Elder-led Congregationalism

Recently North Trident voted unanimously to move to become an elder-led congregation. The phrase “elder-led congregation” says several things.

First, that based on the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer every member, is equal and has a God-given right to have their voice heard and God-given responsibility to serve. Congregationalism shortens the distance between clergy and laity. Congregationalism does not want to diminish the specialness of the pastoral office. It just wants to add another office: member.

The second that it says it that the church is led by multiple elders who are mutually working together to shepherd the flock. I believe this move will position us for greater gospel effectiveness.

At the present, I am the sole Elder/Pastor. So, where do we go from here? At the outset I would like you to consider four things.

We must not be hasty.

Many church replants begin with a handful of people.  We need to see ourselves for what we are—a group of missionaries working to reach our community. In some ways we lack stability, it will come in time, but it is not here yet. Our plan needs to be that we will install elders only after we coalesce into a more stable and established group. This may be hard to hear but trust me when I say it is wise to be self aware.

Patience is important, As God blesses us, most of the people we will initially reach will be unbelievers or believers who are coming back to the Lord after some time of wandering. Therefore, they will not initially meet the Biblical criteria to be an elder. We want to make sure that we install leaders who are committed to stay and serve. Elders who will not abruptly leave and disrupt the community of faith.

Additionally, hasty installation of elders will send the wrong message. It says, “we are stable, we have arrived, the mission has been accomplished.” We are not, we have not, it has not been. Harvest is the evidence of being established and it will be obvious when we are.

We must not drag our feet.

There is a lesson every pastor and committed church member has learned. The work flows to the most committed member until he or she is overwhelmed. Growth dictates advancement. While quickly installing elders could weaken missional momentum, on the other hand, failure to move forward at the right time in delegating the ministry to others could inhibit growth. When the Acts 6 moment arrives, we need to be ready to act.

Recognizing Likely Elders

The New Testament reveals that God intends for the local congregation to be led by elders. It is also clear that God requires those elders to exhibit maturity and Christian character. (I Timothy 3:1-8; Titus 1:5-9) As with deacons, an elder will look like an elder before they ever become and elder. When the church installs an elder, that installation is just the community of faith publicly acknowledging what already is.

Choosing the first elders

In Acts 14:23 we see Paul and Barnabas choosing elders. Paul writes to Titus and instructs him to select elders. In other words, an elder has walked with this person, knows this person, sees spiritual maturity and Biblical qualifications exemplified in this person so they bring that person before the members for affirmation. This is elder-led congregationalism. The initial installation process is the only time elders will be nominated by me personally. As the number of elders increases from one to more, this identifying of elders becomes a function of the elder assembly. Elders identify elders who become elders at the affirmation of the community of faith.

The Complementarian Nature of God Revealed in the Trinitarian Community

The wonder and power of community in our western post-enlightenment world have been tarnished, and in some places discarded. We think of ourselves primarily in individualistic and autonomous terms and in our present world, individualism trumps community. The ancient world was very different from our own. To be a Jew meant to be a member of the people of God. To be a follower of Christ meant to be a member of a community of faith. This is why temple and body imagery were so important to Paul, and so prevalent in Paul’s letters. Paul writes to the Ephesian church:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.(Eph. 2:19-22)

Jesus, while on earth, referred to His physical body as the temple (John 2:21-22). In an extended and repetitive manner, Paul uses this same imagery to portray the church.  Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? (1 Cor 6:19)

In John 2:19 Jesus prophecies that this temple (His body) would be destroyed, but He would raise it again in three days. It is probable that the “raised up body” to which Jesus refers is both His physical as well as mystical body. The Holy Spirit indwelt the Lord Jesus Christ personally, and now the Holy Spirit indwells every believer, making us His temple individually and corporately. Allow me to explain. Unlike I Corinthians 6, where Paul identifies each believer as the temple of the Holy Spirit, in 1 Corinthians 3 he uses the plural ὑμῖν and ὑμεῖς (you), insisting that the entire local community is collectively the temple of the Holy Spirit. The deep intricacy of this reality is that initially, every believer is the sacred domicile of God’s Holy Spirit and then when we come together corporately, we jointly constitute the temple, and every believer is a portion of that temple. Obviously with this comes transformative moral and communal obligations.

