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Next Essay - 56. Maturity - or controlling leadership?

EQUAL ELDERSHIP? – A CRITIQUE

It is now common practice in many Evangelical churches to have the Pastor and Elders all equal in their authority in the church leadership, the Pastor having no more authority than any other Elder. I have read defences of this “Equal Eldership” practice, but do not agree with it. Although there are few clear instructions regarding any special position that the Pastor of a church should hold, nevertheless, there are some indications and several instances of practice that cast light on what the Pastor’s position should be.

Let me first establish certain basic principles that are clearly seen in the Bible. These demonstrate very clearly that the basic pattern throughout the Bible is one of Hierarchy.

1. The Godhead.
Whilst in the Trinity there may be total equality, in the salvation of mankind, there was a hierarchical order – God sent the Son who then sent the Holy Spirit. Christ on earth said “The Father is greater than I”. Although he also said “I and the Father are one”, I take this to mean that He and His Father acted in perfect unison in the plan of salvation. At least in His earthly role, he submitted totally to the Father.

2. The Family.
It is made VERY clear that the Father is head of the family unit. He must take responsibility for the general running and what I would call the “atmosphere” in the home. Is it a happy and joyful home? Are the children allowed to develop freely with wise parental guidance – or are they driven to achieve good exam results, to allow their parents to boast of their achievements, to behave impeccably at all times, to not disturb their parents from doing what THEY want to do?

3. The Old Testament hierarchies.
We see Moses chosen as leader and speaking on behalf of the people of God to Pharaoh. He was given sole authority – there was no committee of “Elders” he had to discuss matters with and secure their agreement first.
Joshua was also in total command of the wars against the tribes in the Promised Land.
Similarly, throughout the OT, we read of Kings and Prophets acting entirely on their own.
It may be argued that they had direct commands from God Himself, which we do not have in these days. BUT we DO have the Holy Spirit, who should be our main guide through this life together with the guidance of God’s Word.

3. Christ’s disciples Christ chose 12 disciples who became the Apostles. Out of those he further chose three of them as “special close friends” – Peter, James and John. He took them to the Mount of Transfiguration and asked them to be with Him during His agony in Gethsemane. Why did He not take ALL of the Twelve to the Mount? Why just the three in the Garden? I note this to show that out of twelve “equal” men, Christ still gave special treatment to three of them; there was no “equality of treatment” here!

