Category: Church Officers


As some readers know, I have been involved in a lengthy dispute with a couple of officers from my former church. One minor aspect of this ongoing event has to do with some property these men have in their possession, which belongs to me. These items are not particularly valuable, but do have significance to me for other reasons. For months, I thought I had lost one of these items, but it turns out that it was found at our former church location. Rather than return it to me–and ownership was clearly observable on the item–the one who found my property gave it to the officers with whom I have been having such trouble. When I found out that my property had been found, I requested that it be returned; I made this request four times. The first three requests were simply ignored. The fourth request did bring a response from the officers. They claim that my property was “abandoned” by me and, therefore, they have no obligation to return it. Is this the most ridiculous reasoning you’ve ever heard or what? They have my property and I know they have it and I asked for it to be returned. Simple, right? Not to men who are determined to make your life miserable. They have latched on to anything that might be used to cause me frustration. This incident is a case in point. I believe this is nothing less than theft. I did not abandon my property; I lost it. Now that I know it has been found, I have asked that it be given back to me. Shouldn’t Christian men–officers in a church, in fact–be above such petty behavior? Is this kind of conduct pleasing in the sight of God? Is this how the Savior wants His people to treat one another? I find this behavior nothing less than shameful.

Advertisements

On occasion, I have come into contact with congregations in which the majority of members see themselves as theologically superior. In such churches, it is generally believed that they have reached a level of maturity in which their understanding and practice of the Christian faith is more advanced than what is commonly found in modern evangelicalism. And, more often than not, these people are correct—they are well-grounded in theology, in terms of knowing what the Bible teaches. The problem, however, is that this type of congregation can become elitist, almost by necessity (in any association of people, elitism perpetuates itself).

Inevitably, there is a standard by which individuals and families are measured within such a group. While professing to be guided by Scripture in terms of association and fellowship, the people within this congregation will, in reality, follow a list of “checkpoints” they have composed as they encounter others. This assessment helps them determine the compatibility between new arrivals and the existing membership. This is regarded as an expression of wisdom. But, again, there is a big problem. Attempting to determine compatibility in order to decide to what degree, if any, you will welcome someone into your fellowship is clearly contrary to the teaching of Scripture. The Church of Christ is intended for all who follow the Savior (cf. Rev. 5:9). Setting up some kind of “entrance exam” obscures this truth.

In addition to the Bible’s prerequisite for membership status in the visible church, which is a credible profession of faith, an elitist congregation will expect (or even demand) conformity to a number of secondary practices, convictions, and regulations. And it will be maintained with enthusiasm that these secondary issues are, in fact, matters of obeying God.

Appropriate household management, for example, is one of the most prevalent subjects stressed in an exclusivist congregation. You are likely to find dogmatic assertions regarding dress, entertainment, employment, education, hobbies, and even food. The Bible speaks to all of these issues, of course, but in the congregation I am describing, these assertions go well beyond Scripture and, as I just noted, matters in which God has given us liberty become matters of obeying or disobeying the Word. Consequently, they are also means of determining if you “belong.”

I will conclude with a fundamental question: Can the gospel function as intended in an environment of elitism? No, the gospel may be present—in the sense that some are truly born again—but, as it is taught in Scripture, the gospel cannot function as designed in such an atmosphere. There are at least three reasons for this. First, the gospel is relevant to people where they are, so to speak. The gospel is for sinners—all kinds of sinners at all stages of sin. The gospel does not require a certain level of understanding or conformity before it can deliver a sinner from the domain of darkness (cf. Col. 1:13). Spiritual elitism, as explained above, does not accommodate a person wherever they happen to be in terms of knowledge or maturity.

Second, and related to what I just said, the gospel makes no distinctions between sinners; it is a message to be broadcast to all people in all nations and at all times (cf. Matt. 28:18-20). A congregation characterized by religious exclusivity, however, must, by necessity, create distinctions between one sinner and another. The system by which new arrivals are “screened” and by which existing members are judged is grounded in elitist presuppositions. Therefore, some will be welcomed into the group and embraced, but others will not. Rejection of some will occur because they appear not to be convinced of the extent of rigidness associated with the congregation as a whole in matters neither commanded nor condemned in Scripture.

Third, once believed and flourishing in the heart of a sinner, the gospel produces humility. This comes from the recognition of our lowly estate, our offensiveness in the eyes of a holy God, our inability and unwillingness to seek after God in our fallen condition, and His marvelous grace by which we are saved in spite of our status. Spiritual elitism, by contrast, smothers humility while encouraging pride. This is a simple matter of understanding how the flesh reacts when we believe that we have achieved a level of maturity that is not common to all who profess to be Christians. Any commendation of the flesh results in the cultivation of pride, which is always lurking just under the surface, so to speak.

