Elder Leadership FAQ
Cornerstone Baptist is an elder-rule church. Elder-rule churches are rare in this region of our country. As such, we realize that there may be many questions and even a lot of confusion about elder-rule churches. Where does the concept of a plurality of elders come from? What does it look like for a plurality of elders to lead together? What are the advantages and disadvantages of elder leadership? The answers below certainly won’t answer all the questions that someone unfamiliar with elder leadership will have. However, they may be able to answer a few of the more common questions raised by someone unfamiliar with an elder-rule church government. (We also have sermons available on the office of elder here and the office of deacon here and here.)
Question #1: Is the office of elder a biblical concept?
Yes. The Bible indicates that this is an official position in the church both by example and by prescription.
Elders first appear in Acts 11:27, when the church in Antioch sent relief money to the elders of the Jerusalem church. From that point on you see elders play a prominent role in the leadership of the church in Acts. For example, in Acts 15 they meet with the apostles to settle the dispute that was raised at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4). In Acts 20:17 Paul called the elders of the church of Ephesus to himself so that he could charge them to continue the work that he started in Ephesus by faithfully shepherding the flock under their charge. Finally, Paul meets with James and the elders of the church when he travels to Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey, and he follows the instructions they give him to help dispel false rumors about his ministry (Acts 21:18). In addition to these occurrences in Acts, Paul mentions the laying on of hands by the elders in 1 Timothy 4:14 and James instructs members of the church to call for the elders of the church to pray for them when they are sick in James 5:14. Peter provides exhortation to the churches in Asia regarding the relationship between the elders and the congregation in 1 Peter 5:1-5, even calling himself a “fellow elder” in v.1!
Paul charges his protégés Timothy and Titus to appoint elders in the cities to which he sent them (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). He also provides instructions regarding both the payment of elders (1 Tim. 5:17, 18) and the disciplinary process for elders (1 Tim. 5:19-21).
Question #2: My church is led by a body of deacons. Is there a difference between an elder and a deacon in Scripture?
Yes. In Titus 1:5-9 and in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul gives instructions to both Titus and Timothy for the appointment of elders. However, in 1 Timothy 3:8-13, immediately after his instructions regarding elders to Timothy, Paul also provides instructions for the appointment of deacons. The two separate lists are virtually identical, with one exception: elders must be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2; cf. Titus 1:9). These two offices are also referred to by Paul in distinction from one another in Philippians 1:1-2, when he writes: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
So what is the difference between these two offices? The terms associated with these two offices are actually quite helpful in distinguishing between the two. Elders are referred to simultaneously as “elders” (presbuteroi in the Greek) and “overseers” (episkopoi, from which we get the term “bishop” in English) in various places in the New Testament (Titus 1:5-7; also compare Acts 20:17 with Acts 20:28). The term “overseer” implies that elders possess the authority to rule over the church. In fact, in 1 Timothy 5:17, Paul writes: “Let the elders (presbuteroi) who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” Further, as this verse implies, elders are responsible to instruct the church in sound doctrine. This is why Paul makes the ability to teach a requirement for elders (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9). Lastly, elders are responsible for the general spiritual health and care of the members of the church. Paul commands the elders to Ephesus, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (episkopois), to care (poimainein – literally “to shepherd”) for the church of God, which He obtained with his own blood. Likewise, Peter commands the elders through Asia Minor: “So I exhort the elders (presbuterous) among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd (poimanate) the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight (episkopountes), not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:1-3). In short, the elders are responsible to gently and kindly rule over the church of God with the wisdom gained through years of study and personal spiritual growth (hence, the term “elder”).
