Over the last couple of months, the continuing revelation of widespread sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic denomination has been making headlines around the world. As the global body of Christ grapples with with this massive issue, a voice for Biblical eldership is needed.
The New Testament church had a different model of eldership from what we see in most congregations, today. There was no one “head” pastor, or vicar, or priest, but a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23, 20:17,28, 1 Peter 5:2, 1 Timothy 5:17, James 5:14, Titus 1:5). These men were appointed as elders based on their exemplary Christlikeness (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, 1 Peter 5:3) in all humility (Philippians 2:5-7).
It is at great peril that a congregation moves away from this model, for it provides many benefits.
Each elder recognises that he is desperately in need of the grace of God every moment of every day, and this is the great leveler: we are all equal in our need for mercy and grace. Elders are no less in need than non-elders, and must be as vigilant for their own hearts as they are for the church.
Furthermore, the Holy Spirit plays the primary role in bringing sin to light, but other believers are often the ones who are spoken through. A council of elders should know one another well enough to tell when something is off, and love each other enough not to allow sin to go unquestioned.
Elders lead the church in doing—and this means going to war with sin, within themselves and within the body.
The main role of an elder is as a shepherd—and one of the things a shepherd does is make sure none of the sheep wandering off.
The nature of accountability within a Biblical eldership is a solid defense against the isolation of church leaders. One elder reports to the others, and is open to their concerns about any potential dangers faced. An elder that doesn’t work with the eldership or operates independently within the body may be suspected of no longer fitting the qualifications of eldership.
In every team there will be some who are more charismatic leaders, or more forceful—but in a team of leaders, these must be submitted to the others.
This prevents the domination of any one leader over the others—while it is right to recognize one or some as greater, they are still among equals—an elder who is a gifted preacher is no more or less than one gifted in music. The eldership must wrestle tough issues and decide together before the Lord when conflicts arise, deferring to one another in humility and striving to edify.
No Single Point of Failure
Over the years, I have seen a number of churches where leaders are over-burdened because the church did not have a plural eldership or properly delegate responsibility to deacons. Sometimes these burdens are self-assigned—extra projects taken on, for example. Other times a pastor may feel that it is their job to carry a weight of responsibility where someone could help—like trying to provide pastoral care for hundreds of people.
A team of elders is necessary to properly connect with and care for a congregation; the awesome responsibility of knowing each family and providing care for them in every season cannot rest on a single pastor for long without some breakage—even burnout—under pressure.
If or when failure comes—poor health, burnout, unforeseen disasters, or even disqualification as an elder—with a plural eldership the church is not left without a shepherd, and the sheep are not left untended. The remaining elders can spread the work between themselves, not overwhelming any one.
There may always be men in a congregation aspiring to be elders, and the eldership should be on the lookout for those who both aspire and are qualified to be elders. The Lord will reveal those who should be appointed, and thus the church will be greatly aided in various means for weathering the many storms that are sure to come.
Biblical Eldership is our best option
There have been some other solutions proposed which are inadequate, such as having better training for priests. But as we’ve seen recently, the problems seem to go all the way to the top—a whole systematic failure in accountability.
Church elders are not professionals, they are shepherds, entrusted by God with a flock for which they are to care. It is important that each congregation examines itself continually, actively developing its “sheep” and shepherds towards greater Christlikeness. The authority of an elder is contingent upon that elder’s qualification as an elder—an elder that is not “above reproach” does not qualify as an elder.
So as we pray in the midst of the tumult that the Roman Catholic sect is going through—and surely the Protestant Church will not come out unscathed, either—let us be careful to look after our own congregational bodies; in all humility coming before the Lord, not seeking to hide from brother-elders, but to be open to them, that they can fight alongside each other in pursuit of holiness.