The “cure” for spiritual elitism is, of course, the same gospel it obstructs. A strong and enduring grasp of the gospel—its nature, power, and purpose—will prevent the development of an elitist perspective in us. And, by way of implication, if the members of any fellowship or congregation know the character of the gospel well, the prideful appraisal of one another will have no ground in which to thrive. 

Every person needs accountability. Regardless of age, experience, or other factors, and because we are fallen creatures, we must be made accountable to help us deal with the sinful impulses that continue to trouble us even after our conversions. The concept of accountability originated with God Himself. The fact that we are created beings necessarily implies that we are subject to our Creator’s authority. In His wisdom, God has established various levels of accountability so that we are never left without this much-needed benefit.

As children, we are answerable to our parents. As adults, we are accountable to a number of sources. For example, as an adult, I must answer to civil authorities for my conduct as a citizen in this society. I am also accountable to Church authority primarily for spiritual oversight. Even if we should manage to remove ourselves from liability to any civil or ecclesiastical institution, we are still ultimately and inescapably accountable to God.

In this post, I want to comment on one particular aspect of accountability, which is the situation you face when you are accused of wrong-doing and the matter automatically becomes the concern of those to whom you are accountable. For instance, as a teaching elder (minister) in a Presbyterian denomination, I labor in the local church, but my membership, and therefore my accountability, rests with the Presbytery. Consequently, in our system of government, when allegations are made against a minister (by fellow officers or church members, for example), his Presbytery is responsible for investigating the matter and rendering judgment. In order for this arrangement to function properly, it is absolutely essential that those conducting an investigation demonstrate a clear understanding of Biblical teaching covering such matters and a steadfast commitment to objectivity. This holds true for all situations in which accountability exists.

As the accused, your one true hope for justice relies on the willingness of those to whom you look for judgment to process all information from both sides in a manner that shows no partiality, one way or the other. In matters in which there are two sides in conflict, the Scripture’s warning is plain:

“He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.” (Pro. 18:13)

“The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.” (Pro. 18:17)

These verses provide the opportunity for me to explain the title of this post, The Danger of Accountability. While I may find some genuine encouragement in the concept of accountability, since it applies not only to me, but also to whoever might accuse me of wrongdoing, this arrangement can become extremely detrimental if those to whom we are accountable violate the principle found in the two verses above (as well as many other passages in the Word, of course). This is the danger of accountability. If your circumstances are not given a completely impartial analysis, you may find that your relationship of accountability actually works against you and against a just resolution.

If those in authority fail to demonstrate absolute objectivity, regardless of the nature of the charge or the “evidence” offered, then your cause is lost. In situations where one person accuses another, those with the responsibility of rendering a judgment are in a critical position. Should they allow themselves to be persuaded, even in a minor form, one way or the other, based upon the initial information they are given, the process is corrupted and, in the case of an innocent man, a great injustice is in the works. The fact is that we are rarely as careful as we should be when it comes to hearing reports about others, but when the well-being of another person is in your hands as one responsible to judge, you must maintain neutrality until both sides have been examined.

This isn’t just a matter of human fairness, it is a matter of obeying the Scriptures. Since that is the case, if the Word is not kept in a situation like the one I’ve described, then the one acting as an evaluator has transgressed in a most harmful manner. In his failure to remain objective, he has sinned against one of the parties in the dispute. And let’s not overlook the involvement of the one who presented the initial “evidence.” It’s almost a certainty that his manner of presentation was characterized by repeated assurances of his regret for having to bring the charges, his concern for the good of his “brother,” an exaggerated declaration regarding the reliability of his “proof” and the righteousness of his cause. But this is precisely the kind of situation envisioned in the verses quoted above.

God has given us unmistakable guidance because of the danger that we would be tempted to believe the first report, especially if it is presented as just depicted. Due to our fallen natures, we cannot rely on our ability to remain unaffected by a presentation. In fact, we should assume that we will be unfairly persuaded unless we are dedicated to remaining completely unbiased having been forewarned by God’s Word.

