How do you handle doctrinal differences in a local church?
To begin with, I’ll list several biblical texts which I think are pertinent in a general way:
1 Corinthians 1-3; 6:1-8 (especially verse 7); 16:12
Ephesians 2-4 (esp. 4:1-6)
Philippians 1:1-2; 3:15; 4:2-3
3 John 9-10
In my experience, those who dogmatically persist in holding their doctrinal views—advocating these views publicly and correcting the opposing view as well—tend to justify their actions as necessary because “the gospel is at stake.” They know that squabbles over minor issues is not biblical, but view their stance as an essential part of the gospel. Thus, they “cannot” be silent over such matters.
We saw some fairly strong differences expressed related to the last presidential election, and this was not just in our church, but in many, perhaps most, churches. The good thing about this (if there was any good in it) was that it helped me to better understand what was happening in the churches of Galatia (and Paul’s confrontation of Peter).
As I observed differences of opinion—strong differences—in the church I began to think in terms of three categories of difference.
(1) Differences of opinion (someone thinks the Dallas Cowboys are a better team than the Green Bay Packers—to get very present day; another thinks the Seattle Seahawks are the best team). The reality is that this is simply a matter of opinion and has little to do with biblical revelation (or doctrine).
(2) Differences in conviction. This is what we see a great deal of in the New Testament. Think of it: God choose the two most unlikely groups—Jews and Gentiles—to become “one new man,” the church (Ephesians 2:11—3:13). The power of God, of the gospel, and of the Holy Spirit are evidenced by the unity which is to take place in the church. But how do you deal with the virtual mountain of differences between these two groups? Paul spelled it out quite clearly in Romans 14 and 15: You don’t debate over your differences. You are not to look down on those whose convictions (about foods, about certain days) differ from yours.
(3) Doctrinal differences—and by this I don’t mean pre-trib or post-trib, dispensational or covenant; I mean matters that are an essential to the gospel, matters like the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the substitutionary death of Christ, the resurrection. You can see Paul really digging in with regard to the Corinthian church (finally calling his opponents “false apostles” and “servants of Satan” (2 Corinthians 11). In Galatians 1, Paul leaves no doubt about the false brethren who have crept in. But we also see Paul being very diplomatic about differences that are not matters of fundamental doctrinal departure (1 Corinthians 16:12; Philippians 3:15), and even qualifying some of his views as opinion or conviction (1 Corinthians 7:6,10-12, 40).
With this backdrop I now approach the book of Galatians. What was the issue that necessitated Paul’s strong rebuke of Peter? It was an issue over foods and fellowship. Peter had heard our Lord’s words in Mark 7:19, and he could not have missed the point of the lesson he learned in Acts 10 and 11. Peter himself ate like Gentiles and with Gentiles in Antioch, but when certain Jewish brethren arrived “from James” (Galatians 2:12) Peter wilted under their pressure and withdrew from the Gentiles, seating himself with the Jews who had recently arrived (and who separated themselves from the Gentile saints).
At root, what was the precipitating issue? It was over the eating of certain foods. As we look back at Romans 14 and 15 it is clear that this should not have been the basis for what we see in Antioch in Galatians 2.
What I see is this: The Jews from James held their convictions as matters of doctrine. I should say they held their views on foods and fellowship as strongly as they did matters of essential doctrine. Indeed, they held these views more strongly than they held to biblical doctrine, so that in practice they promoted false doctrine. The reason why Paul reacted so strongly is that this error involved fundamental doctrine, the doctrine of salvation. Peter and Barnabas, and others, may not have publicly taught or agreed with this false doctrine, but in practice they denied the gospel and the unity of the body of Christ because of the work of Christ, a unity that was not based upon law-keeping. Convictions were held more strongly than they should have been, more strongly than a commitment to the doctrine of salvation. And thus Paul must do as he did.
I focused initially on the diversity between Jews and Gentiles, but in Ephesians 4 Paul speaks about the diversity resulting from different spiritual gifts and different ministries. In our church we have embraced diversity as a good thing (within limits, of course). We think it is healthy for saints to differ over eschatology and other non-fundamental matters of doctrine. Uniformity is not unity. Thus, the elders need to exemplify unity in the midst of the diversity of their gifts and ministries and perspectives. We delight in it, and find it healthy to differ, but not always debate, and when we discuss our differences, not to feel compelled to win.
Is there a correct way to address an elder who is no longer effective?
Author/Speaker: Bob Deffinbaugh
I think it is necessary to begin with a word of caution here. We in the West live in a culture that reveres youth and looks down on the wisdom that often comes with age and maturity. Much more could be said to validate this statement, but suffice it to say that those who are young need to be humbly aware of the limitations of their youth, one of which the Bible calls “simplicity” in Proverbs. Youth may make a person more skillful in some physical things, but such skills are not wisdom. It was Rehoboam’s youthful advisors who gave him foolish counsel, while his father’s older advisors gave him wise counsel, which he rejected (1 Kings 12). The result was a divided kingdom. Younger believers should seriously consider Peter’s words to the young (as well as the elders) in 1 Peter 5:1-5. Let us respect the wisdom of those who are older. All of this is to say that the younger generation needs to beware of the inclination to throw out older leaders, assuming that they can do better.
Having said this, one must address an error on the opposite side—held by those who cling to their role as elders, just as the aged cling to their freedoms and other areas of control which they attained in younger days. Many are not willing to admit the diminished capacity that often comes in the aging process. Holding to one’s office as an elder simply to maintain authority and control in some area of life is wrong. Eldership is a place of service, and when one’s service is greatly diminished it is time to relinquish one’s official leadership position. A true leader will continue to bless others by his unofficial ministry if he thinks, acts, and counsels wisely.
