The Advantage: Reinforce Clarity, Part 1 (On Selecting Elders)

We’re working our way through Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business.

Lencioni consults with businesses, nonprofits, and churches, and he frequently explains how the lessons apply especially to churches, because the work churches do is so much more important than the work done by anyone else.

Clarity of purpose must permeate every decision the church makes, and perhaps the most important decision any congregation makes are whom the church places in the eldership and whom the church hires as ministers. And yet we routinely handle these two critical decisions in a cavalier, thoughtless way. Indeed, we sometimes insist on being thoughtless on the subject. Really.

Elders

In Church of Christ ecclesiology, we’re not “scripturally organized” unless we have a plurality of elders (or none at all). These elders must meet the “qualifications” found in Titus and 1 Timothy.

However, some of us will also argue that everyone who meets these requirements is already an elder, has no real authority, and is merely an example, who should be an example whether or not ordained. (Rendering the elders impotent and the ordination pointless.)

Or — and more typically — we’ll argue that all men who meet these qualifications must be ordained and may only be rejected if there’s a “scriptural” objection, meaning a failure to meet one of the requirements in the lists.

In so teaching, we overlook most of what the Bible says on the subject, and so we often ordain men who are just awful elders. For example —

* Rom 12:8; 1 Cor 12:28; and Eph 4:11 all speak of shepherds, leaders, and administrators as Christians gifted for that work by the Holy Spirit. Surely, we should only ordain as shepherds, overseers, and elders those who’ve been gifted as shepherds, overseers, and elders!

* The terms “shepherd,” “overseer,” and “elder” are all descriptive of the office. Surely, we should only ordain for this office those with the qualities of a shepherd, overseer, or elder.

* Jesus, Paul, and Peter speak extensively of the role of shepherds and leaders in the Christian community. If Jesus says that leaders should not domineer over the flock, why ordain domineering men? (Men with whom you disagree or who make mistakes are not necessarily men who domineer.)

* One of the most commonly stated roles of an elder is to teach sound doctrine. Why ordain someone who believes in a works salvation? Why ordain someone who builds his theology on Clement of Alexandria rather than Jesus of Nazareth? Why ordain anyone who isn’t deeply familiar and devoted to the words of Jesus?

Use a little common sense — common sense shaped by the gospel, the teachings of Jesus, the work of the Spirit, the doctrine of grace. Look for men who teach grace and are willing to insist that the membership extend to others the same grace that they’ve received — even if it makes some people angry.

Don’t expect elders to lead where you want to go. That makes you the leader, not the elder. That is the exact opposite of submission. Rather, look for men who follow Jesus, even where they don’t want to go, even to places that cost them friends and family. Then be prepared to follow them to the same places.

Finally, if you’re an elder, and presumably you have some say in who is going to be the next generation of elders, avoid these mistakes —

* The church doesn’t get the final word. The Greeks invented democracy long before the New Testament was written, and Jesus did not choose to make congregations into democracies. They’re flocks, led by under-shepherds, who serve under the Great Shepherd.

Suffer the reproach of the entire congregation and every friend you’ve ever had, but don’t let the church ordain men who shouldn’t be elders. You’re a leader. God gifted you to lead. Lead. Don’t turn your flock over to an incompetent — regardless of the political cost. Respect the church’s wisdom, but leaders lead.

I can’t begin to count the number of great churches that have been ruined because an eldership let a generation of incompetent, power-hungry, or legalistic elders in. They avoided conflict. They kept their friends. And they destroyed a congregation and countless souls.

* If the next generation isn’t producing young men who will make into great elders, it’s your fault. Fix the teaching. Fix the preaching. Do some mentoring. Start a breakfast Bible study. Do something so that there are young men ready to step in and be great elders after you.

If you have to fire the preacher, restructure the Bible classes, even lose some members, do whatever it takes so that the next generation will be led by Spirit-filled, Jesus-shaped, gospel-trained elders. If you don’t raise them up, who will?

