Elders are a hot topic in Baptist conversations today. Elder-rule. Elder-leadership. Pastors are the elders. Elders make you Presbyterian. I’ve read a lot of these discussions and I have not really entered into most of them. There is a reason for that.
I just don’t care that much.
Please, put down the stones with which you intend to stone me for my heresy, and let me explain myself a little bit. I am not an opponent of elder-leadership in churches. All of the churches I have served in my three decades as a pastor have been pastor/deacon/committee-run churches – standard, traditional SBC stuff. On the other hand, when I was leading the mission church I pastored in Cedar Rapids through the constitution process, we had decided to have elder-led congregationalism until our very traditionalist mother church slammed that door shut. In the years that followed, we could have instituted elder-leadership in the church but I grew more and more apathetic about the value of doing so. The church that I am currently pastoring is going through a restructuring and some form of elder-leadership is at least on the table. I am not sure that the
A few years ago, at our state pastors’ conference, a well-known seminary professor addressed us on the subject, passionately asserting that elders was THE mandated form of church government in the New Testament and promising us that instituting elders in our churches would solve most of the problems we have. If I heard him right, division would be reduced, the gospel would go forward, deserts would bloom, the blind would see, the lame would walk, global warming would be cured and we would all live happily ever after singing Kumbaya around the fire. If only we’d adopt elder-leadership in Baptist churches.
I only have one problem with that. I’ve seen a lot of elder-led and elder-ruled churches that have been real messes. I have seen the chair of the elders set himself in opposition to the pastor and the church was rocked by the conflict. I have seen elders who tried to squash anyone who would disagree or dissent with their decisions and treat people with different ideas as spiritual lepers. Many of the most serious church splits and messed-up churches I have seen have been elder-ruled churches. So sorry, professor, but I just have seen too much reality to fall for the idea that elders will be a panacea for churches.
I have come to believe, over my nearly 30 years of ministry, that there are things far more important to the proper functioning of the church than the institution of an elder body. In fact, I think that arguments about church structure may be something of a tempest in a teapot, or much ado about nothing. No, that’s not right. Let’s call it “much ado about not much.” It’s not about how the church is structured, but how the people in the structure operate.
I would like to make two points to begin this discussion.
1) Again, I am not opposed to elder-leadership in churches. If I was starting a church, I would have a form of elder-leadership. The pastor would be the chief-elder and the elders would share the pastoral oversight of the church.
2) Every church has elders. The issue is not whether your church has elders. It is who the elders are. In some churches, the pastor has that role and responsibility of overseeing the direction of the church. In many churches, the deacons are simply mislabeled – they function as elders even though they are called deacons. In some churches, there is an unofficial elder body – a man, a woman, a small group of people – who rule over the church. Bring me into your church for a couple of weeks. Let me interview people, read your bylaws and figure things out and I will tell you who your elders are. We all have some group of people who are most responsible for overseeing our churches.
Let me state my thesis clearly. I do not believe there is a single mandated structure for New Testament churches. There are hints and clues, but when someone says that elders are the mandated church structure, I would ask them to show the verses that say that. The New Testament goes into detail on the character qualities and spiritual maturity of its leaders. But it says almost nothing about structure.
Here is what I have come to believe: The emphasis in the New Testament is not on the structure of the church, but on the character and spiritual maturity of its leaders. Give me mature, Spirit-filled leaders and just about any structure will work. And I don’t care what your structure is, if you have self-centered, immature, ungodly men running things, you will have a mess.
Points to Ponder
1) I think the seminary professor was overstating the case when he said that elder-leadership was the biblically mandated form of church government. There is no formal structure mandated anywhere in the New Testament. Scripture mentioned elders, overseers, pastors (shepherds) deacons (and perhaps deaconesses, if the deacon ministry is properly understood). And it is true that Paul appointed elders in the churches he planted. But there is very little formal structure mandated. We are told to honor those who lead, but are given few details.
2) A friend of mine made a point in an article he wrote that Paul was just using the form of government common in cities in that day. The city-elders held authority in their towns. So, when the church was established in the city, the common form of government was adopted. I don’t have the historical proof of this theory, but I found it interesting. Perhaps some of the commenters can give some wisdom to us on this issue.