The Greek term “diakonos,” from which we get the term “deacon,” means “servant” or, more specifically “waiter.” For example, the men serving the wine at the wedding at Cana are referred to by John as “diakonoi” (John 2:5, 9). Thus, it would appear that deacons are called to provide more general service and care in the church. If Acts 6:1-6 is to serve as an example for the relationship between elders and deacons, then it would appear that deacons help tend to the physical needs of the church under the direction of the elders so that elders can “devote [themselves] to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
If your church has a body of deacons but no body of elders, then it may be that it is ignoring this clearly biblical office. However, more than likely your church views your pastor as the church’s lone elder, and it would demand that he must meet the biblical qualifications of an elder, including the ability to teach and defend sound doctrine. However, we would teach that this structure is yet problematic for two reasons. First, the Scripture never gives any indication that the office of elder is to be held by a lone man in the church. Quite the contrary, the Bible gives ample evidence to suggest that multiple elders were appointed in every church (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Titus 1:5; Jam. 5:14). In fact, whenever you see the elders acting in their designed office (ruling on orthodox doctrine, affirming men for the ministry, disbursing the church’s funds), it is always in council together, not as individuals (Acts 11:30; 15:6; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; 1 Tim. 4:14). This shouldn’t be surprising, because Israel’s elders were clearly operated as a council, as well (Acts 4:5, 8; 22:5; 23:14). Second, churches with a single-elder model often place the ruling function of the church into the hands of the congregation. On one hand, this makes sense. Any man – even a Spirit-filled one – is capable of error and corruption from time to time, and it is much more difficult for a body of Spirit-filled people to commit the same error. However, the problem is that the Scripture never indicates that the congregation at large possesses this authority. As mentioned above, the elders were given the responsibility of ruling the church, meaning they appointed men to ministry (Acts 6:6; 15:22; cf. Titus 1:5; 1 Tim. 4:14; 5:20, 22), disbursed church funds (Acts 11:30; cf. 1 Tim. 5:3-22), and decided on orthodox doctrine (Acts 15:22, 23; 16:4; cf. 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9). The Scripture’s direction in placing such powers into the hands of a) a body of b) mature Christian men (“elders”) versus the congregation at large is incredibly wise for the reasons discussed in Question #7 and Question #9 below. However, for the moment it should be simply observed that the Scripture nowhere places this authority into the hands of the congregation. Thus, even if a church decided that the single-elder model was indeed scriptural, it would require the church’s single elder to belong to a body of elders meeting in council together in order to rule over their respective churches. Presbyterians actually practice a similar type of elder hierarchy in their churches, and the result is the surrender of the local church’s autonomy. We likewise believe this practice of church government to be contrary to the model revealed in the Scriptures.
Question #3: Aren't all Southern Baptist churches congregationally ruled?
There are really two ways to answer this question.
The first and simplest answer to this question is “no.” Not all Southern Baptist churches are congregationally ruled. There are an increasing number of Southern Baptist churches, such as Cornerstone, that are returning to an elder-rule model. But, yes, it is true that the majority of Southern Baptists churches are not elder-rule. Further, the Baptist Faith and Message supports a congregational-rule model of church government.
That being said, it is important to recognize that the Bible is authoritative over any denominational tradition. While we identify ourselves to be in the stream of church history identified as “Baptist” and while we are members of the Southern Baptist Convention, our allegiance is to Christ first and always. We follow the Convention only insofar as it follows Christ. Thus, we have adopted an elder-rule government structure because we believe that is the model directed by Christ through the Scripture (see questions #1 & #2 above), not because it is the traditional form of government shared by the SBC or any other denomination. It is true that currently the majority of SBC churches are not governed by elders. However, we believe that the question these churches have to ask themselves is not whether or not such practices are common among the SBC but rather why they are choosing to neglect an office that is so clearly outlined in Scripture.
Question #4: What is the difference between an elder-led church and an elder-rule church?
Most basically, the difference comes down to who has the ultimate say in many of the decisions in the church: the congregation or the elders? Of course, both types of church government possess a plurality of elders. However, in an elder-led system the elders make decisions that are approved or denied by the congregation through a congregational vote. In an elder-rule church no congregational approval is needed in order for the elders to make a decision within the sphere of authority God has granted them (see Question #5). Thus, elder-led churches are still technically congregationally ruled, because the elders need the approval of the congregation in the decisions they make. The congregation holds less power in the final decisions of elder-rule churches. However, it should be noted that when an elder-rule church is functioning according to its proper design, meaning that the elders are ruling the church with gentleness by taking the congregation’s desires and concerns strongly into consideration (see Question #9), there is really very little difference between an elder-led and elder-rule church.
Question #5: What kind of authority do the elders possess?
A church’s body of elders (not any one single elder, but the elders as a council) effectively possess the authority necessary to govern the local church (cf. 1 Tim. 5:17; 1 Pet. 5:1-3). This is why they are also called “overseers” in the New Testament (Titus 1:5-7; also compare Acts 20:17 with Acts 20:28). These powers include: 1) disbursing the church’s funds (Acts 11:30; cf. 1 Tim. 5:3-22), 2) deciding the doctrinal positions of the church (cf. Acts 15:22, 23; 16:4; 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9), 3) managing the church’s membership (cf. 1 Cor. 5:3-5; 2 Cor. 2:5-8), and 4) appointing men to various ministry positions in the church (cf. Acts 6:6; 15:22; Titus 1:5; 1 Tim. 4:14; 5:20, 22). In short, they possess the authority necessary to a) guard the gospel against error, b) shepherd the congregation towards maturity in Christ, and c) provide general care to the needs of the congregation.