Now, we return to the question of ineffective leadership by a particular elder. The Bible is silent about the term of an elder, just as it is silent regarding the selection and approval process, or the process for removing an elder. I believe it is questionable to assume that once a man has been officially recognized as an elder he owns this position for life, or that once recognized, the elder’s qualifications and ministry are no longer subject to review. Why not be a forward-looking elder, who steps aside to allow, encourage, and facilitate younger men stepping up to the ministry of church leadership? Why not coach others to take our place? Beyond this there are other honorable and commendable reasons for stepping aside. For example, a sudden change in one’s family or work may require so much attention and energy that an elder can no longer fulfill his duties.
However, some will simply (or stubbornly) not step aside, so what is to be done in this case? It is important to establish the fact that being an elder (or deacon) does not put one above evaluation, rebuke, correction, or removal, as we see, for example, in 1 Timothy 5:17-20. Notice here that evaluation may result in increased honor or (at the opposite extreme) public correction. While there is no biblical mandate or example for this, it would seem advisable for the elders of a church to periodically set aside a time for assessment, where all the elders are honest with each other, helping each to evaluate their qualifications and service. This would be a fitting time to suggest that a non-effective or disqualified elder step aside.
That is not to say that other fellow believers must refrain from honestly approaching an ineffective or errant elder. This is surely assumed in 1 Timothy 5:17-20 (and in my opinion it is also assumed in Matthew 18:15-20). How this is done is very important for the sake of the elder and for the unity of the church. Surely, the elder should be shown great respect in the process. We need only recall that Timothy was a young man, and that Paul reminded him of his youth and instructed him regarding his dealings with those who were older (see 1 Timothy 5:1-2). Women, too, may find it necessary to engage in this matter (though I would suggest that this be done only when a man is somehow not able to do so). Gender does not disqualify one from obedience to biblical commands, such as we find in Matthew 18:15-20. Thus, a wife may find it necessary to deal with the sin of her husband. A good example of gender and authority roles is found in Abigail’s wise dealings with her husband Nabal, and also with her king-to be (David).
Perhaps the most relevant biblical example is to be found in 1 Kings 1, where David had delayed passing the torch of leadership to his (designated) son, Solomon. David had become incapacitated, and his son Adonijah nearly succeeded in usurping the throne due to David’s delay. The wise approach taken by Nathan the prophet and David’s wife Bathsheba serves as an example of how to approach an incompetent leader.
All of this must be attempted with much prayer, but it seems clear that incompetent leadership should not be ignored, for the church is being observed by the unbelieving world as well as by the celestial powers (see Ephesians 3:10). God’s glory is at issue (Ephesians 3:21).
Can a single man be an elder in light of the qualification that an elder be a “husband of one wife”?
Author/Speaker: Bob Deffinbaugh
(1) Let me first address the “having children who believe” qualification in Titus 1:6. (Note that the translations are split about 50/50 on how they render this—faithful, or believing.)
The word used here is pistos, a word found three times in Titus (1:6, 9; 3:8), 12 times in 1 Timothy (1:12, 15; 3:1, 11; 4:3, 9, 10, 12; 5:16 [2X]; 6:2 [2X], and three times in 2 Timothy (2:2, 11, 13). Just a quick look at a KJV concordance will show that the term is rendered “faithful” 53 times, while it is rendered “believe” six times and “believing” two times.
Now, when you look at the following phrase you find “not accused of dissipation or rebellion.” I believe this is a further clarification of the word “faithful.” “Faithful” children are those who are not accused of dissipation or rebellion. Theologically, we know a father cannot ultimately determine the eternal destiny (saved or lost) of his child; only God can do this (John 6:37, 39, 44). Thus, to require that an elder have only believing children is going beyond what he can be held accountable for. He can, however, be expected to keep his children under control, and that is exactly what I believe Paul is saying here, just as he does in 1 Timothy 3:4.
(2) When Paul writes about the qualifications for elders he does so in such a way as to cover the entire range of possible circumstances. The reality is that most elder candidates were likely to be married and to have older children. In such a case, the father must have his children in control, with dignity. A married elder must be the husband of one wife, and so on. Does this mean every elder must be married and have older children? I think not. I have a good friend who was serving as an elder. He and his wife were surprised by a son later on in their marriage. Would my friend need to resign until that child grew up and made a profession of faith?
One caveat here: insisting that an elder have believing children may be counterproductive, since the elder may be tempted to put undue pressure on his children to make a premature profession of faith just so he can appear to meet that qualification.
(3) Let me briefly comment on the appointment of elders and deacons as the church plant moves to becoming a church. We know from Philippians 1:1 that this church had both elders and deacons. Likewise, we find the qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy 3. But note that these deacon qualifications are not found in Titus. I think this is significant. In Acts 14:23 we see that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the newly born churches that were founded on their first missionary journey. Nothing is said of deacons at this point. When Paul sets forth the qualifications for elders in Crete, nothing is said of deacons. I believe this may be true for at least two reasons:
(a) Deacons must first be tested (1 Timothy 3:10). A time of proving and examination is called for (I take it that this happens while the deacon candidate begins to serve as such).
(b) If, indeed, Acts 6 describes the process of appointing deacons (the noun diakonos does not appear in Acts 6, only the verb form), note that it does not occur until it becomes evident that they are required (as circumstances demanded in Jerusalem). Thus, I’m not so sure deacons need to be appointed until it becomes evident that they are essential.
