Elders are called by God as shepherds, leaders, guides, teachers, and instructors in God’s word. Their first task is very likely to protect the church against false teaching, especially legalism.
(Tit. 1:9-11 ESV) 9 [An overseer] 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.
Now, most of my readers are Americans. Many of the rest live in other democracies. And for people raised in a democracy, it’s next to impossible to avoid thinking in political terms. We see the members, not as sheep or as students, but as constituents. They are not so much to be taught as made happy. And that’s our great sin as a people. We seek to please men rather than God. And nearly all who’ve ever been an elder are guilty. It’s hard-wired into our American, democratic, capitalist minds.
And we’re not just democratic people; we’re also capitalists — who believe in selling and that the customer is always right and 30-days satisfaction guaranteed or your money back. You can’t be in business and not think about keeping the customer satisfied. Again, the concept of retail — of sales and marketing — is rooted deeply in our American minds. Keep the customer satisfied.
And yet Jesus was remarkably oblivious to these temptations. In fact, he regularly had people get so mad at his teaching that they left in anger. He made some people so mad they killed him.
After three years of teaching up and down Judea and Galilee, after sending out as many as 70 missionaries at once, he ended his mission with just 120 followers. That’s it. And he was God Almighty.
So imagine that the elders of your church sit the congregation down and explain what they really believe the Bible to teach. They start by explaining grace and how Rom 14 is an example of grace in action. We don’t have to agree on everything. And we don’t have to leave when we’re unhappy with someone else’s choices. We don’t “condone” sin by sharing a congregation and a table with someone who disagrees with us about an act of worship or how many children an elder must have. The elders confront legalism by teaching grace.
They then explain how the early church disagreed on all sorts of things, but managed to exist as just one congregation in a given town, with one eldership, meeting in multiple homes. No one who was unhappy could change churches; there was but one church in town!
And then the elders explain their views on every controversial issue there is. It may take a few weeks, but they just sit down and kindly, lovingly, patiently, gently instruct the flock — and invite the flock into the conversation, to share ideas and disagreements. To study the text as a body. To do group hermeneutics. In fact, they make it clear that they aren’t speaking to impose a point of view but to be open, real, authentic — and honest. And they want the church to do the same with each other — and study the text together.
What would happen? Would the church split? Would half leave? Or would this radical approach to leadership bring the church closer together than ever?
I can’t say for sure — and in some churches, there may have to be a lot of teaching on grace before the elders can get down to the particulars. But done well, I think the result will inevitably be a healthier church.
I base my conclusion on these observations:
First, before I became an elder, I’d written all the books posted at this site — on women, divorce and remarriage, baptism, and grace. I sent copies to the elders before they ordained me. I insisted that they know my views and that I be ordained under no false pretenses. I’d taught every one of those books in church to two or more different classes and passed out copies of earlier drafts. I mean, I could not have been more public in my positions and views. And they ordained me anyway — which freed me (and them) to teach and act based on published views.
The church didn’t split. No one left because of my ordination. After all, my views had been very well known before I was even nominated. No one objected to my becoming an elder.
Second, I know a preacher who was hired under a cloud of controversy. A disgruntled member sent articles to a popular church periodical accusing the preacher of all sorts of positions — some true and some false. And so, very courageously, the preacher stood before the church and went through every controversial topic and shared his views, admitting what he agreed or disagreed with, what he was unsure of, and what he was still studying. He then offered to resign if the church couldn’t support him after having full knowledge of his views. And the church affirmed him, a very few people left, and the church grew rapidly under his leadership.
He thanks God daily for the freedom he received from being forced to state his views publicly — at the risk of his job.
Third, about two years ago, the elders of my church, me included (I was recovering from back surgery at the time) sat in front of a Sunday morning Bible class, open to all comers, and took questions and answered them — including our views on many doctrinal issues. We were very frank with the church, and sometime said that we believe that such-and-such is permitted but would not be presently expedient or whatever. We just sat there and honestly answered an entire summer’s worth of questions.
I honestly don’t know if anyone left because of our answers. But we did in fact try to be as honest as possible, we explained our reasoning, and we were as open as we could be. Of course, this was not new for us. I mean, while I’m more prominent in my outspokenness than most, we have all always been willing to answer whatever question was put to us — if we could.
There are privacy issues that sometimes must be respected. I mean, elders sometimes receive information from counseling or otherwise in confidence, and so sometimes we act on information the church as a whole does not have and cannot have. But it’s never been our desire to keep a secret just to keep a secret. Secrets are not power. In fact, they tend to erode power over time. Openness is the key to having people follow you. So why keep a secret unnecessarily?
It helps that we’d been together as elders for a few years, and we knew that we had each other’s backs and that we were largely agreed on whatever anyone might ask. We really didn’t have a lot of dirty linen that might be aired. But there had been concerns expressed about many things, some speculation, some rumors, some very false rumors, and we’d made some mistakes. We needed to have an open conversation with the church, and we did.
And it didn’t split the church.
In short, something like my thought experiment has been tried in real churches with real people. And it’s better to be straight up honest and open than to keep secrets (although sometimes you have to keep secrets, but never for the sake of secrecy or power).
As I tried to explain in the previous two posts, when the elders aren’t open about their doctrinal views, they are playing with fire. They try to build a church on half-truths — and it cannot be done. It works for a while, but only temporarily. Long-term success requires that the elders do what elders are charged by God to do: teach the truth — all of it.
Now, years and years before I became an elder — and at a time I thought I would likely never be an elder due to my outspokenness — I wrote a series of books designed to help members of the Churches of Christ overcome legalism. They are now all available for free at the links above. They are designed for a Church of Christ audience, and Bible class tested.
The one other area I wish I’d written on is missionality — especially the importance of spiritually forming the congregation as a priority above even evangelism — and maybe God will give me time and energy to do that yet. As I’ve recently said, the other mistake elders and preachers routinely make is only preaching evangelism and mission when they want to push a controversial change.
In short, most of the time, we let members languish and suffer under the burden of legalism, so long as they don’t get in the way of whatever church ministry or program we want to push. We only go to the trouble to push for formation into the image of Jesus when we need the members to change enough to allow a programmatic change. That is, our programs drive our spiritual formation, rather than the other way around.
The same is true of unity and grace. Some churches only bring out the unity sermons when they want to push for change — and that’s exactly the wrong time.
Unite your church under Jesus — not skillful politics, great teen programs, or marvelous preaching — and then the changes will be easy. Shape your members into the image of Jesus on the cross, and change will be easy. But, of course, your members won’t hang themselves on a cross just because you want to ordain female deacons. We really have to be preaching Jesus first, and then the rest will take care of itself.