However, with these powers come certain limitations, as well. First, every example in Scripture indicates that the elders possess the power to govern the corporate assembly of believers known as the local church. However, that same power does not extend into the personal lives of their members. For example, while they can choose what ministries the local church sponsors, they cannot force the members of their church to likewise support or sponsor that ministry with their own time and resources. While they can choose how the local church spends its corporate funds, they cannot direct members on how to spend their individual resources. Practically speaking, this means that while members of the congregation do not possess an official vote in determining the church’s direction, at the same time they are able to vote “with their feet and their pocketbooks.”
Second, the Scripture implies that the elders are only invested with the authority that they are given because they are knowledgeable in the Scriptures and experienced in faithfully applying the Scriptures to their lives (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). This would likewise seem to imply that elders are only stewards of the Scriptures. They are under-shepherds of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ, (1 Pet. 5:4), and are responsible to execute His will and not their own in governing the church. In other words, elders are not given authority in order to implement their own desires, but rather to represent the desires of Christ. In other words, their authority is only binding insofar as their decisions reflect Scripture. They can command what the Scripture commands and no more.
The above being said, it is clear that elders possess a considerable amount of power. In fact, this power is so complete, that Peter considered it necessary to urge elders not to abuse their power by domineering over the churches in which they were appointed (1 Pet. 5:1-3). Therefore, it is imperative that every church follows Paul’s instructions in appointing men fully qualified for this office who will not abuse the authority they have been given.
Question #6: Isn’t an elder-rule model highly undemocratic?
Yes. But so is the kingdom of God. We have to remember that Jesus is a king, not a president. When He returns He will not establish His will by popular vote. Rather, He will establish it against the will of the vast majority of the earth. We must understand that we come to God as beggars. We do not set the terms for God by which He must act if we are going to love and worship Him. Instead God sets the terms for the grace and forgiveness He offers us. He sets the terms for peace, and they are unconditional. There is no bargaining. There is no “input.” There is only command and submission. This may sound unloving to some, but keep in mind that we are not dealing with a sinful, human king. We are dealing with the infinitely wise, perfectly righteous King of the universe. Ask yourself: “How is my input in any way going to improve the plans that God has already set out?” If God is everything that we claim Him to be, then this means that it is a privilege and blessing to be silent when He speaks and then to simply declare along with Isaiah, “Here am I! Send me” (Isa. 6:8) in response. If this message is too hard to accept, then one must begin to question whether or not they truly have a saving relationship with Christ. One must begin to question whether or not Jesus is truly the wise, powerful, and loving Savior they claim Him to be. As He Himself declares, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on Him” (John 3:36). And as Jesus again declares, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
Yes, an elder-rule model is undemocratic. In fact, even the elders largely don’t get to vote on the design of the church, because the design has already been determined by God. They are merely responsible to represent and implement that design in the local body under the directions of their King. They do not decide the direction of the church as much as interpret it from Scripture. (There are some matters in the church that are simply a matter of preference, and when this is the case wise elders will act as the servant-leaders they were called to be and defer to the congregation as much as possible. See Question #5 and Question #9.) And if they truly meet the qualifications provided in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, then they won’t only implement God’s design for the church, but they will do so with gentleness, patience, mercy, and love.
Question #7: Isn't it dangerous to place so much authority into the hands of a few men?
Potentially. The reality is that with any form of human government there is the potential for corruption and sin. Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried.” The same could be said of an elder-rule government as it relates to the church. It isn’t flawless by any means. No form of church government is, because in the end they all involve the input and leadership of sinful men. There is only one point at which the church will be ruled perfectly, and that is when Christ returns.