(c) I believe deacons assist the elders. It is clear that the apostles set the qualifications for the seven men in Acts 6, and that they defined their task. I think the elders would need some time before they would be able to achieve this. Thus, I would not be in too big a hurry to appoint deacons at the same time that elders are appointed.
(4) I am convinced that no man can attain a perfect score (so to speak) when evaluated by the standards Paul sets forth in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. It seems to me that while the standards remain the same, elder candidates never fully measure up to them. And if this is true in an established church, how much more true it is in a church plant. I’m now reading 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 from the perspective of a missionary friend in Asia, who is in charge of evangelism and church planting in a non-Christian nation. All of a sudden (after years of ministry), many small groups of believers are cropping up. So the question is, “When do these little gatherings become churches? At what point in time should elders be recognized or appointed?” I guarantee that such elders will not meet the level of our expectations in the West. The standards Paul establishes regarding elder qualifications define the areas of evaluation, and also the ideal for which all should strive. But in newly emerging churches I believe actual achievement will fall behind that of elder candidates in other, more established churches.
(5) My current understanding of the qualifications for elders would allow for a single man to be an elder. (I think I’ve held this point of view consistently.) The ideal would be for a church to have a plurality of elders, and were there to be but one qualified elder, this ideal of plurality should be the goal toward which he and the church strive. Indeed, if that one elder is a “team player” he will consult others in the body of believers, seeking their evaluation and assessment of where the church stands (and even of how he, the one elder, is doing). I believe it is far better to have one elder who is broadly “recognized” as such by the body than to have a plurality of men whose qualifications are questionable. Incidentally, we should remember that both Paul and Barnabas were single men (1 Corinthians 9:1ff). (I realize some have conjectured that Paul was—at least at one time—a married man, but I don’t find that argument very compelling.)
I would say that any one elder (married or not) should be very careful in doing “solo” ministry. This would be especially true when ministering to women.
What does “honor” mean in 1 Timothy 5:17?
Author/Speaker: Bob Deffinbaugh
Let me begin by saying that I believe the word “honor” in some contexts refers to financial support. I believe that such would be the case in Matthew 15:4-6 and Mark 7:20 where Jesus refers to the command to honor one’s father and mother. The Pharisees contrived the “corban copout” as a way to avoid financially supporting their parents. Honor likewise refers to financial support in Paul’s command to “honor” widows in 1 Timothy 5:3. Thus, I would conclude that “honor” in 1 Timothy 5:17 includes (if not primarily refers to) the financial support of at least certain elders. In this text, “double honor” is to be given to those who “rule well” by “laboring hard at preaching and teaching.”
Does this mean that all elders should be paid? We know that any elder must be “free from the love of money” (1 Timothy 3:3). Thus, money should not be the motivation for becoming an elder. Generally, the way we have applied this instruction in 1 Timothy 5:17 (along with other texts like 1 Corinthians 9:7-11 and Galatians 6:6) at our church is that to the degree that what we expect an elder to do infringes on his employment, we compensate for that portion of his time. For a full-time elder, that would mean full-time compensation (at a rate near that which he would be paid at a comparable job—such as a teacher in a public school or college). This may also be applied in a way that pays a person a part-time compensation. We also have circumstances where one’s resources are such that they do not need financial support, regardless of how much time they spend in ministry. In our local church, we have always attempted to err on the side of generosity, and this has worked very well for almost 40 years.
Should an elder accept “payment” for performing a wedding or funeral?
Author/Speaker: Bob Deffinbaugh
When it comes to preaching I never ask whether I will be paid, how much, or when. Since the vast majority of my preaching was done at my home church, that was never a huge issue.
For me, the financial issue came more with weddings and funerals. I know some of the traditions about payment for conducting these services, but I have chosen to differ. I have always viewed conducting a marriage ceremony as a ministry of our church (even when performed for folks who are not members—I have chosen not to marry unbelievers). I make this clear at the beginning of the pre-marriage counseling process. (I also make it clear that the pre-marriage program will be extensive, and that I will not marry those who do not complete the program.) There have been those who have “insisted” on showing their gratitude. I either tell them to give it to the church, or I turn it in to the church and make sure that the secretary sends them a receipt. That way they know I am not a preacher for hire.
Actually, I love to do funerals. There is no hope other than the gospel, and I make it my mission to make that clear (well aware that all too many preachers seem to say or imply that we’re all going to heaven). My funeral process is more extensive, but I once again make it clear at the outset that I don’t accept payment for funerals (sometimes I have to make this clear to the funeral directors, who may add the preacher’s fee to their tab and then pass it along to him.). In this way I am well aware that I am working for God and not for man. I also make it clear that my ministry is an extension of the ministry of our church.
Dealing with weddings and funerals in this way gives me great freedom. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9 are important to me. Not taking payment may very well enhance the gospel. People can’t fathom how or why someone would serve sacrificially, with no monetary incentive. How can you talk about grace and God’s free gift of salvation when you are looking for payment?
Are the elders the sole authorized interpreters of Scripture in the local church?
Author/Speaker: Bob Deffinbaugh
I think Paul makes it clear that the elders of the church must be able to define, declare, and defend the truths of God’s Word (e.g. Acts 20:28-32; Titus 1:9).