For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1Cor. 12:12-13)

The “temple” and the “body of Christ” are the same with each uniquely illustrating different characteristics. The “temple” metaphor designates a dwelling place of the Spirit. The “body” metaphor demonstrates both the unity of variety and hierarchy. Dale Martin in his work The Corinthian Body (p.92) writes, “The macrocosm of the body was used to explain how unity can exist in diversity within the macrocosm of society.” In other words, the imagery of the body shows how radically different members, with complexity, are joined together as one, proving not only that diverse members can function in harmony, but in fact, diversity is necessary for harmony to be realized.  The body would perish, or at least would become a nonfunctioning monstrosity, were it not for the different functions of the different members. 

In bolder terms, if the body was an egalitarian construct it would die. It lives because of its complementarian systems. Within a system of complex and diverse functions, some parts must acquiesce to other parts in order to accomplish the necessary tasks. This complementarian order is so powerful because we see the same gracious subordination functioning within the context of the Trinity. However, in either case, the subordination of difference in function does not imply inequality. According to the Apostle Paul, our human assessments of the more honorable and less honorable parts are incorrect. Paul writes, “But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked.”(1 Cor. 12:24b) 

Within the body of Christ, and the Trinity, a hierarchy exists that meets each need and demand efficiently without ever compromising value. Sadly, this is not always understood by those of us in the church, and unfortunately, this diversity can become a source of marginalization and division. Paul is aware of this danger, and so he states to the Corinthian church that he is writing to them so “that there may be no division in the body”(1 Cor. 12:25b)

How is it that separate, disconnected individuals can be joined into a unified complementarian community that constitutes the mystical body of Christ?  In 1 Corinthians 6:14-15 Paul writes, “Now God has not only raised the Lord but will also raise us up through His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” The Apostle adds, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” Jesus being raised from the dead occasions our immediate spiritual and eventual physical resurrection, enabling the Holy Spirit to indwell us now, in the present. This indwelling brings with it a sacramental element that both unifies and identifies us with Christ and other believers. Paul reminds the fractured Corinthian church that division is contrary to their new nature granted them by Christ’s resurrection. There should be no division because there is a “more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31b). It is to this“more excellent way” that Paul refers when he writes of the “power of the resurrection and the fellowship of Christs’ sufferings” as a path to “attaining the resurrection of the dead” (Phil. 3:10-11).

For Paul, the body imagery is more than merely an image. It expresses the reality that the local community of faith is the principal means by which the risen Christ manifests Himself in space and time. Through this body, the power of the resurrection is to be communicated. The local church, as a faith community, is responsible for making Jesus known by their communal witness. For this purpose, each member is given a manifestation, or gift(s), of the Spirit for the common good, to build up the body of Christ, make Christ incarnate in this present world, proclaim the gospel, and thereby glorify God.

In conclusion, the Trinity is a complementarian construct. The model prayer that Jesus taught His disciples to pray, His prayer in Gethsemane before the betrayal, as well as Christ’s mediatorial work in heaven now, clearly illustrate this. Furthermore, it should not be considered absurd to expect the church to reflect the nature of its God with each member functioning within the body, in tandem with the other members, and submitting to one another as Christ, the head, dictates. All parts are equal, yet all parts do not receive the same attention or have the same functional honor. Being a vibrant, healthy community of faith requires both the acceptance of equality in value and importance, as well as subordination in role and function. If there is functional complementarian subordination within the Trinity, and I propose there is, then one should expect to see a similar functional complementation subordination within every Trinitarian community.

Sin, not God, made us junk

“Son of man” is not a description of Jesus but rather a title. It cannot be a description because Jesus was virgin born. Although Jesus did have an earthly mother, he was no man’s son. “Son of Man” is a messianic title given in Daniel’s prophecy. I don’t recall the exact number of times this title is used in the New Testament, but it was a lot, and it was always by Jesus referring to himself.

