In elder-led congregational polity, church members have a number of important responsibilities; two main areas converge in the responsibility to guard the gospel. We guard the content of the gospel by ensuring that right doctrine is being preached. And we guard the testimony of the gospel by ensuring that church members believe the right gospel and demonstrate right living.
We understand that much of this is accomplished through membership and church discipline. But how does this apply when considering elders? There are common questions that arise here. How should you as a church member think about holding your pastors accountable? Further, what about church discipline for elders? Is this process different than it is for other church members? At the same time church members are called to honor, love, and respect their elders (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 1 Timothy 5:1). The Scriptures even call members to obey and submit to their elders’ teaching and leadership (Hebrews 13:17).
How can a church member faithfully do their job amid this complexity of responsibility?
In this post, I want to consider a church member’s responsibility to hold elders accountable. The first area concerns what they teach, and the second area involves how they live (and lead). Paul’s exhortation to Timothy comes to mind to frame this up: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:16) Finally, I’ll conclude by remembering the precious commodity of trust in a healthy congregation.
Watch Their Life
Prior to becoming an elder, a man must be assessed to ensure he is able to meet the requirements of Scripture. These specific qualifications are found in a few different passages (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-4). When considering moral qualifications we notice they are surprisingly ordinary. In fact, apart from the stipulation that elders are “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2), the qualifications are largely made up of what is expected of all mature Christians. An elder’s life is to be characterized by maturity. The fact that they are to be above reproach (v.2) communicates not the need for perfection but for a mature progress in godliness that is free from ongoing sins that would undermine his ministry.
Watching must be clarified. It would be an unhealthy context if church members felt commissioned to serve as investigators, deputized to walk behind their elders and look for potential reasons to remove them. This is not the type of watching the Bible commands. Instead, the context for watching is built into the community life of the church whereby members learn and are instructed by the manner of life of their elders.
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7)
There are many other examples where the leader’s life is to serve as an example for the rest of the church (1 Peter 5:3 especially; but also: 1 Corinthians 4:16, 11:1; Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:7,9). It is a benefit for the church member to spend time with their shepherds so they can watch, learn, and emulate.
In a previous post I wrote about what to do if the elder is not meeting biblical qualifications. But for now, it’s important to have this category in place and its corresponding biblical emphasis. Keep an eye on your elders’ lives. It’s a tool for your own growth.
Keep an eye on your elders’ lives. It’s a tool for your own growth.
Watch Their Doctrine
Members must also watch the elders’ doctrine. Doctrine is simply another word for teaching. At first this might seem overwhelming, How can I be in a position to evaluate an elder’s teaching?
We should not think of this in terms of having to know as much about the Bible and theology as the elder. Rather, evaluate their faithfulness to teach the truth that binds you together as a church. Historically this category of accountability has to do with ensuring the pastors are teaching consistent with the mutually agreed upon statement of faith. In most churches, whenever someone joins the church they are asked to read, consider, and ultimately agree with this document. It is a confessional document that articulates key truths we put forward as binding us together as a church. At the heart of it is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The church members should regularly evaluate the teaching ministry of the church to ensure it is maintaining the biblical standards.
For example, the Bereans examined the Scriptures to ensure the things spoken by Paul were accurate. This is commended as noble.
“Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” (Acts 17:11)
The Philippian church was commended along with their elders and deacons to strive together to guard and defend the gospel.
“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,” (Philippians 1:27)
Paul admonished the Galatian congregation for failing to defend the gospel. He reminds them of their need to continually examine and evaluate the content of the teaching with the plumb line of the gospel. Notice the strong language used.
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:6–9)
These are just a few examples that show how the apostles reminded the congregations to ensure they were doing their part to ensure the purity of doctrine and the preservation of the gospel in the church.
Much like the evaluation of life, the watching of doctrine is not so much the work of a private investigator but of an invested and engaged member who loves the truth of Scripture and labors for it to be faithfully heralded.
Agenda of Christ
In a healthy church, the relationship between elders and church members is characterized by trust. Both members and elders extend trust to one another knowing full well they are fallen, sinners who need grace. Members should love God and his Word so much that they love, respect, and honor those who faithfully teach it to them (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 1 Timothy 5:17; Heb. 13:7). In this healthy relationship, there is a willingness to obey and submit to the elders’ teaching and leadership (Hebrews 13:17).
A healthy church will also realize that there is another leader above the local church elders; the Lord Jesus Christ is the head of the church (Col. 1:18). Therefore, the members along with the elders, labor under his gaze longing for his approval. We all do our part to pay attention to what is being taught and how we all are living. This loving intimacy can only be achieved when we set aside ourselves, and together, put forward the agenda of Christ in his church.