As I said in an earlier post, a search committee asked me what advantage I had after working for multiple churches over a 22 year span. After giving it some thought, I realized that knowing a good session from a bad session was the key. I have had a lot experience with bad sessions, which are not always made up of bad elders. You can have a session of moderate elders and one bad elder and it is a bad session because the moderate elders do what most moderate elders do: nothing and the bad elder ends up running the show.
But this post is focusing on the bad elder.
Just to be clear, there are basically three kinds of elders in the church. The first is the man called as a believer, who is also called as an elder (read about him here). The second is the man who is called as a believer, and is thrust into the position of elder because of mitigating circumstances, and ends up being a moderate elder. The third is the man who is neither a believer, nor called, but ascends to the position of elder simply because his heart heart has yet to give out, and he is the last man standing.
Sadly, this last case of an elder is far too common. Men with no biblical qualifications whatsoever, ascend to the position of being an elder simply because they have been around for a long time, or they have led in some prominent way in the community. Longevity, community prominence, or business savvy are never good reasons to make a man an elder in Christ’s church because the nature of the position is spiritual.
If the church would follow the qualifications of an elder given in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, much of this could be avoided. But far too often, a man is nominated (often by his wife), and no one has the courage to say or indicate that such a man is not qualified to be an elder. The fear of giving offense rules in the selection process. I’ve seen it first hand. A man is nominated and no one wants to say those words: “you are not qualified.” This is how the unqualified become elders.
The initial fear of offending far outweighs the consequences that the unqualified man will reap on the congregation. Yet it is much better to offend that one couple, than to turn the unqualified loose in a position of authority.
When unqualified men end up as elders, they fail because they do not understand the nature of the church. As I’ve alluded to, they feel like the church is just another organization to be managed and run like so many other organizations. This is because it is what the unsaved elder knows. He sees the church like he views the Rotary club, or like he views the local hardware store. One is a social organization, the other is a business. And those organizations run on business practices and business practices should be fine for the church as well.
But the church is not an organization. It’s a spiritual entity in need of spiritual shepherds. This is why the men who fill the role of an elder must be spiritual. They must be born again. They must have a clear realization of the gospel in their own lives and be able to make clear and real professions of faith. They should know their Bibles, because they know that the Bible is God’s word that leads to eternal life. They should have a true hunger for righteousness, and a true hunger to hear the preached word of God.
The man that has not experienced these realities should never be made an elder because he fails to see that Christ operates on a different level than the world. Christ works through humility and weakness. This doesn’t mean He is looking for elders who are weak in their knowledge of scripture, or who are not bold in standing for the truth. But they are weak in their own estimation of who they are. They have been confronted with the sinfulness of sin in their own lives and rest in Christ’s grace found in the gospel. The bad elder is clueless to these realities and thinks of such things as merely religious chatter. To him, the bottom line of finances is the standard for the church. Is the church making money, or going in the hole financially?
And that is why the non-spiritual elder is so deadly. There will always be times when the church ebbs and flows. There will be times when the body grows, and when it declines. There will be times when the money is tight, the giving is slight, and things look bleak. This is where the rubber truly meets the road, not because the church is dependent upon finances. The church needs money to function. But the real question is whether or not the elder will turn to the LORD and trust in Him during times of drought, or will he trust in his business sense?
The bad elder fails to see that God has placed such times of trial before the church as a time of testing. God does test His people. The test is basically the same in most given situations: will His church look to Him, and trust in Him, or resort to fleshly, man-centered solutions to the problem? The bad elder only has one choice: his own fleshly wisdom. This is why he is so dangerous. He never looks to the LORD because he has never looked to the LORD, therefore, he weakens the church by making worldly decisions about spiritual matters.
Given the scenario I have painted, the bad elder doesn’t look at the pastor and ask if the pastor has been faithful in this challenging time. He asks: is the pastor being successful, using worldly standards for “success?”
(The faithful pastor is successful in spiritual terms when he remains faithful to his calling regardless of the outcome or growth of the church because he knows it is the LORD who causes the growth, not his abilities).
The bad elder, given a decline in attendance and giving, sees only one solution: replace the pastor. He sees the pastor as a commodity, not as a shepherd, or a gift from Christ to His church. Therefore, if things don’t go as the elder expects, then the solution is to replace the pastor.
In doing so, he misses the greater opportunity for spiritual growth for the pastor, the session, and the congregation as a whole. It is in times of crisis that God matures His people, and the spiritually-dead elder has no room for such growth. He can’t. He has never tasted the power of the Spirit in his own life.
This is why the durations of a pastors at our churches today is so short. Far too many elders have no real understanding of God’s work in the church. The work of the Spirit is truly foreign to them, so they resort to all they know: reducing Christ’s glorious body to nothing more than a business. This cannot be done. Those in leadership need to take great care in whom they allow to become elders. The man who is not centered on the gospel, has not business being a shepherd to Christ’s people. Yes, let him do well in business. That is great. But unless he has tasted the grace of God in a saving way, he should be kept out of leadership in the church.