Member responsibilities and elders appointed to lead

In the congregational church polity that I believe to biblical, we necessarily think the church as a whole has a say in certain matters. It is my view that the church has been given responsibility to determine who should belong, what is taught and who is to lead. That means members are necessarily involved in the decisions to welcome and remove members, to ensure the gospel is rightly being taught in the church (and so matters concerning the church constitution, the doctrinal basis and what is being heard from the pulpit) and who the elders and deacons should be.

The usual riposte to congregationalism typically comes in the form of a sneer about voting on the colour of the carpet. It is my view that churches getting bogged down in members meeting about those practicalities and bits of minutiae are not fulfilling their God-ordained responsibilities and have misunderstood the specific roles God has given to people to handle such matters. The three areas outlined above are where members should rightly be involved and, where sometimes necessary, find themselves getting exercised.

Matters of carpet colour and whether to put up curtains – as I outlined here – are within the purview of the deacons, who should be left to get on to handle such matters as licensed by the church when they were appointed. The elders, likewise, are appointed to lead and, primarily, through the ministry of Word and prayer. Whilst they will set direction through the application of biblical principles, they will not want to be bogged down in the practicalities of such matters but will license others to work out how best to accomplish those biblical ends and purposes they have established. In the ordinary run of things, these are the areas of responsibility God has granted to the church.

Of course, things are rarely so neat and simple on the ground. There is obviously crossover between setting biblical direction and vision and practically carrying such matters out. There is obviously crossover between having concern for what is being taught within the church and the way those things are being practically realised. In a sense, all members will have a concern about the practicalities and the elders will be rightly concerned about them too just as the deacons are not mere pragmatists who have no concern for spiritual matters at all, as if there is no relationship between what they are doing and the spiritual principles driving it. There is an interplay between the members, deacons and elders that should cause them to work together harmoniously. But scripture does not lay down every possible matter and determine who specifically ought to address it. These things have to be worked out somehow.

Sometimes this need to apply wisdom is what leads to church members getting overly caught up in practical matters that are not really their domain. They have a right concern for what happens in the church, but it can spill over into a stymying insistence that every minor matter is run by the entire membership for their sign off. I am convinced Jesus does not want his church to run this way. I think he has designated the specific areas in which the whole church ought to be involved – the questions of who belongs, what is taught and who leads – and then expects the members to submit to the authority of those they appoint up until they fall foul of the specific criteria the members have been given in their areas of responsibility. So, elders really are appointed to lead, and members really are to submit to their elders, unless those elders begin teaching a false gospel, lead in such a way that they are forcing church members into sin or they themselves are in sin and disqualified from leadership. Short of these things, members appoint their leaders to lead and then submit to their leadership within those particular boundaries set in scripture.

If that is right, elders are given a very wide degree of flexibility in how they lead and specifically what they lead the church to do. Their biblical vision for the church, and the particular ways they lead given the nature of their context, may not be expressly stated in scripture. That is not to say they should be doing anything that is unbiblical. But, for example, the Bible calls the church to share the gospel. But there may be culturally and context-specific ways you want to do that which make a real difference to your ministry that the Bible doesn’t expressly demand. So, to give a fairly obvious example, my church runs dialogue events with local Muslims because our immediate community is demographically almost entirely South Asian Muslim. It would be mad, however, for a church in the white British village I mainly grew up in to try and run those same things because where I grew up was 99.9% white British. Both churches must fulfil the biblical mandate to preach and share the gospel, to evangelise the world, but the specific ways they do that are going to look different in their respective contexts. This is just plain and obvious stuff.

But what do you do when someone in your church – in the middle of your white middle class British village – decides they have a burning desire to reach Muslims in the area? Indeed, they may think it is, whilst not exactly sin, less than God’s best that the church they are in does not seem to reflect the manifold wisdom of God by bringing all nations together in Christ in one church. The church needs to do more Muslim outreach, they think. The elders, by contrast – sympathetic to the general desire to reach the nations and seeing entirely the need for South Asian Muslims to come to Christ (and even the manifold wisdom of God in bringing such people together with white Brits in one church) – nevertheless think that in their 99.9% white British village, it is a fools errand to determine to reach Muslims from where there are. Is the member – especially if there are a significant number who agree – right to insist on this based on their responsibility to guard the teaching – and indeed who teaches – in the church; or, are the elders right to say – much as they recognise the gospel imperative to evangelise here and sympathetise with the desire – the specific tactics of evangelism and mission are not laid down in scripture and they have been appointed to lead the church in such areas?

In the specific example, two things seem to be the case. First, and perhaps primary, would be my view that the elders are called to lead. They have been appointed by the church to set direction, and that includes thinking about these particular things. If they are not causing an individual to sin by what they suggest, and they are not departing from the gospel themselves or teaching contrary to it, it is right for members to simply submit to the authority of their elders in this matter. It may not be what they would have done, but it is what the elders have determined to be best for the church. So, the immediate presenting issue boils down to whether elders are actually called to lead and what the extent of membership involvement is in the church. If my outline above is right, this would be an example of members submitting to their elders who have not departed the gospel nor called any member to engage in what is sinful. it is a difference of approach, gospel tactics if you like, that elders are specifically appointed to lead on and in which members are called to submit.

The second thing worth saying is, whether you think the member has a point or you think the elders are right that they are being contextually inappropriate, you would hope in this scenario the elders would see an opportunity for encouragement. Here is an individual with a burning heart for a particular people group that don’t exist in the immediate area. Their desire for the gospel, for the evangelisation of the nations, for that people group can be commended. More to the point, if they really do have a heart for such people who aren’t in this area, the church could readily encourage them to think about being part of a church – or going to an altogether different country – where such people do live and can be reached. The church can send a keen evangelist to a particular people, be involved in ministry to such people themselves, without doing contextually inappropriate things when there is nobody in their community who would tap in.

Regardless of how you read that particular situation, my simple point is that God has given particular responsibilities to the church as a whole, to deacons and to elders. Where elders are faithfully teaching the gospel, not insisting any member embroils themselves in sin and isn’t in sin themselves, the church – whether they fully agree with everything the elders plan or not – ought to submit themselves to the leaders they have appointed.

It might make sense for elders to go to the church over certain issues – wisdom suggests some matters are too big to just pronounce on – but in the ordinary run of things, it is easier to apologise than to ask permission. In areas where elders have been tasked to lead, they must lead. They could ask everyone’s opinion on every matter, but this would only yield numerous opinions and a sense amongst some that they were not heeded (which is inevitable when a range of opinions comes back). When people are not consulted as a matter of course, but things simply happen, many accept them as insignificant and minor things. When matters are raised and opinions solicited, the impression given is this is a matter that is much more significant than it is and my opinion on it matters much more than it really does. Where people do feel strongly about a matter, you will usually find out after the fact. Advanced opinion-finding as a matter of course stymies any progress as a church you might make; responding pastorally when concerns are raised after the fact allows progress to be made and – where necessary – changes to be reversed. But ultimately, members are to submit to the leadership of the elders they appointed to lead. They should exercise their dissenting voice only when elders themselves are in sin, are causing members to sin through their leadership or they have departed from the gospel. Elders otherwise are appointed to lead, must be allowed to lead and members must rightly submit, particular in areas that are matters of wisdom not expressly laid down in scripture.