By Berry Kercheville
I’m sure we did not intend it so, nor was it our purpose to create a tradition that isn’t exactly the picture we get in scripture. But many churches gradually fell into it. For the most part, it is the result of a corporate-world view of a local church.
In Ephesians 4:11-16, Paul describes the team aspect of shepherds and evangelists. Traditionally, both elders and evangelists have tended to “touch base” with each other, but not necessarily for the purpose of making sure their individual roles were complementary in reaching the goal of equipping and maturing the church. In a word, there has tended to be too much “independent behavior” by both the preacher and the elders. In too many cases the relationship feels friendly enough, but still with an underlying feeling of two sides tugging in different directions.
Why does this happen? One possibility is, preachers can have strong opinions about how the Lord’s work ought to be done and can tend to want to control the direction of the church. Elders, on the other hand, can have a tendency to resist change, not wanting to endure criticism, and therefore push against a preacher when he believes there are “things that are wanting” (Titus 1:5). For elders, change implies extra work and leadership. This can become a big challenge for elders who already have a fulltime career.
Another factor is that many elders and preachers have an employer/employee relationship instead of God’s pattern of supporting an evangelist to do his work of spreading the gospel. The more common thought is, “He works for us and this church” or, “We pay him a good salary to do this work.” An evangelist has a wide range of teaching responsibilities that are not always directly related to the work of the local church. It is not uncommon for a preacher to teach people outside his local area or teach and mentor younger evangelists needing help and experienced counsel. Preachers are kingdom laborers, not church employees. This does not suggest they are “independent” or not under the oversight of elders, or even that they do not have a primary responsibility to the local work, but neither are they a church employees.
Elders and their “rule.”
There are three extremes in the way elders have approached their work: (1) just lead by example, but not very involved, or (2) keep the church running smoothly and put out fires, or (3) run the church by authoritarian rule. Some elders have misapplied Hebrews 13:17 from the King James versions: “Obey them that have the rule over you…” Thus, the conclusion is drawn; elders are “rulers” in the church. There are three problems with this conclusion.
- Peter warned against elders being “lords over the flock.” I have never known an elder to think he was “lording,” but lording is not necessarily uncommon. What else is lording if it is not micro-managing members and making them feel like everything done must first be cleared by the eldership?
- Most all of the modern translations render “leaders” instead of “rule” (ESV, NASB, NRSV, HCSB, NIV11, NET). The primary definition of the Greek is, “to lead the way; to take the lead” (Mounce). That aptly describes a shepherd. Shepherds don’t rule; they lead. Sheep aren’t driven like cattle; they are led.
- The main point that is missed is the fact that shepherds “rule/lead” by teaching (Titus 1:5-9), not by controlling everything that goes on in a church. Get a picture of what it means to shepherd a flock and one will learn how to lead. In fact, headship in a family and being a shepherd of a church ought to look similar. The “authority” of elders and preachers is not “inherent” within them. Their authority is exercised through persuasion by the word of God. Do elders or preachers have authority beyond this? Yes, there are decisions to be made in the realm of expedients in order to reach the goals of equipping and maturing a church, but care needs to be taken to avoid crossing God’s lines by making rules based on personal opinion.
Elders and preachers have a strong tendency to make hard-fast rules about how the work and worship of a church is to be accomplished in spite of the fact that there may be other equally good scriptural ways of meeting the goal. The consequence of “rule-making” is twofold.
- It suppresses the individual initiative of the members. Members come to believe that they have no liberty to make choices when it comes to their part in the work of edifying the body (Cf. Eph. 4:16). When initiative is suppressed and feelings are hurt because of criticism, the body becomes paralyzed and nothing gets done unless the elders direct it. When a body of Christians is paralyzed, the body begins to die, and the sheep will flee in all directions. Good shepherding does not limit sheep from doing what God has ordained sheep to do. This error is especially damaging when it is enforced in worship so that there is only one way or one format that can be practiced. The slightest change and someone gets upset because worship hasn’t been done like it has always been done. “Decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40), does not mean rigid and formal.
- Rule making will eventually turn a church into a denomination. Soon manmade rules become even more important than God’s rules. Sound familiar? That is exactly why Jesus condemned the Pharisees (Mark 7:1-9).
Checks and Balances
Shepherds and evangelists clearly have a relationship that is to reflect a team spirit (Eph. 4:11-16) while at the same time containing an element of checks and balances. Paul repeatedly expressed concern that elders would overstep their bounds by leading a group away from the Lord (Acts 28:29-30). These warnings proved to be significant as apostasy arose out of elderships as early as the second century. Conversely, good shepherds guard the church against preachers and teachers who veer from the truth and attempt to gather their own disciples.
Elders rarely have a problem exercising their right of “checks and balances” when it comes to the preacher or other members. But how will these same elders respond when the preacher tries to “set in order things that are wanting” or attempts to correct something flawed in the way the elders do their work? While a preacher, or any member, is not allowed to “sharply rebuke” an elder (1 Tim. 5:1), he is allowed to “appeal to him as a father,” and if he “persists in sin” he is commanded to “rebuke him in the presence of all so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Tim. 5:20).
Would you say that Paul’s admonition to Timothy in these verses is a rare occurrence in today’s churches? Oh it might happen, but what is usually the end result? Sure, the preacher is asked to leave. So much for Paul’s checks and balances, and the church stays flawed. This goes back to the misconception of an employer – employee relationship between elders and preachers. While I am not suggesting that an eldership doesn’t have the right and duty to let a preacher go when the circumstances warrant, the scriptural relationship between shepherds and preachers is to be a tight working unit that reaches the goal of equipping the body.
Elders and preachers working as a complementary team will also solve the defensiveness of the “King Saul Syndrome” (“Saul has killed his thousands, David his ten thousands”). Let me illustrate. Many years ago I was working with a church in which God continually blessed us with conversions. In one particular year over 50 people were baptized, most of which came from various members reaching their friends. About halfway through the year, the elders called me in for a meeting. The conversation went something like this:
Elders: “What’s going on, Berry? What are you trying to do?”
Me: “Excuse me. What do you mean?”
Elders: “Are you trying to take over?”
Me: “Take over? What are you talking about?”
Elders: “Well, there’s all these new people around here and it feels like we are not in control.”
Me: “Fellas, all that is happening is the members and I are doing our job. I’m either teaching them how to teach or helping them teach their friends and the Lord is giving the increase.”
Elders: Okay, so you are not trying to take over?”
Me: “No, brothers, I am not. May you always be the elders.”
Two months later and twenty more baptisms, they called me in again and we had the same conversation. Of course, I never took over, they remained the elders, and we maintained a great relationship. But here was the problem: they were wonderful men, but they were not involved in any of the classes and very little of the equipping.
Shepherds and preachers are equippers whom God expected to work together as a team, not as employers and employees. When shepherds are not involved, they are not shepherding, and when either elders or preachers act as bosses, they are not disciples of Christ (Matt. 20:25-28).