The number of pastors being asked to leave their churches continues to grow in alarming numbers. What is the root issue behind this critical problem and how do we resolve it? The answer is readily available and appears in the article that follows.
The number of pastors being asked to leave their churches continues to grow in alarming numbers. Certainly some pastors have fallen into moral and/or ethical disgrace and possibly need to be removed. However, the majority of pastor – congregational “divorces” are generally founded in issues that have no such bearing and, instead, are often rooted in personal power and control desires of a few, often as a result of changes the pastor seeks to initiate for the betterment of the church. At the Orange Conference in Atlanta, Georgia in May 2007 it was shared that approximately 1,500 pastors leave their churches each month over the “change” issue and the companion heartaches they experience at the hands of their parishioners. I find it appalling the lengths to which generally minority groups of people in local congregations will go to remove a pastor. They will engage in rumors, gossip, dissension, division, false accusations, defamation of character and personal attacks on spouses and children. Many churches in North America have lengthy histories of seeing that pastors either resign or are voted out at the will of a few. Instead of being treated as persons called of God, they are often treated as mere employees that can be hired and fired at the whim of a few. How can this be? Tragically the answer is remarkably simple. In the paragraphs that follow, we can see how this dilemma has evolved.
The Word of God is quite clear about the calling process of spiritual leaders. Though the process may vary, God calls whom He wills, when He wills and how He wills to be His anointed leaders. Our problem as churches is that we have deviated from the Biblical calling process as God designed it and congregants have been given a responsibility to choose their spiritual leaders rather than God.
Throughout the Old Testament we find that God alone appointed His spiritual leaders. He appointed Moses (Exodus 3-4), Joshua (Deuteronomy 34:9), all of the Judges (Judges 2:16-18) and all of the prophets for whom we have Biblical record by name (Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Nehemiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi). There was no human decision involved in these calls; God alone called whom He willed to be in the position of leadership.
We find that the New Testament bears out a most similar call process. Jesus personally called the first twelve apostles. After the ascension of Jesus, the eleven remaining apostles (Acts 1:23-26) met and, praying for God’s guidance, cast lots trusting God to reveal a replacement for Judas. In Acts 9 we find that Jesus personally called Paul (Saul) on the road to Damascus. In the Epistles we find that Titus, who was either an elder or a bishop, was instructed by Paul to appoint elders in a number of congregations (Titus 1:5). Paul provides Titus with qualifications for both elders (Titus 1:6) and bishops (Titus 1:7-9) and Titus, in his position of leadership, was given the responsibility of selection. There is no congregational involvement for the selection of spiritual leaders mentioned in either the Old or New Testaments. Why?
To establish an understanding, we need to see that the word “apostle” is actually equated with the term “elder.” Peter calls himself an elder (I Peter 5:1) and John refers to himself in like manner (II John 1:1; III John 1:1). Though apostleship carries a unique understanding in the calling of the first spiritual leaders “in training” by Jesus, we see that they see humbly saw themselves as elders with no special position other than that of elder. Thus, the apostles were the first “elders.”
There are only two spiritual positions within the church to which there is New Testament reference. The first is “bishop” and the second is “elder.” The scriptures differentiate them by implying that the bishop is the spiritual leader over a group of elders and congregations while elders are the spiritual leaders of local and, possibly, individual congregations. The qualifications of bishops are clearly revealed in I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:7-9. The only qualifications for elders actually “titled” for elders is found in Titus 1:6. The qualifications for deacons, a non-spiritual position but one of physical service, is found in I Timothy 3:8-13. Since there are similarities between the qualifications of bishops and deacons, we can probably rightly assume similar expectations for elders though with a different dimension because of the difference between elders and deacons. The elder must be more spiritually developed than the deacon, yet is possibly but not necessarily less spiritually developed than the bishop. This is in light of the difference in the role expectations of each.