The passage in John 14:9 illustrates this. Because God is not human and is far beyond humanity, it is impossible for us mortals to look upon God. (Think of Moses on the mountain looking only upon the residue of God’s presence and glory.) Therefore, because of the great distance, in order for finite man to understand God, at least to the limitation of His finite abilities, Jesus had to lay aside His deity and take on human flesh. (This is but one of several reasons for Jesus’ incarnation. Jesus came to be tempted like us, to be our High Priest and an appropriate sacrifice, and so forth.)  

To see Jesus was to see the Father.  When the disciples observed Jesus’ heart, manner, and actions they were able to get some understanding of the heart, manner, and actions of the Father. In John 1 Jesus is called the word, but that doesn’t mean that He looks like a word, it means that the totality of what Jesus is, His incarnation, humiliation, ministry, life, sacrifice, resurrection, etc. is the expression of God’s love for humanity and God’s thoughts toward humanity. As Paul writes in Philippians 2:7 Jesus “took upon him the form of a servant and was made in the likeness of man.” Prior to the incarnation, Jesus was not in the likeness and physical form of man. This was something that He took on.

So, what does the scripture mean when it says that man is made in the image, or likeness, of God?  Does this mean that God physically looks like us? Excellent question! No,this is not referring to the physical body of humanity because if God was limited to a tangible body then by virtue of that God would be limited, and we know that He is not. So what does it mean? It means three things.

FIRST, this image of God in humanity is a personal likeness. God is a person. Man is a person, and when I say person, I am referring to spirit and personality. Even after the physical death of the body, the spirit and person of the person remains. This is one of a number of things that gives value to human life as being distinct and greater than animal life. What is personality? It is a combination of self-consciousness and self-determination. 

SECOND, the image of God is a moral likeness. Adam was created morally pure. Sin caused humanity to lose its original righteousness. However, the moral element of humanity’s nature remains.  Salvation cannot be earned, but a lost man can live a moral life. All of us are born with a conscience that causes us as children to blush when we lie or be ashamed when we do wrong. The tender conscience of a child is rooted in that moral nature.

THIRD, the image of God is a social likeness. When we think of the Trinity, we think of the fellowship that exists between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All of humanity carries with it this same need. Humanity was created to have fellowship and social relationships—God said that it was not good for man to be alone. But most importantly, humanity was created to have fellowship with God. That fellowship was disrupted by sin, but humanity still retains that social nature.

One of the things that I am reminded of every year during the resurrection season is the infinite discrepancy between what God created humanity to be and what humanity is. The chasm between our original state and our fallen state seems, to me, to be infinite. I recently heard someone say, “This is how God created me, and God doesn’t make no junk.” No, God didn’t make us junk, but sin did. Therefore, our only hope for the full recovery of that original perfection is realized through the resurrection. We must abandon everything of our own selves that we might, by faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we can have the righteousness of Christ which comes by faith from God.

I Choose to be a Fool for Christ

What is the bible? Is it the story of a people’s journey with God? Or, is it an account of human existence as told by God. We have not always been on the earth and we will not always be on the earth. So, as temporary beings we lack the ability to see the whole picture. God however, is eternal. He has always been. In the Word of God we see God taking the whole of human experience and pulling everything together into a pre, post, and present tense historic record of divine redemption.

Only God knows the entire narrative from beginning to end. So then, why would we trust our immortal souls to people who cannot possibly know the whole story and at the same time refuse to believe the only viable account of it?

Some finite being stands before a crowd of a few hundred. His authority is backed up by the few doctoral degrees his human mind has been able to earn during his 70 years of existence. He puts a smug half smile on his face, points his boney finger at a picture of the earth, and says, “No thinking person would ever believe in the biblical account of creation” and the few hundred talking heads nod in agreement. He prints a book that records his 70 year old wisdom and thousands buy it. Even seminarians sweat and struggle to pull the Word of God into some coherent agreement with this man’s learning…as if man’s theory, not God’s Word, is the standard to which all thinking should align. Paul describes this very scenario with far fewer words in Romans 1:22-“Professing themselves to be wise they became fools.”

