This is a TBI (The Bethlehem Institute) seminar on biblical eldership as part of the larger fulfillment of a course here called Issues in Spiritual Leadership that has two tracks to it. Track one is for lay folks who simply want a certificate that they took it, and we are really encouraging our men in Bethlehem to do this especially if they’re dreaming or moving towards eldership some day or some decade. Then, there’s track two for the few guys here that are taking this for seminary credit.
I want to begin by reading a verse from Acts Chapter 20. You all know that in Acts 20 Paul assembles the elders from Ephesus at Miletus and gives them one of these moving final sermons of his and says in Acts 20:28 something that I’d like to say and then pray with you for tonight. It says:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
So the church belongs to God. He obtained the church at the price of his own blood, and therefore the role of the elders to take heed to all the flock is made to have extraordinary significance because of how precious the church is to God.
Resources on Biblical Eldership
I think the first thing I’d like to do is just point you to some books. The text is this one by Alexander Strauch, and it’s called Biblical Eldership. There are some of these in the bookstore and I would send you around the corner there to get them if you want to buy them. Then, some that are not texts but that I have consulted over the years and have helped me. Hezekiah Harvey wrote a book called The Church. This is an old 19th Century baptist, Hezekiah Harvey. He also wrote one called The Pastor: His Qualifications and Duties. You all know this next one. It’s called The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter. It can’t get much more discouraging than that book, because it’s so good and the stakes are so high and the pattern that he sets for us is just so awesome. The story of his own life is so inimitable. He’s one of those Spurgeon-like people that when you read them you just feel like quitting, but that’s all right. Another one is The Ruling Elder by Samuel Miller, who has a Presbyterian background from the 18th and 19th centuries. Then, first book I read I think after I came to Bethlehem was Christian Ministry by Charles Bridges. I thought it was great. I still think it’s great.
Then there’s this one, which I’ve only dipped into — The Elders Handbook by Berghoef De Koster from the CRC (Christian Reformed Church of America). These are just some more books besides Strauch that you might be interested in consulting as you study these things.
Then, I’m assuming that a lot of you are in process about this. If you’re coming from other churches, it may be that you’re in flux as to how your church will be governed. I think I will talk to you about a little history of this at Bethlehem. Before I jump into this though, just let me see if there’s any questions about mechanics or logistics, anything like that? Okay, if there is, be sure to grab me.
Let me give some introductory words about the history of Bethlehem here and my tenure here. I grew up as a Southern Baptist in Greenville, South Carolina and never heard of elders. Had I heard about them, I’m sure I would have thought they were Presbyterian. Then, I went to seminary and I skipped all the polity courses because I thought I was going to be a teacher, which I was for about six years. I’m glad I did that frankly, because these things can be learned on the job probably just as effectively and as a seminarian there. You need to do exegesis and theology and church history, which you won’t do if you don’t do it there probably. You have to do this. Your church has to be run, and so you will get this done or you’ll lose your job.
You will figure out a way to lead the church, speaking of you, the pastor. I came here in 1980 and inherited a system of government which was deacon governed. There was a council of deacons, it was called, and there were 24 of them, and 11 standing committees. Every year there was a ballot and it was such that there had to be two choices for every office. We needed about 200 people on this ballot. Now, the church in those days when I first came had about 300 people. Now, this is the sort of thing you get into if you lock yourself into a rigid, structured constitution with many boards, many committees, and many offices. It’s a dreadful mistake. One of the mistakes is that you have to have losers.
You have to have half of the church be losers every time you have an election. If the church doesn’t have the size to warrant that many candidates, it is a prescription for carnal leadership. There are churches being governed by fleshly people with no spiritual life all over the country because of constitutions that mandate certain levels of leadership, and there aren’t the people to fill them. So it’s a popularity contest. The least unfit are called, and that’s not a way to call anybody into spiritual leadership at any level, whether it’s the committees or your more ruling type organizations. I didn’t touch this at all for five years or so. When I got to a text in my preaching, I simply would talk about the elders.
