I pastor an independent, elder-led church. Most people have no quarrel with the first distinctive (many are weary of denominational strife), but the later one can cause bewilderment. Those with a Presbyterian heritage are nonplussed by this talk of elders but those of a congregational bent are sometimes bemused. What is an elder and where are the deacons? Who makes the big decisions and what role does the church member play?
An elder is a man who is selected from the body to govern the body. These are the leaders of the church, the counsel of men who make the big decisions that direct the church’s path. In biblical terminology, elders shepherd, oversee, lead, and care for the local church. While there are many scriptures detailing this responsibility, Peter offers us a succinct description, “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: shepherd 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; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:1–3, ESV)
But isn’t governance the responsibility of deacons? No. Deacons are servants, that’s the literal meaning of the word diakonos. Their task is to assist the elders in serving the practical needs of the body. This would include everything from benevolence, to hospitality, to maintenance. Some view this role as a formal designation that requires ordination while others view it as a descriptive term and not a required office. Nevertheless, those described as deacons are not presented as leaders. That is the role of the elders.
Who then elects the elders? Those from a congregational heritage sometimes assume that this is the God-given prerogative of the congregation. Elders should be elected through a democratic process. This was my heritage and my strongly held belief. Since we are all members of the priesthood of believers (1 Peter 2:5-9) we all qualify as candidates, and Acts 6 demonstrates that the election of the seven was a congregational duty. But both these texts refer to ministry/service roles. Neither of them speaks of leadership. In fact, Acts 6 explicitly distinguishes between the seven and those who lead. Nowhere in the Bible are the elders chosen by general ballot. Our insistence on voting has more to do with our national identity than it does with Scripture. This congregational conviction was one heritage I set-aside because it fails the test of the text.
Does this mean that voting in leaders is gravely wrong and somehow discredits a church? Not at all. I have served in churches that practice this model and enjoy the presence of God there. I don’t think this is a litmus test for being a true church. I do, however, think that the congregational model allows for unnecessary strife. The moment a vote is conducted, division occurs. The yay’s are in opposition to the nay’s and sometimes the division is acrimonious. In other words it gets public and ugly. Then there is incessant lobbying as members seek to further their agenda by padding their support base. The end result is that ‘we’ are arrayed against ‘them’ with sisters and brothers being caricatured as the enemy. This is a far cry from the unity demanded in the New Testament. The democratic process is an honorable way to lead a nation but a fallible way to govern a church.
Who then should make this momentous decision of recognizing someone as an elder? The simple answer is that it is left to those who have been tasked with governing the church—the elders. The elders ought to be a self-perpetuating body. Men who have proved themselves godly and steadfast are best suited to elect the men God has raised up to lead. Does this mean that the members have no say, no influence in the matters of governance? May it never be! Certainly they have a voice, and any elder body that refuses to listen immediately discredits itself, but having a voice and having a vote are two different things. Some see this reasoning as a means to hoard power, and in their defense, there are many examples of individuals who have abused authority. But just because it has been mishandled by some does not discredit authority. A church is not well served by diluting and diminishing good governance.
What role is there for the member? Already I have encouraged conversation, and I would reiterate this. The elders lead best when they are informed, so speak to them and share your perspective. But more than your voice, they need to hear God’s. As under-shepherds they long to know the will of the Good Shepherd. Pray for them. Pray that as God leads, they would follow. Pray that their families are protected from evil and that temptation does not best them. Pray that their faith-life remains vibrant and their wisdom deepens. Pray for them and in turn they will lead you well.
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things.” (Hebrews 13:17–18, ESV)