by Jon Weatherly
When asked to be an elder, I only knew one thing about the job for sure: I didn’t know what I was doing.
That might seem like an odd thing for me to say. After all, I had a Bible college degree, two seminary master’s degrees, and a doctorate in New Testament studies. I was a genuine expert and had the papers to prove it.
But I knew that eldering mostly involved things for which I had no special training. I knew that elders had to make personnel decisions, like HR professionals. I knew that they had to make facilities decisions, like real estate developers. I knew that they needed to make communication decisions, like marketers. I knew that they needed to act sensitively toward people in crisis, like counselors. I was none of those.
And so at my first meeting, I began to learn a lesson that I’ve continued to learn since: God calls us to service together, not as individuals. Church is group work, and so is eldering.
Among our elders were the very kinds of people I mentioned above, people with knowledge and experience in areas that I lacked. Some had professional skills, some had life experience, and some had what I could only call God-given insight. Together we still didn’t know everything, but together we knew much more than we knew separately.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
1 Corinthians 12:4–7
Paul’s familiar words apply to the church’s elders as well as the church at large. The power of God’s Spirit is exercised through the elders together, the church together, exercising the gifts each has received from the Lord.
So that realization changed how I operated as an elder. It meant that I listened much more than I spoke. It meant that when I did speak, it was often to learn more from my brothers, asking them for their perspectives on the issues that lay before us. It meant that I approached even the matters about which I thought I knew something with greater patience and humility, remembering that all of us were relying on one another, learning from one another. It meant that a good elders’ meeting was not one in which I got my way, but one in which I saw others apply their wisdom to everyone’s benefit. Over time I pray that it brought a greater measure of wisdom to my own life as I learned from the accumulated wisdom of others.
And in retrospect, I realize that we learned another lesson about serving together. The Spirit of God empowers us in our differences, but not so that we will go to one of two extremes. The first extreme is insisting on our individual empowerment by always finding reason to disagree. But the second is just as dangerous and sometimes harder to recognize: standing together in conformity to exercise autocratic power. Sometimes elders are tempted to “stand together” to bend people to their will. But the love of Christ enables us to see the different gifts and perspectives of elders as reminders to act in love toward one another and toward all in the Lord’s church.
My ecclesiastical forebears insisted that the leadership of the New Testament church was always plural, never the responsibility of one person. Their disappointments with kings and bishops drove them to read the New Testament with an eye to the plural pattern of leadership. The answer they found reflects the very nature of the church as the Spirit-empowered people of God. Our differences overcame my weaknesses. Working together, a church’s elders in their diversity lead the army of Christ against which the gates of hell will never stand.