It is better to be scorned and thought a fool for believing in the everlasting God than to be celebrated as an intellect for believing in a fool. I choose to be like Paul who told the Corinthian church, “We are fools for Christ.” (I Cor. 4:10) I pray you will make the same choice.

"Your Story" Paralysis

One of the big things you hear about and read in church growth articles is the power of personal stories to reach and integrate people. If you looked at many church promotions you’ve probably come across a tagline similar to this:

Everybody has a story; we care about you, we want to hear your story.

And certainly, because we have the love of Christ, we do care about people and their stories.

Christopher Booker, in his book “The Seven Basic Plots: why we tell stories” proposes that there are only 7 kinds of story plots.

Overcoming the monster, The quest, Rags to Riches, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, Rebirth

Christopher believes that every story we’ve ever read can fit underneath one of these categories. Now, whether there are 7 categories or 17 is not important, what is important is that all the stories, written, read, heard and told, can probably be organized under a few basic headings.

It is who we are. It is human nature to think of our lives in terms of stories.

The problem is that these stories can become concrete categories of definition into which we force our lives. This can become a situation where we unconsciously define the events and conditions in our lives by the characteristics of the story plot we have assumed upon ourselves.

There was a study done where people were asked to describe their lives.

  • 51% said, "My life is a journey."

  • 11% said, "My life is a battle."

  • 8% said, "My life is a novel."

  • 5% said, "My life is a play."

Very few people said, “my life is a life,” although this might be the better answer. But, I think you can see some of what Christopher Booker is referring to in these responses.

When we assume this plot line we begin to live out our lives as some kind of caricature of this self-imposed story in which we imagine ourselves to be living. Everyone has seen the guy with the camo painted pickup –he is living out his story. A young person in university wants to be perceived as an intellect and the professor they admire identifies themselves as agnostic or atheist. In response, this young person who desires to be thought of as an intellect then begins to also identify as an agnostic. No, they haven’t truly thought the implications of their claim. They haven’t asked and answered the hard questions. They are simply trying to be that character in the story of their life.

This story plot fuels so many of the life choices: habits, routines, activities, clothing, hairstyles, tattoos, automobiles, homes, etc. –even relationships.

The stories we tell about ourselves, the settings, the adjectives, are influenced by the story plot we think we are in and the character we think we are in that story. Again, it is part of the human condition to think of our lives in terms of stories.

But, what happens when our chosen story plot limits us, influences us to make foolish decisions, encourages self-destructive behavior, ruins healthy relationships— or even worse, keeps us from connecting people and ourselves to Christ in real and powerful ways.

Some of the hardest work in ministry is avoiding and helping others to avoid the story plot paralysis.

  • I am a planter overcoming the monster of the established traditional church.

  • I am on a quest to do ministry as no one has ever done it before.

  • Our story is a story of rebirth

What happens when the “monster of the established church” does more for God in ways we can’t? What if no one joins “the quest”? What if there is no “rebirth”? Does that mean we have failed? Does this mean our life lacks meaning? Not only can this artificial story plot wrongly influence us, it can become a source of unnecessary pressure and discouragement. Why are we seeing so many pastors leaving the ministry? Why is there an increasing number of suicides and moral failures being reported in large and small ministries? Satan uses our self-imposed expectations and pressures to break us—Satan is, in fact, the accuser of the brethren.

How about, instead of overcoming the monster, finishing the quest, or going from rags to riches we simply seek to live as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ with no other governing force than the glory of God—no other expectation than the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Why can’t it be acceptable, and notable, that ministry is organic, sometimes messy, and often ordinary rather than assuming some artificial story plot in which we are the main character. Why don’t we instead, look to Christ, and enter into His story where He is everything!

The Need of a Lead

It should not be considered radical to believe that the Bible prescribes certain things regarding church government. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that everything should be done decently and in order. This only makes sense if there are descriptions and prescriptions for decency and order. I’m not implying that there is an exact mandate concerning church polity, but I am saying that the church is not left to draw on a vacuum. There are many things mentioned explicitly and implicitly.