In the book of 2 Samuel, the story of Absalom’s rise to power is recorded. Rather than launch an attack against his father, David, Absalom exercised great patience and quietly secured a following that eventually joined him when he made his move against the king. Absalom’s tactic involved sowing seeds of discord among the king’s citizens. In 2 Sam. 15, we read some of the details: “Absalom used to rise early and stand beside the way to the gate; and when any man had a suit to come to the king for judgment, Absalom would call to him and say, ‘From what city are you?’ And he would say, ‘Your servant is from one of the tribes of Israel.’ Then Absalom would say to him, ‘See, your claims are good and right, but no man listens to you on the part of the king.’” (vv. 2, 3) Before the visitor had a chance to take his concerns before the king’s counselors, Absalom encouraged doubt regarding the fairness of the coming encounter. “Oh that one would appoint me judge in the land,” Absalom declared, “then every man who has any suit or cause could come to me and I would give him justice.” (v. 4)

Whenever someone “sides” with us in a dispute, we automatically have a favorable opinion of them. Absalom used flattery to gain the confidence of visitors. By that I mean that he agreed with the person immediately, indicating approval of their opinions, and made himself out to be an ally. And, admit it or not, we all like to be told our perspective is right, our cause just, and our input needed. Little by little, Absalom won over a sizeable group of supporters. The Bible summarizes Absalom’s accomplishment in this manner: “Absalom dealt with all Israel who came to the king for judgment; so Absalom stole away the hearts of the men of Israel.” (v. 6)

When the time seemed most advantageous, Absalom made final preparations for the overthrow of the throne. He sent spies throughout the kingdom with this message: “As soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then you shall say, ‘Absalom is king in Hebron.’” (v. 10) Shortly thereafter, David learned of his son’s treachery; he chose to protect the lives of all who were with him and fled Jerusalem.

This is the story of how a wicked man undermined the integrity of a leader by putting thoughts of distrust in the minds of many people. Rather than challenge Absalom’s assertions, it appears that the majority accepted as fact whatever Absalom said and promised. David was represented as untrustworthy and unconcerned about the needs of his people. Although David had served with distinction for many years, Absalom managed to destroy the king’s reputation simply by speaking to people who foolishly and selfishly believed whatever they were told. They wanted to prevail in judgment and Absalom promised that, if he were in charge, they would certainly win their case. That sounded too good to be bothered with God’s commands regarding the establishment of truth and His warnings about the foolishness of deciding on a matter before hearing all available testimony (cf. Pro. 18:13, 17)

Two elements led to Absalom’s success. The first was Absalom’s own willingness to lie and defame. Since a lawful occupation of his father’s throne was highly unlikely, Absalom resorted to deception and manipulation. And that brings us to the second element, which was a willing audience. As I already noted, those who heard Absalom speak had the option of ignoring him or at least investigating his claims against David. Most chose to accept Absalom’s word without any proof. When you combine a man like Absalom, who is willing to do such things in order to achieve his goal of power, with people who readily set aside God’s commandments for the sake of personal gain, the outcome is all but certain. David’s kingdom was taken from him without him even perceiving a threat until the very end.

It is a disturbing fact that the behavior of Absalom can be observed in the struggles of contemporary churches. One man, with the determination and patience of Absalom, can create enough doubt about a pastor’s integrity to destroy his ministry. He will need a willing audience, of course, just like Absalom, but if he has that, the outcome, as I said before, is all but certain.

Jesus once said: “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” (Matt. 13:57) After nearly three decades of service as a minister, borrowing from the wisdom of the Savior, I would say: “A pastor is not without honor except in his own congregation.” David served as king for a very long time and you would assume that his faithfulness would have resulted in the people’s confidence and support. But that was not the case, as we know. Our fallen natures sometimes cause us to take secret satisfaction in the downfall of another even though he has done nothing wrong to us personally. This is a sign of our corruption as God’s creatures. We feel better about ourselves when we see another person being taken down, especially if that person occupies a position of leadership.

Although there is a great deal of blame to be placed on the shoulders of those people who hear an evil report and choose not to verify it or seek a response from the accused, such ecclesiastical coups would never take place without the mastermind—that man who desperately wants control and has convinced himself that his tactics are acceptable because of his self-determined righteous goal. For many months, even years, this man may toss out criticisms of the pastor—nothing scandalous, but assertions designed to entice willing souls and slowly alter the general perception of a congregation.

