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! 

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