When the deacons were praying and we were talking about what our mission was, I would simply point out what I thought. They were men and they were mandated to be men, interestingly enough, but we’ll talk a little bit about that later. I said, “You know you are a hybrid. You are doing duties that belong to elders (1 Timothy 3:1–7) and you’re doing duties that belong to deacons (1 Timothy 3:7–13), so this is a hybrid board.” They began to adapt to that, that they were a hybrid. They thought, “That’s what we are.” Then, over the years we began to just feel a little bit uneasy with that, that probably there should be a clearer identity of who the governors of this church are, where is the authority vested, and how they relate to others.
A Collegiality of Comradery
What about all these committees? Is that a good thing? I forget what the year was, but sometime in the mid or late 1980s, I preached to a series of sermons on Acts 20 on the eldership, basically. And thus I laid before the whole church that maybe we should do some study here. Then, the deacons undertook about four years of work on this. To make a very, very long and arduous story short, we installed our first elders on June 2, 1992. If you’re in a church and you inherited a governance structure that you think may not be as biblical as you’d like it, it took me 12 years to see come to pass what I think is, at this church now, a very biblical structure.
Whether we carry it through as effectively as we should and whether we implement all that’s there in place, I’m very pleased with the constitution that now exists. There are no standing committees in this church anymore. There’s only one council of elders. It has a flexible size. Right now, there are 18 of us. All of the ordained pastors serve on the council of elders by definition. There have to be twice as many lay elders as vocational elders. That’s what we call them. That’s not in the Bible. We just thought that was prudence. Whenever you’re doing church government, it’ll always be a balancing out of what’s clear in the Bible, which is a very small amount, and what is seemingly the work of wisdom, given the culture and the kind of church that you have and where you are in history.
I’ve always been delighted with the leadership group of this church as a body of men. It has been the sweetest thing. The Lord has treated me with such unbelievable tenderness in these 18 and a half years or so now that I’ve been here. I have never had a council of elders that I felt was in an adversarial relation to me, or a council of deacons (which is more amazing), or trustees, or what we now call financial and property administrators. There has always been, in my 18 years here, a collegiality and camaraderie that is simply amazing, given the horror stories that I know happen in other churches. I think that’s partly owing to the Lord’s tenderness towards me in knowing what I can and cannot handle probably.
And it’s probably owing to 10,000 prayers for this church and a 126-year history of faithfulness to the word of God. Then, I think there are some other practical means that the Lord has used to preserve that kind of unity that we’ll talk about over these next hours.
Bearing Burdens to Free the Church
Since 1992, then, we’ve had a council of elders here and we don’t have a body of deacons. As deacons are needed for various things, they can be chosen. We don’t have any standing committees. The elders create whatever bodies seem to be helpful. They’ve created a children’s committee and they’ve created a missions committee, and they’ve created a building committee, and they’ve created a Desiring God board, they’ve created a TBI board, and they’ve created financial and property administrators, and they can abolish these tomorrow if they want to.
The elders govern the church by creating all these things, and they are totally flexible. It feels so good now to have the flexibility to respond to ministry. It’s one of the principles we’re going to get to in a minute. I shouldn’t jump ahead but I’ll say it here. I think when you have 11 standing committees the mindset that you create in the church is that ministry consists in serving on a board or a committee. That is deadly in a church. That is not ministry.
Those boards are humans who have to bear the gutsy stuff that nobody should want to do to free people to do the ministry. Ministry ought not to be thought of as board work. Ministry is in people’s homes. Ministry is at the hospitals. Ministry is on the streets. Ministry is where needs are. It’s not making decisions at a board level. That should be streamlined as fast as you can get it streamlined in order to maximize and mobilize people for mission and ministry all over the city, in the neighborhoods, and in the nations. Yet, all over the country, churches think ministry is, “Oh, well, I’d serve on that committee,” or, “I’ll serve on that board,” or, “I’ll serve on that.”
Everybody is sitting around going to board meetings all week long and what kind of ministry is that? That doesn’t get anybody saved and it doesn’t heal marriages. It doesn’t bring kids up in the Lord. Enough on our history, you can ask questions as we go along.
The Importance of the Church
Okay, the outline that you have there is what I’m going to try to follow now. I’m not sure how many of these we can get through tonight, but I was thinking maybe three of them. I’m going to reverse the order of the first two. I’m going to start with the importance, preciousness, and purpose of the church.