While this should make us all the more cry, “Come, Lord Jesus!” we also have to keep in mind that there is incredible wisdom in the design Christ has left us. Every form of church government is prone to human error, but the design of an elder-rule church mitigates against these flaws far, far better than any other form of church government. The qualifications that potential elders must meet according to 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 are designed to ensure that the men who reach this position are not only knowledgeable of the Scriptures, but skilled in applying it in their own lives. This means that they are humble, servant-leaders, according to the design that Jesus establishes in Luke 22:24-27. Further, they have demonstrated that they are yielded to the Spirit by constantly walking in obedience to His Word. Their desire is not to domineer over the church, but rather to lead it in the pattern of a loving shepherd (1 Pet. 5:1-3). Yet, nor are they weak-kneed cowards. They have stood firm for the Word in their personal life, meaning that they have proven they stand ready to oppose those that would attack the flock and to even resist the flock when it desires to follow the voice of any shepherd other than Christ (Acts 20:28-31). In short, they have learned to live like Christ, who preached a message of mercy, love, and grace – who would take the little children into His arms and show compassion to the weak and to the repentant sinner; but who would also cast the money-changers out of the temple with a scourge of cords and strongly condemn the Pharisees for their false teaching in Israel. The elders have learned how to set their compass firmly to Christ without being easily swayed off course. Such men are certainly qualified to possess the authority that has been given to them. At the same time, even the best of men are men at best. Elders are capable of failure, just like anyone else, as Paul implies (1 Tim. 5:19-21). However, the plurality of elder leadership safeguards against these sins as much as possible. Every decision regarding the direction of the church passes not through one godly man, but many. Thus, while it is more than possible for an elder to misinterpret or misapply Scripture on various issues here and there, it is much more difficult for several godly men to agree to commit the same error at the same time. The church is never following the counsel of one godly man, but several. This makes it much more likely that the decisions reached by the church are, indeed, in accord with the Scripture, since multiple mature, Spirit-yielded men have counseled together and agreed on the Scripture’s implications on the direction of the church. This is especially true in churches, such as ours, that require the elders to agree unanimously on any potential decision before it is implemented.
Conversely, anyone who has existed in a congregational church for very long becomes intimately aware of its failures fairly quickly. Congregational churches give equal voting authority both to the member who has been a believer for four months and to the member who has walked with Christ for forty years. As parent of children can attest, there actually are times when those with wisdom and experience truly know better. It would be unwise to allow a four-year-old to have an equal say with his parents in determining the direction of his family – where they will live, how they will survive, etc. – and yet this is what many congregational churches are practicing on a regular basis! And yet, the damage caused by this model is even more severe than this. After all, congregational models don’t just give power to weaker Christians, but they give them a lot of power. Elders can come to unanimous decision, because they have learned over time how to set aside personal preferences for the sake of others. Further, they have learned how to constructively communicate differences with others by “speaking the truth in love.” A young believer who hasn’t matured in the faith likely hasn’t yet learned how to walk in selflessness, humility, and love – which are the necessary components to peace and unity in the body (Eph. 4:1-3). These qualities don’t develop overnight. Rather, they take years of practice for a Christian to learn and master. In a congregational church, the immature Christian is set loose to try to resolve their differences in the ways they know best, which, unfortunately, is often performed according to the desires of the flesh, not the Spirit. They do not consider the well-being of others in the church, but pursue their own desires. They will even choose to step over and on others in order to get what they want. Since many other growing Christians don’t know how to stand against this kind of bullying, they quickly acquiesce in fear of being hurt. This is exactly what Jesus warned against when He said, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1). The hypocrite leverages power through fear and intimidation. Before you know it, this immature Christian (or, at times, even unbeliever) has worked up a majority through their intimidation tactics and even those that would stand for the truth are quickly shouted down. The person least equipped to wield power in the church often ends up holding it, because they bullied their way to the front of the line.
Sadly, this type of behavior is encouraged by the structure of the congregational model. A required vote of 51% or even 66% or 75% means that the church is able to make decisions without significant portions of the congregation being “on board.” This means that opposing sides aren’t forced to work together to arrive at a common decision. Instead, this model even encourages members to ignore the sincere and strong desires of other members of the church. The losing side is left to lick their wounds and encourage one another that they are being treated unjustly. Political factions quickly form and churches will often even split. Is it any wonder? There’s a reason why congregationally ruled churches are notorious for church splits, and it has to do with their model of governance. What can be done to correct such factionalism once it has formed within a church? Very little. Once in power, immature leaders continue to make self-driven decisions that eventually chase all opposition away by attrition. Since they do not have to actually know the Scriptures in order to attain this kind of power, the church model that they end up erecting over time is far enough removed from Scripture that the biblically-minded people who could help change the direction of the church instead choose to stay away entirely. Even more dangerously, these faction leaders cannot be removed from power for their ungodly behavior, because their power isn’t connected to any particular office. Again, many from congregational churches can tell stories of how one or two families effectively ruled their church for several generations. The reality is that there simply is no such thing as fully equal leadership in practice. Leaders will naturally step forward to lead in any environment. The important question is: “Where are they coming from and are they qualified to lead?”
