I’ve seen it over and over again. I’ve even done it myself. A pastor makes a decision without counsel leaving the need for massive clean up or damage control. Some of the greatest heart-aches and moments of repentance that I’ve had have been around issues where I failed to make a Biblically sound decision in my family and/or church family. How can this stuff happen? I thought I was better than that? I knew that was a bad idea? Why did I do that?
I’m a sinful pastor. I’m not perfect and I make mistakes. There I said it.
By God’s grace, I’m not talking about anything disqualifying. But I am talking about messing around with people’s lives in the way that I handle the exposition of God’s Word and counseling the needs of Christ’s bride. I want to dispel a scary practice that has given me enough freedom from accountability to make such mistakes without them being caught by loving brothers first.
In other words, a vast majority of pastoral mistakes could be prevented if we would be serious about God’s prescribed method of church leadership.
Elders are Biblically Mandated
Deacons didn’t even exist until after the elders where in place. The Bible uses the words elders, overseers, bishops, and pastors to refer to one office. Most Southern Baptist churches have a pastor with subordinate associate pastors or ministers. That isn’t the same as the elders we see in the Bible. In Acts 6, the elders of the very young church of Jerusalem instruct the congregation to elect deacons. These elders were in existence first as the primary leading body of the church. Jesus called the first set of elders (the 11 apostles), and then Matthias was chosen by the remaining 11 by prayer and the casting of lots (God’s sovereignty) to be an apostle as Judas’s replacement. Elders have always been the primary leading office of the church until the decline of Biblical eldership. Now deacon’s are often left to steward the church when the pastor leaves. The other ministers and pastors are typically asked to fill the pulpit but the decisions are left to the deacons and a committee is formed to find the next pastor. That’s unfair to deacons, whose role is to care for the physical needs of the church. It’s not their burden to bear, nor should it be. And the kind of character and ability that make a man in the office of elder qualified are clearly laid out for us in 1Timothy 3. God doesn’t describe a group of church leaders without the expectation that we follow His Word.
Elder Plurality is Biblically Mandated
Having more than one elder is essential. Otherwise the whole system breaks down. But more than that very practical reason, God instituted the first elders of the church as plural. Jesus hand-picked these elders to build the church on the Word of God. And whenever we see elders mentioned in the Bible, it’s always plural (except when describing the office itself rather than those holding the office). Elder plurality is essential because it not only patterns churches after the way that Jesus raised the first church in Jerusalem, but it also displays a full picture of wisdom and accountability.
Overseers are Not Overlords
Before going further, I want to remind people how some denominations have abused elders by making them overlords rather than overseers. As Southern Baptists, we firmly believe that the church as described Biblically is supposed to be congregational. Elders and deacons are elected by the congregation and each for a specific role. As elders are raised initially by the church then nominated by the existing elders for congregational approval, the congregation seeks God in the leadership of the church so that His glory may be on full display. Hebrews 13:17 is a charge to the church to submit to the leadership (a plurality of elders not one man). This isn’t anti-congregational. It’s telling members to look to the wisdom and knowledge of faithful elders that they have elected. Biblical eldership has checks and balances built in that keep the overseers from becoming overlords. This makes submitting to elders all the more sweet, though when in sin difficult.
Elders Are Equals
Jesus chose a group of equals. Yes, Peter was particularly loud and the forerunner in a lot of circumstances. Yet even he could be called out and corrected by another elder such as in Galatians 2:11-13. And the equality of the elders displays a mutual submission to each other like Paul and Peter obviously had with each other. This means that the Biblical vision, mission, and teaching of the church is sought after, decided on (through vote), and cast to the people from a group of complimentary men who are qualified to do so before God. Equality, in turn, adds accountability and collective wisdom to the leadership of the church that is necessary, especially when hard times and situations disturb the church.
Elders Provide Accountability
Accountability is a natural outworking of mutual submission. When the elders are living life together on mission, they know each other. I mean, really know each other. Strengths and weaknesses are talked about and talked through. Sins are confessed, as the church ought to be doing on a whole anyway (James 5:16). Mistakes are corrected and often prevented from happening altogether. It’s not left to the one man to make decisions about the spiritual direction of the church or how to handle counseling a situation or teaching through one passage. Elders keep each other in check and guard the purity and unity in Christ first with the accountability with each other.
Elders Provide Wise Counsel in the Direction of the Church
The collective understanding and wisdom of the elders as they wade through the Word of God for the preaching and teaching to the people is the main role of the elder to elder relationship. Because elders are typically gifted differently, they handle situations differently, apply passages differently, and speak differently. When elders gather to “devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4), they accomplish the most necessary task for the church. Elders cannot “give up preaching the word of God” (Acts 6:2). God says it best:
“Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.”
— Proverbs 15:22