3) The emphasis with New Testament leadership is on the character, behavior, maturity, and spiritual passion of leaders more than it is on the governmental structure of the church.Three words are used to describe the leaders of the church. They are called elders, overseers and pastors. These terms have been institutionalized in our day, but they were descriptive terms. An elder is not a formal office; it is a spiritually mature man who is worthy to be emulated by the church. An overseer is not some sort of robed bishop who sits enthroned; he is a man who sacrifices his own needs and desires to watch over the Body of Christ. That is almost synonymous to the term pastor, or shepherd; one who watches over the redeemed sheep. It seems clear to me from Acts 20:28 that these are not three different offices, but three general terms used to describe those who oversee the church of God. We are those who are (ideally) spiritual mature and passionate believers who other believers can use as examples to grow spiritually. We lead the sheep, watch out for them, protect them from predators, feed them and guide them in the right ways.
The most detailed descriptions of both elders and deacons deal with their behavior and character, not with any kind of official job description. 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 describe the moral and spiritual maturity and the personal integrity required to lead the people of God. Notice that the emphasis, again, is on character more than structure.
4) There is a danger in unfettered and unaccountable power. The desire to rule over and control the flock of God is impure; something we must resist in God’s service. I suspect that some, though certainly not all, of the movement toward elder-rule in Baptist churches comes out of a desire to insulate ourselves from being questioned, being opposed. It is annoying when you have an idea, present it to the church and they don’t like it. I know of pastors who have treated people who disagree with them as if they are enemies of the gospel, of the Word and of the Kingdom. How dare these impudent people disagree with my wisdom? One famous preacher told his people, “To question me is sin.” Balderdash! We should encourage our people to hold us accountable, not seek ways to solidify our power and control to avoid such accountability.
Please don’t get your braids twisted, pastor-friend. I am not saying that everyone who wants to institute elder leadership is doing it as a power grab. In fact, if done properly, elder leadership is power-sharing.
But I believe that one of the more dangerous trends in the conservative movement is the over-emphasis on pastoral (or elder) authority. We forget that leadership in the Body of Christ is actually service, laying down our lives for the flock. We are not corporate CEOs who dominate and control by the force of our personalities, but servants of the Savior given the awesome responsibility of devoting our lives to the spiritual success of others.
Leadership Imperatives in the Body of Christ
While I am not convinced that there is a single mandated church structure, I do think there are some bedrock principles that must not be compromised – ever!
1) The church has a head – Jesus Christ! Being a pastor became a lot easier when I finally figured this one out. I don’t have to control things. In fact, I am not allowed to. If I try to impose my will, my vision or my ideas on the church, I am committing an act of blasphemy. Jesus Christ died and rose for the right to rule over the church and to be the head of the body. For me or any other leader to try to usurp Christ’s rightful place of authority ought to be unthinkable.
As a wise man said, “All pastors need to learn two things. There is a God. You are not him.”
2) Leadership, then, is not controlling or ruling over the Body, but guiding the body to properly discern the will of God and the mind of Christ. My job as a pastor is not to set the agenda for the church, but to seek to find God’s agenda for my church and lead the church to serve his purposes.
There is amazing freedom in this principle. When I am serving my own agenda, I have to pressure, motivate, badger and direct the flock. When I am on God’s agenda, the Spirit is the motivator. He will bring the Body together on God’s agenda.
3) Leadership in the Kingdom of God is not control, but service. Yes, we have authority and people should give leaders proper respect. But we who lead must remember who we are and what we do. We lay down our lives for the sheep. A self-centered, egotistical pastor is an oxymoron. The greatest must become a servant. In other words, success is measured in the spiritual growth and productivity of those we lead.
4) I do believe that leadership in the Body is too important to leave it in the hands of one man. Each of us has strengths and weaknesses (see Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12). The Body of Christ has only one head, one King. Leadership in the Body should be spread among a group of spiritually mature men – call them pastors, elders or whatever.
5) There is, I believe, more than one way to accomplish biblical church governance. I think the professor overstated his case when he told us that elder polity is mandated by scripture. Some of the principles may be mandated, but the Bible is not specific on issues of structure.
Church government is character-based, not structurally-based. To advocate that establishing elders in churches will do away with conflict, reduce power-struggles and magically advance the cause of the Kingdom is naïve. The answer to these problems is not some structural realignment, but a heart-change in leadership. We need mature, godly, humble, focused, passionate leaders who will operate on God’s agenda.
If you want elders, go for it. If you don’t, more power to you. You certainly won’t offend me. Just don’t advocate it as the healing tonic for all ecclesiological problems. Keep the focus where it needs to be – developing Spirit-filled, mature leaders to operate whatever structure you have.