The New Testament speaks of shepherds, bishops, and elders. These three descriptions reveal the three key aspects/functions of the individual spiritual leaders within the church. Additionally, the New Testament illustrates in historical narrative and in apostolic teaching a plurality of leadership where we see one functioning as the primary leader in ecclesial collectives.

When Jesus ascended back into heaven, he did not leave behind a “leaderless” group. Simon Peter was clearly the intended spokesman and John was his associate. Jesus had spent three years, as the primary leader, preparing the disciples to carry out the Great Commission, and equipping Peter to be the leader. When Matthew, Mark, Luke (Acts) and John wrote their gospels, Peter’s name is mentioned dozens of times more often than the other apostles. There is even a preponderance of events involving Peter in contrast to events involving other disciples. In fact, Peter is mentioned in 57 specific occasions compared with his brother Andrew who is mentioned in only eight. One evidence that the Lord intended a leader of the leaders (or shepherd of the shepherds) is the disproportionate focus of Jesus first on Peter as the leader, and second with John as his associate.

When Jesus called Peter to leave his fishing, that Peter was already the leader of this small group of fishermen is certainly implied in the text. Peter’s brother Andrew, James and John are called his “partners” (Luke 5:7, 10). Strategically speaking, that Jesus chose these four men first implies a leadership construct. Andrew, James, and John looked to Peter as their leader, and as other men were added to the group, Peter continued to stand out as the primary leader of the followers.

After His ascensions, when the followers of Christ (120 of them) entered the upper room Acts 1:15 states, “Peter stood up among the believers” and led them in deciding to replace Judas. Jesus had prepared Peter for this moment, and everyone in the room knew it. Although Peter had denied the Lord three times Jesus’ prayers for Peter were answered, and now, he was able to shepherd this group which included his fellow shepherds (Luke 22:21-23).  Furthermore, when Peter stood up on the day of Pentecost and explained from the prophet Joel what was happening, not one of the apostles hesitated to follow him. There was never a Christian coup. Even James, John’s older brother, took a backseat to his younger brother who was now assisting Peter. Again, and again we read that “Peter and John” took the lead with Peter being the primary spokesman and John standing by his side affirming and confirming the message of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Allow me to add one caveat here in case someone would try to create an artificial distinction and say that Peter was an apostle but not an elder. In his appeal to the elders of the various churches, Peter addresses them in his first epistle as “a fellow elder.” (1 Peter 5:1) Yet, even with this authority, Peter did not act unilaterally. In Acts 8:14 when revival came to Samaria the text reads, “When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the Word of God, they sent Peter and John to them.” Peter was both the leader, and a man under authority.

As the drama in Acts continues to unfold James, the half-brother of Jesus, emerges as the key leader among the elders in Jerusalem. So, when Peter is released from prison and goes to Mary’s house, he acknowledges James’ leadership (Acts 12:17). Later in Acts 15 during the council where they were resolving the law and grace controversy, Peter represented the apostles (vv. 7-11), and James represented the Jerusalem elders (vv. 13-21). Later when Paul returned to Jerusalem, he went first “to see James, and all the elders were present” (21:18). At this point, James is clearly the lead elder among the Jerusalem elders.

In the relationship that existed between Paul, Timothy, and Titus (as well as Barnabas, John Mark, Luke, Silas) Paul is the leader. This is developed further when Paul sends Timothy and Titus out. Although their position in the various local churches was not permanent, they were instructed to lead in appointing qualified elders in each of the churches.

Finally, although there is something of an absence of exact specificity in the New Testament concerning church government, there is no vacuum.  The biblical narrative of Peter leading, followed by James leading, along with Paul’s leadership in the Gentile churches is clearly a prototype for a plurality of elders in the local church under the authority of a leading elder. Herein is the predominant leadership pattern of the New Testament era. Local churches were led by elders who were guided by a lead elder. We desire to emulate this pattern.

Plurality of Elders: God's Plan for Success

Nestled in the suburbs of San Jose, California, is an estate built by the heir of the Winchester rifle fortune. In 1884, Sarah L. Winchester began a thirty-eight-year construction project guided by a superstitious fear. 