I just want to begin by making sure we feel the weightiness of what we’re about here and who we’re serving. You can’t talk about biblical eldership without laying the foundation of the church. What is the church? Why is the church? What’s the goal of the church? How precious is the church? I just want to highlight some of the names of the church and some of the ways the New Testament sees it so that you can feel the wonder of it. The church is called “the bride of Christ” of course:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body (Ephesians 5:25–30).
One picture that elders should have in their minds as they go about their work is, “I am serving the Bride of Christ. I am laboring to remove spots and wrinkles. I am laboring to enhance this glory, this splendor here.” Every time it seems to be small and low and nitty gritty, pause and close your eyes and pray, “Lord, remind me that this body of people I’m serving is more important than the US Navy, or the Pentagon, or the Senate, or the entire House of Representatives.” This is the Bride of Christ.
The Body of Christ
Another name is the body of Christ, universal and local. Colossians 1 says:
And he is the head of the body, the church (Colossians 1:18).
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church (Colossians 1:24).
The body of Christ is the church universal. It’s his own body, and it’s the church local as well. First Corinthians 12:21–22 says:
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable . . .
Then in 1 Corinthians 12:27, it says:
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
Now, what’s remarkable here in 1 Corinthians is that the head is not Christ here. The image is different. The head cannot say to the feet, I have no need of you. This is a member of the church. This is part of the analogy. Here, he’s thinking of the body differently than it was thought of when he wrote Colossians. Hre, he’s thinking of the local church as the local expression of that universal body. He’s thinking of every member as a part of that body relating properly so that none says, “I don’t need you.”
The church is the body of Christ, which is probably why Paul was spoken to by the risen Lord on the Damascus road with the words, “Why do you persecute me? Why do you persecute me? When you put my people in jail, you persecute me” (Acts 9:4).
The Household of God
Another name is the household and dwelling of God. Ephesians 2:19–22 says:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
Now, that is amazing. Is that not amazing? This household and this temple are being built, the people of God are being built into a temple or a dwelling of God. There is a way in which God inhabits the church that’s different from the way he inhabits a soul and the way he inhabits nature. His omnipresence is focused and active in a different way in the church than anywhere else. That’s why the expectations for the gathered church in worship and business can be so different.
When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan . . . (1 Corinthians 4:4–5).
Something different seems to be going on there than just somebody off on their own claiming to be filled with the Spirit and acting on behalf of God. A dwelling of God is what the elders serve.
The Pillar and Support of the Truth
And then another name is the pillar and bulwark of the truth, or the pillar and support of the truth. First Timothy 3:14–15 says:
I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.
That could be written as a banner over this meeting tonight and tomorrow. I teach, hopefully biblically, so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. That is an amazing calling. There is no other institution in society with this mission. It isn’t the university, it’s not Christian colleges and seminaries, it’s the church. The church is the pillar and support of the truth. That means if we do our job well the truth stands. If we do our job poorly, it can crumble. Generations will suffer if we don’t fulfill that mission.
Is that church there the universal church or the local church?
I think the answer would be it’s the universal church coming to expression in local expressions. In other words, if you say “universal church” and leave it out there unspecified in the air, it has no concrete place where anything happens. You have saints in heaven, you have saints yet unborn, you have saints scattered all over the world in various people. Where and how is truth being upheld? It’s when it becomes concrete in local expressions, I think, that this becomes a functional reality. But I wouldn’t want to make a hard and fast distinction here. That’s a high calling and it’s especially relevant for elders. Why?
It’s because, as we’re going to see, that elders are charged — and they’re the only people that are charged in the New Testament church — with teaching. Titus 1:9 says elders are those correct according to right doctrine. The elders are the guardians of right doctrine. Nobody else is called to do that in the church except the elders, according to Titus 1:9 and elsewhere.
The Goal of the Church
Now, why? Why the church? What’s the goal of the church? Because if you say what’s the goal of the eldership, the goal of the eldership would surely have something to do with the church becoming what it ought to be. And what is that? Here’s a few of the things that the New Testament says about the goal of the church. First Peter 2:9 says:
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
There’s the goal: “so that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Elders should do their work so as to enable that to happen. Go ahead.
What about Titus 2:3 where older women teach what is good?
