The obligation of elders to protect the flock from false teachers is the best attested duty in the NT. For example,
(Tit. 1:9-11 ESV) 9 [An elder] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. 10 For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. 11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.
(1 Tim. 3:2 ESV) 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, …
A man is not qualified to be an elder unless he can teach. This doesn’t mean that he can stand up and ask questions from the Gospel Advocate Quarterly. He has to be able to refute error — especially the works salvation taught by the circumcision party. In other words, legalists aren’t qualified to be elders. Men who consider legalism acceptable are not qualified either.
It’s not essential that all elders be theologians. But all need to be well grounded in grace and salvation by faith. They need to recognize legalism when they see it and refuse to give it any control over the church.
In Acts 20, Paul’s charge to the elders in Ephesus focuses intently on Paul’s teaching ministry and the need for the elders to continue that ministry there.
(Acts 20:26-33 ESV) 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. 32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel.
Paul warns against “fierce wolves” — false teachers, both from outside and within the congregation —
As those to whom God has given the responsibility of watching over the church, Paul calls the elders overseers (v. 28), a term that is also found in his letters (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1f.; Titus 1:7; the same word is used of Jesus in 1 Pet. 2:25). The nature of their task is drawn out by a pastoral metaphor. The church is the flock (v. 28), a familiar figure for the people of God in both the Old Testament and the New; the elders are the shepherds (v. 28); and the danger threatening the flock is savage wolves, which will not spare them (v. 29). The thought was of heretical teachers, especially of hard-line Jewish Christians coming in after Paul had gone and leading the people astray (see disc. on 21:21). This had happened in Galatia and Corinth, with the preaching of “another gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4; Gal. 1:6ff.), and was threatening elsewhere (cf. Rom. 14:1–15:13; Phil. 3:2ff.).
David J. Williams, Acts, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 355–356.
Now, in the Churches of Christ (and many other denominations), the tag “false teacher” has been thrown around so loosely that many members only know the term from its misuse. Elders are often not trusted to correctly discern sheep from wolves because we have so often falsely accused good men of being false.
As we learn in Rom 14 and 1 Cor 8 – 10, there is room for disagreement within a congregation on many questions, even some doctrinal issues. Not all error makes one a “false teacher.” I’ve covered this question at great length many times here and at GraceConversation.
The gist of the rule is that those doctrines which damn are doctrines that contradict faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord. “Faith” in this context includes not only intellectual assent but also trust and faithfulness (or loyalty or penitence). Disagreeing over the grounds for divorce or how many children an elder must have would be disputable matters that should not break fellowship. But teaching rebellion against God’s known will or a works salvation requires a warning and, if necessary, a separation.
(Tit. 3:10-11 ESV) 10 As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.
On continuing to study
In fact, the wise eldership does not consider itself as all-knowing. Rather, they should always be studying their Bibles and seeking to improve their knowledge and skills as leaders and shepherds.
I’m a strong believer in group hermeneutics — that is, sorting out the scriptures in community. Rather than the elders telling the members what they must believe, the church should be in continuous study and conversation with one another, their leaders, and other churches, realizing that there’s always more to learn.
Some elderships have weak study habits, and so they overly rely on their preacher to tell them what the Bible says. Even if the preacher is a brilliant and wise scholar, this is an unhealthy practice. After all, that preacher will retire or change jobs at some point. What happens when the new guy has different ideas? And it’s just not wise to place that kind of authority in the hands of a single man.
Then again, what’s even worse is an eldership that is uninformed in Bible matters but who are arrogant enough to suppose that the title “elder” makes them instant experts. Rather, becoming an elder means it’s time to double down on your studies and build a network of advisors. (Future post on networking to come.)
My earlier series on On to Study the Bible is a good starting point on building a personal Bible library. If you’ve not already started, it’s time to build a library of great leadership resources. You’re fortunate that our congregation has a very good library. Start there.
Over time, build your own. I like to wait for the sales, and so I subscribe to ThriftyChristianReader.com. They browse the sales and report daily on what’s cheap or free.
You should download Feedly to your smartphone and subscribe to some good blogs on leadership. I maintain the list in the right column as well as the much longer list of progressive Church of Christ blogs. There just all kinds of blogs dedicated to church leadership. Carey Nieuwhof, Thom Rainer, and Ed Stetzer are all excellent. There are countless, excellent theological blogs, as well — far more than you’ll have time to read. Pick the best ones and read them. Don’t try to read them all.
I’ve read more books on church leadership than I can count, and only two or three have proven to be of enduring value: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Advantage, both by Patrick Lencioni, are essential. The other great book is Jim Collins’ Good to Great, especially the chapter on Level 5 leadership.
Collins’ research found that companies that had exceptional results for many years and under multiple CEOs had these characteristics —
(1) a series of CEOs (promoted from within) who combined “personal humility and professional will” focused on making a great company;
(2) an initial focus on eliminating weak people, adding top performing ones, and establishing a culture of top talent putting out extraordinary effort;
(3) then shifting attention to staring at and thinking unceasingly about the hardest facts about the company’s situation;
(4) using facts to develop a simple concept that is iteratively reconsidered to focus action on improving performance;
(5) establishing and maintaining a corporate culture of discipline built around commitments, with freedom about how to meet those promises;
(6) using technology to accelerate progress when it fits the company’s concept of what it wants to become; and
(7) the company builds momentum from consistent efforts behind its concept that are reinforced by success.
Well, it really helps to have read the book … but you can immediately see several places where the typical church would struggle.