“There were a couple of good, quiet, godly men who usually rallied the group. But few seemed to have the ability to look at God’s Word and heed its instruction for giving shape to the church. Inertia had set in years earlier. Uncertainty about the future had frozen the leaders and the congregation. I was told repeatedly that ‘We are land rich and cash poor,’ as evidenced in the $300,000 budget which the church struggled to meet. Much of it went to buildings. In short, this was a generation that had spent their entire adult lives witnessing decline, in their city and in their church. And the seemed immobilized by it…
…what became glaringly obvious whenever the deacons or various committees gathered was, there was no group of strong, godly leaders. The few men who could have functioned in that role were too old or too tired from the decades-long slog of church life.
Consequently, the church had little focus and was a magnet for unscrupulous people, wolves posing as sheep. They were sheep without a shepherd. There were many elderly, but no elders” (p. 42-43).
In Elders of the Life of the Church, the authors describe an experience common to churchy people in our day. They point out that the problem is not a lack of money, land, facilities, or location. While most “church growth” writers would point out these obstacles (p. 42):
- denominational affiliation (particularly with the SBC in the presented scenario),
- location (in the inner city),
- age of the building,
- and the size of the parking lot,
the authors point out that not every church in these circumstances was suffering the same fate. Instead, they point out that the problem in most churches (whether physically in decline or not) is a lack of strong, godly leaders capable of discerning God’s Word and sharing biblical vision with the church body- providing Godly direction and focus according to God’s instruction. In my own experience, most “churches” don’t actually desire the godly leadership that the authors describe. That is not always the case. I think it is one of the bigger issues in the organized church today.
“Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”
As Paul was traveling to Jerusalem and was in Miletus, he called the elders of the church in Ephesus to come and meet him so that he can give them this specific instruction. Paul predicts everything that we now see in the organized church as highlighted in the description above. Paul gives the responsibility of guarding all the flock to the elders of the church. Elders were those the Holy Spirit has made overseers. Their responsibility was to shepherd the flock of God, which is purchased with God’s own blood. To shepherd the flock of God is explicitly to declare the whole purpose of God (v. 27), to admonish each one with tears (v. 31), and to embrace the ministry of the word of God’s grace (v. 32). This is all one work. Without what is described in this text as a plurality of elders doing this shepherding work together, the church body is not built up so as to receive an inheritance among all those who are sanctified (v. 32).
The authors of Elders in the Life of the Church have described exactly the same problems that Paul foresaw as he encouraged the elders of the church at Ephesus. When our focus is practical “church growth” steps and seminars, we miss the point of the Gospel and we miss God’s design for the church. We are here to see the body of Christ built up, not the numbers of an organization (either a local church or a denomination). This means that most organized churches are missing the very thing that is needed for healthy church life- spiritually mature elders who are completely dedicated to the ministry of God’s word alone.
In the coming weeks, we are going to be thinking together about what exactly an elder is and addressing many unhealthy views of the pastorate. If you have any questions you would like for us to address in this series, please let us know in the comments or by using the contact form.