I think probably then I did overstate the case in saying that, how did I say it? I think I said that the only people charged to be guardians of true doctrine are the elders. You’re pointing out that there are others for sure who are responsible in all of their teaching, like the older women in relation to the younger to get it right. Okay, thank you. That’s very helpful. That was an overstatement. When we get to those texts that I was referring to, like Titus 1:9 and being “apt to teach” in 1 Timothy 3:2, we’ll try to decide, do the elders have a unique role in equipping people like that, so that there’s a ripple effect or a trickle down effect in the church?
But absolutely, everybody in the church who is a small group leader, or a Sunday school teacher, or an adult Sunday school class leader, if you’re not an elder, surely you are responsible to help be a part of the upholding of the truth and being part of that bulwark. Good. Keep me careful here. When we do our work right this is going to happen, Lord willing. The church is going to shine and declare and proclaim the excellencies of the one who called the people out of darkness.
Displaying God’s Manifold Wisdom
Or, as another text says:
This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Ephesians 3:6–10).
That’s one of the most breathtaking statements about why the church exists that I know of. Whether this is demons — “rulers and authorities”, “principalities and powers” — or whether it is angels or both, it is big. God has designed the church and is guiding and equipping and supplying in the world so that as angels look on and as the devil looks on, and the manifold wisdom of God will be seen and praised and known, or at least recognized if he has evil spirits in mind here.
I remember when I first came here, I preached a sermon called “The Cosmic Church”. In those days we were carrying an ad in the newspaper, and I put “The Cosmic Church” in the newspaper. Boy, did I get scolded for that, because it sounded so new-agey. That was almost on the front end of the new age back in the early 1980s. But I said, “Well, what I mean is this . . .” Then, I preached the sermon from this text.
Displaying Christ’s Authority
Here is one last observation of why the church. And here, you can see how the church as well — namely, to show the authority and power of Christ.
I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18)
Jesus says, “I will build my church.” When the church flourishes, it’s the work of Christ that’s flourishing through whatever leadership structures are in place. With regard to Peter here and the rock, I don’t want to go into a lot of detail. My interpretation of that is that Peter represents the apostles, and Ephesians 2:20 says that the church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Inasmuch as Peter is the spokesman for the apostolic authority and the apostolic authority is spoken through the apostles and then codified in the New Testament, we are on that rock of apostolic authority.
I don’t think the rock here refers to Jesus. I think it is a play on the word petros and rock. I think Peter here stands for the apostles. I don’t find in the New Testament a warrant either for the monarchical bishop — though there may be episcopalians among us who would differ with that — or the ongoing papal authority of the Catholic Church. I was talking to a Catholic Wednesday night about that and sharing texts back and forth to each other.
Words for the Church
Are there any questions on those few passages, just to highlight the importance and the preciousness and the purpose of the church? Okay, let’s talk about this word church a little bit. Where does it come from and what does it refer to? Besides the general statements we’ve seen. What does the word church refer to in the New Testament? The word church comes from the Anglo-Saxon circe, or kerk, which in turn comes from the Greek kyrikon, which means “belonging to the Lord” or “the Lord’s”, like the Lord’s Day. We are the Lord’s. One could think of church, this Anglo-Saxon word based on the Greek word “the Lord’s”, as the people or the building belonging to the Lord.
But we shouldn’t think of it as the building because in the English New Testament the word church translates the Greek ekklesia, which never refers to a building but always to an assembly or a congregation. It’s the called out ones coming from the words ek (out) and klesia from the word “caller” or “call”, and it never refers to a building. Therefore, the church is the people who belong to the Lord Jesus — the called out ones would be one way to say it. One even wonders if you should have the English word church. Is it a helpful word? Well, that’s a battle none of us ought to spend any time fighting. It’s a given and the church is the church and we should just, wherever we are, try to fill it up with as much New Testament meaning as we can.
Just let me show you the uses of the actual word church. This is a little bit of overlap from what we’ve seen but not much. There’s the universal church of all believers like in Ephesians 1:22, which says:
And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church . . .
There’s the word church used for the entire assembly of believers everywhere. Then, it’s used for all the believers in an area. For example, Acts 9:31 says:
The church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.
It’s the church throughout all Judea and Galilee — the church, not just churches but the church. Then it’s used for all the believers in the city. Acts 8:1 says:
There arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem . . .
