We’ve taken time in recent posts to show that leadership is not about hierarchy, inner circles, power or control. Leaders are not to Lord it over the church, nor to rely on their position or charisma to push things through. Church leadership should not be authoritarian. Leaders and teachers are gifts to the church and so we should focus on being gifts rather than on status and titles (cf Ephesians 4:11).
However, we should not lose sight of the fact that the specific responsibilities involved in teaching and leadership mean that there are specific roles or offices in the church. The positions of elder and deacon exist. People are set apart and recognised in those positions. This means as well that whilst elders are not to be authoritarian, they are to exercise authority. They are to lead. I constantly come back to the point that an elder’s authority is a teaching authority. It is not authority based on their title or their charisma but an authority derived from their teaching of Scripture. Their responsibility as leaders in the church when making big strategic decisions is to apply God’s Word to those decisions and their responsibility when offering pastoral care is to apply God’s Word to the pastoral need. Because they are bringing God’s Word, they are to be listened to.
1 Peter 5:2-3 tells elders that they are to:
” Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. 3 Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example.”
Note that as well as telling them to lead, it tells them how to lead, other than by teaching, the primary way we lead is by setting an example for others to follow. Elders cannot cajole others into godly living but they can teach what it is from Scripture and model it in their own family life, work life, recreation, relationships, hospitality, giving etc.
In that context, Peter describes our required response to elders. Note, he talks here about “those who are younger” which, given the context of spiritual eldership, I take to mean younger in the faith rather than just in age. He says:
” In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders.” (v5a)
Literally, we are to submit to them. This is startling because in our society, we like to say that we submit to no-one. This is an expression of our freedom. Indeed, I have heard Christians talk about how they only submit to Christ and they say this in a way that suggests that this is the most spiritual thing they can do. This “submission to Christ” is contrasted with putting men on a pedestal, which is certainly a danger but note that the Biblical idea of submission is not that we idolise others or allow them to tyrannise us. Rather, it is a matter of respect, love, trust, a willingness to listen to and learn from and in so far as someone is bringing God’s word on the matter to obey God’s Word.
So, this is our first responsibility. I don’t take this to mean that we are to be passive. It’s not about unquestioning obedience but rather we are to responsibly discern and ensure that what our leaders say is a right application of God’s Word. I would also suggest that there is then a vital role for plural leadership here. If I think that there is a single leader of the church, then I submit to him and he submits to God. He becomes a kind of mediator between me and God and he risks being unchallengeable. So plural eldership means that elders submit to one another as elders so that there is mutual accountability.
Then the writer to the Hebrews introduces this second responsibility.
” Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow. That would certainly not be for your benefit.” (Hebrews 13:17)
Notice that we are meant to make their work a joy and not a burden. Elders and deacons should enjoy their work in the church. It is a great privilege to be able to serve in this way. Personally, I find the work of an elder enjoyable when I see people hearing and responding to God’s Word. It is wonderful when someone says “I was challenged by that” or “I was encouraged by that.” I find it enjoyable and encouraging when I see someone applying God’s Word to their life, when I see them growing in godliness, when I see them making hard choices and exercising faith. I take joy in seeing people stepping forward and using their gifts. I am filled with joy when I see members of the church showing deep love and concern for each other. Even in the sadness of suffering, there is a form of joy in seeing a believer persevere and to see them finish well, trusting in the Lord as he takes them home.
What is your relationship with the leaders in your church like?