Mrs. Winchester was convinced by a medium that she would be haunted by the spirits of those killed by the famous Winchester “gun that won the West” unless she kept building. She was worth 20 million and earning a thousand dollars a day, so she kept the carpenters’ hammers pounding constantly, sometimes twenty-four hours a day. 

The end result was a Victorian mansion with corridors randomly leading nowhere, doors that opened to blank walls or sheer drops, and stairs that led to a blank ceiling. Although it had 160 rooms, six kitchens, thirteen bathrooms, fifty-two skylights, four hundred sixty-seven doors, ten thousand windows, a bell tower, three elevators, forty staircases, and forty-seven fireplaces there is one thing it did not have—plan or purpose. The only driving force was to keep building and never stop.

I don’t know of a better illustration to describe the landscape often found in many local churches. At some point in the past these churches possibly had more people, even experienced a couple of growth spurts, but now after a period of stagnation and decline they are left with unrelated programs that lead to nowhere, ministries that exist simply because they always have, and activities that serve no observable purpose or accomplish any definable goal. 

Ultimately these churches will die. However, unlike businesses, they often limp along for years on the financial reserves hoarded in designated line items, funded by memorial bequests. And, you will not have to look hard to find someone in these churches to champion the pointless ministries and dysfunctional traditions. Dying congregations lack self-awareness. “I don’t know what you are thinking young man, but we don’t need you to fix us. There is nothing wrong with this church.” So, with blind, smug, self-assurance these churches continue their slow agonizing march toward the grave. 

I can’t count the number of times I have heard a fellow pastor say, in the middle of recounting some difficult situation, “they didn’t teach me about this in seminary.” That one’s first venture into pastoral ministry is traumatic, is a story too often told. The newly ordained minister rarely suspects ulterior motives, power brokers, the idolatrous worship of buildings, dedication plaques, and longstanding traditions. There is nothing more disorienting in ministry than to encounter leaders who fight to preserve and maintain doors that open to nothing and stairs that go nowhere. Why would someone who is supposed to love the church fight to protect the terminal disease that is killing it? There must be a better way.

In my ministry and life, I came to the place where I had to ask myself, does God have more to say to the church about spiritual leadership than what I had previously seen?  

So, I started studying and focusing on the biblical pattern and prescription for elders and I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. Did you know that almost every New Testament author speaks of church elders? It goes like this: pastors are elders who oversee God’s flock as they are strengthened, helped, and supported by other elders within the local congregation. The leading elder, along with other elders, shepherd the flock in tandem. Not only is this a better way it’s a biblical way.

In the New Testament I discovered that multiple Christlike elders within the individual congregation is more than an optional idea, it is the keystone of God’s plan for spiritual health within the church. It is the means by which the body of Christ wins the lost, makes disciples and plants churches. 

In the first century, and soon after, the spiritual leaders in the local churches were consistently called elders. As Paul’s missionary work expanded among the gentiles these elders were then also called bishops or overseers. Paul commands these elders to “shepherd or tend” the flock of God and “manage” the household of faith together. Additionally, to illustrate that eldership is not reserved to one or just a few, Paul, in 1 Timothy 3:1, assures us that any man who desires to be an elder is desiring a “noble task.”

I have concluded that if the church is going to be the thing God intended it to be it must follow God’s plan, God’s way, for God’s glory. The body of Christ must be shepherded, managed and overseen by faithful and sensitive servants whom God has called and qualified for this purpose. Therefore, in regard to elders:

1.     There are specific qualifications necessary for serving as an elder. (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9)

2.     Throughout the New Testament there is an emphasis on the human responsibility in selecting and appointing “qualified leaders.”

3.     Timothy and Titus, as Paul’s apostolic representatives, selected and appointed elders in Ephesus and on the island of Crete. However, in all honesty, we are not told how other churches in the New Testament world carried out this process.

4.     As the New Testament unfolds it becomes increasingly obvious that the apostles intended for each local church to be managed and shepherded by a unified team of godly men.

5.     The New Testament teaches by word and illustration that although there is a plurality in leadership, someone functions as the primary leader/elder.

