The appointment of elders was a pressing need in the opening days of the church. Paul told Titus to “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). The character, maturity and reputation of elders were all important considerations according to the apostle (1 Timothy 3:2-7; Titus 1:5-9). Jesus entrusted the spiritual safety of the church to elders who were to protect the flock (Christians) from false teachers (Acts 20:28-31). Elders were to have oversight but never as an overbearing boss or “lord” (1 Peter 5:3). They would lead by their inherent authority under the Chief Shepherd, Jesus and by their own spiritual leadership (1 Peter 5:4).
Yet for all their qualifications elders remain mortal. They make mistakes. They err. To demand flawlessness of an elder is unreasonable and places upon them a requirement not even the apostles could claim.
Sometimes an elder will err so badly as to require removal from the office. One example might be an elder caught up in public immorality such as adultery or fornication. When the church suffers because of his public reputation he must be removed.
Fortunately, most elder errors are not so grave.
How should the Christian respond when elders seem to make mistakes? Let me offer some suggestions.
When Elders Make Mistakes Use the Golden Rule
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you; do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
The “Golden Rule” is universally known but so rarely applied! Can you imagine if everyone kept this teaching in mind and actually used it? What a change! but for now let’s consider how important it is when dealing with God’s elders. No one wants to be criticized until they have had a chance to explain their reasoning. Criticism that comes before a thorough understanding is unfair and always hurtful. Wouldn’t you want someone to ask before criticizing?
It is true that elders are held to a high standard. And we like to think that elders never make mistakes, but they do. Before bashing an elder or even talking negatively about an elder, let us exchange positions with him. Let us ask the question, what if I were in his shoes? What if it was my mistake? What would I want someone else to do?
The Golden Rule is powerful and prevents uncomfortable situations from becoming nasty conflagrations.
When Elders Make Mistakes Assume the Best
Why is it that we so quickly jump to negative, nasty conclusions about decisions made by elders? Here we have God’s men, appointed to the highest office upon earth, typically confirmed in some way by the congregation, experienced men who are mature in the faith, and we immediately assume they have violated some Biblical precept or that they are simply incompetent to serve.
Perhaps we, the elder and the church generally would be better served if we searched first for a reasonable explanation of the questioned decision. Usually there are aspects of every decision that are not so obvious. By assuming the best we tend to diffuse any anger and temper any confrontation. Remember, there may be things you do not know!
When Elders Make Mistakes Question Your Knowledge
Sometimes elders must work quietly and confidentially. The issues they must address are often delicate and require discretion. What may appear to be an error could be their attempt to prevent embarrassment while confidential problems are corrected.
Some good people have a “zeal without knowledge” (Proverbs 19:2). They want elders to exercise their leadership and oversight and become impatient when they do not move as quickly as they think they should. It’s hard to criticize their desire for strong shepherds but we should always remember that there may be facts and issues being worked out in private. Incomplete knowledge can be dangerous.
When Elders Make Mistakes Use Extreme Caution
Sometimes elders really blow it. They make mistakes and stumble. But how we respond to their mistakes says volumes about our character and our Christlikeness. In training Timothy, Paul warned, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19). Of course the broader commands concerning error should also be considered. Jesus says to settle sin issues privately where possible (Matthew 18:15-20) and he warns us to self exam before rebuking another (Matthew 7:1-5).
We can become so carried away with ourselves that we find that we have sinned in our passions. Sometimes, so convinced of the rightness of our position, we stumble (Galatians 6:1-5).
Christians should use extreme caution to protect the church before the eyes of unbelievers. This was a concern of Paul (1 Corinthians 6:1-8; 1 Timothy 3:7; Titus 2:5-9) and should likewise be a concern of ours. When we disagree with elders; when we think they are just wrong, we must not publicize the dispute. Facebook and Twitter are not the places to discuss elder issues! Some years ago a congregation suffered through horrible problems which involved the eldership. Shockingly, some brethren created a website to address the weaknesses and error of that congregation. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Problems within elderships and within the church generally demand a Christlike approach. Let us be like him and remember that the world is always watching.
I leave us with the words of prominent Hindu philosopher Mahatma Ghandi: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Let us pray for the elders among us. Theirs is an incredible task filled with trouble and struggle. Many of us will never know the tears they shed or the sleepless nights brought by eternal burdens. Let us love them, encourage them and deal carefully and gently with them when they falter. Remember, they care for you.