I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and since it’s my blog, I can say it as much as I’d like, especially with my fondness for parentheses). I am so thankful for the Church of the Cross family where I serve as an elder (not to toot my own horn, but please notice that I didn’t say that I serve as “Lead Pastor”).
Currently, there are only two elders; myself and one other. This is not ideal by anyone’s standards, as we believe (as do many others), that local congregations are best governed by a “plurality” of elders (more than one and probably more than two). So, our other elder and I, for some time, have prayerfully been considering adding more elders (at least one to start with).
During that prayerful consideration, I have been scouring the Bible, books and the internet (yes, I realize that that might not be a healthy combination, but more on that as we proceed) to discover what process other local congregations of like-minded theological convictions might use in training/raising up/recognizing other elders.
As I’ve scoured said Bible, books and internet (so you know it’s true), I’ve been convicted and astonished by a couple of things. First, I can’t believe (literally; I can not believe) how long some local congregations take to install elders (up to three years). And, second, I’m surprised (though I probably shouldn’t be by the theological circles in which I often travel) by how theological and entirely not practical some of the “qualifications” for elders seem to be in many local churches.
Let’s start with the first thing. I’ve read upwards of 20-25 church position papers on installing new elders. It’s not uncommon (do you see the Litotes that I just employed there? A term I just learned while preaching through the Sermon on the Mount) for a local congregation to take up to three years to install a new elder. I’m not kidding. A three year process.
A lot of that has to do with the theological circles within which I travel. I realize that it may be different for you, but this is not y0ur blog. I have many Reformed convictions which means that I do, indeed believe theology is imminently important. Indeed, along with A.W. Tozer, I believe that “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” However, I worry that this idea has actually come to exclude many otherwise qualified men from pursuing the office of elder.
Which leads me to my second concern, which is intimately related to the first. The vast majority of the processes I looked at considered such things as: 1) describe the current theological debate between covenant theology and dispensationalism (no, I didn’t capitalize either of them), or 2) please describe and state your position in the ongoing debate between calvinism and arminiansim (again, I chose not to Capitalize either).
Now, please don’t get me wrong. I believe that theological convictions are important and that we all ought ought to have them. I’m just not sure that we ought to be taking three years to make sure that our other elders agree with us on our particular take on every theological issue. After all, isn’t t the local body made up of different parts of the Body (1 Corinthians 12-14)? And, this may just be me speaking here (and not the LORD), but wouldn’t our local congregations be better off with a (maybe small) variety of theological convictions on several issues rather than an already decided board of votes?
But, more to the point of what set me off to writing in the first place. When we install a three (or more)-year process to install elders that includes such issues as dispensational/covenantal theology, aren’t we excluding many guys that Scripture simply doesn’t exclude? Consider, for example, the main passages that are often used in selecting elders:
1 Timothy 3:1-7: The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
Titus 1:5-19: This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—6if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
1 Peter 5:1-5 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: 2shepherd 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; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.4And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 5Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
What I have personally garnered from these passages and other is that a man’s character is the primary consideration for whether or not he should serve as an elder or not and only after that, his theological knowledge. I realize that this is may get me into some trouble in (R)eformed circles but let’s be honest, the vast majority of the qualifications for elders mentioned, even if even/or especially if we include Acts 6, are character related. Yes, an elder must be able to teach and refute false doctrine, but somehow, we have turned that into THE primary consideration rather than one among many. Scripture seems more concerned with a man’s character.
I take this to mean that I should be more concerned with how the Holy Spirit has changed a particular man’s life and character than whether or not he agrees with my own particular theological convictions. Yes, I understand that this means that a local congregation may not be able to be as dogmatic about certain issues as it might like to be and that it adopt a bit more ambiguity on the non-essentials than some of us are comfortable with. But, come on, when Paul told Titus to appoint elders (Titus 1:5), do we really think he meant, take up to three years and examine every nuance of their theology to make sure that it comports with your own?
I have come to worry that our process of “appointing elders” in a local congregation means little more than making sure that they agree theologically with the existing elders on EVERY issue so that a local congregation has very clear theological boundaries.. And I’m not sure that this is either healthy or biblical. But I also realize that I may be crazy.
We have come to the point where we are largely communicating that if you are not highly theological or aspire to be, or a reader, you will simply never serve as an elder in many local congregations. One of the things that surprised and disappointed me was how few churches mentioned calling outside references. I want to know how a man’s business associates and neighbors think of him. I found questions about the ordo salutis and the eschaton but I only found one church that actually said they would call outside references. In other words, theological knowledge (or at least the pursuit of theological knowledge) seems to have become more important to us than character when selecting elders.
What do you think? Do you think that the Scriptural ideals mean that we should take up to three years to install local elders? How united on every issue do you think elders of a local congregation ought to be? Is it healthy for there to be disagreement? On on how many issues? Who gets to decide? If the goal is to make discipels who make, mature and multiply other disciples (Matthew 28:28-20), isn’t at least some bit of diversity beneficial?
And more to the point. When we adopt a process that takes up to three years of in-depth theological study, what are we really communicating to our “every-day guys”? If Ephesians 4:11-13 is true, and we are striving to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, then shouldn’t we be encouraging all of our men to be aspiring to the “position” of elder? Yet, when we draw the process out over years of theological study, aren’t we communicating to most of our men that, if they’re not readers and theological thinkers, they’ll never be elders? Is this the Scriptural model? I’m not so sure. But then again, I’m open to correction.
I’m not sure I want to be part of a process that tells the vast majority of guys they’ll never qualify nor should they even aspire. What do you think (and yes, I really am open to your dialogue)?