Work for Unity

by David Eubanks 

If Jesus were to appear at a conference of church elders and leaders today, what admonition would He give them?  Of course, no one can answer that question except Him.  I am fairly convinced, however, that high on His list of concerns would be the disunity that plagues so many American congregations, including those in the Christian Churches / Churches of Christ.
We simply do not take division in the body of Christ as seriously as God does.  David in the Psalms long ago highlighted the essential goodness of brothers “dwelling together in unity” (133:1).  On the night that He instituted the Lord’s Supper and was betrayed, Jesus prayed earnestly for His apostles, and also for us, that we “all may be one” (John 17:21).  I have often reflected on the significance of that prayer in that context.  Of the hundreds of issues that would face the church in the centuries ahead, Jesus chose in that moment, with the cross looming over Him, to focus His prayer for us on unity.
The truth is that, perhaps, has the Devil’s most effective and destructive weapon against The Church not been persecution, but division?  Paul had a keen sense of the danger and damage of division and the great need for unity in the body.  He urged the Ephesians to make every effort to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3).  In fact, the great apostle was constantly urging the readers of his letters to be unified in mind, spirit, word, and love.
Strong, dynamic, growing, influential churches can be, and have been, reduced by division in a short time to mere shadows of their former selves. Much of the time the issues that brought on the division could have been resolved by Godly, wise, Spirit-led elders who placed a high value on unity and acted unselfishly, prudently, and expeditiously. 
I well remember years ago speaking at the setting-apart of a young couple to missionary service by their congregation, with full support from the church.  It was a dream-come-true for both the people and the couple and their family.  The young man’s father was one of the elders.  A few years later the elders had to bring the couple home, for both doctrine and practice that the elders could not condone.  The preacher related to me that the only way the church weathered the storm was that the missionary’s father/elder stood with the elders in their unanimous decision, even though he did not disown his son.  The church survived and thrived.
On the other hand, I asked my barber a few weeks ago how her church was doing. She replied “So! So!” She then went on to tell me that the congregation was suffering, because a few people were creating strife, and the leaders were ignoring it, pretending it did not exist, trying to please everyone, even those creating the division.  
How many times is this scenario repeated?  Pray and act that it not happen among you.

The Elder and Change

by Dick Alexander

Every elder wants to help shepherd a living church, not a dying one. Yet many miss a critical aspect of the job.

Strong, vibrant, growing churches are both Biblically sound and culturally in-tune.  A church that loses either half of that equation dies.  Entire denominations have given up on the truth of Scripture and are empty sepulchers.  But the landscape is also littered with dead and dying churches that preached the gospel till their final breath, but did it in a polyester leisure suit.  A church that loses its connection to the Word loses its power; a church that loses its connection to its culture loses its audience.  Both must be concerns of elders.

Culture is changing rapidly.  One hundred years ago culture was more static, more predictable.  But by 1970, Alvin Toffler wrote in Future Shock that the only constant is change.  And that was nearly a half century ago.  This means any church that is not constantly making appropriate changes will likely not be here in 20 years.  Maybe not in 10.

Good church leaders don’t apologize for changes in church programming, structures, and worship forms.  They create a culture of change, where ongoing change is expected.  Vibrant churches make continuous changes that are well-conceived, well-communicated, and well-implemented.  Change is a way of life.

I remember thinking some years ago that our church was in a period of transition.  Then the realization came that going forward we would always be in transition.

So where are elders in all of this?  Honestly, most elders are better at keeping the church on track Biblically than culturally.  Part of this may be that elders are, by definition, older, rather than younger.  Many are long-time church members and love their church “the way it is.”  And they hear, sometimes vociferously, from other long-time members who like their church the way it is, or more problematically, who want to take it back to a former time that is gone forever.

Often tension arises between elders and staff over new initiatives.  Staff propose a grand new idea that never gets off the ground with elders.  The staff is deflated, and the elders frustrated or disappointed.  The staff may not have given appropriate respect to traditions or a reasonable pace of change, and may have been unrealistic.  The elders may have been short on vision, a sense of mission, and maybe just short on courage.

Elder work involves governing.  Thoughtful elders aren’t chasing every ministry fad.  Sometimes good governance sets limits and says no.  On the other hand, they are constantly seeking new ways to fulfill our urgent mission.  Elders who want the church to have a future will be asking questions like:

  • How are we going to improve what we’re doing now?
  • What new initiatives will we launch this year, especially in outreach?
  • What will we quit doing that is no longer effective?

On one side, elders are partners with staff in constantly seeking more effective ways for ministry. On the other hand, they are guides to the congregation in helping communicate the necessity and rationale for innovation.