Then, it’s used for the believers gathered in household congregations in the New Testament. First Corinthians 16:19 says:
Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord.
Expressions of the Church
Back to Phil’s question here. When you read church in the New Testament, you must simply attend to the context to see, is there a local expression of it in view or a district expression of it in view or area wide or a citywide or a universal-wide expression of the church? The people of the Lord, the ekklesia, the called out ones, the assembly is conceived of at these different levels. I would be hard pressed to say that there is an official expression at each of those levels, as if there should be an official Church of Minneapolis.
I’ve related to a lot of guys in this city and some of you may be there who think there should be an eldership of Minneapolis. Who are the elders in the Christian Church of Minneapolis? This is the teaching of Watchman Nee and others, that every city should have a body of Christ, and you could make a case for that in the New Testament. There was a body of Christ in Corinth and a body of Christ in Athens and a body of Christ in Tesalonica, and then you’d have the elders.
But to me, there’s not enough to mandate that possibly. Maybe there should be some Minneapolis expression like that, maybe, but I couldn’t get dogmatic about that, I don’t think. In fact, what you’ll find, I hope anyway, is that on some of these ecclesiastical governance issues, I don’t want to be very dogmatic, period, because some of the things I’m going to be defending, as far as structures go, are I don’t think as iron-clad as some other doctrines are, which is probably why there is the Episcopal structure and the Presbyterian structure and the Baptistic structure. Those are the three big structures that we all learn about if we were studying these things in history.
Now, this is a thicker pile and this is point number three on your outline. Any observation or question you want to raise right there about the use of the word church in the New Testament?
Are there any other names for the church that refer especially to the individual members of the Trinity?
Well, there are about I think 200 different names of the church in the New Testament. I’ve left out about 192. I didn’t even think of those in trinitarian terms. But the household of God is the Father. I wasn’t trying to think that I needed to make sure I found some names of the church relating to Christ, some relating to the Spirit, and some relating to Father. But you certainly could do that. We could do that.
Biblical Church Governance
Now, let me tell you what you’re looking at here. We produced a document in the late 1980s through many long months and years of study. This is an excerpt, plus a lot of changes that I made in it today in which we tried to come up with principles that would guide our study, goals that would guide our study, as we were thinking through biblical church governance.
There are 11 of these principles, I believe, of biblical local church governance, and they provide a backdrop against which we will look more carefully at the eldership. These are very historically significant for me and for us here at Bethlehem. These are biblical principles of local church governance.
1. The Church is Governed by Christ
I have a principle and then I have it followed by texts to try to support it. Number one: the local church is governed by Christ. Matthew 16:18 says:
I will build my church . . .
This governance was mediated through the authority of the apostles and their close associates. I’ll come back to these texts. Today, Christ still rules through the words of his apostles as they are preserved for us in the inspired writings of the New Testament. Therefore, every effort will be made to conform the structure and procedures and spirit of church governance as closely as possible to New Testament guidelines, with a constant eye to promoting the glory of God and the advancement of faith.
Now, before we look at the text, let me just resay that in my own words and apply it to our church. Christ is the head of Bethlehem Baptist Church, the local expression of the universal body alongside millions of other local expressions. He rules over this church, not by some esoteric, magical, secretive words spoken to elders, but through his apostles who now are all dead. We don’t have apostles here. I have good friends who lead denominations who do have apostles. It’s because they define them differently than this, but we don’t have that office here.
The apostles are the Book. The New Testament here is the written expression of the word of Christ and the charter of the church and the rule over the church. The elders then are responsible to be apt to teach and to correct people with good doctrine by knowing this Book and effectively applying it to their people so that Christ mediates his authority and his power and his teaching and his love through his word and the apostles teaching of it and the elder’s understanding of it preached and taught through that.
Now, of course, I’m going to talk about these later principles. It’s going to be the priesthood of the believers. But I wanted to lay that down first as Christ being the teacher and the leader and the governor of his church. Again, Matthew 16:18 says, “I will build my church.” Ephesians 2:20 says the church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.”