6.     In the first century church there was an accountability for elders/overseers/shepherds among themselves for their maturity and for the maturity of the saints.

Looking over the landscape of broken churches and disillusioned Christians we must admit that the authoritative deacon board is a deadly virus and the lone pastor is a ticking time bomb. Too many pastors, because they were forced to shepherd alone, have burned out, broke down, and bailed.  There are too many churches that could have been great churches. What if, instead of a revolving door of changing solo pastors, instead of the church suffering under the tyranny of politics and power brokers, it was shepherded by a pastor supported by qualified, called, spiritual men who walked together with Christ. Isn’t that a better way?

What About Plurality of Elders?

This blog is the first of a series.

Prior to my present ministry, I have pastored four other Baptist churches. Each one has been (to some degree or other) pastor led, deacon served, committee operated, and congregationally approved. In fact, that has been the case with most of the Baptist churches I have interacted with throughout my ministry.  In recollection, very few of those churches have been unswervingly healthy. Even a cursory look at the history of most Baptist churches will reveal an ongoing cycle of ebb and flow, up and down, incline and decline.   More often than not, these “ebb and flows” run parallel with pastoral transitions which also usually precipitated congregational transitions. Without a doubt, I believe I could give you a long list of Baptist churches that, in my opinion, are healthy. But if the record of history is true, dysfunction is only as far away as the next pastoral transition.

Could it be that there is a better way? Could it be that we have overlooked, for a variety of reasons, a healthier biblical polity? Is there perhaps, a biblical leadership model that would better insulate the local church from power brokers and protect it from deacon, pastoral, and congregational tyranny? Could it be that multiple elders are a better, healthier, more biblical leadership model than that of a single elder?

To answer this, I would like to give you two primary questions we will be investigating in the coming weeks. First, what does the New Testament teach us about church leadership? [Who were they? What was their function? What were their qualifications? How were they selected?] Second, how did church leadership in the first century relate to each other as well as to those who were apostles, prophets, and teachers?

As we approach these questions it is important to answer them biblically—not traditionally, not culturally, and certainly not from the encyclopedia of human opinion. The New Testament provides us with an invaluable resource, and if we can look beyond our embedded theologies and personal preferences, we might discover some great treasures in the ancient text.

In Acts and the Epistles, we find a record of the actions and directives of first-century church leaders. For example, Paul and Barnabas, on the first missionary journey, founded churches in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. Luke (Acts 14:23) tells us they later returned and appointed elders in each/every church. Not only is this what Paul did, but this is also what Paul directed others to do. He instructed Titus to appoint elders (Titus 1:5-9) and listed the necessary qualifications for elders. In these coming weeks, we will be investigating more examples of the action and directives of early church leadership.

I realize I am not breaking new ground here. A great number of Baptist churches have seen the spiritual wisdom to move away from the traditional SBC model of church polity and seek a more biblically based one. For some, I am behind the curve, for others, I am ahead of it. However, if God allows me common health and energy I probably have only 15 years of vital ministry left and those years will pass quickly. So, after 30 years of having to deal with my own insufficiencies (1 Timothy 1:15), a few power-hungry deacons (Acts 19:33 & 1 Timothy 1:20), and gullible, selfish, carnal church members (2 Tim. 3:6, James 4:1-3) the time has come for me to erase the board of my familiar traditions and let the Word of God redirect my path. This is not said to offend anyone but rather to establish my resolve to make my last years of ministry as productive for the kingdom of God as possible.

In all honesty, I am not hoping to discover … God has already done the work in my mind and heart. I have already asked and answered the questions. But now I want to “put pen to paper” as they say and with prose outline the path which the Lord has taken me.

Would you consider walking this path with me?  Through the next few weeks, I will be investigating the biblical teachings of elder leadership as well as identifying some transcultural principles that I believe are transformative for the community of faith as well as the individual believer.

