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Ecclesiology Matters. Especially for Elders.

Danilo Batista on Unsplash
Acts 29: Churches Planting Churches

The seed of the gospel is planted in new soil. A new church is established. And then, a few years in, a crisis occurs.

Significant conflict hits young churches with surprising consistency, even if the reasons are widely varied.

But not me, I thought. I’ve been thoughtful about our approach. I’m a better leader.

I was wrong.

The journey of planting a church has a way of forcing a painful reality check when the vague ecclesiology many planters carry into their new churches is confronted by the complications of real people, real sin, and real challenges that develop with growth.

Ecclesiology Matters

In the eagerness to see a church planted, many leaders run the risk of appointing elders too quickly. It can be tempting to compromise on certain doctrines in order to have an eldership and, therefore, a healthy church. One such doctrine is ecclesiology. I’ve seen many leaders appoint elders without seeking unity on this issue.

It can be tempting to compromise on certain doctrines in order to have an eldership and, therefore, a healthy church. One such doctrine is ecclesiology.

Perhaps we think unity on ecclesiology is secondary to other “more important” doctrinal matters. But this could not be further from the truth.

Change Is Inevitable

To varying degrees, church plants will go through stages of change, and elders need to be prepared for their roles to shift as this happens. Sometimes, elders need to make weighty calls in light of these changes. Difficult decisions are the lay of the land in church planting. And you can’t simply write a detailed guide as to how you’ll deal with these changes in your prospectus. But a robust ecclesiology can help.

About four years into planting our church, fissures appeared in the relationships between key leaders. Those fissures had roots in philosophical divides that grew over time and turned into personal hurt. Division developed, and eventually true crisis. By God’s grace, the church was preserved and is now more healthy and unified than ever before. Still, it was painful and unsettling.

But teaching on the nature of the church is about more than just conflict avoidance. It’s about being faithful to the Bible.

Move Slowly

Church plants of the more Reformed persuasion typically have strong theological convictions, including a commitment to a plurality of elders who lead, guide, and care for the church. From this good desire for plurality, many planters appoint elders quickly. This can mean appointing men with little experience in leadership or a small sample size of life and ministry in the local church. This is exactly what Paul cautions young Timothy against doing in Ephesus. One of my mentors pointed out that some of Paul’s list may even show us a correction of mistakes he made along the way in planting churches.

I know few church planters who look back with regret for moving too slowly.

So, don’t be hasty in the laying on of hands (1 Tim. 5:22). I know few church planters who look back with regret for moving too slowly.

Develop and Train

Early on, I also focused heavily on doctrine in our training, at the expense of other aspects of eldership. It is true that “able to teach” is one of the qualifications for elders, but it is only one (1 Tim. 3:2). What undergirds all the qualifications is character. Character will prevail where giftedness is lacking.

Where I once looked for the sharpest theologian in the room, I now look for the man whose presence most encourages and lifts the spirits of those around him, pointing them to Jesus.

So we reshaped our training to focus primarily on developing and evaluating a man’s heart and character. Our development process works to assess and strengthen emotional intelligence. We observe a man’s life at home, at work, and in the church. Where I once looked for the sharpest theologian in the room, I now look for the man whose presence most encourages and lifts the spirits of those around him, pointing them to Jesus.

Build Toward Philosophical Unity

While character is the key marker when it comes to qualifications for elders (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1), there’s a wide spectrum of perspectives on how elder teams are to function. A man may have the character qualifications listed in Scripture—and even have elder experience in another church—but still differ from the vision or ministry philosophy of the church you’re planting. And when those differences are present within an elder team, it can be paralyzing. If they turn into deep division, the church will experience the division as well.

Disagreement about whether a church has a “lead pastor” or what role that pastor has within the church and elder team can lead to a pastor thinking he is doing his job while others feel he is too controlling. As we were planting our church, there were times when people on our team could describe the same moment in opposite ways. A lack of unity on how the roles of various elders were differentiated contributed to that division.

As our church grew and the staff team grew with it, the role of the elders had to shift as well.

Disagreement about the roles of the elders and staff team, and how they relate, can lead to frustrating meetings and confusion. As our church grew and the staff team grew with it, the role of the elders had to shift as well. These shifts were welcomed by some and resisted strongly by others.

Disagreement on the core structures for care and mission in the church will lead to competing visions for the church, and can end in division. Our team developed sharp disagreement on the connection of elders to community group leaders, and who was responsible to directly care for the church’s members.

As I reflect on these difficulties, it’s important to recognize that we often couldn’t blame one person. The challenges we faced were the result of necessary changes in leading a maturing church.

And this is why deep humility and wisdom are needed. I’m not advocating for uniformity, but for unity. It is possible to have slightly different perspectives on ecclesiology and still have a healthy eldership. But know that division can quickly arise. Humble, prayerful dependence will no doubt be necessary in navigating such issues.

Repent, Learn, Grow

Church planters will make mistakes. Other leaders will make mistakes. It’s difficult for a lot of planters to make the transition from the entrepreneurial sensibilities of getting something started to the pastoral sensibilities of leading a church. As conflict inevitably arrives, repent quickly and regularly, learn from mistakes, and grow in the application of the gospel in the church.

Planting a church is always more complicated than writing the vision prospectus.

I made my share of mistakes along the way and had to repent both privately and publicly. I had ecclesiological ideals that looked great on paper but fell short when tested by real-life ministry and conflict. I’m thankful for the wise mentors who helped me to press on, reminding me that the church is not built on perfect leaders, but on a perfect Savior.

Planting a church is always more complicated than writing the vision prospectus. Having a clear, written, and biblically rooted ecclesiology—on which all your elders agree from the beginning—can help a church better carry out its mission and navigate conflict as it arises.

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