Having established the position of elder as one of the two spiritual positions mentioned in the New Testament, we must look at the role of the position. An examination of the New Testament reveals that the basic “job” description of elders is five-fold:
· To preach (Acts 6:2; II Timothy 4:2-5).
· To teach (Acts 6:4; I Timothy 3:2, 5:17)
· To pray (Acts 6:4)
· To protect the congregation from false doctrine (I Timothy 6:14; II Timothy 2:14-26, 4:2-5; Titus 1:10-14, 2:1-8).
· To call sinful behavior into accountability (I Timothy 5:20; II Timothy 1:14, 2:14-26, 4:2-5; Titus 3:10-11).
On the other hand, the basic “job” description of those called to be deacons is:
· To minister to the physical needs of the congregation.
· To prepare the sacramental services such as Love Feast, baptism and the Eucharist).
Note that, though the office of deacon does indeed require persons to be spiritual in character, their job description is far removed from that of the elder. We will see how important this understanding is momentarily. Unlike the elders, the congregation calls deacons. The process is detailed in Acts 6:1-6:
1. The elders assigned the calling of deacons to the congregation.
2. Though they were to be spiritual persons, this was not seen as a position of spiritual leadership but one of service – to minister to the physical needs of the body.
3. The apostles told the congregation what qualities to look for and told the body to make the selection.
4. The body then presented whom they had called to the elders to be prayed over and confirmed and ordained by the laying on of hands. (NOTE: I Timothy 5:22 tells us we are to be slow to ordain elders and deacons if there is any question about those selected meeting the qualifications.)
The third position in the local church is the role of every member in the congregation. According to God’s Word, the “job” description of every congregant is three-fold:
· To discover his/her spiritual gifting (I Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4:11-16; Romans 12:5-8; I Peter 4:10-11).
· To discover his/her personal call (passion) from God (Romans 11:29; I Timothy 4:14-15; Hebrews 6:7; Ephesians 2:10; Psalms 139:16).
· To engage in “ministry” in the context of his/her giftedness and calling (Ephesians 4:12-16).
Every congregant is expected to grow in his/her personal spirituality (Ephesians 4:12-16; II Peter 1:5-11) and attain maturity. All of us begin at the same starting point when we come into a personal relationship with Christ; we were all newborn infants feeding on “milk.” We are expected to grow to eating “bread” and ultimately “meat” in order to become as mature as we can possibly be in this temporal life. Studies have shown, however, that many congregants never come to the point where they are consuming “meat” and moving toward spiritual maturity.
Many professing Christians never grow beyond the milk” or “bread” stages of spiritual development. The body that gathers at any one place is filled with budding Christians, each one at a different spiritual level. This also explains why, Biblically, the congregation does not choose elders and why God alone does the choosing through bishops and other elders. This important and vital decision is left to the wisdom of a higher power – the awesome God who knows what is needed in every situation - that is not subject to the maturity level of the congregation at large. By this very nature of the local body, we can readily see why God calls whom He will. Therefore, elders are not simple “employees” of the church to be retained or disposed of by the will of the congregation.
In fact, in I Peter 5:5a congregants are admonished to be subject to the elders. In this passage Peter refers to the “younger” and those of “lesser rank.” The “younger” in this case means those who are less mature in the faith and does not necessarily mean age. Those of “lesser rank” mean all other positions in the church other than that of elder. I Peter 5:5b tells everyone to be humble – to know our place. As the Gospel narrative tells us, we are told to not take a seat of importance lest we be asked to move to the rear of the room. It’s better to sit in the back and be asked to come forward than to sit in the front due to our pride and be asked to move back.
Hebrews 13:17 tells congregants to obey their spiritual leaders. I Timothy 5:17-18 reminds congregants that elders are to honored and that congregations are to provide for him financially. James 3:1-2 tells us that elders are expected to teach and, as teachers, we are held to a higher standard than the rest of the congregation. I Peter 5:2-3 tells elders they are to guide the congregation which means to set vision and direction – to lead the congregants individually and collectively into productivity. II Timothy 4:1-5 and I Peter 3:16-17 tell the elders 1) what elders are to do, 2) what they are to expect to happen to them as they lead, and 3) how to respond to those negatives.
