Since helping plant our church in 2011, I’ve been continually amazed at the beauty of the biblical eldership process. In the beginning, our “leadership team” was a gaggle of inexperienced dudes with more passion than experience. I praise God that our lead pastor chose to wait to install us as elders.
An elder board of imperfect but Christ-loving men is dangerous (in a good way) as they seek to take new ground for God’s kingdom. God’s design for church polity is a hedge of protection and a catalyst to promote flourishing. It’s a lot of work to appoint and maintain a healthy elder board, but it’s worth it.
It isn’t mere accountability that makes biblical eldership so helpful. It’s the passion in diversity of perspectives, the potency of prayer for the church, and the power of God’s Spirit working through imperfect men to glorify the perfect Christ.
Unsurprisingly, God’s plan for church governance is effective and powerful. And yet, we must be careful. Planting a church without healthy elders is like stepping on the gas pedal while throwing the steering wheel out the window.
Appointing elders is not like appointing board members. A church is not less than an organization, but it is more. Elders lead the blood-bought bride of Jesus Christ. While businesses play an important role in culture-making and providing for people, churches are primarily concerned with eternal destinies.
“Hire slowly, fire quickly” is a fine adage in the business world, but it’s unfit for church governance. Once an elder is installed, he is spiritually tied to the church. Removing him quickly will strain the body and violate trust.
Planting a church without healthy elders is like stepping on the gas pedal while throwing the steering wheel out the window.
The downfall of a leader is always devastating, but even more so in the case of an elder. He’s a shepherd, caring for the souls of his sheep. The moral failure of an elder is more like a father caught in adultery than a CEO caught in embezzlement. The family will be devastated.
Appoint Elders Slowly
In his letter to Titus, Paul instructs him to appoint elders in the churches he’s recently planted: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). Paul leaves Titus with an unmistakable directive: appoint elders in every town. Not most towns. Not some towns. Every one.
Paul knows in order for these infant churches to thrive, they must have godly men watching over their doctrine, praying for them, and teaching them soundly. These men aren’t expected to be perfect, but they must be men of character. And character is revealed when observed consistently over time.
Paul warns Timothy in another letter not to be hasty in the “laying on of hands” (1 Tim. 5:22)—that is, in commissioning elders—and he explains why: “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden” (vv. 24–25).
Take Time to Observe
While some sins take time to reveal themselves, others appear quickly. Only by observing someone through some of life’s trials and temptations will you truly know if they’re qualified to be an elder.
Perhaps he is a proud man, but his pride hasn’t yet showed itself. Or maybe he’s abusive to his family, but they’re hiding it behind fearful smiles. It could be that he loves money, and you’ll need to observe him in situations where he must choose between financial gain and the glory of Christ.
Undershepherds must trust the Good Shepherd: he is the one building, nurturing, and protecting his bride.
Sometimes godliness takes time to reveal itself. Kindness is easy to spot in the lobby, but self-control and sober-mindedness are more subtle. Some men will surprise you with their darkness; others will delight you with their faithfulness. It takes time to see both. A man’s character, coupled with the ability to teach, qualifies him to be an elder, by God’s calling. Give character time to show itself.
Undershepherds must trust the Good Shepherd: he is the one building, nurturing, and protecting his bride. Elders are merely instruments in his sovereign hands.
Elders are essential for healthy churches, but let’s not rush to install them before a time of testing (1 Tim. 3:10). Don’t be hasty, and above all, trust God to provide his church with the right overseers at the right time.