By Thomas Walters
The 21st century is a tough time to be a leader. The shortcomings of our public servants and corporate executives play out daily on our televisions and Internet feeds. At the same time, outlets like Facebook and Twitter give the rest of us even more opportunity to complain, comment, criticize, and compare notes with others who are dissatisfied with the direction of things. It seems leadership is found lacking at every level, and at times this attitude carries into the church and resentment is directed at elders who are called to shepherd it.
Some may question why a church needs elders in the first place. After all, why should an entire congregation be submissive to the leadership of a relatively small group of predominantly older men?
In America today dissent and disagreement are considered normal. In a political or business setting they may even be considered healthy. But dissent tears at the fabric of our unity. It does not honor God. We glorify God by our unity in Christ, and by following him in the way he would have us to go. The task of the eldership is to keep a church heading in that direction.
The work of an elder is challenging, and vitally important. Tim Spivey of Highland Oaks Church in Dallas summarizes it this way: “The people of God brim with the Spirit’s power and the task of leadership is to call out and channel that power to the glory of God.”
A Few Good Men—Really?
The phrase “a few good men” originated as a recruiting slogan for the U. S. Marine Corps, but it accurately describes what the church is looking for in the eldership. Things get a little complicated, however, when we read that Paul lists “blameless” as the first qualification of an elder (Titus 1:6). How many of those guys are walking around, and how do we reconcile this passage with his words in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”?
Charles Swindoll once noted, “The very reason God’s work is holy is because he is holy. Those who minister will never do so without some failures, because they are not holy as he is. God’s grace, however, is sufficient to forgive those frailties.”
The standards listed in Titus 1 are high, but they do not include perfection. If that were the case, then God’s church would have no leaders.
What Are Elders Supposed to Do?
First Peter 5:2 tells us that elders should “Be shepherds of God’s flock” that is under their care. We know, of course, that the Bible often uses shepherding as a metaphor for how Christ cares for us as well as how elders are to care for the church. But in a country where most of us have little experience in the care and feeding of sheep, we are sometimes unclear as to what any of this means. We might think of David killing a lion or bear in defense of the flock, but there is more to this verse than mere protection.
It has been said that sheep are the only animals in the world that have absolutely no sense of direction. They often walk in circles, around and around, continuing in confusion, unrest, and even panic. Applying this comparison to a local church may seem harsh, but the point is clear. A successful church needs to have a vision of where it is going, and the people need to be moved gently, but firmly, in the direction of the gospel.
Elders oversee the flock. An effective shepherd is concerned with the needs of the flock. On the surface there are physical needs, but overseeing goes beyond budgets and buildings. Elders must identify the ministry needs of the church and help those ministries come to pass. They must oversee the church’s doctrine and teaching with an eye toward equipping the congregation to live in ways that honor and imitate Christ. An effective shepherd keeps his eyes and ears open. Only by knowing what is going on in and around his flock can he be prepared to bring about the culture of passion and compassion that enables the church to live out the Great Commission.
Elders live as examples to the flock. Peter continues his instruction by stating that elders should not lord it over those entrusted to them, but rather be examples to the flock. Minister Jonathon Lindvall explains the passage this way:
What do “lords” do? They “exercise authority.” They require others to obey them. They make decisions others are expected to follow. They have jurisdictional authority they must exercise. But in the church the leaders are not to “lord over” the others. They are not to make decisions that others must follow. Instead, Peter says, they lead by “being examples to the flock.” That leaves each member of the body of Christ with the responsibility to decide whether or not to follow the example of the leaders.
Elders pray for the sick. James 5:14 tells us that one who is sick should “call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.” Again, the principle of setting the example is clear. How is the church to respond to sickness among the congregation? The church is to pray. James 5:15 continues, “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.” The instructions are simple, but the results can be awe-inspiring. The power of healing belongs to God. It does lie not with the elders, who are merely present to represent the church before God himself.
The Task of Teaching
Titus 1:9 tells us an elder “must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” This is not to say all elders need to be up front preaching from the pulpit or even teaching a Sunday school class. But elders need to have the basic ability to lead others to God in personal but perhaps informal ways. This may be as simple as sharing the gospel in someone’s home or discussing Scripture over coffee with visitors or others who have expressed an interest in the church.
The Responsibility to Judge
Disputes about doctrine are almost as old as the church itself. The 15th chapter of Acts tells of one such dispute and how it was handled by presenting the matter to the church elders and apostles. Acts 16:4 tells us that afterwards, “They delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey.” This is not to say that elders should impose personal authority over people and situations, but rather they should instruct others with the authority of the Scriptures. In doing this we too may obtain the results we see in Acts 16:5: “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.”
Most of us would agree that the primary task of the eldership is to move the church in a direction that brings the entire congregation closer to Christ. Rather than tear down our leaders, as the world is apt to do, we must equip our leaders and build them up so they can do the same for us. And yes, though it goes against our nature as proud citizens of the greatest democracy the world has ever known, we are called upon to obey our leaders and submit to their authority (Hebrews 13:17).
Submitting to leadership in the church should be a joy if we are submitting to leaders who are yielding themselves to the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. It is his will that matters more than our own. He must become greater; we must become less (John 3:30).
The bottom line is that God doesn’t want us wandering in circles like lost sheep are prone to do. Instead, he wants us to head toward the green pastures, still waters, and paths of righteousness we read about in Psalm 23. Jesus is the head shepherd. Elders are merely secondary shepherds, servants who point the way to him.
Thomas Walters is an elder and freelance writer in Sunman, Indiana.
Guidelines for Healthy Conflict Resolution
1. Pray and consult Scripture first.
2. Ask God if this is something you need to work out between you and him, or if you need to bring in the other person.
3. Try to see multiple sides of the issue.
4. Listen to others before you speak.
5. Begin with the assumption that the other person had godly intentions.
6. Remember that you’re both seeking the health of the body of Christ and God’s ultimate glory.
7. Don’t talk behind people’s backs.
8. Be willing to submit to your leaders. Trust their judgment and know that God is holding them accountable.