The Relationship Between the Elders and the Members in a Local Congregation.

Healthy leaders lead to healthy congregations

If you were to list the ingredients for a healthy and vibrant church what would they be? What makes a successful church? Bob Russell in his book “When God Builds a Church” offers his insight on one of the major essentials for church health and vibrancy:

“When I’m asked to analyze why our church has grown so dramatically, I say there is one overriding reason God has blessed our congregation: excellent leadership. The elders…have consistently been an example of what godly leadership is all about.” 

He elaborates later on:

“Often we’re looking for gimmicks, programs, and ideas that will make our church grow, while God is looking for consecration and genuine commitment among the church’s leaders.” 

Alexander Strauch in his book “Biblical Eldership” writes the following:

“In a letter to a young presbyter named Nepotian, dated A.D. 394, Jerome rebuked the churches of his day for their hypocrisy in showing more concern for the appearance of their church buildings than their careful selection of their church leaders: ‘Many build churches nowadays; their walls and pillars of glowing marble, their ceilings glittering with gold, their altars studded with jewels. Yet to the choice of Christ’s ministers no heed is paid.”

I think Russel and Strauch are exactly right. The character and devotion of the eldership within the church will inevitably correspond to the church’ health and vibrancy. As Hosea remarks, “And what the priests do, the people also do (Hosea 4:9, NLT).” 

Furthermore, depending on the quality of the relationship between the elders and the congregation it can either ruin a church or energize her.

In the following I want to outline the relationship between the elders and the members in a local congregation as discussed in the New Testament.  Understanding the roles of the Elders and the members will help clarify the image of a healthy church.

Elders are qualified 

It seems to go without saying that an elder of a church is to be qualified in order to accomplish his ministerial tasks. But unfortunately I have experienced first hand men who were given the title elder without meeting biblical qualifications. And it is much more difficult removing a man from the position of an elder because he is not qualified than it is from simply holding off from placing one in that position.

This is precisely why Paul instructs us not to place men in leadership too quickly: Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure (1 Timothy 5:22)

The two list of qualifications for the church elder is found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
Jeramie Rinne in his book “Church Elders” offers a helpful summary of what these qualifications entail:

  • You want to be an elder
  • You exemplify godly character
  • You can teach the Bible 
  • You lead your family well
  • You are a male
  • You are an established believer

The importance of the godly character of the elder can not be overstated. Robert Murray M’Cheyne who was a preacher in the early 1800’s and died at the early age of 30 wrote these convicting words regarding church leadership:

“My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness. How awful a weapon in the hand of God is a holy minister.” 

Members Honor their elders 

Because God has ordained that godly men lead the church spiritually, it is also assumed that the members of the congregation honor them for that task. Notice Paul’s clear words concerning this duty of the congregation:

  • We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)
  • Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (1Timothy 5:17-18)

Elders equip

Elders in the church are the equippers. Elders do not labor in the Word in order to spoon feed each member without any movement toward maturity. On the contrary, Elders preach and teach the Bible, in order to grow and equip the members to live out the truths of scripture. Look at Ephesians 4:11: 

  • And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.(Ephesians 4:11-14)

Members seek guidance from the elders

Because elders equip it is natural then that the members of the church seek spiritual guidance from their elders. Consider Hebrews 13:7:

  • Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7)

One interesting passage is James 5:14 on this matter:

  • Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.(James 5:14-15)

Much can be said about this section of scripture but suffice it to say that a strong argument can be made that spiritual sickness is in the author’s mind here. If so, what we have is instructions for those in the congregation to take the initiative when they are spiritually down, to seek the elders for encouragement, and to be uplifted by prayer. 

Elders protect

A professor of mine in an introduction to Christian ministry class remarked that if we want to be successful in ministry we need to be as “gentle as doves; wise as serpents; and have the skin of rhinoceros!” Elders have to have tough skin in order to protect the flock of God. Thus, a third characteristic of the elder is that he protects the church. He does this in two primary ways; protection from incorrect doctrine and incorrect behavior. These may come from folks outside the church or inside the church. 

  • Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20:28-30)

Russell writes: 

“A growing church is frequently the victim of vicious attacks from the adversary. Satan hates an alive church and does his best to destroy it. You can bet that just when things begin going well in your church, you will encounter serious spiritual opposition. . such problems simply cannot be dealt with adequately without strong, though sensitive, leaders who do not shy away from confrontation.” 