What also appears evident in the New Testament is that it is not just the elders who are to declare and defend the truths of God’s Word (e.g. Romans 15:14; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15). I note with interest that in Acts 20:28ff. Paul warns that some of those who depart from the truth may be from among their own number (verse 30). Thus, later on —in 1 Timothy 1—it is Timothy whom Paul sends to correct false teaching at Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3-4). In chapter 5 Paul gives instructions for removing an elder. In Ephesians 4:1-16 we see the building up of the body (so as to be able to recognize and stand against false teaching) as a corporate matter, and not just an “elder” function. So, too, in 1 Corinthians 14 (which I perceive to be Paul’s description of the meeting and ministry of the church body when gathered). Correction is certainly implied but is more interactive in nature, and elders are not specifically mentioned (1 Corinthians 14:26-33).
Second, there are other ways to protect the church’s ability to hold fast to sound doctrine. For example, you can have a doctrinal statement as a part of your constitution. The only caveat here is that one would hope that our understanding of Scripture might grow, and it is not always easy to change the constitution. In our church where I serve we have dealt with doctrinal error by teaching a text (or in one case the book of Galatians) which clearly instructs in sound doctrine and exposes error.
Third, I believe there is a difference between defining and defending sound doctrine and being the sole interpreter of Scripture. Indeed, in 1 John 2:26-27 John seems to warn Christians in general against signing over their responsibility to personally wrestle with God’s Word and to come to their own conclusions, with the help of the Holy Spirit. Gifted teachers and elders who are “apt to teach” can certainly aid us in learning how to interpret Scripture, but they are not to do all our thinking for us! A church that is characterized by many who know the Scriptures is one that will stand in times of persecution (when their leaders may be jailed or put to death or become sick).
Fourth, when it comes to church discipline in regard to doctrinal error, there may very well be concerns about possible litigation. Some churches may seek to protect themselves by inserting statements into the church constitution which designate the elders as having exclusive authority to interpret Scripture. While there is little doubt that the church in America is going to face greater opposition (and even persecution) in the future, we must assess the wisdom and biblical basis for seeking to protect ourselves. A friend, fellow elder, and highly respected lawyer used to remind us (elders), “We haven’t been sued yet. . .” His point was that if we are faithful to God’s Word we can expect opposition, and this will likely include lawsuits. I know of one or more faithful, well-known churches that have dealt with more than one lawsuit. It is part of doing God’s business. I think one of the reasons why churches today do not practice church discipline is their fear of such a lawsuit. We need to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” in a world that is hostile to our Lord, His Word, and His church, but we cannot be so obsessed with self-protection that we shy away from following the Scriptures. Thus, I would caution against any recommendation that overreacts by designating the elders as the sole authoritative interpreters of Scripture—that would go beyond Scripture.
Can a sick person go to any older, godly person according to James 5:14-15, or does this verse apply only to approaching the recognized elders of the church?
Author/Speaker: Bob Deffinbaugh, et. al.
It seems to me that the expression “the elders of the church” is quite precise and technical, referring to the elders as the shepherds of the flock. We see the same expression/phrase in Acts 20:17, with the same connotation. The term can refer to older men (e.g. Acts 2:17; 1 Timothy 5:1), but most often it is referring to a leader (Jewish or church).
Could this instruction be carried out by someone other than “the elders”? Surely there is benefit for others praying for someone who is sick, but the primary focus of the elders should be “prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). In James 5 the elders have a kind of representative role, it seems, and I’m not sure someone else can fulfill that. Also there is the matter of sin and confession of sin that sounds “elderly / elder like.”
So while it is good to ask godly people to pray for the sick, James 5:14 primarily invites the sick to call on the recognized elders of the church.
As a side note, according to the passage, it is the sick person who takes the initiative to call on the elders, rather than the elders taking the initiative to call on the sick person. By this we mean that it is the faith of the sick person that is important here, not just that of the elders.
How long should an elder serve?
Author/Speaker: Bob Deffinbaugh
There are those who conclude that an elder is an elder for life. I am not one of those. This is more an argument from silence that from clear biblical statement. I would say that a man is an elder. . .
so long as he meets the qualifications
so long as he is able to fulfill the duties of an elder
so long as the church continues to acknowledge him as a leader (functionally or formally)
so long as the elder desires to serve in this capacity
In the churches that I have been a part of, elders do not have a designated term. Some have served for 10 years or so and have found it was time to step aside (and in so doing, they continued to serve the flock in numerous ways). We have elders who have died in office. We have also had elders who resigned for personal or family reasons. We have had elders who stepped aside and later came back on as an elder.
The fact is that the Bible does tell us what elders do and what their qualifications for holding the office are. But it does not tell us precisely how elders are appointed or how long they should serve. This, in my opinion, should be instructive.
I have been at an international church in Indonesia where some of the elders were in the country for only three years, and so their term was short. I’ve been in some churches where one or more elders are physically or mentally unable to keep up with the task. I’ve also seen situations where existing elders were no longer regarded as such by the congregation.
One of the dangers among elders (and, it would seem, among members of Congress as well) is that the longer they serve, the more power and authority they seem to acquire. Thus, there is also the danger of becoming domineering.
In our church we have an “elder evaluation form” that we ask the church to fill out on all elder candidates (these candidates are put forth by the elders). We do an initial evaluation (form), followed by a later one (usually six months later) so that this person can now be evaluated as one who has been serving with the elders (as a provisional elder). In our early days, we had a question at the bottom of this form that read something like this: “Are there any current elders who you believe no longer qualify or do not fulfill their function adequately as an elder?” I think there is the need to evaluate the function of every elder from time to time. I would recommend that this be done by the elders every year or so, and perhaps by the congregation at some point in time. It might even be good to have a required sabbatical, where an elder steps aside for a year or so. At the end of that time, the elders, the congregation, and the individual elder could express their desires regarding an extended term.