Elders are clearly called to do their job no matter what the circumstances may be. They are expected to persevere even when congregants want to be rid of them. Jesus stated this in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:11-12).
We also see that the mention in II Timothy 4:3 that a time is coming when congregants will go through many pastors seeking one whom they like because he will preach the Word the way they want it heard. This is quite indicative of the time in which we find ourselves today. In many churches we find long-running patterns of congregants seeking to remove pastors at will in order to get what they, the congregants, think they want. The congregation I currently serve has done this to the previous four full-time pastors. It is not unique to our denomination and can be found in most denominations today. How have we gotten to this point?
The clear answer is we have drifted from the Biblical process for calling elders. In the early church the elders were appointed by the apostle-elders or, later, other elders such as Titus, but never by the congregations. God does not desire that those who are still feeding on milk or bread make decisions that have eternal spiritual implications. A Christian still feeding on milk and bread doesn’t have the things of God in mind; he/she only has his/her own concerns “on the table” as mentioned in II Timothy 4:3. These “young” Christians are not able to see that larger picture of God in which souls are won or lost by the placement of His elders and not those placed at the whim of the congregation.
Furthermore, in reviewing the methods of the early church, as new congregations were created, the elders were appointed. But, once a new congregation was established and a change or expansion of leadership arose, elders were called in the same way Moses passed the mantle to Joshua – the congregation was not involved, only the elders.
We no longer follow the Word of God when it comes to choosing our elders (pastors). When we began to move toward changes in congregational structure that removed the eldership in favor of more involvement by the congregation, we laid the foundation for this current failure that has cost many souls from coming to know Christ. Even the most recent Congregational Structure paper by one denomination is so far removed from Scripture that pastors (elders) are relegated to roles of personal spiritual comforters (shepherds) only with no leadership roles whatsoever. The result is that we have “approved” elders to be treated as mere “employees.” We have given Christians on bread and milk, and maybe some meat, the power to oversee the churches and to choose their pastors (elders), having no Biblical right to do so.
Churches are not democracies according to Scripture and are not designed to be led from the ground up but from God down. Though each congregant is vital to His plan of reaching the world with His message of salvation in the context of his/her spiritual giftedness and personal passion, they are not given the power to choose because they are in the process of becoming. Yet, we have Council meetings in which congregants who are still on milk and bread, with maybe a little meat, who may not even attend worship regularly (Hebrews 10:25a), who may not even contribute time, talent and tithe to the church – these very ones are given earthly permission to have a say over spiritual matters. The denomination I serve is like many mainline denominations in that we have removed all Biblical authority from the elders and subsequently have weakened the church.
As this weakening has continued we find that the church has lost its ability to be relevant in today’s world. The people outside our churches have seen the church “fights” over power, control and selfishness that are common in the non-spiritual world. Many of us have heard of the horror stories people have experienced at the hands of unspiritual people claiming to be part of the body of Christ. But, we have created the problem on our own by giving not-yet-mature “children” the right to self-govern.
Through it all, our adversary has subtly worked among us leading us further and further away from God. He has brought us to a point where our churches are ineffective and seldom bring new life into the eternal Kingdom. Satan has even been able to develop spiritual strongholds in many of our churches and, if we seek to return the churches to the Biblical elder system of the past, we will find great struggle as congregants will not want to give up their perceived “rights” for the good of the body and for the salvation of souls.
In conclusion, we can clearly see that the call of elders belongs to God alone though it may be done through his spiritual leaders – other elders or bishops. Therefore, elders are never simple employees of any body; they are spiritual leaders called of God to partner with Him to enable churches and Christians become all He intends and to enable both to profoundly reach the lost for the Kingdom.
©2007 Mel Menker
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