Now, there are all kinds of disagreements as to just what “prophets” refers to, whether there was another office there of prophets or whether there were just charismatic prophets here and there, or whether this means apostles and prophets, meaning apostles who are prophets, which is the position of Wayne Grudem. I’m inclined to think that may well be what it means. But I don’t think we need to settle that one tonight either. The apostles and their authority, however it was shared by prophets, or whether they are the prophets here, is the foundation of the church.
Now, I mentioned inspired writings. Here’s one of the texts I would go to to defend that. First Corinthians 2:12–13 says:
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
There is one kind of claim in Paul’s writings for his own inspiration that he doesn’t teach in words taught by human wisdom. We could add here 2 Peter 3:15–16, where Peter says there are some things in Paul that are hard to understand and men twist them to their own destruction as they do the other Scriptures. Peter already was aligning Paul’s writings with Scripture. Paul’s writings being inspired are among the apostolic writings that govern the church.
Here are some texts that show the kind of authoritative function the apostles had in the church, which they still have through the writings of the New Testament. He says in 1 Corinthians 7:17:
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.
Or it could be, “This is my dictate (my diatassomai, ordering).” This is the way he orders the life of the churches. Paul claims amazing authority. None of us should talk this way, but the apostles can talk this way. Here’s a couple of more illustrations. First Corinthians 14:37–38 says:
If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.
Paul at least had a self-consciousness about being the Lord’s authoritative spokesman as an apostle (which he was) so that he could write in a way that was virtually the Lord’s commandment. Anybody who didn’t recognize it, he could say, “You’re not recognized.” Second Thessalonians 3:14 says:
If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.
In at least those three texts where the apostle Paul says, “I stand as an emissary of the risen Christ called out by him and taught, not in words of human wisdom, but in words taught by the Spirit, and therefore, what I say holds sway in the church as the governing word.” Now, we don’t have Paul around to talk like that anymore. We only have what he wrote. Therefore, faithful elders will do their best to mediate that through being apt to teach to their congregations. Thankfully, the congregations have Bibles in their own laps at home where they can get it from the apostles as well.
An Eye to the Glory of God
I said at the end of that principle that we have an eye to the glory of God in all of this. I base that on 1 Corinthians 10:31, which says, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do” — including all your eldership, and all your church governance, and all your constitutional design — “do all to the glory of God.” Our mission statement here at Bethlehem is that we exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.
If you said, “Why are you doing this seminar?” I would say, “I’m doing this seminar to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples,” because I think that if we get the eldership right, if we get governance right, if we get the Spirit right, if we get the word right, then God’s glory and God’s supremacy will be wonderfully and passionately honored more than if we don’t get it right.
The joy of faith is the goal too. Paul says:
Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith (Philippians 1:25).
The King James says “the advancement and joy of your faith.” Paul wrote what he wrote, said what he said, structured the churches the way he structured them, appointing elders in every church, for the joy of your faith. The elders exist for the joy of the church. They should never forget that. If there’s an unhappy church, something is wrong with the elders. Something is wrong at the heart of the church. If it’s not pumping joy out of the elders, something is wrong and needs to be adjusted because that’s the goal of the apostolic ministry.
That’s principle number one. Christ governs his church through the apostles whose writings are now in the New Testament and are taught by faithful elders.
2. Ministry Is For the Members
Principle number two: the ministry of the church is primarily the work of the members in the activity of worship toward God, nurture towards each other, and witness toward the world. Internal structures for church governance are not the main ministry of the church, but the necessary equipping and mobilizing of the saints for the work of the ministry. Oh that every one of our churches would get this mindset, the ministry mindset that every saint is called to minister. The pastors, the elders, exist to inspire them and equip them and encourage them and strengthen them.
Yes, there has to be the whole hospital dimension of the wartime mentality. You have to have a good field hospital if you’re going to do battle. Otherwise, the morale problem of the frontline troops that are being chewed up day after day is going to be very bad. It’s a multi-layered vision of mobilizing ministry. But oh that our pastors and elders might think, mobilize, mobilize, mobilize the people for the city and the nations and the neighborhoods, not just, “Let’s have committees and meetings that are nice.” Here is a text that supports that. This is Ephesians 4:11–12:
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ . . .
You have this group here and then you have the equipping of the saints — that’s everybody, that’s not a select group — for the work of ministry (diakonia), to the building up of the body of Christ. Then, when the body of Christ is built up, it’s effective in the world. Holler at me and wave at me if you want to stop on any of these.
