“Elders in Every Church”Categories: M. W. Bassford, Sermons
In our Bible reading for this week, there appears a passage that is easy to read past but has profound implications for the organization of our churches. It is Acts 14:23. From it, we learn that on the return leg of the first missionary journey, Paul appointed elders in every church that he had established. This took place mere months, if not weeks, after the gospel first was proclaimed in these places.
Clearly, Paul, and indeed the Holy Spirit, placed a high priority on having elders! Sadly, it is not at all apparent that churches of Christ in the 21st century share this priority. Though I’m not aware of any official statistics on the subject, my impression is that only about a quarter to a third of congregations are led by elders.
Brethren, this is a serious problem. Indeed, I believe it is the most serious problem facing churches today. More than a godless society, more than porn, more even than strife among brethren, God’s sheep are getting slaughtered for lack of shepherds. This evening, then, let’s contemplate the importance and implications of having elders in every church.
In this regard, we first must set our hearts on FOLLOWING THE PATTERN. We see God’s pattern for the first-century church set out in Philippians 1:1. Here is how the church is supposed to be organized: elders, deacons, and ordinary saints. As all of us know, sometimes churches can’t follow this pattern. They lack a plurality of qualified men to appoint.
I understand that. What I struggle with is the way that so many brethren have become so comfortable with belonging to a congregation that is not organized according to the pattern. This kind of complacency is spiritually dangerous, and it can arise for at least two reasons.
The first is loyalty to the building more than to the Bible. Consider, for instance, a county in which there are three sound churches, each one with an attendance of about 50 on Sunday mornings. Not surprisingly, none of these congregations have elderships. Congregations of that size usually aren’t able to sustain them. However, each congregation does have one man who is qualified to serve but can’t in the absence of qualified fellows.
Now, if the Christians in these congregations were really determined to be part of a congregation with an eldership, they could have one. They could merge their three congregations into a single congregation of 150 people, appoint three elders, and serve God according to the pattern.
In real life, though, even though this situation exists all over the country, I have never heard of churches joining together so they can have an eldership. Everybody wants those other churches to close up shop and come worship with them, but nobody wants to leave their building, even if holding on to the building comes at the cost of following God’s pattern. I believe that congregations are authorized to own buildings, but when it comes to elders in every church, our buildings do us no favors!
The second reason that I see is that people seek a church without elders because they don’t want to be under the authority of elders. Sometimes, they literally drive by a sound congregation with elders on the way to their church that doesn’t have them. Maybe it’s that these people can’t become elders themselves but love having a voice in business meetings. Maybe it’s that the elders in that other congregation wouldn’t do things just the same way they would prefer.
Regardless, the tragedy here is that all of these people would insist proudly that they are committed to following God’s pattern for the church, but when it comes to their own deviation from the pattern, they are blind. May all of us have the humility and wisdom to seek the leadership of elders wherever possible!
Second, we must focus on SUBMITTING TO ELDERS. The Holy Spirit tells us to do this in as many words in 1 Peter 5:5. This is not a popular concept in our society because Americans are rugged individualists who don’t believe in submitting to anybody! Nonetheless, when God’s word conflicts with our cultural inclinations, it is culture that must give way.
This text does not mean, of course, that we must submit to elders who ignore or override the word of God. God instituted the office of elder, not the office of pope! The role of the elder isn’t to establish doctrine anyway, though they are responsible for defending it. Instead, they are responsible for exercising good judgment in areas where the Scriptures do not speak clearly.
When they do this, we are responsible for deferring to their judgment. This does not mean that they are necessarily right every time we disagree with them. It does mean, though, that we should behave as though they are. It’s not a sin to have bad judgment, even if you’re an elder. However, stirring up trouble in the congregation is a sin, and anytime members loudly express their disapproval of the elders’ decisions, trouble is the inevitable result.
Once again, remember that serving as an elder is one of the most difficult and thankless jobs imaginable. How would you like to live with the knowledge that you will have to give an account for every single soul at Jackson Heights? Every malcontent, every backslider, every dumb kid (and every dumb grownup too, for that matter)—if you are one of the elders here, every one of them is your problem. Your job is to try to get every one of them to heaven, even if they show no apparent interest in going, because Jesus died for the malcontents and backsliders and dumb kids, and God loves them. How would you like to carry that burden around with you, everywhere you go, every single day?
Brethren, these men serve us at the cost of tremendous heartache and suffering. The least we can do is to make their work as easy as possible.
Finally, we need men who ASPIRE TO SERVE. Consider the spirit expressed in 1 Timothy 3:1. Now, given what I just finished saying about the difficulty of serving, we might find ourselves wondering why on earth anyone would want to become an elder.
Of course, that’s exactly the point. There is no earthly reason, and men who are motivated by the flesh do not want to become self-sacrificing shepherds. However, there was no earthly reason for Jesus to become flesh and die in our place either. To the same extent that our spirits are stirred by the desire to imitate His humility and selflessness, we also should desire the office of elder.
It is vitally important for this congregation that there be younger men here who feel this way, and younger women who desire to support their husbands in this work. I love and honor our elders, but they’ve all got a serious problem. Every last one of them is mortal, and sooner or later, whether through death or incapacity, all of them will reach the point when they can no longer serve. When that happens, either younger men will have prepared to take their place, and the eldership here will continue, or those younger men haven’t, and we are in big trouble.
In the Lord’s church, we have a bad habit of preaching on the eldership only when we’re about to appoint elders. Brethren, that puts the emphasis in the wrong place. Recognizing a man who is qualified is relatively easy compared to becoming a man who is qualified!
This week, then, if we think we might want to serve someday, or if we have husbands who might want to serve, let’s pause to take stock. Let’s look up those character portraits of the elder in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Let’s use those portraits as a mirror. Let’s look to see where we measure up and especially where we don’t. Then, let’s ask where we need to change in order to prepare ourselves to take up the burden of leadership.