Elders, on the other hand, are appointed by other elders. This means that they are appointed by men of spiritual quality looking for other men of spiritual quality. When an elder falls into ungodliness, he can likewise be removed from power by the other elders. Since the elders are supposedly mature men who have learned to fear God rather than man, they are strong enough to practice this appointment and removal power faithfully without being swayed by fear of the potential consequences. Additionally, when decisions are announced in an elder-rule church, they are announced with the unanimous approval of the elders. This makes it harder for factions to spring up out of discontentment, because when the church makes a decision the congregation knows that the entire counsel of godly men who they have learned to trust (Lord willing), have agreed on that decision together. Tyranny is possible with both a congregational and an elder-rule church. However, it seems less likely to occur with a properly functioning elder-rule church.
Practically speaking, this means that Christians must be intentional about getting to know the elders of a church before they join it. Are they qualified? If they are, their leadership can be a tremendous blessing. If they are not, it can be a miserable experience.
Question #8: Isn’t it a bit arrogant for a few select men to assume such authority in the church?
It certainly isn’t inherently arrogant to hold authority. After all, Christ Himself possesses all authority and will one day fully exercise that authority. Yet, He can say of Himself, “I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29). The perception that authority is inherently arrogant comes from the world’s leadership model, where men use their authority in order to place other men into servitude. This is the exact opposite of the leadership model exhibited by Christ, who explains instead that the mature disciple is the one who becomes the servant of all (Luke 22:26). It is possible for leaders to be arrogant and abusive, but a man who exhibits these qualities would be disqualified from serving as an elder (cf. 1 Tim. 3:6). It is always worrisome when a man strives to attain a position of power, but one must remember that elders cannot seize power by force. They are appointed. They do not will themselves into the position through bluster and bravado, but rather they are placed there upon demonstrating faithful submission and service.
It would seem the greater arrogance occurs in the congregational model. After all, is it more arrogant for a Christian to say that he has gained a level of wisdom – and with that wisdom, authority – after years hard-work and diligence in the Word, or for him to assume he either inherently possessed that wisdom or gained it instantly upon believing in Christ?
Question #9: What are the advantages of an elder-rule church government?
God’s plan is always wisest and for our best. It is certainly no different here. While there are several advantages to an elder-rule form of government, here are just three.
First, elder rule allows the church to be ruled as much as possible by Christ and His commands. As mentioned above, the Scripture indicates that elders are merely Christ’s representatives in the church, meaning that they are not authorized to implement with the weight of command anything but the Word of God. This is what they do: they instruct the congregation as to the meaning of the Word of God and call the congregation to obey the standards that are laid out there. They are stewards of the church, in this sense, not the dictators of it. The qualifications of the elder (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) indicate a man who is both familiar with the Word of God and who has yielded to this authority in his life. This means that when properly qualified men are ordained into this position, you will see a governing body that is as much as possible representative of the church as ruled by Christ.
Second, elder rule is servant leadership performed in love for the benefit of the church. Elder rule is wrongly understood (sadly even by those who wish to be elders at times) as authoritarian. However, elder rule, rightly exercised, is to be performed in selfless service to the church (1 Pet. 5:1-3). In other words, one does not become an elder in order to have his own way and be served by the church. Instead he becomes an elder in order to become a slave to the members of the church (cf. Luke 22:24-27). Maturity in Christ is not demonstrated in one demanding his own way, but rather in deferring to the good and preferences of others (Rom. 14:1-15:3; Phil. 2:1-11; cf. 1 Cor. 13). If a man does not have this mindset, then whatever he may desire (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1) it is not the office of the elder. Practically speaking, this means that when one submits to the authority of the elders, they are submitting to those who a) know God’s will as revealed in the Scripture and b) desire to apply the concepts revealed there for their benefit. This is why the Scripture explains that rebellion against the elders of the church is ultimately unprofitable – not for the elders – but for the one who rebels (Heb. 13:7; cf. 1 Pet. 5:5). Much as a husband has authority over his wife and yet uses that authority to sacrificially love his wife as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:22-33), so does a true elder exercise his authority in the church. No wonder that a man must excel as a husband before he is qualified to serve as an elder (1 Tim. 3:2, 4; Titus 1:6)!