In churches where the office of elder is viewed as a lifetime calling, men can be tempted (even pressured) to remain in place, even though they may be keeping younger men from stepping into leadership. They may also be holding the church back because they are not as capable as they need to be (even senile, in some cases). Yet the feeling can sometimes exist that one’s authority as an elder is directly proportional to the length of one’s tenure as an elder. Such thinking is false, in my opinion.
I think it is very important for the elders to be open and direct with one another regarding these matters. How much better that one of your friends and colleagues inform you that your time of profitable service as an elder has come to an end.
What can I do about nervousness when I give announcements or teach or am otherwise up front? I am a new elder.
Authors/Speakers: Bob Deffinbaugh, Chuck Gianotti
Chuck Gianotti: I am reminded of the great basketball player Bill Russell, who threw up before every game because of nervousness. All that is to say that even those with much experience and expertise, the “pros,” still get nervous before they are “on tap.” So, you are in good company if you get nervous.
I know of a brother in a small church who slowly became more involved in being “up front” giving announcements or praying before the congregation. His voice quivered, his hands shook, but he kept on plugging away. In time, he got better at it, but even now after 40 years he still has a bit of quiver in his voice—and laughs about it now.
Here are some thoughts that may be helpful.
1) First and foremost, just before you get up to speak or announce, have a personal time of prayer with the Lord asking for strength. Remember if he could help a stammering, stuttering man like Moses be able to speak in front of the most powerful man in the known world at that time, he can help you speak to your congregation in the church.
2) Remember, the people in the audience are “on your side.” They want you to succeed. They are also aware that you are new to this and thus will most likely be understanding and forgiving of mistakes.
3) Accept your nervousness as part of the territory of being used of God. You might even find some humor in it. The last thing you want is for you and others treat it like the elephant in the room that no one will talk about. That will only heighten the anxiety. For example, saying something like, “Please excuse my nervousness as I get used to doing this.” You might even add a little humor: “If you want to help, then you can sit there and be nervous for me. Now, everyone lift up your hand and start shaking it with me.” Obviously, this may sound dumb; the idea is to somehow defuse the situation.
4) When you first get up to speak/announce, take a deep breath. Anxiety/nervousness can lead to shortness of breath, so be intentional with your breathing.
5) Make sure your notes are clear and easy to read so that if you get lost in your words, you can easily find your way back. And rehearse your closing line or statement. Sometimes out of nervousness, a person can end up rambling on and not know how to quit. If you find yourself in that situation, just go to your closing statement.
6) If you make a mistake (our worst fear), then simply correct yourself and go on. I have done that with preaching, after I realized I said something completely wrong or left out a key word that changed the meaning of what was said. “Let me restate that, because I think I said that wrong.”
7) It can be helpful to pick out a few “friendlies” in the audience, namely those most sympathetic to your struggle, and focus your eye contact on them when you speak and think of yourself as having a conversation with them and not the entire congregation. As you get more experienced, you will be able move your eyes around the audience as you speak.
8) Be encouraged that the more you do it, the easier it will be come. It may or may not go away completely, but I must admit that after preaching and leading God’s people for close to 40 years, sometimes I still get nervous before I get up front.
Bob Deffinbaugh: One of our elders said this: “You don’t know how hard it is for some of us to get up and speak.” I’m sure he was right, but it is also true that he did speak, and the more he did, the better he became. One of our “more shy” elders has made incredible progress. One of the things I have noted is that he has given a great deal of thought to what he says, so there is a lot of preparation ahead of time.
Sometimes nervousness can be the result of thinking too much of myself. How will I look to others? Will I do something really embarrassing? The more inward my focus, the more likely I am to make a mess of things. I find 1 Corinthians especially instructive: “Let all things be done for edification” (14:26). The more intent I am on edifying others, the less I think about myself, and the more I think about what needs to be said. How can I speak that will truly encourage others in their relationship to the Savior? Has someone just said or done something for which I can express appreciation, or say an encouraging word? Is the meeting going long, so that I need to shorten what I planned to say? Words have great power, either to encourage or to dishearten (sounds like what we read in Proverbs, doesn’t it?).
The Scriptures say that we should be slow to speak, and quick to hear. Those of us with the gift of gab may speak too quickly, because it is easy for us to do so. Those who are more reticent may give more thought to what they say, and their words may actually have more benefit.
I note that Paul says that when he was in Corinth he spoke “in weakness and with fear and trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3). I think his sense of weakness was a good example. Paul realized that apart from the Spirit of God bringing his words to life, they would be powerless on their own, and thus he had a deep sense of his dependence on God when he spoke. Paul is also the one who later wrote about his thorn in the flesh, which (so far as we can tell) was not taken away: “And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NASB).
In my opinion, most of us need more awareness of our weakness, rather than confidence in our apparent strengths.
Must an elder be married and have children?
Author/Speaker: Bob Deffinbaugh
Let us address the matter of the meaning of the qualification in 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6 — “the husband of one wife” (virtually all major translations, with the exception of the NLT and TNIV, which read, “faithful to his wife”).
