When Elders Disagree

A Pathway for Pastoral Conflicts

How should fellow elders of the same church navigate dissent, discord, and differences? In the early church, an argument arose between Barnabas and Paul that created tension, strife, and controversy (Acts 15:39). Barnabas was eager to reintegrate John Mark as a traveling companion, yet Paul wanted to move on without him, judging him to be unreliable (Acts 15:38). This “sharp disagreement” resulted in one of the most prominent divisions in the life of the early church.

On our own elder teams, the number of issues we can disagree over is legion. Should we observe the Lord’s Supper every week or just once a month? Do we serve wine or grape juice or offer both? If Baptist, do we admit into membership those baptized as infants? Do we hold one Sunday worship service or go to multiple services (or even multiple campuses)? Should we use a team-preaching model or have one main preacher? What’s the ideal age to allow the baptism of believing children? Do we employ one musical style or have a traditional and contemporary service? How long should services run? Do we discipline this recalcitrant member? Do we send this dear family to serve overseas? And on and on.

When instincts differ among elders on the same team, what can we do? How can we preserve plurality, honor divergent views, and shepherd in harmony with fellow elders?

Foundations for Disagreement

We might start with some foundations that can keep disagreements from becoming destructive — and that can also prevent some disagreements altogether.

First, start by cultivating a spirit of genuine trust outside the moment of disagreement. Create space to get to know one another, to spend time together, to grow in gratitude for each other, and to laugh and play together. Learn about one another. Be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of fellow elders. Gain a deep appreciation of their spiritual gifts and what they contribute to the team. Then give each other permission to speak your minds without repercussion. Seek to cultivate healthy conflict by the kind of open disagreement that neither maligns another’s character nor calls into question his loyalty. Give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Second, develop a robust affirmation of faith for elder candidates. Don’t leave core doctrines up for grabs. Unity on the church’s central beliefs and theology is essential for an elder team’s health. The more robust a statement of faith, the more unity your elder team will have as a foundation beneath your disagreements. This unity will cultivate shared instincts on church life, shepherding, philosophy of ministry, and the mission of the church. If 97 percent of your doctrines, beliefs, and practices are settled, it’s much easier to wrestle together over the remaining 3 percent where differences emerge.

“Start by cultivating a culture of genuine trust outside the moment of disagreement.”

Third, seek to understand one another’s perspectives and experiences. An elder’s history, spouse, friends, background, and education shape his views. What shapes your concerns, conclusions, or inclinations? We all come with different presuppositions, experiences, and ideas. Get them on the table, and be aware of others’ typical blind spots as well as your own. A plurality of elders provides insight, accountability, and protection from going astray.

Moving Through Disagreement

Once the foundation is laid, how does an elder team go from disagreement to moving forward? Here are four questions to ask when wrestling with a particular issue.

1. What does the Bible say?

An elder team should be eager to study the Scriptures together to understand what the Bible says about this issue. This study may not solve our disagreement, but it’s the starting place to bring our ideas in conformity with God’s word. The God-breathed Scriptures are for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, equipping us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16–17). Read the relevant passages, wrestle with commentaries and church history, and consider your church’s historical position on this issue. Determine the possible ways forward in light of Scripture’s teaching. Fight to maintain fidelity to Scripture as a team.

2. How clear is this issue?

Often, controversial issues are evolving and unclear. Should we shut down the church in a global pandemic (especially when every major sports team is shuttering its operations until further notice)? Should we reopen against the government’s orders? Should we sue the government? Should we abide by the current regulations put in place?

The less clear the issue, the more grace and patience we should extend to fellow elders. Test everything and hold fast to what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21). In addition to the biblical principles at work, we might consider whether we are being shaped by society, by fear, or by the desire to be winsome or respectable to secular powers. Are we seeking to serve our people and be faithful to our mission?

The clearer the issue, the more confidently we can move forward. The less clear, the more grace and patience we extend to one another.

3. How urgent is this issue?

If a certain issue has an immediate impact on our team, our church, or our people, we need to wrestle it to the ground sooner rather than later. But if this is a hypothetical or philosophical debate, it may be a low priority for the team. Understanding the level of urgency (or lack thereof) can act as a pressure-release valve.

“The less clear the issue, the more grace and patience we should extend to fellow elders.”

If it’s not urgent and doesn’t affect our people, we can safely postpone our discussion to a later date (and it may have resolved itself by then). In other cases, if it is urgent, the team needs to gather to pray, study, and ask our Lord how to best shepherd his flock in light of the latest developments. Be ready in season and out of season to wield the word for the good of God’s people (2 Timothy 4:1–2).

4. How does this issue impact our people?

This question is related to the previous one on urgency. If the issue has a significant impact on our people, then it needs to be addressed at some point. Yet if the issue is largely confined to the debate stage of social media, then it may have little relevance to the vast majority of our people. Public disputes will come and go, and not every controversy should be commented on by the elders. Keep your eyes on the main things. Remind your people that the grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of the Lord stands forever (Isaiah 40:8).

Where We Land

As disagreements arise, have a destination in mind. Anticipate where the conversations and study may go. Count the cost before you begin, and pray for God’s help as you progress toward an outcome. Here are a few possible landing spots for a team of elders as they wrestle an issue to the ground.


The best possibility, of course, is that the elders end in agreement. After a season of study, wrestling, discussion, and charitable engagement with different views, the team finds itself united with a common perspective. Praise the Lord! This is a good and gracious outcome as a result of trusting God, wrestling with his word, and engaging in the process.

Agree to Disagree

A second possibility is that the team agrees to disagree. We now understand the different views and perspectives. Everyone feels heard and understood. We have studied the biblical and practical rationale for each of the views. Each side has been treated fairly. Yet we remain unconvinced and need to agree to disagree. In most cases, disagreement doesn’t prevent continued partnership — only in rare cases will an elder need to resign as a matter of conscience. Usually, when godly men agree to disagree, both groups are glad to continue serving together in shepherding the flock of God.

Tabled for Later

A third possibility is that the team tables further discussion. Having only scratched the surface, the elders begin to see the difficulty of gaining shared understanding; the topic remains cloudy and unclear. The complexity of the issue may merit an extended season of study. If the issue is not urgent and affects the church only peripherally, table it for the future. Pick a book to read together over the next year or so. Consider inviting an expert in the field to present on the topic. Some questions just don’t need to be nailed down right away. As elders, continue to preach the word, shepherd the flock, and feed the sheep.

God’s Gift of Plurality

Throughout the whole process, seek to extend grace to the fellow elders that God has designed to lead his church. A plurality of elders is a precious gift of God. Where one elder might be quick, bold, or decisive, others balance him out with gentleness, discernment, thoughtfulness, and pastoral care. And where some elders may be eager to please with great compassion, their fellow elders can encourage them to not neglect biblical principles and to lead with candor and clarity.

Christ has given his church elders for its good. Elders model unity, healthy disagreement, and labor under the lordship of Jesus. Remember that your fellow elders are given to you and the church for its upbuilding. We need every member, including every elder. As 1 Corinthians 12:7 reminds us, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

Don’t forget the wisdom and gifts your people can provide as well. In God’s infinite wisdom, he gave the church leaders, shepherds, and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the upbuilding of the church, Christ’s bride, so that we would be unified in faith and filled with the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:11–13).