Elders who rule well...

Error message

In two weeks, we'll be holding our conference for church officers here in Bloomington. The conference is February 19 - 21 and it's not too late to register. Our title is "Elders Who Rule Well," and here's an explanation.

Sometime this past year, it struck me that this word 'rule' needs to be restored to a place of dignity among us. It is what elders are called to do, after all, and in a healthy church, most of the session's time, energy, and prayers are given to this work.

Jethro told his son-in-law, Moses, to appoint one elder for every ten people. What was their work?

So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. They judged the people at all times; the difficult dispute they would bring to Moses, but every minor dispute they themselves would judge. Then Moses bade his father-in-law farewell, and he went his way into his own land. - Exodus 18:24-27

Such a simple statement of the elder's calling: "They judged the people at all times." If you're an elder, is this what you signed up for? Is this how you think of yourself? Is this what your wife and children understand keeps you from dinner and an evening around the wood stove or fireplace Thursday nights?

Likely not. Instead, we think of elders "elding," whatever that is. "Honey, I'm going to the church-house to eld. See you later." And off he goes. Probably something having to do with schedules, budgets, staff supervision, or updating the "Values" on our church web site.

Ask the congregation what the elders do and only a very few would respond...

"they judge between us when we have disputes" or "they keep the peace." Church members invariably think of themselves as innocent and peaceable and they look askance at any request by the elders to meet with them. They're predisposed to view such requests as controlling, abusive, or cultish.

With sociologist Ron Enroth pulling in royalties and fueling the bitterness of contumacious sinners everywhere by trotting out stories of church officers who punish their church softball team by demanding that they play their next game with their weak hand 1, both congregations and elders are predisposed to set the bar very, very high for any elder involvement in their congregation's disputes. Fear of showing up as a bad example in Enroth's next book or having a write-up on one of Enroth's fan-boy's blogs scares elders away from doing any conflict resolution within their flock. The conflict would have to be something on the order an eighteen year old boy attacking an eighty-five year old widow with a hatchet Sunday morning during worship down front by the Communion Table. Then the elders might be willing to delegate a couple session members to meet with the young man next week and explore with him whether or not he has an anger problem.

Apart from such cases, business-as-usual among church elders is that they do their best to stay ignorant of the divisions and wars and schisms of their congregation involving sins such as elder abuse, child molestation, probate conflict, elder theft, incest, domestic violence, adultery, fornication, unpaid child support, false disability claims, bankruptcy, fraud, abuse of construction liens, alcoholism, pornography, gambling, sloth, loveless husbands, rebellious wives, and heresies taught by very "spiritual" members in home fellowship groups. These sins are in every one of our churches.

There's no question that the courts of our nation are filled with cases in which those being ruled by probation officers, mediation services, psychiatrists, prosecutors, attorneys, child advocates, and judges hold membership in our churches. We have failed them, usually for many years before their sins reach the civil magistrate for his adjudication.

These sins and conflicts are exactly the sort of sins and conflicts that robbed the Church of Corinth of her peace. They are exactly the sort of sins and conflicts Moses spent every single day judging, from early morning until late in the evening. They are the sins and conflicts that fill the pages of the session record (minute) books chronicling the work done in the weekly meetings of John Calvin and Geneva's church officers. 

Elders rule. Elders judge. Elders keep the peace or work to restore it.

We don't like to think of church officers in such a negative way, but how else would you describe investigating whether a wife is being beaten by her husband? A child is being aborted by his father and mother? A father-in-law is being poisoned or starved to death by his son-in-law and the healthcare workers?A husband is committing adultery? A father is raping his daughter?

How else would you describe the duties of elders toward a household of the church in which a son who has punched his mother and cursed his father continues to live in his father's house? 

These sins are being committed by members of our churches all the time and it is the center of the elders' calling to govern, rule, and judge these situations so that peace may return to their flock and its households.

Elders are to rule well. To judge rightly between a husband and wife, a son and his mother, a father and his daughter, a man and his sister, an employer and his employee, a contractor and his client. Elders are to govern. To judge. To adjudicate. To rebuke sin and heresy so the flock may feed in green pastures and drink at still waters.

"Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me."

This is the stuff of Scripture and it should be the stuff of our session meetings, also. Souls are at stake. If we refuse to do it, what happens?

We certainly don't escape authority or its abuse. Authority is simply transferred from the church to the state, then from all the states across the country to the feds in Washington D.C. Where we are not vigilant to guard the authority of the Church—a mediating institution appointed by God; where we are not faithful to rule, to keep the peace in the church and its households; we have no one but ourselves to blame for church authority being supplanted by the civil magistrate.

Yet when elders are faithful in their work, it's a wonderful Christian witness to police officers, lawyers, prosecutors, detectives, child protection service workers, teachers, principals, and judges. And, quite often, a relief to them as well.

Several times in the past couple of years, I've known of family service workers, prosecutors, and judges leaving most of the discipline of offenders in the hands of elders because it was the church pastor or elders who informed them of the offense or crime; also because, before they were informed, the pastor or his elders had placed the offender under discipline and taken rigorous steps to bring the offence to an end and protect the victims. (And one of those steps was informing the civil magistrate.)

This is as it should be. When elders rule well, the civil magistrate will grow in his trust of the mediating institution of the church and the benevolent authority of the church's officers (elders). Having such mediating authorities do their work often will be a great relief to him.

Sinful churches avoid the intimacy and fellowship necessary for faithful eldership and such churches are led by shepherds who actively cultivate ignorance of their sheep. If we had Biblical fellowship and our elders ruled as they ought, we would know long before the police or prosecutor or child protective services about the incest, fraud, assault, domestic violence, theft, or unpaid child support within our flock. (And this is not even to mention sins like abortion, fornication, pornography, adultery, and sodomy that are no longer punished by the civil magistrate.)

Christians today demand they be left alone in their anonymity, and bad elders connive at their members' rebellion by avoiding any knowledge that would demand the hard work or ruling that is the center of their calling.

Good elders committed to fulfilling their office by ruling well will not allow this anonymity. Instead, they will lead their flock in such a way that they come to know their sheep and. therefore, are able to bring or restore peace.

  • 1.

    Pastor Phil was in the stands watching his team participate in a church league softball game. The game was going great, but for some reason Pastor Phil asked the coach to substitute a number of men in the next inning. The coach complied but left the assistant pastor in the game. This evidently infuriated Pastor Phil. According to the (former) coach, "He called me with his bull horn to come to the spectator stands immediately. He was extremely angry and asked me why I had disobeyed him about the substitutions, pointing out that the assistant pastor was still in the game. Without any provocation on my part, Phil was attempting to intimidate me publicly before many people. I was stunned! His outrage continued for the rest of the evening as he attacked me and the team members."

    The following week Pastor Phil was unable to attend the ball game, but he gave orders to play the game "backward." That meant the players had to bat left-handed if they were right-handed and vice versa. All field positions were switched so that everyone was playing in an unfamiliar location. Since the pastor couldn't be there, he sent someone with a camera to videotape the whole game to make sure his decree was obeyed. The point of all of this, he said, was to "humble" the team because they were getting too proud from winning so many games. The team members were, in fact, humiliated and embarrassed. (Ron Enroth, Churches that Abuse, p. 9.)

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!