4. The Early Church
(a) NT leadership.
In the early church there were Apostles, but even then it is obvious that Peter was their natural leader. I doubt if there was much “voting” around a table and compromising of views.
In Galatians 1:18 it was mainly Peter who Paul wanted to meet - not the other Apostles. In 2:2 he privately met “those who seemed to be leaders” and in 2:19 he met James, Peter and John, “those reputed to be pillars” Thus, it seems that Paul mainly dealt with those men who were the obvious leaders of the church in Jerusalem, and not a whole council of Apostles or leaders. In Acts 15:1-19, when there was a dispute in Jerusalem, James seems to be the only person to speak after Paul’s speech, and this without consulting anyone else present.
(b) Pastoral authority.
The pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus gives them the authority to appoint Elders in churches. If they have the power to appoint, then they surely also have the power to remove any Elder who fails badly in any aspect. This power given to potential pastors surely gives them an authority over the Elders in any situation. As ever, with this authority came responsibility for making wise decisions - a subject I consider later.
This does not affect the situation where for whatever reasonable cause a Minister should be dismissed by the voting of the Elders. But this would only arise in exceptional circumstances.
(c) Responsibility and Leadership
My immediate response when told of churches that have “Equality of Elders” to ask myself “Where does the leadership come from?” In all my experience, in all groups, someone, somewhere takes the lead in solving problems or proposing new schemes. Indeed, what happens in churches is that with the “equalising” (!) of the Minister, his place is taken by the “strong man” of the Elders. I cannot help wondering if it is this attitude, subconscious or not, that has promoted this movement to be attractive to a church Elder.
As an indicator of this, he is invariably the Elder who decides the schedule of preachers, and thereby controls the level of teaching that the church receives. It will also be found that any hint of a challenge to his leadership will be emotionally and strongly resisted. Here we find pride at work in the church yet again.
On a different level someone should be held responsible if things go wrong. We have only to look at the Garden of Eden and see that Adam was held fully responsible for his decisions and subsequent actions, and this principle continues through the whole of the OT and NT.
It is a foundational principle that there is a hierarchy of leadership and authority, and with it goes the concomitant responsibility.
However, in a shared Eldership there is no single person who could be held responsible if poor decisions are made. To me, this means that the whole question of responsibility before God for our decisions becomes “fudged”. If we are fully aware that we are personally responsible for all our decisions (as we most certainly are), it is far more likely to make us very careful not to make rash decisions. In a group that shares responsibility, it is particularly tempting to pass questionable proposals “on the nod” because we do not want to “rock the boat”. This is in contrast to Paul who publicly criticised Peter on an important matter of doctrine [Gal. 2:11-21]
I would suggest that real leadership cannot be delegated even though the organisation may seem to take over the responsibility for decisions. If we are in a senior position, we cannot, before God, claim that “others took over the responsibility I would normally carry.” This is an attempt to avoid responsibility, and frankly, I do not think that it will be acceptable to God.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (“Who will guard the guardians themselves?”)
This is really about politics, but does have a bearing on Eldership. A nation might appoint a group of wise men to lead them. But who will choose the wise men? Another group of men? But they could deliberately appoint men of their own views – and so man can never wisely govern himself; human pride will ruin it eventually – as it does everything else.
It is not too different in churches. Even in the best of them, one can sometimes detect a desire to be “at the front”, or controlling some aspect of church life. How can a church be run on biblical principles, when there can be differences on how to interpret passages, or decision have to be made about matters where the Bible gives no directives – the form of church worship for example!
There is no easy answer. Speaking in general terms, I believe that the Minister should be given clear priority in preaching, teaching and leading the service. Where new ventures are being considered, whether proposed by the Minister or the Elders, if there is a difference of views, they need to be dealt with openly and with the honouring of God and the good of the church fully in mind. A great deal will depend upon the breadth of experience and insightful wisdom held by the Minister and Elders.

There are two reasons why schemes can go wrong and bad decisions made;
1. The range of possible factors was too narrow. What sinks a scheme is often an aspect that no one had ever thought about. It was not even considered.
2. If all the possible factors had been considered, they were not given their right level of importance. Thus, a possible problem might be mentioned, only to be briefly dismissed. It is later realised that it was the factor that ruined the scheme.
There are no easy guidelines for such a situation. One point is that it must be asked “Before the Pastor was appointed, did not the Elders enquire fully of his views on important matters such as reformed faith, form of church worship, hymnbook preferred, views on creation etc.?” This approach would save a huge amount of subsequent heartache and distress.
How then should a church be run with a Minister as a senior and experienced Elder? I suggest that his views are given full consideration and hopefully approval, but if felt to be unwise by the majority of the Elders, they should be adjusted or even stopped by common consent.

The Pastor's "calling"
When a man feels that he has been "called” by God to his career or to a church, he sometimes enlarges this to claim absolute control “under God’s guidance” - not unlike a Monarch claiming the Divine Right of Kings and rebuking all criticism and correction. This is the other extreme of the situation we are considering.
I do not accept this. I know of ministers who have felt “called” to their ministry who have little or no ability to preach. One can only wonder how much of a Ministers “calling” could be self-generated.
Can this calling be tested to see if it is of God? I think, to a limited extent, it can. If the church as a whole agrees that his preaching is very good – even outstanding, then it can be taken that it is a true calling and not self-generated with a subconscious desire to be “important” in the eyes of others. Here we would have independent witnesses to the fact.
However, even this is not foolproof (Is anything human “foolproof”?) because Elders and congregations do not like to be honest and negative when they should be, and say that a person does NOT have the requisite gift(s). They want to be “encouraging”.
I mention this sensitive subject because I know of cases where men have entered the Ministry yet had no ability to preach or even properly lead a church. In one case, his ministry was a disaster and he finished up with a mental breakdown.

