When we think wrongly about leadership in the church, the church suffers. Sometimes we make the wrong people leaders. Other times we distort the relationship between the church and her leaders. What follows below is an attempt to kindly point out three of the most common errors I've seen in reformed churches when thinking about the leadership of elders in Jesus' church.
(Our church family is looking forward to an election for new elders this week. Over the past two Sundays I've preached and taught on the moral and spiritual qualifications for the elders. These thoughts come from those sermons.)
Error #1 - Not Reading 1 Timothy 3 Correctly
In 1 Timothy 3, Paul gives to Timothy -- and through Timothy to the church -- the list of moral qualifications for elders. He includes positives such as "above reproach...self-controlled, respectable, hospitable..." He also includes negatives like "not a drunkard, not violent..." And then he gives three final qualifications with reasons attached to them: an elder must show good household management, not be a recent convert and needs a good reputation. The list itself is clear and easy to understand.
But I've noticed people interpreting this list in two wrong ways. The first is to read these qualifications as the law of God against which no infraction can be tolerated. In this way of reading, no one will be qualified except those who have successfully pretended to be perfect. The second is to read these qualifications as some good suggestions but not hard-and-fast rules. In this way of reading, almost every man in the congregation seems eligible for the office of elder.
If our reading of 1 Timothy 3 leads us to believe that no one's qualified or that almost everyone is qualified, we haven't understood the passage. Paul wrote to Timothy with the full expectation that he would be able to find men like this in the churches he was serving. And he also wrote with the full expectation that some would be disqualified from the office. Reading 1 Timothy 3 requires wisdom, realizing the balance: God doesn't require perfection in leaders but that He does require godliness.
Error #2 - Viewing the Eldership as the Pinnacle
God calls His people to "respect those who labor among you and are over you in the lord and admonish you." (1 Tim. 5:12) It is good and right to respect the elders of the church. But a subtle danger arises when we assume that the elders are necessarily the greatest Christians among us. And with that comes the never-stated but often-presumed idea that being an elder in the church is somehow the height of Christianity, the pinnacle to which every man should aspire--and the peak which women can never climb at all. The result is elevating the office so high that an unhealthy distinction is drawn between elders and the rest of the church.
In contrast, the Bible teaches that most Christians are disqualified from the eldership, not on the basis of moral qualifications but on the basis of spiritual qualifications. Being an elder requires that a man not only stand up to the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3, but that he shows the spiritual gifts of leadership (Rom. 12:8) and teaching (Titus 1:9). And while God gives those gifts to a few, He gives many other gifts to the rest of the church. Some are called to lead while all are called (and gifted) to serve in some way.
In every healthy church, there will be godlly elders serving with sacrificial leadership and Biblical teaching. And there will also be many other godly Christians serving the Lord according to their own gifts. Ordained leadership in the church is not the pinnacle of Christian spirituality. Faithful fruitfulness is.
Error #3 - Seeing Deacons as Junior Varsity Elders
Related to an overly-high view of the eldership is the common, if usually unspoken, idea that being a deacon is the training ground for becoming an elder. One question will prove this is a common problem: When was the last time you heard of an elder being elected as a deacon? A study of the church in the New Testament should make it clear how bad it is to treat the diaconate as the junior varsity officers. Not only does it serve to greatly devalue the work of deacons, it also unhelpfully flattens out the important differences between the two offices--not to mention ignoring our church's standards which see the office of deacon open to women as well as men.
It is certainly true that the moral qualifications for the two offices are very similar. But the spiritual qualifications for the two offices are very different because their area of labor is very different. And while it is conceivable that a man could have spiritual gifts that qualify him for either office, it is probably fairly rare. If all of the church's elders are former deacons, we are either choosing our deacons or our elders poorly. In light of this, I gave this exhortation to our congregation: "We have four godly men serving as deacons. If you want to vote for them to be elders, that's fine...but don't vote for them to become elders because they're deacons. Vote for them because you believe their spritual gifts mean they'll be better elders than they are deacons."
A deacon who serves faithfully for many years according to their spiritual gifts should be honored and valued by the church. While men who are deacons should be willing to be called by God to become elders, they should never experience the pressure to "advance" to the eldership.
I hope this post doesn't come across as too negative. I don't think these are insurmountable or earth-shattering problems. But I do believe the church would be healthier if we spotted these problems and in shining the light on them finally got rid of them.