Are there distinctions between pastors and teachers?
No, there are not. The reason you can tell that is because you don’t have this little word as. There’s a grouping here. You have “some as apostles” and “some as prophets” and “some as evangelists” and then you have “some as between pastors and teachers”. Those two are taken as a group. I think it means pastors/teachers, and we’ll see why. I’m going to argue that pastor, elder, overseer, and bishop are all synonymous in the New Testament, and they must be apt to teach. That is their main task, governing and teaching, which is what we’ll see later.
3. Governance Structures Should Be Lean
These governance structures should be lean and efficient to this end of equipping and mobilizing. Governance structures should be lean and efficient to this end. We shouldn’t be aiming to include as many people as possible in office holding, but to free and fit as many people as possible for ministry. I don’t have a text for this. I just say it’s implied. You have to remember the history of these points.
These were written before we had our new constitution. These were written as I was trying to work with 24 deacons as to how to rethink governance at Bethlehem. We developed these principles not as conclusions, but as guidelines for how to get to where we presently are, and how to correct where we presently are if we happen to not have it right. That’s where these came from. We started by saying, “It seems to us that if this is true, then this would be true.”
As you were going through that process, how quickly were those 24 deacons turning over in leadership?
Good question. Let’s see if I can remember that. I think they could do two successive three-year terms, if I’m not mistaken. Any history buffs here that remember back in the dark ages? That’s what we have now with our elders. They have to be off a year, then they can come back on for two successive, three-year terms, reappointed by the church. They could be there for six years and most of them would’ve been there for six years.
Do you find, just in terms of governance regarding elders, how much difficulty is created by the gap between those who are just coming on and not up to speed yet?
It would be terrible if it were huge. You have to stagger it out so you don’t have everybody going off at once, and you need to bring your best ones back on quickly. By best, I mean those who are called and gifted. See, I believe in the church our mindset shouldn’t be that we have to pass this around so as many people can be an elder as possible. That mindset is just crazy. It would be like saying, “John Piper, you get to preach one Sunday out of the year. We need 51 other guys to preach, because we just need to pass it around.” Well, I think I’m called and gifted to preach, and as long as the church believes that, they’ll keep saying, “Okay, that’s your job, that’s your elder job mainly. There are other things too.”
Then, there are other jobs and guys are good at them. They’re just tailor made for them. You have to balance that with the reality that you don’t want to institutionalize a man in a role that then he might become unfit for and you can’t ever get him out of it, but you need to have solidity in the long term. For example, we will lay off, I think, three or four of our 18 at the end of this year. We have brought back two this year that we laid off last year when they took a year off. The gap feels right now like we will be having new blood over the years, but it won’t be such that nobody remembers how this thing is done or what the ethos is. If you stay in a place long enough, the pastor stays long enough and builds leadership long enough, it spreads.
I’m sure, as I look out in this group, there will be many men in this room right here who know the vision of this church, know the heartbeat of this church, and they’re not on the council. If they came on, it would hardly take them anytime to get up to speed because they’ve been around long enough to breathe it.
Then why have term limits?
Okay, now that’s an interesting question. The question is why have term limits? Do they become a substitute for honest accountability? Sort of. Here’s what I mean when I say sort of. Suppose a man who is loved by everybody in the church and serves as a deacon for many decades is becoming a little bit senile. He’s saying off-the-wall things at the meeting. He still is a precious man and loves God, but he’s not handling the Scriptures so well anymore. His comments just seem to be from left field. How do you not hurt a man like that and a huge network of people that he has that love him and yet move him out? Because he has to get out. He’s making the business hard and it’s not helpful, and you’re appealing for honest accountability.
Should we go to him and talk to him? Yes, amen. I want to be candid. I believe in candor and honesty and getting in people’s faces and telling them like it is, but in reality there need to be gentle ways of doing some of that. Now, really honestly, that’s in my mind for why we need to have an easy way every six years to not bring somebody back on. It’s easier not to bring somebody back on than it is to fire somebody in the middle of their life and their devotion to the eldership. But I feel the sting of what you’re saying, that if we just talk about people behind their backs and you have a problem with an elder and you don’t deal with him, you don’t go face to face with him, that’s terrible. You’re going to lose your whole comradery if you do your business that way.
