Thursday, December 04, 2008

How Should A Member Respond to a Divisive Elder?

A "Concerned Church Member" left this important comment and question in the comments section of this post. I thought it such a good question that I decided to make the response (probably not as good as the question) a post in itself. Below is the question, followed by my response. What say others out there? "Help a brother out!"

Thabiti, Hello, brother! A question for you-- I am currently in a dialogue with an elder in my church who does not believe that traditional, "monologue-style" preaching is the "preaching" that is modeled and recommended in the New Testament. He believes that a conversation in which the Gospel is shared is a form of preaching. He also believes that preaching could simply be reading a book of the Bible, even possibly on Sunday mornings, without any additional explanation or application. He is, at least in principle, open to the idea of "dialogical" preaching, in which more than one person is allowed to speak. He also thinks that preachers, in general, should be aiming for shorter messages, as in 15-25 minutes.

Our church is a "9 Marks-friendly" church, and as such, officially holds to expositional preaching as the first of those nine marks. This man says that he firmly believes in expositional preaching, as a way of "heralding the Biblical Gospel" (which is how he defines "preaching," rather than as a monologue-style sermon), but that he simply has different beliefs from other elders in the church, as to its "context, look, and length."

Do you have any recommendations as to how I could answer his points about expositional preaching? I am unsure of how to proceed in this conversation, because I have never faced a situation in which one leader has held such divergent views from the others on a subject that I believe is so vital to the healthiness of a church. I have encouraged him to share his views with the other leaders at our church, but he is reticent, not wanting to "offend" them. At the same time, he is speaking to me, and to others in the congregation, about some of his views, and I feel uneasy and don't know what to do. I respect this man, as an elder in the church, and I want to submit to his leadership, but I am not sure what that should look like in this situation. Could you help a brother out here, if possible? :-) Your counsel would be very much appreciated!

Concerned Church Member

Concerned Church member, what a serious and potentially fractious situation! I can well understand why you feel "uneasy" about an elder "breaking ranks" with the other elders by speaking with others about his divergent views. There are biblical words for that: "sowing discord among the brethren" (Prov. 6:19), "carnal" division (1 Cor. 3:3-4), and "contention" (1 Cor. 1:12). He is dividing the body in his actions, and claiming to not want to offend while spreading what he knows will be an "offensive" view is plain hypocrisy. At this point he is not walking "blameless," "above reproach," keeping a "good report" even inside the church, or showing himself "apt to teach" by avoiding the elders and beginning a whisper campaign (1 Tim. 3:1-7). In the end, left unchecked, he will simply undermine the authority of the Word and the teaching ministry in that church by having these conversations outside the eldership with others who are not leaders.

I can't tell you how serious this situation is or can be in terms of jeopardizing the unity and effectiveness of the ministry in your church. Your elder is chipping at the nerve center of the ministry, the preaching ministry.

A couple of thoughts for you:

1. Insist that he raise these issues with the elders directly (Matt. 5:22-25; 18:15) and immediately cease talking with others outside the elders about this (Rom. 16:17; Titus 3:10). If the eldership is advancing one view of teaching and preaching, and he another, that should be addressed inside the eldership so that unity may be maintained (Eph. 4) and the sheep led in a consistent and healthy direction.

If he has integrity, he should resign from the eldership if he finds himself out of keeping with the ministry commitments of that church and its leaders. If this is beyond the bounds of acceptable divergence, he should step down cheerfully and voluntarily, if he loves the church and has godly integrity.

2. If he refuses to address things with the eldership, let him know that you will go directly to the other elders along with two or three witnesses, others who can testify to his spreading his basic disagreement with the rest of the leadership (1 Tim. 5:19). Demonstrate your support of the entire leadership by helping them to keep short accounts with one another and pointing out difficulties of this nature that they may not be aware of.

Essentially, you want to close the court of public opinion and limit the potential for this man to "draw disciples after himself" by bringing this to light in the court of the eldership. As a member, you shouldn't have to try and address these things alone with someone charged to watch over you. Insist that he speak with the other elders. If he will not, yet holds to his contrary convictions, involve the other elders immediately. Let them judge the matter and keep the unity of the church.

3. Pray for and support your elders if they must rebuke this man publicly and sharply. That will be to the benefit of the entire body (1 Tim. 5:20) and help to make this man sound in the faith (Titus 1:13). Your elders may find this a difficult thing to do, so your prayers for wisdom and courage are needed. Hold them up before the Lord so that they would be able to teach, care, and lead their fellow elder well, and shepherd the congregation through the process as well. Since this man has been quietly spreading his views with others, at the least the elders may need to address this publicly for concern stemming from not knowing how far the comments have gone.

4. For a short resource on expositional preaching and the biblical pattern for it, you might refer the elders to this 9Marks interview with Don Carson. The opening minutes include Carson responding to this exact issue of whether expositional preaching is modeled in the Scripture. For a short book-length treatment, try Al Mohler's recent book, He Is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World (a review here). Mohler makes a good, accessible case for exposition.

5. In all of your interactions and reactions, seek to love deeply from the heart (Col. 2:14), watch and continue in prayer (Col. 4:2), and joyfully submit to those in authority (Heb. 13:17). Be a model of joyful membership in the church. Do everything to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4).