Third, as mentioned above (see Question #7), elder rule protects the unity of the church. Because properly qualified elders are mature servants of the church who have learned how to a) yield to the authority of Scripture and b) yield to the good and preferences of others over their own will, then they are fully equipped to make decisions in unity. After all, they have a common authority to which they are all in submission, and they are not prone to insert their own abiblical or unbiblical desires as determinative factors in the decision-making process. This results in less contention in the decision-making process overall. However, the example set by the leaders also often helps set the pace for conflict resolution in the rest of the church, as well.
Question #10: What are the disadvantages to an elder-rule church government?
While we believe that elder-rule church government is the biblical design, it is not as if it is without its weaknesses. Here are a few.
First, members have no voting rights. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I have explained in Question #7 and Question #9 above. However, it often can be. Because the elders in an elder-rule church are not required to have their congregation’s input in order to make a decision, it can be very tempting for elders to begin to ignore the congregation entirely. Such thinking can be devastating to a church. It can cause the church to bleed members as the shepherds attempt to forcibly lead the flock into pastures that they clearly do not want to go. It can also become very easy for elders to begin to “de-value” the sheep when they never have to consult them. An air of self-importance can begin to develop among the elders as they begin to think that they are “wise, mature shepherds” and the congregation is made up of “dumb, immature sheep.” Not only do the elders lose their humility in this scenario, making them unable to properly consider the input of the congregation in their pastoral care, but this air of self-importance can develop to the point that the elders eventually lose the servant-leader quality that equipped them for the office in the first place. Instead they can begin to see themselves as dictators who can cultivate the church’s growth into a design merely of their own liking since “they know better.” The church becomes an army used to advance their ministerial goals, not a flock to be tenderly served and cared for. Therefore, elders would be incredibly wise to intentionally seek input from their congregation on any major decision before it is made. They should also intentionally seek regular feedback from their congregation regarding their leadership and pastoral care.
Second, elders with an unclear understanding of the biblical design for the office may attempt to extend their authority beyond biblical limits. There are too many stories of people who have been wounded by their church as the elders attempted to extend their authority outside the context of the corporate assembly of believers. Elders have attempted to govern how much their congregation gives to the church. They have attempted to tell congregants what movies or TV shows they could or couldn’t watch. In this context, sadly, church members have had to bear the pain of either choosing to leave the church they had grown to love or face unbiblical church discipline. This is wrong. Potential elders must be made aware of the design of the office before assuming it, and they must diligently guard their hearts once they have been appointed to it. They must never begin to think that their authority is derived from the fact that they are especially spiritual men. Rather, they are uniquely qualified men because they derive their authority from the Scripture. This will prevent them from beginning to pass off their advice and counsel in “grey areas” as inspired revelation. Elders must be able to draw a clear line between biblical implication (inspired and universally applicable) and application (not inspired or universally applicable) and only ask their congregation to perform what the Scripture clearly commands – no more or less.
Lastly, depending on the church, there may not be adequate processes in place to remove elders once they are appointed. Some elder-rule churches practice lifetime appointment. Others enforce term limits. There are advantages and disadvantages to each system. However, one disadvantage to the lifetime appointment of elders is that an elder can become very difficult to remove should he begin to falter in the exercise of his office. This is, in part, by design. Paul urged a higher standard in accepting charges against elders (1 Tim. 5:19). There are bound to be enemies of any genuine leader, and safeguards should be erected to prevent such leaders from being removed simply because someone has a personal vendetta against them. However, more than one elder board appointed a man to the office only to see his ability and desire to the office fade over time. It should be recognized that the office does not make one a shepherd, but that shepherds are appointed to the office. Thus, such men should be removed from the office, if only until they regain their desire for it. Additionally, some elders shift in their doctrinal persuasion over time. It may not seem like a big deal at first. Eventually, though it may come to the point where their doctrine causes them to become the lone hold-out in a decision made by the elders, and the two sides are unable to resolve their diagreement. In each scenario it would be best for the elder to resign, but he may be unwilling to do so. This one “deadwood” elder or this one “rogue” elder can cause the shepherding care and/or decision-making of the church to grind to a halt. If a church does not have a clear process for the removal of elders, the drag can become a heavy and irresolvable burden for the church.
Yet, while these disadvantages exist, the advantages still outweigh the disadvantages. Most of all, the office is given by divine mandate and therefore must be pursued in spite of any potential fears. The Christian looking at an elder-rule church would be wise to strenuously examine the leadership structure of the church, including the leaders themselves, and then consider carefully the potential problems that could arise from that leadership before committing to the church, all the while remembering that there will be no such thing as a perfect church until the Lord returns. May He come quickly!