In this post, I will review chapters 13-17 of The Deliberate Church. Those chapters, together with chapter 18 (which I will review in my next post) comprise the book's third section entitled "Gathering Elders."
Why a whole section on elders? Actually, the 2nd half of the book focuses on this issue, as the fourth section is entitled "When the Elders Gather." In other words, the subject of elders is obviously an important subject for the authors of this book. For though they admit that the biblical evidence on church structure is scant, it nevertheless is consistent that
New Testament churches are to be congregationally governed yet led by a plurality of elders who are released by servant deacons to devote themselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer. (page 131)
In chapter 13 the authors offer the biblical evidence for plural elder leadership in the church and also give six advantages of a plurality leadership in our congregations. My favorite observation here is the fact that plural leadership "indigenizes leadership." In other words, with a set of elders/pastors leading the church, the work of the church can continue in the absence of the paid pastor. Practically speaking this means that the non-staff elders need to outnumber the staff elders. But the point is that the church is led by people who are invested in that congregation and not by the hired professional whose stay is (on average) only 3-5 years.
Now how should a church go about securing elders? We might assume that the process would involve looking for men we think have the potential for eldership, training them for that role, and then installing them to the office. But in chapter 14 the authors contend that we should recognize elders before we train them for the office. In other words, it is wise for the church to acknowledge those men that are already exemplifying the character of an elder and doing the work of an elder even without holding the official title. Men such as this "do not view the office as something to train for and execute, but as a wise and godly way to live regardless of their official capacity" (p. 138).
Also in chapter 14 the authors give us the definition of an elder:
An elder is simply a man of exemplary, Christlike character who is able to lead God's people by teaching them God's Word in a way that profits them spiritually. (p. 140)
Given that definition, we should look for those who meet the qualifications in four main areas: 1) core theology, 2) doctrinal distinctives of the local congregation, 3) love for the congregation, 4) cultural distinctives of the local congregation.
Then, in chapter 15, the authors elaborate on guidelines for assessing potential elders. Here we find a critical observation. Because "churches rarely grow past the maturity of their leaders" (p. 143), we must move slowly and deliberately in our search for qualified elders. We will want to assess their character, both by the explicit biblical requirements as well as by biblical wisdom implied by other texts. In other words, we should not limit our assessment of character to the list of qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. We will also want to assess their ability "to explain the Scriptures accurately to other people in ways that profit them spiritually." An elder "should be known by others in the congregation as a man to whom people can go in order to have the Scriptures explained to them" (p. 145). Third, we will want to assess their fit, that is, their gifting and passion as well as their communication style in relation to the other elders. It is extremely important that the elder body be unified (they need to get along!) for the sake of the unity of the congregation. This area of how a potential elder "fits" with the rest of the elder council would be an easy assessment to overlook, which could prove devastating to the efectiveness of the entire council.
If character is not the only area we assess in choosing elders, why is is that character is the major focus of the explicit biblical requirements for elders? The reason, the authors suggest in chapter 16, is because the elders must be examples of godliness. Furthermore, they will hear stuff in elder meetings and know stuff about people in the congregation that only godly men should hear and know. So while we must not insist on perfection in a man's character, it is important that we see a high standard exhibited there before we allow a man to serve his church officially as an elder. That is not too much to ask for those who are to be models for the church to emulate.
In chapter 17 we find a 5-stage plan for moving to plural elder leadership in the church. This information is most helpful if one's church needs to transition from single-pastor leadership to plural elders. Begin with biblical exposition. Show them that the desire to move to plural elders is based on the biblical evidence and not your opinions regarding church government alone. Then the church will have biblical eyes for step two, recognizing those who are most qualified to serve in this office. Third, potential elders should be nominated, by the existing elders (the senior pastor in a single-pastor model) and not by the congregation at large, who may not be spiritually mature enough to make such choices. The fourth step is to elect the new elders, which is merely congregational affirmation of the nominations. Finally, elders should be publicaly installed, perhaps even by reciting vows, a sample of which can be found on pages 158-159.
One last thought that I found worthy of note. The authors contend that non-staff elders should be term-limited to create a rotation of elders on the elder council. Why? Two main reasons. First, it provides the opportunity for more leaders to be developed, and second because it helps prevent territorialism from arising within the council.