On Bad Elders: Removing Lousy Elders, Toward a Solution, Part 1

In the last post, I proposed three much-need reforms, one of which is coming up with a mechanism for getting rid of elders who shouldn’t be elders.

The difficulty of judging an elder

As problematic as it is to come up with a removal mechanism, it’s just as hard to figure out who is a lousy elder. Here’s why —

* Few people get to be in the meetings. The congregation rarely knows the true dynamics of the elders’ interactions. Therefore, the church sometimes mis-judges the elders, working off very inadequate information.

* We do a perfectly awful job of teaching the church who ought to be an elder. As a result, if an elder’s adult child gets divorced, some people figure the elder has to step down, but if the elder is a legalist, he’s honored as “sound.”

Part of the problem is our over-emphasis on the qualification lists in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1, as though the Bible’s many other teachings on elders are irrelevant. This comes from our Campbellite heritage, in which Alexander Campbell taught the Bible is a “constitution,” causing us to emphasize the passages that most look like laws.

* Alan Rouse, an elder, wisely pointed out that when there’s a disagreement between the elders and church or the elders and ministers, both sides always think they are right. The idea behind elders is that, among other things, they are to serve as judges. Normally, they get to decide. But if the elders’ are being challenged, who gets to decide?

Unfortunately, sin and stupidity can reside anywhere — among the elders, the ministers, or even the church. There’s no one guaranteed to make right decisions!

Therefore, it’s important that we be skeptical of our fallen natures. We all make mistakes. Even when you ask 300 million people to spend a year watching 24-hour news coverage of a presidential campaign and then hold an election, the 300 million people are quite capable of being wrong.

Due deference

We all think we’re right. Sometimes we are. But for an eldership to be able to lead the church effectively, especially when change is required, it can’t be too easy to remove — or even threaten to remove — the elders. I mean, if the elders decide that the church should use overhead projectors rather than hymnals or sing during communion, someone will see their decision as not only unwise but doctrinally wrong. And if the elders have to defend themselves from heresy charges every time they make a controversial decision, the church will either be chaos or will never change.

In short, the power to remove an elder cannot become a means of taking from the elders the ability to lead the church in controversial matters. It can’t be too easy.

Removal ideas

Churches have come up with a wide range of ideas to deal with the lousy-elder problem —

* Some require elders to take time off. After 4 or 6 years, the elder has to step down for at least a year. He only becomes an elder again if he is freshly ordained. In other words, he gets no benefit of incumbency. No one has to remove him. He just doesn’t get invited back.

* Some require elders to stand for confirmation (or re-affirmation) every few years. Their names are submitted to the church, and if a given percentage fails to affirm his leadership, he must step down.

* In my church, new elders are required to step down if the other elders ask him to.

* In a few churches, the equivalent of a no-confidence vote can be taken.

* In most churches, an elder can only be removed if he ceases to meet the 1 Timothy and Titus qualification lists.

* In a few churches, an elder is only removed when enough members threaten to leave so that the elder is forced to step down.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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