Elders of vibrant churches don’t resist change – they require it.  Any change is risky – some will fail.  But it’s like snow skiing – if you never fall, you’re not getting better.  All good leadership groups have a respectable number of failures noted in their minutes.  After a few years they are good stories to laugh about.

Churches are sometimes hamstrung by dissatisfied members.  Maybe the most deadly words spoken in elder meetings are, “We can’t afford to lose anyone.”  Every significant change, especially those centered on outreach, will cause some to leave the church.  We let them go with tears, but we let them go.  They will find another church – they won’t go to hell.  But someone else might if the church doesn’t connect with today’s world.

Guided by the Spirit and the Word, capable elders shepherd a church in a dynamic, life-giving pathway of service.  It’s not only good now, but it helps ensure there will be a church for their grandkids.

How to “Eld”

by Jon Weatherly 

Asked the fateful question, “Will you serve as an elder in the upcoming term?” what does the typical candidate think?  

I believe it’s this: What in the world are elders supposed to do? 

And the first answer to that question probably follows a functional path: our elders attend meetings monthly, work together to make decisions that affect the entire church, provide oversight to the paid staff, provide guidance to church members, and function as the governing board of the church’s legal corporation. 

But is there an answer beyond the functional?  How should elders carry out those functional duties? How should elders “eld”? 

A biblical answer is found in 1 Peter 5:1-4 (ESV): 
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 

The key elements of “elding” are summed up in this brief text. We can enumerate:

  • Elders lead like shepherds.  The shepherd nourishes and protects.  He takes his cues from the sheep’s needs, not their impulses.
  • Elders exercise “oversight.”  Peter’s word implies not micromanagement or domination but diligent attention to welfare.  It’s the leadership of the brother, not the boss.
  • Elders serve with enthusiasm.  They don’t seek attention, let alone remuneration.  Their work is lowly, but they regard it as lovely.
  • Elders lead by example.  Discipleship is “caught” as much as it’s taught.  Elders are gentle, humble exemplars of discipleship, quietly and sincerely on display for others’ imitation.

What does all that add up to?  The final verse makes clear the foundation of “elding.”  Jesus, the divine Son of God who willingly became human and suffered a tortuous death for the sake of the undeserving, is the chief shepherd.  He sets the example of those who will be examples.  He had every right to dominate, to seek his own benefit, to force others to serve him, but he consistently did the opposite.  He conformed neither to the world’s idea of power – seen in kings and generals – nor the trivial wishes of his flock – epitomized in their requests for their own elevation.  Jesus pursued a glory that is found in lowliness, service, suffering, faithfulness.  Being an elder means being like the Jesus who welcomed back Peter, who had rebuked Jesus for his determination to go to the cross and denied that he knew Jesus in the moment of trial.  To serve as an elder is to exercise similar grace. 

Will you serve as an elder this upcoming term?  That is, will you serve as Jesus did?

Altar Ego

by Jeff Faull 

Church health is a hot topic.  That’s appropriate because when a church is healthy, it should naturally grow.  So where do we concentrate our energy and attention to promote health?  We could emphasize leadership, doctrine and correct belief, involvement, worship, evangelism and outreach…  Indispensable as these are, one component permeates every other arena in The Church:  humility. 

Even secular leadership research has discovered that successful organizations deal not just with strategy, vision, or technical issues, but with emotional intelligence and relationship concerns.  They’re “uncovering” Scriptural principles that have been available to us for centuries.  The Church too often is forgetting lessons we were already taught. 

Two implications stand out.  

First, God blesses humble churches but opposes proud churches.  
God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble, (Proverbs 3:34, quoted in James 4:6). 

That applies equally well to individuals and congregations.  The admonitions to the Laodicean and Corinthian churches (Revelation 3:17, 1 Corinthians 5:2) both demonstrate the principle.  The word James used for “oppose” is a very strong word, including the meaning “to battle against.”  God doesn’t just ignore proud churches, He actively fights against them.  

Consider the first three major spiritual rebellions, each rooted in pride.  Satan was cast from Heaven because he wanted to “be like the Most High,” (Isaiah 14:14).  Adam and Eve were banned from Eden because they believed Satan’s lie that “you will be like God,” (Genesis 3:5).  The builders of Babel were scattered across the earth because they’d intended to “make a name for [them]selves,” (Genesis 11:4).  Pride was the downfall of the Pharisees, making the classic mistake of caring too much what people thought of them.  Human nature hasn’t changed; the same problems have been wreaking havoc in The Church ever since.  Pride is really a desire and effort to usurp God’s glory and position.  That’s why He dealt with it so severely. 