On this matter of “calling”, I have always maintained that a Minister has
(a) the most difficult job in the world, but also
(b) by far the most important job in the world.
For (a), who would want a job where 100 people are expecting perfect behaviour and wisdom, and for
(b) what job could be more important than being used as a channel by God to give people eternal life with Him.

To see just how badly churches can so quickly go astray, we have only to look at the seven churches in Revelation. Five of them were rebuked by God because of their wrong practices, and they were all within a few years of the start of the church and within the lifetime of John. Although the church in general was criticised, to Ephesus Christ threatens to “remove your lampstand”. Quite what this is is uncertain, but may possibly apply to the other churches in which He finds faults. Is it the removal of the light of the Holy Spirit leaving them functioning but in spiritual darkness as we find with so many liberal churches are today?

In summary, I consider that there is something wrong in a church where the Minister has no more authority than any other Elder. He has probably been to a theological college, been trained in preaching, counselling and many other aspects of leading a church spiritually and organisationally. He may have had considerable experience in previous churches that have given him much insight into the problems that can arise in a church – and how to handle them. However, when he comes to a church that exercises “Equality of Elders”, he is given no more authority or voting rights than the other Elders. Under such constraints, he must surely feel extremely humiliated and frustrated. Surely some acknowledgement of his senior status and his much greater experience should be acceptable to the Elders and the church?

Lessons from the Brethren movement
Ever since their foundation, the Open Brethren group of churches refused to have Ministers over them, even though a paid Minister is clearly a NT proposal (1 Cor. 9v4ff).
Let me give my understanding of why they did not want Ministers to take a lead in their meetings as I feel that it throws considerable light on this movement to install “Equality of Elders” in church government.
Most Brethren meetings have many businessmen in senior positions in large companies or often running their own company. Thus, the majority of them are in positions of considerable power and well used to running their business the way THEY want to run it. Being quite strong individuals, it seems to them very natural to carry this same attitude of control and authority into their church administration. In view of this, they would not take kindly to submitting to another man on spiritual issues. Hence the absence of Ministers in the Brethren Movement. If my analysis is correct, the spiritual pride that underlies this rejection of Ministers is obvious.
I once attended a Bible study in a Brethren Meeting. All the men had their say in how they looked at the particular passage of the Bible, whilst the ladies were not allowed to say a word. I came away with a very strong sense of the “blind leading the blind” because there was no element of clear authority that should arise naturally out of a study of God’s Word. Each man had his little say on what he thought, and the listener was left to pick and choose what he could out of the various “co-equal” views expressed.
However, they now realise their lack and a number are beginning to appoint “Teachers” to lead their “meetings”. It is surely thought provoking that whilst many churches “downgrade” Ministers to become “an equal amongst equals”, the Brethren, who are just beginning to realise their lack of Trained Ministerial oversight, are going in the opposite direction!

In thinking about all this, it occurred to me that it is yet another example of the “ways of the world” infiltrating the church and not being recognised. This would be on two fronts.
(a) Democracy and Equality of members. I do not believe that a church is meant to be a democracy. As I have said above, there will always be someone who will speak and have a degree of authority. It is an echo of the “All must have prizes” syndrome so prevalent today in schools where competition and excellence is deliberately derided and “dumbed down”.
(b) Responsibility and its avoidance. We have today in many areas of life “committees” and “think tanks” that make decisions, and when they are later found to be bad decisions, no one is ever blamed or reprimanded or sacked for incompetence. It is the collective anonymity of the decision makers that they think they are able to avoid personal blame. It is the “safety in numbers” attitude that is so obvious in today’s political systems.
I am not saying that this applies to all churches or individuals, but I do feel that it is an attitude that has seeped into the churches and they are totally unaware of the worldly source from which it springs.
But where, oh where, are the men with red blood in them that are prepared to lead the churches with loving firmness and much Godly wisdom, out of the quagmire of banal mediocrity that many congregations have wandered into and accept so passively?