Members hold elders accountable

One of the fears folks may have in joining a church is that they are called to trust and follow the leadership of individuals that may have the potential of falling short in their calling. Are church members simply to obey elders who are living inconsistent with their ‘above reproach” position?  I get this fear. We hear on the news frequently about moral failures made by church leaders, and it concerns us that we may experience similar outcomes.

But this should not deter anyone from being obedient and serving in the local church, or from following the command to submit to one’s leaders. However, God in his wisdom has instructed us that if an elder fails to lead like he ought then the church is required to confront that elder. Look at 1 Timothy 5:19-21:

  • Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality (1 Timothy 5:19-21)

Therefore, while members in the congregation are called to submit to the elders in the church, it does not excuse elders from living inconsistently with the qualifications set out in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. In such cases the congregation has an obligation to lovingly confront the elder and encourage him to repent of his habitual sin.

Elders Lead

The elders of the church are to lead the congregation. As a shepherd leads the sheep to fresh water so the elder leads the congregation to the truths of scripture and holy living. How does he lead? Peter tells us:

  • So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:1-4)

According to this passage Elders lead by:

  • Oversight without compulsion
  • Eagerly without selfish motives
  • Exemplary without domineering

Members follow

If a church has healthy spiritual leaders it follows that the members of the congregation will joyfully follow their leadership.

  • Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you (Hebrews 13:17)

Closing

If we desire to become a spiritually healthy congregation we have to understand the distinct roles of the elder and the member. If at any time the elders and congregation become disunited we will inevitably fall into deep sickness as a church. 

The loneliest I have ever felt in ministry was when I was barely 20 and the church I was serving split over congregation and leadership differences. The church that had once been fairly stable had been ripped apart, because the elders and the congregation fought tooth and nail for their different desired preferences to be met. The church is still in existence but is close to closing its doors. May we unite rather than divide and learn to love our elders, and love each other! 

A Call for Commitment to the Local Church.

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Hebrews 10:24-25) 

Commitment-phobia

One of the concerns I have, as I am sure many others have as well, in regards to the church today involves the lack of commitment to the local church, particularly to the gathering together on the Lord’s day. This concern is verified by some troublesome statistical data regarding church attendance in America. Barna research for example, did a recent study in which, among other things, stated the following: 

While regular church attendance is a reliable indicator of faithful Christian practice, many Americans choose to experience and express their faith in a variety of other ways, the most common of which is prayer. For instance, three-quarters of Americans (75%) claim to have prayed to God in the last week. This maps fairly well onto the 73 percent who self-identify as Christian. Following prayer, the next most common activity related to faith practice is attending a church service, with more than one-third of adults (35%) having sat in a pew in the last seven days, not including a special event such as a wedding or funeral.

While the study encouragingly suggests that 75% of evangelicals seek prayer each week to connect with God, it is disturbing that only 35% of those see attending the local church as equally important. 

Thom Rainer agreeswith this statistic. He writes: “About 20 years ago, a church member was considered active in the church if he or she attended three times a week.Today, a church member is considered active in the church if he or she attends three times a month.”

But seemingly this is not just an issue with the church alone. I was recently at a local recreational baseball field watching my nieces play softball when I happened to notice the following words on their concession stand: “Do not complain unless you have volunteered.” Yes, all of us today seem to be struggling with getting individuals to see the importance of commitment. 

Contrastingly, the local church described in the pages of the New Testament realized the importance of being together and committing to the advancement of God’s kingdom. Luke describes the early christians for example as “being together and having all things in common. . .day by day attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes. . .having favor with all the people (Acts 2:44, 46-47).”

The antidote, I argue,  for this apparent sickness called commitment-phobia is a return to local church membership. Christians need to devote their lives to one another by acknowledging and applying their commitment to their local congregation.  

Misunderstanding Commitment

Unfortunately, the importance of local church membership has been downplayed by a misunderstanding of it. Pastor and author Alistair Beggoffers three typesof groups that resist biblical church membership. 

The Debaters

These are those who question the biblical credibility of local church membership. “Where is local church membership in the Bible?”, they ask. 

But Local church membership is taught by the fact that elders/leaders of the church are held accountable for the spiritual health of the congregation. 

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.(Hebrews 13:17)

In other words, in order for Christians to submit to their leaders they have to know who they are. Similarly, leaders, if they are held accountable for the souls in their care, they have to know who those “souls” are. But how can they unless their is some account for each individual? 

Furthermore, Local Church membership is assumed in church discipline. Take Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians as an example. 

