I love ordination services in the local church. They are the culmination of what is often a long season—a period when the congregation has heard preaching about biblical eldership, been encouraged to identify men who are gifted for leadership, prayed for those men as they received training and submitted to examinations, and voted to call and ordain particular men to the office of elder. We’ve studied and prayed and waited and prayed and hoped and prayed some more.
The service of ordination, then, is both summit and celebration. We bring plates of cookies and chicken-salad-sandwich triangles, leaving them on paper-covered tables in the fellowship hall for afterwards. We welcome members from other nearby churches who have come to rejoice with us. We happily sit, not in our usual pews, but anywhere we can find a seat in the packed room.
We sing, we hear Scripture read, and we listen to preaching. The man who has been called as an elder takes certain vows, and the congregation takes vows in response—promising to submit willingly to his Christ-appointed leadership in the church. And then, as the new elder kneels at the front of the church, all the elders lay their hands on his suit-coated shoulders and pray.
In the future, this man will go on to pray for the local church hundreds and thousands of times—at elders’ meetings, during home visits, from the pulpit, and in that back room early on Sunday mornings. But his work as an elder commences when the church prays for him, asking the Lord to shepherd his soul and giving thanks to Christ for His good gift.
The Great Shepherd Gives Under-Shepherds
Matthew tells us that during Jesus’s earthly ministry he traveled widely, preaching in various communities and doing healing miracles there. Surrounded by huge crowds of people, Jesus “had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36). The great Shepherd looked at the bedraggled flock and was moved.
Christ’s concern for His sheep then compelled Him to do two things. First, He exhorted His disciples to pray for more under-shepherds (9:38). Second, He sent out his disciples as under-shepherds to rescue “the lost sheep” in the towns and villages, preaching the Word and doing good to their souls (10:1–11).
In our churches today, we are receiving the answer to the disciple’s obedient prayer two thousand years ago. When, Sunday after Sunday, your elders stand in the pulpit and preach the Word of God to you, this is because the Lord Jesus has had compassion on you.
Shepherds Are a Good Gift
Nowhere is the kindness of Christ in giving us elders made plainer than in Ephesians 4:
Therefore it says, “When he [Christ] ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. . . . (vv.8–13)
In this passage, we learn what Christ did after His resurrection and ascension into heaven. It’s no surprise that the good Shepherd didn’t cease shepherding simply because He was no longer physically present with the flock. In his absence, He gave them “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” (v. 11).
Notice how these men are described: they are Christ’s gift. No matter how ordinary your elders appear, they are, in reality, Christ’s perfectly chosen gift to you. When you receive the ministry of your elders, you receive the ministry of Christ himself. Notice also the abundance of this gift: Christ gave “shepherds and teachers”—plural. Whereas Christ describes Himself as the “one shepherd” (John 10:16), His under-shepherds are many. This plurality compensates for elders’ human weakness, protects the sheep from any of their self-serving sins, and brings their diverse gifts to benefit the body.
Finally, notice the glorious purpose of this gift: so that the church will “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (v. 13). Your elders are given to you for no less purpose than your soul’s eternal good. By their ministry, you will know Christ better. We must not discount the privilege of having elders.
Shepherds Display Christ’s Reign
A flock receiving the shepherds’ care has effects beyond the walls of the church building. When we receive our elders’ shepherding and submit to their authority, we display to the world the present reality of Jesus’s reign.
At this very moment, Jesus sits on the throne of heaven, ruling His kingdom and making intercession for His people. In the local church this unseen truth becomes visible. Our unbelieving friends and neighbors have no knowledge of what the eternal reign of Christ looks like; none, that is, until the local church gathers down the street.
Though Christ’s heavenly kingship is invisible, the work of His under-shepherds is not. And when God’s people submit willingly and joyfully to our elders’ loving leadership, we publicly testify to the greater reality of Christ’s reign.
What’s more, the presence of elders encourages our own hearts. Do you sometimes look at the world around you—its low condition of poverty and racism and false religion, its conflicts and injustices and upheavals—and wonder if Christ is really and truly reigning? Take heart. Your elders stand in your church as an antidote to your doubts.
These men are Christ’s delegates working to root out those evils in the flock and to promote purity and peace among the sheep. Their earthly rule assures you of Christ’s heavenly rule. Just as surely as your elders meet early on Sunday mornings to pray for your soul, King Jesus is continually making intercession for you. And just as surely as your elders use the Word to encourage and exhort your local church, King Jesus is ruling His kingdom by the same standard.
The whole world will not be revealed as subject to Christ until the last day, but the shepherds’ work in the local church points to the truth and goodness of Christ’s unbounded reign.
In my church, every ordination service concludes with hugs. First, the current elders welcome the newly ordained man with smiles, tears, and vigorous embraces of the audible, back-slapping variety. Then, the congregation gets a turn. We make our way to the front of the church bearing smiles and tears of our own. We reach for our new elder with open-hearted affection, and, one-by-one, we wrap Christ’s gift in our arms.
This article is adapted from A Place to Belong: Learning to Love the Local Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020) and is used here by permission.