A stream runs through a village somewhere in Europe, where many years ago the villagers hired a man to be the Keeper of the Stream. He was to look after it and keep it free from pollution and such.
Some time later, there arose a Mayor of the village who knew not the Keeper of the Stream. "Why are we paying this fellow? I've never seen him do anything!" In fact, nobody in the village had seen the Keeper at his work. What did he actually do? Nobody knew. So they stopped paying him, and the Keeper moved elsewhere.
Soon the villagers noticed that the stream had changed. The flow became irregular. Sometimes it tasted funny. Children became sick.
For years, the Keeper of the Stream had patrolled the banks and guarded it against pollution and blockage. His work was unseen but vital.
I just discovered that the above is told more eloquently by Swindoll under the title "Keeper of the Spring" -- link
One function of elders is to watch for things that can go wrong; their work is thus like the Keeper's work, watching out for "rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers," people who "claim to know God but by their actions... deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good" (from Titus 1).
Another, which we heard about at last night's orientation, is to encourage the pastors and staff and each other (to "catch someone doing something right"). Every congregation has its critics, and a timely word, aptly spoken (Proverbs 15:23, 25:11) from an elder can bring life and joy to the hearer.
More generally, as Paul writes to Timothy, elders "direct the affairs of the church" (1 Timothy 5:17).
Who can be one?The New Testament books of Titus and 1 Timothy list some qualifications; Titus has "elder" and 1 Timothy has "overseer" but the lists are quite similar. The way we understand these passages, particularly the part about "husband of one wife," is that Paul was making a negative requirement during a time of rampant promiscuity and polygamy; the church was not to be like that. We don't understand Paul to be restricting these offices to be only for males (else what did he mean by Galatians 3:28?); rather, he was requiring purity and temperance in these matters.
One newly-nominated elder, when invited to consider becoming one, thought herself unqualified and wanted to decline. But then she heard a message from John chapter 6, about the boy with two small fish and five barley rolls. Would she be like the boy with the five barley rolls and two fish, she asked herself? Would she bring to Jesus what little she had?
So she agreed to be considered and in due course was nominated; we'll be installed along with the other nominees next week. As I reflected on my friend's story, Isaiah 66:2 came to mind:
I'm proud to call this woman my friend. Look at Isaiah 66:2 -- that's her! She was humble, in not thinking too much of her capabilities; she was also humble in agreeing to be considered. The word of the Lord came to her in the sermon; she changed her mind based on that word.All these things my hand has made and so all these things are mine, declares the Lord. But this is the (wo)man to whom I will look: (s)he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.Isaiah 66:2 (parentheses mine)
I won't go into her church experience in much detail, or you might recognize her (and I might embarrass her) -- but I will reveal that Proverbs 10:11 ("The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life...") applies, as her words of encouragement have worked powerfully in many lives -- including mine.