Let’s begin with several observations. First, It doesn’t take a great deal of effort to discern that sexual immorality has destroyed lives and ministries of countless men and women, throughout history and today. Samson is a classic example; the simple in Proverbs 7 and the Israelites in Numbers 25 and Exodus 32 are just a few more examples. Add to this the exhortations of Paul in texts like 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8; 1 Timothy 5:2; 2 Timothy 3:1-7; 2 Peter 2:2, 10-20; Jude 1:8, 18; Revelation 2:14, 20-21. False teachers are often characterized by sexual sin. All of this is to say that we would surely expect the elder qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 to have something to say, directly, regarding sexual purity.
Second, apart from the qualification at hand (the “husband of one wife”), there is no direct reference to sexual morality in these elder qualifications—not one! Yes, “self-controlled, holy, disciplined” do address the matter indirectly, but one would surely expect more than this. For example, even though self-control is a qualification, Paul specifies that an elder is not to be a “drunkard” (1 Timothy 3:3;Titus 1:7). Neither can he be “violent” (1 Timothy 3:3). Why nothing specific about sexual purity?
Third, the rendering “the husband of one wife” is somewhat of an interpretation, as opposed to a simple rendering of the Greek text, which reads, “a one woman man” (likewise, 1 Timothy 5:9 reads, “a one man woman”). What if this translation choice is not the best or most accurate?
Fourth, the other elder qualifications are character traits. Does having but one wife (whether in a lifetime or not) really reveal the character of a man? Bill Clinton had one wife. Could he be an elder?
Fifth, while marriage and children are certainly a gift from God, there were times when remaining single was the high road (and not marriage), as we read in 1 Corinthians 7:25-35. Would you not have to say that at least at certain times, the high road for a man or woman would be to remain single? So why would a man be prohibited from serving as an elder if he chose to remain single, to serve God with undistracted devotion? Incidentally, single men would include Jesus, Paul, and Barnabas (1 Corinthians 9:1-6), and surely a number of others, like Timothy and perhaps Titus. Would it not have been somewhat strange for Timothy or Titus to appoint elders in the churches when they would be disqualified simply for being single? And what of Paul and Barnabas, who were called apostles?
Sixth, surely the widows who chose to remain single after the death of their first and only husbands were being commended (not to mention being supported) for doing so (among other things). But somehow, a man who chooses to remain single is somehow unqualified for that reason alone?
Seventh, I believe that the qualification “the husband of one wife” is not the high water mark of maturity and character. Very immoral men have had but one wife (as mentioned before), yet they may be flirtatious or adulterers. This is actually a rather easy standard to meet, and does not prove anything about one’s character.
Eighth, when rendered more literally—“a one woman man”—we find this to be a far higher standard. A man cannot look at pornography and be a “one woman man.” A man cannot commit adultery and be a “one woman man.” A man cannot lust after other woman and flirt with them and be a “one woman man.” I believe this standard—“a one woman man”—embraces the whole spectrum of potential sexual immorality and is far more pertinent to an elder’s character and qualification to serve than merely remaining married to one wife. And this rendering is the most literal and the most natural way of reading the text. By the way, I believe that this rendering (though not absolutely necessary in 1 Timothy 5:9) fits very nicely in the context of a widow as well. I believe that it also can apply to a single man. If that man has chosen not to marry, then he should conduct himself accordingly with all women. If he supposes that he might someday marry, he should conduct himself in such a way as to save himself for his future wife as his “one and only woman.”
I therefore cannot conclude that this qualification is merely about being married or not, or about having but one wife. I believe it is much broader, and a much higher standard, fully in keeping with the natural understanding of Paul’s words. (Could he not have said “married, and only once,” if he wished for that to be what we understood him to say?)
How could the earliest NT elders be sound in doctrine before the NT was written down and circulated?
First, the culture of the Old Testament saint, as well as in the first century, was an oral culture. No printing presses, just a few carefully copied manuscripts, usually kept in the synagogues (Luke 4:17; Acts 13:15). Having said this, it is very evident that these saints knew their Old Testament Scriptures quite well. Once Jesus opened the eyes of the believers to understand the Old Testament with regard to the Messiah (see Luke 24), all the pieces fell into place. It is assumed and stated that the teaching of Christ was known to the believers, primarily through the apostles:
1 All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against. 2 Those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but must serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles. 3 If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, 4 he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, 5 and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. 1 Timothy 6:1-5 (NASB)
37 If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. 38 But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 1 Corinthians 14:37-38
20 But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all know. 21 I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it, and because no lie is of the truth. 1 John 2:20-21
Second, evangelism was a much more thorough process in New Testament times. It was not a simple rendering of the “Four Spiritual Laws” but a much more comprehensive exposition of the Scriptures (as you can see not only in Paul’s synagogue sermons, but also in his preaching to Gentiles). It was expected that they would know the fundamentals (like the deity and humanity of Jesus, the Trinity, substitutionary atonement, baptism, etc.—see Hebrews 6:1-2). Thus, Paul could say to the Ephesian saints,
17 So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; 19 and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20 But you did not learn Christ in this way, 21 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, 22 that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth. 25 Therefore, laying aside falsehood, SPEAK TRUTH EACH ONE of you WITH HIS NEIGHBOR, for we are members of one another. Ephesians 4:17-25
6 I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7 which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! Galatians 1:6-9
With reference to these texts in Ephesians and Galatians, it was assumed that even before these epistles reached the church the believers were grounded in the truth of the gospel and could thus be warned against departing from it.
Third, even before the New Testament Scriptures were a part of the canon of Scripture, Paul and the other apostles had taught the church elders essential doctrine thoroughly.