Eventually, these criticisms, distortions, and half-truths become “facts” in the minds of many. And, just like Absalom, when the time seems most advantageous and when sufficient preparation has been made, this man acts decisively by suddenly unleashing a barrage of accusations against his pastor in a short period of time. Those who have been groomed for months or years to think badly of their pastor react with unquestioning loyalty to their new leader; they even admire him for his courage. They seem blind to the fact of their own transgressions and the pastor, stunned by this development, has his ministry taken away and his reputation destroyed. In the end, evidence shows that the Absalom Initiative has been utilized perfectly.

Most of those reading this post will never be in the position of the instigator described above. But all of us, at one time or another, will be told damaging things about another. Even if what is said is mild, we have a duty at that very moment to respond Biblically. We can simply refuse to hear anything more outside the presence of the one being criticized. We can remind the one bringing the accusation of his Biblical obligation to take his opinion to the person himself, instead of speaking to others who have no business being involved. If more believers would just obey the simple commands of God, if more of us would commit ourselves to protecting the reputations of others with as much enthusiasm as we sometimes exhibit in the destruction of reputations, the Church would be a much more peaceful place and much more effective in accomplishing the mission given to us by the resurrected Savior.

 

1 Peter 5:1 Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, 2 shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; 3 nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.

When you consider the qualifications for the office of elder, found in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1, you might conclude that a man who met those requirements would never have to be exhorted regarding the mistreatment of the people under his care. Yet, Peter does exactly that in this passage. He contrasts two attitudes, which in turn produce two opposite patterns in a man’s service.

The first attitude or perspective is summed up in the word “shepherd.” This term brings to mind a diligent, yet gentle guidance, which includes protection and provision. A shepherd knows the characteristics of his sheep and knows best how to lead them; he knows the various temperaments found in a sizeable flock. Therefore, he is just as effective when working with one sheep as he is when working with the entire group.

This image of shepherd and sheep is found throughout Scripture to convey the nature of our relationship with God. An elder serves on behalf of Jesus Christ, the Chief Shepherd. He is charged with the task of caring for those who belong to Jesus. An elder’s primary goal, therefore, should be to imitate Christ in his relationships to a congregation. A description of Christ’s treatment of His people would include attributes like forgiveness, patience, self-denial, and unconditional love. This is the pattern to which an elder should strive to conform.

Peter adds that an elder should shepherd the flock of God willingly, which indicates his heartfelt regard for those in his care. He does not occupy this position for the sake of personal gain. Moreover, because of the importance of his calling and the subjects of his attention, an elder should approach his duties with eagerness. The Greek word translated as “eagerness,” refers to an established point of view that determines behavior. The writer is saying that a man who would be an elder must come to that position with a conviction concerning the high calling of the office and a sure awareness of the tremendous weight of responsibility he will have to carry.

This implies that a man seeking to serve as an elder should have a firm understanding of all aspects of the office (qualifications and duties) before he actually begins to serve. He must be a man who realizes that he will be looked upon as an example of Christian maturity. The requirements given by the apostle Paul, which were mentioned earlier, underscore these truths and are, therefore, absolutely essential when it comes to a man’s eligibility for this pivotal office.

It has always been my personal conviction that the spiritual vitality of a congregation will never exceed that of her elders. If the Biblical qualifications are rightly applied, only the most stable and capable of men will occupy the office of elder. If this is the case, the congregation has a spiritual standard that not only assures them of competence, but also, in part, defines the goal toward which every member should strive.

The second attitude or perspective set forth in this passage is represented in the phrase, “lording it over.” The term used here refers to raw power utilized to subdue others and make them subject to your will. The relationship envisioned here is not shepherd to sheep, it is master to slave. Everything said about the elder who sees himself as a shepherd of Christ’s people finds an opposite and destructive characteristic in the second perspective given by Peter.

Whereas the former description pictures a man laboring as an under-shepherd of Jesus Christ, this second description presents a man seeking to advance himself by demanding obedience and loyalty from the people. Life under this man’s rule is filled with anxiety and uncertainty. Due to his sinful ambition to glorify himself, this man will create his own standard by which the people under him are judged, rather than look to Scripture. In large part, he functions autonomously and responds even to the mildest criticism with overwhelming verbosity and threats designed to silence anyone daring to raise a question. At all times, this man assumes the role of superior to inferiors and obliterates the image of the humble shepherd giving himself for the sheep.

The harm done by an overbearing, self-righteous elder cannot be overstated. Instead of serving in the place of Christ as an under-shepherd, this man uses his authority to secure his position and insulate himself from all challenges. This way of thinking inevitably involves the abuse of those for whom Jesus Christ shed His blood. It makes a mockery of the humble and tender Savior who set aside His own glory so that He might rescue those trapped in sin.