Years ago, I became close friends with Dr. Antolin Zamar, an indigenous missionary, and pastor, from the Philippines. We would often play ping pong together on Saturday afternoons, and later he was our wedding photographer. As he saw it, American missionaries had reproduced the American ministry in the Philippines. “Brother Nathan, we are the third generation of Baptists since the first missionaries came, and we find that our churches now have the same squabbles and divisions you have in American churches.” Sadly, we reproduced after our own kind, and our kind was flawed. There must be a better way.

Until our next time, I will leave you with the following to consider. It is a timeline of church leadership in the New Testament.

Date             Event

A.D. 45 -Elders in Judea (Acts 11:30)

A.D. 45-47 -Elders’ prayer and healing ministry (James 5:13-15)

A.D. 47 -Paul and Barnabas appointing elders (Acts 14:21-23)

A.D. 48-49 -Material support for spiritual leaders (Galatians 6:6)

A.D. 49 -Apostles and elders in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-32)

A.D. 49-50 -Delivering letter composed by apostles & elders (Acts 16:4)

A.D. 51 -Respecting and honoring overseers (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)

A.D. 58 -Paul’s directives to the Ephesian elders & overseers. (Acts 20:17-38)

A.D. 61 -Paul greets overseers & deacons in Philippi (Philippians 1:1)

A.D. 63 -Qualifications for elders & deacons (1 Timothy 3:1-13)

A.D. 63 -Paul, the body of elders, and Timothy’s gift-2 Tim. 1:6 (1 Timothy 4:13-14)

A.D. 63 -Material support for some elders (1 Timothy 5:17-18)

A.D. 63 -Both protecting and disciplining elders (1 Timothy 5:19-20)

A.D. 63 -Peter’s directives to elders and overseers (1 Peter 5:1-4)

A.D. 65 -Qualifications for elders and overseers (Titus 1:5-16)

A.D. 64-68 -Directives to imitate spiritual leadership (Hebrews 13: 7, 17, 24)

Oh God give us ... for Christ!

This week God blessed our family with a new granddaughter. On the same day, within a 2-hour window, a friend suddenly died. Is this Karma? Is this reincarnation? No, this is life after Adam. The sinful flesh is born to die. My precious granddaughter, like everyone, is born in sin and in need of saving grace because one day her life on earth will be over. My friend, although his flesh died, stepped into a glorious eternity with Christ, because he was a recipient of saving grace. Because of Adam, the human condition is fragile and weak. Because of Adam, in our own strength, we are hopelessly in need of rescue.

Yesterday as I held that wonderful child in my arms and looked at her I considered humanity sympathetically. We are all so powerless needing someone to care for us and, like my granddaughter, unable to grasp the full weight of what that means.  You would hope that maturity would increase the awareness of this reality—but it won’t. Just as a fish is unaware it is wet (because it has always been in water), a growing child is unaware of the love of her mother and father because that is all it has ever known. The same is true of the goodness of God. We live in a world filled with people who have heard of God and heard the name of Jesus Christ, yet apart from the Holy Spirit’s work they are oblivious to their need to be reconciled to God. Those who have been rescued need to have great sympathy for the lost. Jesus saw the multitudes and was moved with compassion.

Thinking of these things, I am stirred to consider my city—Summerville. Within a mile radius of this church building there are thousands of homes, and who knows how many people, in need of grace but unaware. Every day after work they drive back to their homes, go inside, eat supper, watch Netflix, go to sleep and repeat the cycle day after day. When the weekend comes they mow their grass, wash their cars, and try to plan something on those few hours off to make the monotony of life bearable and their existence more meaningful—this is repeated ad nauseam. The many distractions of life’s obligations keep them from noticing their Christ-less existence.

I don’t know if we will be able to reach them with the gospel, but I want to. I don’t know if we, as a church, can keep from being distracted by the unnecessary and stay focused on the necessary, but I pray we can. We must choose the glory of God over the traditions of man. We must remove the handicap of looking backward and pining for days gone by and start counting the former things loss in view of the surpassing value of the excellency of Christ Jesus. I believe if we will allow our hearts to be broken for the unsaved and ask God to fill and equip us to reach them and make them true disciples He will do just that. This is my deepest hope. Oh, God give us Summerville for Christ!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forevermore. Amen. (Gal 1:3-5)