17 From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church. 18 And when they had come to him, he said to them, “You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, 21 solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Acts 20:17-21
26 “Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. 27 “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. 28 “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. Acts 20:26-28
Fourth, it seems fairly clear to me that the things the apostles wrote down in their epistles were the very same things they had been teaching orally, so that what is written is a reminder, more than a new revelation (at least so far as the gospel and its fundamentals are concerned).
14 And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another. 15 But I have written very boldly to you on some points so as to remind you again, because of the grace that was given me from God, 16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, so that my offering of the Gentiles may become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:14-16
17 For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church. 1 Corinthians 4:17
12 Therefore, I will always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you already know them, and have been established in the truth which is present with you. 13 I consider it right, as long as I am in this earthly dwelling, to stir you up by way of reminder, 14 knowing that the laying aside of my earthly dwelling is imminent, as also our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. 15 And I will also be diligent that at any time after my departure you will be able to call these things to mind. 2 Peter 1:12-15
5 Now I desire to remind you, though you know all things once for all, that the Lord, after saving a people out of the land of Egypt, subsequently destroyed those who did not believe. Jude 1:5
Fifth, the New Testament church had prophets, who could proclaim the truths of the faith.
11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; Ephesians 4:11-12
Sixth, the New Testament church leaders (and the other saints) had the Holy Spirit.
26 “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. John 14:26
7 “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. 8 “And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; 10 and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father and you no longer see Me; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged. 12 “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. 14 “He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. 15 “All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said that He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you. John 16:7-15
Suffice it to say the New Testament seems clear that the fundamental elements of doctrine were well and widely known in the early church, so that doctrinal error should have been readily evident.
- I see and hear many elder-led churches call some pastors and some elders. And I believe they are simply distinguishing between staff or paid elders and non-paid elders. Do you all see this? And how should it be handled? We all agree that elder and pastor are interchangeable (right?). How would you identify the staff or paid elders? Or does it matter?
- How do you handle non-Scriptural positions? Just meaning we don’t really see them in the Scriptures. Like a children’s minister. Do you have an elder who specializes in the children’s department? Do you have a deacon there? Or do you have volunteer ministers who take care of the children? Or do you pay a children’s minister (not an elder)? And what qualifications are needed to be a children’s minister (if it’s not an elder or deacon)? Kind of the same question with student minister (or pastor) and worship minister (or pastor).
- Do the elders select Sunday School curriculum? Or do the teachers have freedom to do that? Do the elders select the Sunday School teachers?
Thanks for your questions. My name is Bob Deffinbaugh. I’ve served as an elder at Community Bible Chapel in Richardson, Texas for 40 years, and I’m also associated with Bible.org and Biblical Eldership Resources. As you recognize, your questions don’t deal with areas that are clearly or specifically addressed in the Scriptures, so I will thus share from my experience where Scripture does not specifically speak.
First, let’s talk about the relationship between elders and “pastors.” Other than Ephesians 4:11 the term pastor is not found (in the NASB, at least). If by “pastor” we mean “shepherd” then elders and pastors are both shepherds, or should be. (See Acts 20:28 where elders are instructed to “shepherd the church of God.”)
Personally, I really do not like to interchange the terms pastor and elder, because in today’s church they are not viewed as the same. A church that has a paid pastor does not normally view him as just one of the leaders. When the term “senior pastor” is used, it is assumed that he is the CEO of the church and the elders are in some way or another subordinate to him and his authority.
Even when this is not formally verbalized, the “pastor” is the one who is “on the job” at the church. He is the one whom people first seek out, because he is available. And, because he is paid, he is expected to be accessible. Very often the pastor has considerable financial authority (he knows who gives, or not, and he can write checks). He also tends to be the communicative link between church members and the elders. He may set the agenda, and he may chair the meetings. All of this spells “control,” and that is a very dangerous situation. Much of the church strife I’ve dealt with involves a “pastor” who will not relinquish control, even when asked to resign by the elders. And because the “pastor” teaches regularly, he is the one who gets the greatest exposure and usually can exert greater influence on the congregation than other elders. The “bully pulpit” really can be just that.
In the 40-plus years that I was regularly preaching and teaching, I avoided exercising financial authority, or even knowing about those who gave and those who did not. I did not write checks, I did not set the agenda for elders’ meetings, and I did not chair the meetings. That was not my gifting, and it would not have given my peers—my fellow elders—the level of authority that should be shared with them.
Some elder-led churches also have one or more “pastors,” thus distinguishing between church leaders by the title they are given. And you are probably right that “pastors” are paid staff, while elders are not. It is often the case that a “pastor” is also considered or recognized as one of the elders. I would say that in many churches “pastors” are considered elders, but not all elders are considered pastors. In our church (Community Bible Chapel) I did not use the term “pastor” in a way that distinguished me from other elders. I might say (for visiting a sick member in the hospital, or someone in jail), “I am one of the pastors at Community Bible Chapel,” so that they would grant me the same access that others had (but any of my fellow-elders could say the same).
It seems pretty clear from 1 Timothy 5:17-18 that some elders were paid, and that this was linked to the time and impact of their ministry. It is likewise clear that teachers were likely to be in the category of those financially supported. At our church we expect all members to engage in ministry, and those whose ministry deprives them of time that they would ordinarily work to support themselves would be compensated to that degree—not necessarily all would be full-time.
Because of the way I understand Ephesians 4:11-16, I believe that staff should not be hired to do the work of ministry that belongs to the other members of the church, but to facilitate the ministry of other church members. So the question would be: Does staff position equip, encourage, and enhance the ministry of church members, or does it usurp ministry that should be done by the body? This is critical in my mind. The question and its expected answer should be clear to the elders, to any staff member, and to the congregation.