Replies to supporters of the “Equality of Elders” view.
One of the passages used by proponents of Equal Eldership is Ephesian 4v11-13. (I deal with the very important passage later) This makes no mention of Elders and only refers to “Pastors (and?)/Teachers”. This is taken as referring to Elders as they are expected to be able to teach. But is it right to extend this to indicate equality of eldership in churches?
To my mind this is reading into the passage what the proponents want to see. I do not think that this passage, which is only about the gifted people that God has given the church, should be used to dictate a most important feature that affects the whole of church government.
There are other passages that are claimed to support Equality of Elders, but, again, they are not a clear statement on the issue and the support has to be "read into" the passage.

Has the church “absorbed” worldly values without realising it?
I have long considered that the church use of choruses has been strongly influenced by the pop culture of our times. In particular, the use of a strong rhythmic heavy beat that accompanies almost all pop music – and many choruses with mind numbing repetition. A strong beat can have a very powerful effect upon many young people who are susceptible to such sounds, particularly if their peers are steeped in the culture.
To me, this is the world infiltrating the church and affecting services, with the congregation excusing it with “keeping up with modern developments” without realising where the style originated.

It was only as I had virtually finished this article, that it dawned on me that the culture of “Equality of Elders” could also be attributed to a very corrosive anti-Christian force that is at least recognised as such by most thinking Evangelicals. I refer to –

POST-MODERNISM.
This is the philosophy that states that “There are no absolutes. Truth is what each individual determines for himself” [I will pass over the fact that this statement itself is an absolute statement – and therefore invalidates itself!]
This ridicules all statements that claim to be “the real truth”, for truth is now subject to what each person considers to be “the truth”. The threat that this is to the Christian faith that makes such bold proclamations as “God came to earth in human form as Christ to save sinners” is obvious. Thus, all is now made subservient to “what each individual accepts as truth.” So with this background thinking, the conclusion is that “all men are now equal” (because “all must have prizes”!)
I cannot but feel that, unwittingly, this is the thinking and philosophy behind the establishment of “Equality of Elders” in church organisations. If I am right, then the practice is a serious divergence from the clear lines of responsible hierarchy that is a strong thread throughout the whole of the Bible as I have set out above.

The use of the gifts within the church
That God gave more gifts to some than to others should be obvious, and in Romans 12v7, those with gifts of teaching are to be “encouraged to teach”. Yet even in many churches, the preaching and teaching is not given to those with clear gifts of preaching, but all to often to those –
(i) whose “turn it is to preach as they have not done so for some time” [This is known as “Buggin’s Turn” in party politics.]
(ii) to “encourage” a young person to see if he has the abilities to preach.
Here I must protest that in both of these cases, it is a gross misuse of a congregation.
In an evangelical church service, you may have 20 –300 mature Christians who have given up their time of say three hours including travel to be brought closer to God and to learn from his Word. How many are then presented with a third rate sermon delivered in a fourth rate manner that leaves them with a sense of despair. If this happens sufficiently often, it is little wonder that an air of apathy reigns and congregations begin to decline.

The crucial verses.
Here we come to the only passage that I know of in the Bible where the whole purpose for God forming Christians into churches is clearly set out. It is Ephesians 4v11-13. “It was He who gave some to be Apostles..pastors and teachers..” – the whole purpose of which is climaxed in the making of the Christians in the church “mature like Christ” (v13).
It is therefore incumbent upon the Elders to ensure that the preaching and teaching is always of the highest excellence at all times. To treat the congregation in any other way is to use them as passive “pew fodder” for any scheme that comes into the Elder’s head(s). To have even a hint of such an attitude is humiliating to the congregation. They may not have the courage to say anything at meetings, but they are likely to eventually “vote with their feet” or at the least to sink into a resigned air of passivity and apathy instead of being inspired and challenged by excellent preaching.
I do feel that this attitude is far more prevalent even in good sound evangelical churches than is realised, and it is why I consider that “Equality of Elders” is actually a pernicious distortion of the biblical way of organising churches consisting of sensible, mature Bible-believing born-again evangelical Christians. They deserve the very best treatment by the Elders as mature Christians. Whenever there is not such behaviour, the guilty person should be corrected rather than lower the standards for the whole church.
It is in the hope that this paper will go some way in correcting this wrong direction that so many churches have adopted.
Malcolm Bowden.
July 2012.



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