Elders Lead A Healthy Family: Relational Structure

By on 11-27-2012 in Church, Leadership

Elders Lead A Healthy Family: Relational Structure

As we discussed in an earlier post, the pastor as CEO model of ministry has some drawbacks when it comes to developing healthy relationships. I appreciated this summary comment Brent made over on Alan Knox’s blog.

In my experience the role of pastor in our culture follows one of three patterns found in the business world: pastor as an employee, pastor as a CEO, and pastor as a sole proprietor. If the pastor is your employee you can be friends with him, but ultimately you have to evaluate his performance and may have to fire him. The relationship is limited by the burden of that constraint. If the pastor is a CEO he has to balance the demands and desires from several competing departments and granting access to certain people over others has political dimensions and creates resentment in those who don’t have access to the decision maker. If the pastor is a sole proprietor he owns the “church” and runs it as a lifestyle business. You can be friends with him, but you need to do the things he wants in order to get along or you will no longer have a place in his business.

The solution is to make sure that when we structure our churches, we do so in a way that reflects our value for biblical relationship.

Fist and foremost, we begin with a recognition that relationship begins with Jesus who sits at the right hand of God as the Shepherd of the Church–the Groom who awaits his perfect Bride.

No man, no Elder, can replace Jesus.

So while we wait for Jesus to come and gather His church, the Holy Spirit lives among and within the church. The Spirit gives giftings to the people so that the whole Body may grow in unity. Elders are the under-shepherds, who must rule well and administer the church and protect the Flock until the appointed day of the Lord. As mentioned earlier, a plurality of Elders over the church seems to be the ideal biblical directive and practice.

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My focus in this digram is not on the titles people choose to use, but the relationship shared by each Elder. Every church and tradition will have a variety of names for different roles people play. The diversity of tradition is as great as the diversity of the Body and no effort should be made to force everyone to follow one specific nomenclature.

The importance goes beyond titles and revolves around two things,

  • What does the elder do?
  • Who does he do it with?

The Elders who rule well do not form a hierarchy of power, but they serve in relationship as a community within a community. They serve as a model of what it means to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. The four benefits of this approach are summarized well in this article by David J. MacLeod .

First, it complements the church’s nature as a family of brothers and sisters. A plural eldership, unlike a formal clerical structure with its special titles, sacred clothes, chief seats, and lordly terminology, best expresses the church’s character as a brotherhood.

Second, it complements the church’s nature as a nonclerical community. The New Testament knows nothing of a consecrated class of clerics who carry out the ministry for the laymen. Instead, every member of the church is a holy saint (1 Cor. 1:2), a royal priest (1 Pet. 2:5–10), and a Spirit-gifted member of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:12).

Third, the plural eldership complements the church’s nature as a humble-servant community. When it functions properly, shared leadership manifests mutual regard for one another, submission to one another, patience with one another, consideration of one another’s interests, and deference to one another.

Finally, plural eldership complements the church’s nature by guarding and promoting the preeminence and position of Christ over the local assembly. The apostles practiced a form of church government that reflected the distinctive, fundamental truth that Christ was the Ruler, Head, Lord, and Pastor of the church. “There is only one flock and one Pastor (John 10:16), one body and one Head (Col. 1:18), one holy priesthood and one great High Priest (Heb. 4:14–16), one brotherhood and one Older Brother (Rom. 8:29), one building and one Cornerstone (1 Pet. 2:5–8), one Mediator, one Lord. Jesus Christ is ‘Senior Pastor,’ and all others are His undershepherds (1 Pet. 5:4).”

Emmaus Bible College, Emmaus Journal Volume 6, 6:76-77 (Emmaus Bible College, 1997; 2002).

How then do we apply this relational structure to our modern churches of the West?

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In some churches, they may find that one Elder in particular is specially gifted to lead and organize the deacons. In another church, there may be several who share that specific role. The importance here is not in what titles we choose, but that we embrace the diversity of giftings among the Elders and allow their diversity to make the church stronger. As we embrace God’s design for a healthy Family, there are a few points of application that I think important for the current debate about church.

  • Churches can meet in and own buildings; but they must not compromise their relational structure.
  • Churches can hire staff and use whatever titles they prefer; but they must not compromise their relational structure.
  • Churches can run programs and put on community events; but they must not compromise their relational structure.

With an understanding of our Missional and Relational structures, the next post will explore Elders as the catalyst for growing a strong community.

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Suggested Reading

elders_congregational_lifeNewton, Phil A. Elders in Congregational Life : Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2005.

If your church is interested in shifting from a solo pastor to the Elder model of church, then you should pick up this book. There is an entire section dealing with the topic of how to make this transition. While this book is written from a Baptistic perspective, it is still good advice for churches in any denomination. (see also “Baptists and Elders” by Mark Dever)

From the back cover: “Self-government and autonomy are long-standing cherished traditions of most evangelical churches. Ideally this means each member participates in decision making, but in reality pure congregationalism is unwieldy and unworkable. Pastors try to solve the problem by assuming more and more of the authority themselves. Neither approach is biblical.

A biblically functioning church requires intentional devotion to the New Testament model of church leadership. In this practical book, experienced pastor Phil Newton examines this biblical model of leadership by explaining the necessity of elder plurality and how it functions in a congregational setting. Newton demonstrates the history of elder plurality from personal experience in Baptist life, expounds three biblical texts to shed light on the New Testament model for spiritual leaders, and provides answers to commonly asked questions.”

Dr. Joe Miller (aka JR) is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. In addition, he is a church planter and coach for other young leaders. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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