In short, hiring certain people as staff can greatly enhance the work of ministry conducted by the members of the church, or it can greatly impede ministry by the body. Ephesians 4:11ff. is critical here.
Needless to say, hiring staff will require a bigger church budget and will consume resources that could be utilized elsewhere. In today’s church, church buildings and church staff consume the greatest portion of the church budget. In the New Testament church, widows and the needy were a very high priority, and “staff” was much less visible or prominent.
As I reflect on my experience in dealing with other churches, “staff” is one of the most prominent areas of difficulty. I’m not saying a church should not have staff, though I’m probably suggesting there is a temptation to have too much “staff,” and that they carry out much or most of the ministry of the church. The elders are the leaders who are to shepherd the church, not staff, so the elders need to be very careful not to delegate their shepherding responsibility to others.
Before we move on to non-Scriptural positions (by that I mean positions that are not identified as such in the Bible), let me say a word about deacons. This is a biblical role, but it is probably less well understood than the role of elders is.
When I look at the New Testament it seems clear that at the outset of a church’s history elders are appointed, but not elders and deacons. We see this from Acts 14:23, and also when we compare 1 Timothy 3 with Titus 1. 1 Timothy 3 gives the qualifications for elders and deacons, while Titus only gives the qualifications for elders. 1 Timothy 3 is dealing with the church at Ephesus, which had existed for some time. Titus 1 is dealing with brand new churches. We might also include the example of the appointment of deacon prototypes in Acts 6 (the verb diakoneo—to serve—is used, but not the noun, deacon). I believe that in its infancy the church only needed elders, but as the church grew and the burden on the elders became unbearable, deacons were appointed to assist them in the spiritual ministry God gave them. I don’t believe that elders do the spiritual work and the deacons do the dirty work. So, leadership in the church is by the elders, assisted by the deacons, under the supervision and leadership of the elders.
I would take it that virtually every church would eventually have elders and deacons. As to other positions not specifically named in the New Testament, they may exist, but they are not as critical as elders and deacons are. (Incidentally, our church has ministry groups / small groups, and we seek to have at least two leaders lead as a team, assisted by their wives. We also expect that these ministry group leaders will meet the qualifications of a deacon and be identified as deacons.)
Not everything we do in the church has a New Testament precedent. For example, there were no Sunday Schools mentioned in the New Testament, and no summer camps. Nevertheless, our church has both, and these have been quite fruitful. Once again, however, I would strongly encourage you to ensure that these “staff” positions don’t overshadow the role of the elders (and deacons), and that they don’t hinder the ministry of “lay” (I hate that word) members of the church.
Until now we have paid a man to lead our Sunday School and youth ministries. We are seriously considering scaling back on this, and looking more to volunteers to lead in these ministries. In terms of qualifications, I believe anyone in a staff position should meet the qualifications of a deacon.
Now, with regard to curriculum. The elders did review and endorse our Sunday School curriculum, and this is surely a part of their spiritual oversight of the church. We certainly do want to encourage individual initiative, but over the years we have found that leaving “curriculum” totally in the hands of each teacher leaves a lot of gaps. With a seminary nearby, often these folks want to teach something related to a class they once had or currently have. I remember one elder of another church many years ago saying to a young seminarian, “Just don’t do another Bible Study Methods class.” We do look carefully at who we approve to teach, but also listen carefully to those who know the individuals best.
Are pastors required to give a tithe or give?
The first thing I would say is that there is no difference between “pastors” and other believers so far as what Christians should or should not do. If anything, the standard for church leaders is higher, not lower (see 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1). Leaders are to serve as examples to the flock, leading by example and not just by instruction (see Hebrews 13:7; 1 Peter 5:3).
It is clear that Paul labored with his own hands so that he would not be a burden on others—indeed, so that he might share with and support others (see Acts 20:33-35; 1 Thessalonians 2:7-12). Paul was always eager to help those in need (Galatians 2:9-10).
Having said this, let us be very clear that the church has an obligation to financially (and otherwise) support those who labor at the ministry of the Word (see 1 Corinthians 9:1-14; Galatians 6:6; 2 Timothy 2:6), and to do so generously (1 Timothy 5:17). A number of churches have wrongly opted to “keep the preacher poor,” but this is far from biblical. (And, I must also say, there are those pastors and leaders who wrongly lead a self-indulgent lifestyle.)
The real question is this: “Is any believer required to give to the Lord’s work, or to tithe?” Nowhere in the New Testament is tithing commanded, but it is clear that Christians should minister to those in need (Acts 2, 4, 11:27-30; Romans 12:13; 2 Corinthians 8 & 9), support the advance of the gospel (3 John 1:5-8), and support those who faithfully lead and proclaim the Word of God (1 Timothy 5:17, as noted above).
It seems to me as though this matter of giving is one of those areas where the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing (Matthew 6:2-4). In the church where I am an elder we make it very clear that the elders do not know who gives or how much is given. This includes the one who is supported by the church to preach. (I don’t mean that the elders are unaware of how much we pay our teacher, but rather that we have no knowledge of how much the preacher gives, or to whom he gives.) If this is true, then one can hardly know or care to learn whether the “pastor,” to use your term, gives or tithes. We believe this is a matter between him and the Lord.
Let me say one more thing about giving: Our God is a giving God. He loved the world to the degree that He gave His only Son to save lost sinners. Our generosity in giving is one of the things that marks us a Christians. That is why generosity is so quickly mentioned after the birth of the Church in Acts (see Acts 2, 4).
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