For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13)

If church discipline as outlined here is to take place isn’t there a clear line of who is “in” the church and who is not? Otherwise how in the world is anyone to know who to correct when they are living in habitual sin? Local church membership is necessary for these things to take place. 

The Drifters

According to Begg these are the people who drift in and out of congregations; who leave when they are bored or displeased with the church. There is no public commitment to the congregation. These folks like to receive the benefits of the church but not be held accountable to any forms of leadership or other Christians. Furthermore, if they get bored with the church they serve they can simply leave just as easily as they came. 

The Deniers

This group denies the gathering of God’s people in the traditional sense. As long as you have an iPad and a Starbucks that’s all you need. You can listen to any sermon you want in the comfort of your own living room or coffee shop. But this takes away the incarnation side of church as well as the structure and order of the church given to us by divine scripture. 

Myths regarding Commitment

When it comes to committing to the local church there are many I have encountered who thought they were committed but really were not. Let me outline a few myths regarding local church membership:

Myth #1–I am a regular attender therefore this is “my church.”

False: There needs to be a clear public profession of your faith and a clear identification of your loyalty to the congregation and to the elders. When one decides to just attend the Sunday morning service without a clear commitment to the church they relieve themselves of any accountability to the elders and the church body. They also relieve themselves of any sense of loyalty to the congregation. They may or may not attend because it really doesn’t effect the rest of the church if they are not present. But this destroys the metaphor Paul gives of the one body many, members in 1 Corinthians 12. 

Myth #2–I can have several local churches that I serve and attend. 

False: You need to have primarily one local congregation to devote to; to use your gifts and resources. Furthermore, you need focused devotion to a local church in order for those individuals to hold you spiritually accountable.

Myth #3–The church primarily exists to meet my needs. 

False: You exist to serve the church with your gifts. A Byproduct is that you will be edified by others doing the same. 

Myth #4—I need to wait until others in my family are ready to join before I do.

False: You need to join as quickly as possible in order to be obedient and set the example

Why should one join the local church?

So why should one join a local church? Let me offer several reasons: 

It’s an Obedience issue

As I have hopefully made clear thus far local church membership is a biblical idea. You can’t obey the “pone another” commandments in scripture without commitment to a group of believers. 

It’s a Fellowship Issue

This is the point of Hebrews 10:24-25 and Acts 2:44-46.

It’s an Authority Issue

The elders are given to the church by God to teach and protect. 

      • Hebrews 13:17
      • Acts 20:28-30

It’s an Identity Issue

The Visible church is the way in which we make the invisible church visible! 

It’s a Loyalty Issue

All believers are called to be loyal to Christ and loyal to each other. John Macarthur writes: 

“But that isn’t how people think today.  People don’t say, “I probably ought to go to church tonight because there might be somebody there who would need me.  There might be somebody there I could pray for.  There might be somebody there I could sit with and sing hymns, praise to God.  I better go tonight because it might encourage the pastor that I’m there.  I better go because the Spirit of God might have something to say to me that’s going to make my life more effective as a witness to the people around me.  I really need to be there because they are going to be people there who probably have burdens and maybe I’ll run into one of them and they will share it with me and I’ll need to know it so I can pray about it.”  We don’t think like that.

We say, “Well, let’s see, shall we go to dinner over here or should we go to church?”  Or “Well, we could go visit Aunt Martha over there.  She’ll leave us in the will if we show up enough times, or whatever.”  We just grieve in our hearts, who are pastors, at the disloyalty of so many people.  They’re loyal to their own interests but they’re certainly not loyal to the interests of others, the needs of others, and the gathered church.”

It’s a Serving Issue

The church is called to serve one another. I love how Mark Dever illustrates this:

“I once had a friend who worked for a campus Christian ministry while attending a church where I was a member. He would always slip in right after the hymns sit there for the sermon and then leave. I asked him one day why he didn’t come for the whole service. “Well”, he said,  “I don’t get anything out of the rest of it.”  “Have you ever thought about joining the church?” I responded. He thought that was an absurd comment. He said “why would I join the church? If I join them I think they would just slow me down spiritually.” I asked “have you ever considered that maybe God wants you to link arms with those other people and that perhaps even though they might slow you down a little you might help to speed them up—and that that’s part of God’s plan for how we’re supposed to live as Christians together (Dever, Mark. Nine Marks of a Healthy Church)?”

It’s a Witness Issue

When we commit to live lives together the world will take notice. As the apostle Peter admonishes:

  • Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.( 1 Peter 2:12)