“Submission to Elders”Categories: M. W. Bassford, Sermons
In our Bible reading this week, we will come to 1 Timothy 3, the text along with Titus 1 that paints the Biblical portrait of the elder. The eldership is so important that Clay and I decided that we needed to devote both sermons today to the subject. However, neither one of us is going to preach on what are commonly called the qualifications of the elder. If you want to know my thoughts on the topic, you’ll have to read the bulletin article!
Instead, we’re going to focus on the day-to-day interaction between the congregation and the eldership. Though understanding what makes a man fit to be an elder is vital when appointing elders, it doesn’t come up a whole lot otherwise. However, we continually need to know how we should treat them, and they continually need to know how they should treat us.
The former is my responsibility this morning, and our responsibility toward elders can be summed up in one word: submission. Americans tend to believe in what we might call “contingent submission”. They will submit to an authority so long as they agree with it, but not otherwise. Is that really what God expects of His people, though? Let’s explore this as we consider the Biblical witness about submitting to elders.
There are three passages that speak to this topic, and the first tells us to RECOGNIZE AND REGARD our elders. Look at 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13. This passage doesn’t use the word “elder”, of course, but when it talks about those who lead us in the Lord, it’s very clearly talking about elders, and it describes two kinds of appropriate treatment.
The first is to give them recognition. This isn’t about greeting them when we pass them in the hallway before services, though that’s a good thing to do! It’s about recognizing them for having taken on the work and burdens of the eldership. I know lots of current and former elders, but I’ve never heard any of them say that being an elder is easy.
Indeed, the opposite is true. I suspect that most members of this congregation never will know even 10 percent of what the elders go through for us. We’re not supposed to know it, and if we knew it, we wouldn’t want to know it. However, because that other 90 percent is there, we should show them honor for dealing with it.
Second, we are to regard them highly in love. Sometimes, this can be very difficult. How can we respect the elders when we believe they’re making a mistake? How can we respect them when they’ve hurt or offended us?
The key, I think, is to recognize that if we only had to respect elders when we naturally wanted to respect them, God wouldn’t have had to command us to do it. Even when we don’t want to, we still are responsible for respecting the office if not the man. They took on significant burdens on our behalf, and even when they fail, as anyone would sooner or later, we should show them honor and grace.
Second, we must BE RECIPROCALLY HUMBLE. Consider 1 Peter 5:5. There’s a lot in this text about how elders should behave, and Clay is going to tackle that for us this evening. However, the responsibility of everyone else in this text is twofold: be subject and be humble.
“Be subject” is where we find the core idea of this sermon: to be in submission. No one puts elders over us. Instead, we put ourselves under them. In spiritual matters, we follow their example and judgment.
I fear that in the American church these days, “submit” has taken on the meaning of “coincidentally go along with until I disagree”. However, if all we really are doing is submitting to an eldership until they ask us to do something we don’t want to, who really is our authority? Is it them, or is it us? Now, elders don’t have the right to add new sections to the Bible or to demand that we follow their think-so’s, but we should hold ourselves responsible for doing what they ask.
It helps when we approach our relationship with the elders from the perspective of humility. As the subject heading for this section implies, everybody, sheep and shepherds alike, has the responsibility to deal with others in a humble way.
However, shepherds can’t make sheep be humble, and sheep can’t make shepherds be humble. All we can do is make sure that we have a humble spirit within our own hearts.
Humility means a number of things. It means listening patiently to others to show them that they are heard and understood. It means not immediately insisting on our own way. It means not dogmatically assuming that we are right and the other is wrong. All of these things are part of the humility that we owe our elders. When we don’t lose our cool, insist, or assume, we too glorify God!
Finally, we must BEHAVE PROFITABLY. Here, let’s read from Hebrews 13:17. There are some things here that are familiar. We once again see the instruction to submit to, this time combined with a command to obey. Both of these amount to the same thing in practice.
However, there are some new elements here, and the first is the Hebrew writer’s justification for being submissive and obedient. We are to do this because they watch over us as those who will have to give an account. I tell you, brethren, that the latter part of that weighs heavily on the conscience of every elder I’ve ever worked with! They make their decisions about the flock with the knowledge that someday, they’re going to have to explain themselves to the King of kings.
This motivates them to keep careful watch over the flock because they know their souls are on the line. As a result, our elders are a precious spiritual resource to us. They are as interested in our lives as we are, but they have something we don’t—an outside perspective on our lives, viewed with the judgment and experience of an elder.
That matters a lot! Have you ever noticed how blind people are to their spiritual problems? It’s as plain as day what the issue is and what they ought to do about it, but they just won’t!
Well, I’ve got some news for you, brethren. It’s not just other people who have trouble seeing their lives clearly. It’s every one of us. All of us need a trusted outside perspective—like elders—to see ourselves clearly.
This explains the last part too. They watch over us, they help us make good spiritual decisions, and they beat themselves up over it when we don’t. Sure, we can make them suffer, but we do so at the cost of our own souls. That isn’t exactly profitable!
It’s profitable for us, then, to do our best to make our elders’ lives as joyful as possible and as grief-free as possible. When we’re making some spiritual decision, we should ask, “How would the elders feel about this?” I feel this way not only about the commandments of Scripture, but about the personal requests that our elders make of us. If they ask us to do something, and it’s an area in which we have liberty, why not make the choice that makes their lives easier? This too finds favor with God.