon be also. Often Granddad’s first indication of stomach worms was seen in the sheep droppings, their stool. As a boy, I thought it quite strange that he paid attention to piles of sheep manure. But that was part of tending and caring for his flock. Granddad would identify the infected animal(s), lead it into a pen in the barn, and give it medicine through a funnel to kill the worms. Much like trying to give pills to your dog or cat, the sheep did not like the medicine, and they resisted taking it. But it was necessary to keep the sheep healthy.

Sheep also are prone to develop “foot rot.” If their hooves become infected and are not treated, this can lead to severe lameness. Eventually, a sheep might become unable to walk, resulting in them being “put down.” I often watched as Granddad would roll an infected sheep onto its side, trim away the rotten part of the hoof, and use medicine to cure the problem.

Finally, I learned from my grandfather that sheep manure easily clings to their wool around their backside. Flies will lay eggs in this matted wool, resulting in maggots on the sheep. To prevent this condition, Granddad regularly “breached” each sheep, by cutting off the wool around their rear. “A dirty job, but someone had to do it!” And that “someone” was the shepherd of the sheep. Consider that as a boy, I thought monitoring sheep droppings for signs of worms, cutting off rotten parts of hooves, and trimming dirty wool matted with manure were all “yucky” jobs! Feeding the sheep seemed like a “fun” job. But Granddad explained that all those “yucky” jobs had to be done, in order to tend and care for his flock.

At this point, someone might express disgust at these examples. Writing about sheep manure, worms, foot rot and maggots might seem too harsh for delicate pallets. But I share these details to show that “shepherding” entails much more than merely feeding the flock. A true shepherd tends and cares for the sheep, with all their infirmities.

Being an “elder” in God’s church isn’t all “fun” stuff! Caring for the flock means sometimes having to do jobs that can be messy and depressing. In future “reflections,” I hope to share more of what I believe it means to “shepherd the church of God.”