One of the most poignant farewells in church history is found in Acts 20 where the apostle Paul calls the elders of Ephesus to meet him at the harbor of Miletus.
There, close to the docks, Paul gives a farewell speech that Luke, the author of Acts, reproduces for our edification. In his speech Paul makes a critical charge to the Ephesian elders that has clear implications for the church he leaves behind:
"Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood" (20:28).
The elders charge comes with two major implications for all the churches of Jesus Christ.
(1) The church is not a possession of man. You are "the flock of God." You are God's possession by purchase, a purchase made with his own blood. One cannot help conclude that Paul speaks this way to remind elders that the church does not belong to them. Elders only tend the Lord's flock. They are in the Lord's service, in his field, stewards of his property. Elders are not masters or owners themselves. They are slaves to Christ. Thus the church is no place for sloth, self-promotion, power trips or entrepreneurialism. Leaders must never trade on the Lord's resources to advance themselves.
But surely this truth works both ways. Just as the flock is not the possession of her shepherds, neither is the flock the possession of the flock. The church of God is not a democracy. The church does not exist or gather because of the consent of the flock. It does not organize or re-organize according to its own inventions. The flock exists and gathers only because of the radical mercy of her sovereign Lord who bought her with his own blood. He alone calls her to worship, calls her to organize diaconal care, calls her to prayer, calls her to fast, to listen, to shepherded and to shepherd.
The church is not a town, something mutually possessed and mutually administered. The church belongs to God and receives ministerial care and direction as God decrees. "For he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care" (Psalm 95:7).
(2) Union with Christ is union with his church. Since God calls shepherds you are called to be shepherded. You are to be under the care of flesh and blood overseers appointed by the Holy Spirit (see Hebrews 13:17 and 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). A Christian bought by the blood of the incarnate God partakes of these peculiar relationships in this life. Unbelievers will not. In short, a Christian not only has God in their life but has elders in their life.
Yet unlike worldly overseers, the overseers appointed by the Holy Spirit are men who minister the Word of God. They have no authority but that which is derived from scripture. They do not enforce their own religious preferences, policies, interests, or whims. As our Book of Church Order wisely puts it: "All church power is only ministerial and declarative, for the Holy Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice. No church judicatory may presume to bind the conscience by making laws on the basis of its own authority."
This is truly wonderful news for those who are eager to be led and kept in the ways of God. God has provided, through his Spirit and constrained by his Word, the very kind of leadership which soft and humble hearts need to walk in the truth.