Praying the Lord gives you every grace, and gives your church one mind and purpose in these things. Perhaps others will leave counsel as well.


Don Fields said...

Excellent! Very helpful advice. Thank you for sharing this.

Charles E. Whisnant said...

Lay elders in a church are subject to the same temptation as members and deacons and pastors. Therefore they are going to address points that they are concern with. There is way too much secrets within the leadership, and in the end will generally cause more divisiveness than speaking the truth in love.

Many elders in the church are not really skilled to be elders, therefore are not perfect.

As to an elder sharing his viewpoint, outside the eldership room, in my opinion is not divisive if the person sharing doesn't make it divisive.

Hayden said...


I disagree with you. Many things are done in the interest of 'sharing' that are un-biblical. If this Elder knows that his view will be divisive in the Elder board than how will that look when they found out that he went to members outside of the eldership? It looks like politicking. I am also going to sound harsh here, but frankly it is cowardice.

This does not mean that all members of the leadership agree with every thing in the same way, but, they do have a charge to protect the sheep from divisiveness. This frankly has the the possibility to become a 'I am of Paul' and a 'I am of Apollos' type of issue. (1 Cor. 3)

You say 'many elders in the church are not really skilled to be elders' and that is true. That is why this man belongs to a plurality of elders and that is where this dialog about preaching should take place. This man by the way he is going about these things is subtly saying 'I don't trust the other elders' or 'I know better than they do'.

I think Thabiti's counsel is biblical and well reasoned and should be followed.

A book that I would recommend to this Elder would be a classic one 'Between Two Worlds' by John Stott. If he can read that and not see the priority of preaching, than I 'got nuthin' for him'.

The preaching ministry of the church sets the direction of the church spiritually.

NTStudent said...

I am an elder who has been doing a personal research on New Testament church styles. I would likely find myself in agreement with the elder in mind. See for material on the topic. It seems that many recognize that our present day church practices are quite unlike the NT church.

However, I have never even given my blogsite to church members in order to avoid any divisiveness. I know that it is unlikely that any mainstream churches will go back to the practices of the early church and ones that Paul seems to have clearly recommended. What I am pondering is -- are there implications and modifications that today's churches could incorporate to instill a resemblance to the vitality and power of that early church.

It would seem that some do involve and make place for more interactionanal family awareness that existed then -- and is largely missing in so many of our gatherings.

Anonymous said...

I agree that elders should strive to be an example of unity in the church. If one elder is divisive, this will be reflected in the church.

I have a question, though, about preaching. What percentage of pulpit time should be occupied by one primary preaching elder? What if several elders are gifted preachers? Is the concept of "senior pastor" biblical? If so, where do we find it? I agree that there are leaders singled out among the elders, but is this one leader? What do you think of Alexander Strauch's (Biblical Eldership) position on this?

MsJones said...

I am so glad that your response was Biblical, and saying take it to the church, which is the church covenant. Even if this wasnt a church it still is bringing about divisiveness of the church. It is so great that the elder who has taken cousel to remedy the situation is able to understand the views of this other elder. I agree that one the elder needs to stop and finally take lead and talk about the views. There is so much to think about on this particular subject but Pastor Thabiti, I am pleased with your response to him. Thanks for sharing. Because these types of situations happen in a lot of places, certainly we are not perfect but we are called to do Gods will then we should be able to listen.


Orchard said...

Ok. Why does Wayne Grudem, whom the people on this blog certainly support, suggest that if you don't agree with the elders/church stance you should:

1. Talk to current elders and find out who supports your agenda. Do this after you are unable to convince the lead pastor to adopt your views.

2. If you can't find cooperative elders, try to boost new candidates who agree with you and would be willing to get your agenda cemented into church policy on the board.

3. Hold informational meetings (apparently on your own and against the feelings of the current elder board).

4. Try to change the church's constitution as soon as you have the power to do so.

5. Don't worry that you will alienate standing members of the church. You're right after all.

There is some kind of deep hypocrisy in the 9 Marks community that supports this sort of strategy and then castigates an elder who simply thinks that sermons should be shorter!

FellowElder said...


Thanks for stopping by. I don't know Grudem personally, but I have great respect for what I know of his scholarship and life. I'm willing to bet a doughnut to a hundred dollars that the things you list are likely well out of context. I might recommend this list of actions if the issue were the gospel itself and a pastor/elders were teaching heresy. But I seriously doubt that this is the recommendation that Grudem or anyone in the 9Marks community would recommend as a normal course of action for dealing with disagreements. In fact I can put it more strongly than that: no one I know in the "9Marks community" would hold such a view.

If you have some references or links we can examine where Grudem is supposed to have said these things, I think we would all benefit from reading the comments in their entirety and context.

Thanks again for commenting. Grace and peace,


Orchard said...

Wayne Grudem describes this process in "Evangelical Feminism", Chapter 14.6: A Strategy for Complementarians.

My summary is very close to his points and not at all exaggerated.

What really shocked me was that Grudem, an apparently respected teacher in certain circles, is providing people with a set of instructions for overthrowing the agreed-upon norms of churches by manipulating and playing power games with the eldership and pastor.