* If you see that the thematic goal of the church is small groups, why on earth would you ordain men as elders who aren’t fans of small groups? If you see that the thematic goal of the church is to learn grace and learn to show grace, why on earth would you ordain graceless elders?

Whoever the next generation of elders might be, they need to be on board with the stated vision of the church. They may — and should — have their own improvements, insights, and ideas to bring to the table. Great! But if they are fundamentally at odds with the stated vision of the church, they aren’t qualified (unless you have a deeply unbiblical vision, of course).

Again, I know many churches that were headed in a healthy and holy direction under able and Christ-like elders, only be stunted and ruined by an elder who was put in for political reasons.

Here’s the reality. If you ordain an elder to make a group of members happy rather than because he is committed to becoming like Jesus, you’re a politician and not a shepherd. Shepherds don’t lead sheep where they want to go. They lead sheep where they’ll be well fed and watered — which is sometimes a very different direction.

Elders who “lead” politically aren’t leaders. They’re followers. They follow the sheep. And if the shepherds are going to let the sheep lead, why have shepherds? Why the pretense? Why not just hired Gallup to take surveys and let the sheep be in charge?

Do your job. Lead. Suffer some criticism from the flock if you must. Here’s the test of great eldering: The next generation of elders after you should be better elders than you. Do that, and you’ll retire well. Fail at that, and you’ll spend your retirement years desperately unhappy.

Oh … and while I’m on the subject, please, please, please, leave the next generation of elders a flock that’s willing to follow their shepherds. If you lead as politicians, they’ll expect the next generation to be politicians, too. And they’ll rebel when the elders ask them to climb a high hill to reach the very best pasture.

You see, it’s not enough to leave the church to a generation of excellent elders. You must leave the next generation of shepherds a flock that used to being led — who are used to being asked to serve, submit, sacrifice, and even suffer for the cause of Christ.

Popularity is not the goal. Neither is success. The goal is Christ-like-ness. It’s for the church to be shaped into the cruciform image of Christ. Do that, and you’ll have no problem finding a generation of shepherds to succeed you, and they’ll have no problem leading the sheep you’ve given over to them.

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  1. Jay:
    I notice that in mentioning Titus and I Timothy relative to elders you used the word “qualifications” in quotes, indicating to me that you have some dislike of the word as applied here. So do I. I have never liked it for, among other reasons, how qualified must an elder be. The only number we can put on such a descriptor is 100%. To put any other value on it would require some method of objective measurement of success, since none of us are perfect, but such level of success we are incapable of determining.
    I believe a better word is “characterized”. We can all relate to the idea that the lives of these men should consistently display these features without thinking we have to find perfect people, or determining their performance to some numerical value.
    This may be a play on words, but to me there are real differences in the two concepts.

  2. We make a mistake in assuming that 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 say all that the Bible has to say about the sort of men who should be recognized leaders of the church. Acts 6 mentions selecting men who are filled with the Spirit and full of faith. Jesus spoke of being servants or even slaves of others if we would be greater or greatest in His kingdom. To ignore statements such as these is certain to give us men who are not “qualified” to serve as shepherds and overseers of God’s people.

  3. Jim,

    You perceive my take on the “qualifications” list aright. We begin our reading as legalists, assuming that there should be a set of rules. We come across these lists and interpret them to fit our preconceptions. We then devotedly interpret the “rules” as legalistically as possible — because we know that God is a legalistic God.

    Thus, we argue over whether an elder must have multiple children and what happens if the elder’s wife dies — and argue these points as very bad lawyers. After all, we lawyers are trained to look behind the words to “public policy” and the intent of the draftsman — so that we don’t frustrate the legislature’s purposes by being hypertechnical.

    And yet in church, we become more legalistic than lawyers, refuse to inquire as to God’s purposes, refuse to consider the underlying purposes, and instead push the literal text beyond all recognition — and suppose that in so doing we’re honoring God.

    Indeed, on behalf of the legal profession, I’d ask that we find a word other than “legalistic” – which suggests that traditional Church of Christ readings are like the readings of lawyers — an insult to the legal profession. It’s worse than legalistic. It’s hyper-literal to the point of entirely missing the point.