The Problem of Ineffective Elders

Presenter: Bob Deffinbaugh

Question: Is there a correct way to address an elder who is no longer effective?

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 that 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.

But, 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 chapter one, 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).