Those guys who are in this room right now know that’s not the way we do it here. When we have tensions on our council, a lot of lunch meetings happen within two weeks to go face to face with those problems, and they’re dealt with right up front.
There’s another reason for it too, and that is that men need sabbaticals. We even call it that. After six years, take a year off, breathe deep, get a perspective of this church from outside the council. If you’re called and you’re gifted, you’ll be back here within a year or two and you’ll come with something fresh. I think there probably are reasons to warrant it. The fact that it’s two three-year terms, there’s nothing biblical about that. Believe me, you are free to do it however you want. You could have four-year terms with no repetitions. Go ahead.
It sounded early on like you were saying that after two three-year terms there’s a one-year break, and then after another two three-year terms he is off forever. Is that right?
No, let me explain again, just to clarify what we do here. Right now, with the council of elders, an elder is affirmed by the church for a three-year term. He comes up for reaffirmation at the end of that term and can serve another one without taking any time off. That’s almost a given. Unless he’s committed adultery or had done something really wacko in his doctrine. If he is gifted and a contributing member and is not exhausted at the end of three years, the church in all likelihood will say, “Bless you. Keep on serving.” At the end of that three-year term, automatically, he has at least a year off. Then he can be nominated again, reaffirmed by the church, and come back on.
What does a small church do, maybe with two or three elders?
The question is what does a small church do? They don’t have the luxury of this kind of rollover. Well, the ones that I am aware of don’t insist on it. In other words, you need multiple elders. I believe that the New Testament teaching is not that there’s just one elder, but that there should be several in every church. I would say think through something that works for the local, small 50-person church, or whatever. I don’t have a prescription. Don’t take ours. Don’t assume this is the way to do it. There are some biblical core values here, but those are not biblical with regard to the three years, a year off, two terms, and so on. That’s just pure human wisdom through much prayer and fasting and study and thinking and our tradition and our history, and all that. You could do it in a very different way than that.
Are there term limits for vocational elders?
There are no term limits for vocational elders. Those of us who are ordained do not have to take a year off. That’s one of the burdens or perks of being ordained, depending on how you look at it.
But you have the periodic reaffirmation?
We do have to be reaffirmed. Fifteen percent of the people in this church could call my job into question every three years. That’s another thing I didn’t mention. We ask for an 85 percent reaffirmation vote. Now, that doesn’t mean that 84 percent would unseat an elder. It means we’d go back to the drawing boards and say, “Whoa, if 15 percent of the people in this church find a problem with this man, we need to find out why.”
Now, we might override that and put him back and say whatever the actual demand is in the constitution for what he gets, but it has not happened yet, but it could. We want our people to really be excited about their leaders, because if they’re not, we’re not going anywhere as a church.
4. All Christians Are on Level Ground
Principle number four: Christ is the head of the church and, spiritually, all his disciples are on a level ground before him, each having direct access to him and responsibility to intercede for the good of all as a community of priests — men, women, old, and young. All believers are priests. Sometimes this will be played off against elders or leaders, but let’s see if that’s a New Testament thing to do. Let me just give you the texts here that cause me to see this the way I’ve said it. Ephesians 4:15 says:
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,
That is, we are all to grow up into Christ. All the members are growing up into Christ. Matthew 23:8 is a very famous Baptist text. It says:
But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.
Let me just give you a little anecdote here. When I came to this church, I don’t know what it is with churches today, but churches like to have doctors for pastors. This is why you create the Doctor of Ministry degree. Well, when I came to this church they repainted the sign out front: Doctor John Piper. I made them redo it immediately. I said, “Get that doctor off of there and put pastor.” It’s not because I’m so literal that I get in everybody’s face who calls me Dr. Piper, but because there’s something meant here and I just want to be careful.
It says, “Do not be called rabbi or teacher (doctor, maybe) for one is your teacher, and you are all brothers.” Then he continues:
And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven (Matthew 23:9).
See? You could overdo that, couldn’t you? As if my son shouldn’t call me father. That’s clearly not, I don’t think, what it means. This is a warning not to overdo leadership and miss the priesthood of the believers. This is a warning text, a balancing text against all these texts we’re going to be looking at tonight that endorse and describe leadership.