Start with humility.  Too often we ignore this vital prerequisite for church health and sweep it under the rug “in Christian love.”  That jeopardizes the entire church, even unknowingly.  We should follow John’s example (3 John verse 9) and actively address issues of pride and humility in our congregations. 

Second, a lack of humility is the underlying cause of disharmony in the church! 
Only by pride cometh contention, (Proverbs 13:10, KJV). 

Do we realize the significance of this truth?  Wherever there is dissension, unhealthy conflict, dissonance, or contention, somebody has a pride problem.  Are there unresolved conflicts, disharmony between staff and other leaders, always-disgruntled church members, trouble in the worship department, changes needing made but never seeming to happen, or changes happening that shouldn’t?  Somebody is proud.  Because only by pride comes contention.   Again it was James who wrote where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing, (chapter 3 verse 16). 

Maybe a church has an egotistical senior minister exalting himself and his influence, a strong-willed elder wielding power, a talented performer craving the spotlight, a not-so-talented church member with a selfish agenda resisting positive change, a ministry team leader protecting turf.  In any case, the root issue is pride; until it’s dealt with, the local church will never reach its “health potential.”  

In practical application, this works out in at least four ways: 

Self-examination:  Questions of pride/humility demand personal inventory first.  Ruthlessly eliminate the seeds of pride and selfish ambition.  We have to be humble [humbled] before attempting to diagnose the body or anyone in it. 

Leadership realization:  Congregations mirror their leadership.  No church will thrive without leadership valuing and exemplifying humility.  For The Church, Jesus (washing feet), John the Baptist (“He must increase; I must decrease”), and Apollos (who eagerly learned from Priscilla and Aquila) provide perfect examples. 

Individual education:  People comprising our congregations must learn the importance of humility.  We, the leaders, must talk about it.  Preach it.  Teach it. 

Specific situations:  Once we look at ourselves, leadership, and membership, we’re ready to apply these principles to specific situations in the church.  Almost without fail they come into play when facing difficulties in our congregations.  A healthy, mature church will come to the point that they can discern these underlying issues in specific situations. 

In humility, let’s offer our egos on The Altar.

Cardinal Sin of a Leader

by Ken Idleman 

On many occasions in the Old Testament, the prophets served as God’s spokesmen to confront the shepherds of Israel for the cardinal sin of any recognized spiritual leader:  hypocrisy.  In the Gospel accounts, Jesus’ most scathing rebukes were directed at the religious leaders of the Jewish people for the same reason.  We recall His refrain through Matthew 23: Woe to you teachers of religious law and Pharisees – hypocrites!… (verses 13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29).
Generally, a hypocrite is an actor who practices the opposite of what he preaches.  His outward appearance does not match his inward condition.  We have been inundated in recent memory with graphic illustrations from the past lives and the present leadership of political leaders “on both sides of the aisle.”  But, really, we have been seeing this with regularity since the 1960s.  Politicians verbally persecute others, later to be caught in the same vices.  Pastors vigorously attack certain sins, only to be exposed for secretly indulging in them.  Humanitarians claim to stand with the poor, even though they themselves quietly live self-indulgent and lavish lifestyles. 
Now, of course, we know we are all fallen sinners, so we all have varying degrees of hypocrisy in us.  We can all identify with the words of Paul in Romans 7:15, I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it.  Only Jesus was truly without hypocrisy.  Only He could challenge His enemies in John 8:46, Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?  
So let’s be honest.  Hypocrisy is a common tendency in us all.  And it is a pitfall especially pernicious for any leader that helps to maintain the moral compass: parents, pastors, teachers, judges, politicians…   
But here’s the thing:  God’s Word makes it clear that those who lead, who teach  anyin positions of influence  will be judged more strictly.  That is, leaders are held to a higher standard.  Look at James 3:1: Not many of you should become teachers [leaders], for we who teach will be judged more strictly.  Alongside this, remember Paul’s words about a higher standard in 1 Corinthians 9: Don’t we have the right to live in your homes and share your meals?  Don’t we have the right to bring a believing wife with us as the other apostles do?… Or is it only Barnabas and I who have to work to support ourselves?… We have never used this right.  We would rather put up with anything than be an obstacle to the Good News about Christ, (verses 4-6, 12, NLT).  Therefore, leaders are justifiablyexpected to be the private personification of the doctrines, values and behaviors that they represent publicly. 
With this in mind, no one should consent to wear the leadership mantle without embracing the personal implications of this trust!  We can’t be perfect, but we do have to commit to being perfected.  We don’t have to be completely consistent, but we do have to be worthy of imitation.  We must be able to say to those we lead, just like the imperfect Paul said (1 Corinthians 11:1): And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.