An Eclipse of Leadership – On Church Leadership, Part 2

Eclipse I begin with a true story (though names have been changed)… from the side of the somewhat absurd through the lens of history. But, alas, it's a true and story–and one that has occurred in some variation numerous places:

Hillside Church of Christ had been in decline for years. They knew they needed to turn things around so they hired a new preacher named Eric. Eric and his family arrived with Kingdom dreams and robust enthusiasm for where God could take Hillside in the years to come.

Hillside had two elders: Bill and Phil. They almost never saw eye-to-eye on anything. So, as new ideas were proposed by Eric, the two elders, Bill and Phil nearly always voted in opposite fashion–thus creating constant gridlock. Virtually every vote ended in a 1-1 tie. Eventually, Eric mustered up the courage to ask if he could break the tie so the church could move forward on some things. The response, "No, because you're not an elder."

Eric eventually suggested the church consider adding more elders. You guessed it…Bill was for it, Phil was against it. So, the church remained inflexible and immovable to the point that Hillside's ministry eventually atrophied completely. The church's ministry continued to decline to the point the elders reached agreement on firing Eric because he "wasn't effective." But, as you might expect, the next preacher fared no better. The decline continued until the last one out turned off the lights at Hillside. The building was liquidated, people went away hurt and discouraged, and the community lost what could have been a vibrant outpost of the Kingdom.

In a post-mortem conversation with Phil (one of the two elders at the end), he said he wished things could have turned out differently. When asked if he thought they could have if leadership had made different decisions or altered it's paradigm, he said he knew they could have done some things differently…but couldn't name one specifically. When asked about whether a paradigm shift might have helped, he said, "Absolutely not. At least I can say Hillside always had biblical leadership."

Did it?

It seems to me the "weightier matter of the law" here is the good of the church, not the preservation of what some believe to be the only biblical form of leadership. The first church in Acts had no elders initially, nor did any of the churches Paul planted at first–as far as we know. Elders were appointed as a blessing from God to the Church–apparently to address the need for ongoing, godly spiritual leadership. What I'm saying here isn't that churches shouldn't have elders…but rather that elders serve Christ and the Church, not vice-versa. Elders are an instrument in God's hand to do His work in the Body. All authority belongs to Christ. We serve He and His Church when we lead.

In the case above, the proverbial tail had come to wag the dog. The elders were no longer serving the Body well. In an ideal world they would have seen this and stepped down themselves or sought change themselves. However, as is sometimes the case, humbling through self-examination and what was best for the Body didn't win the day. In such a circumstance, they should have been dealt with by the congregation–and/or, I would even argue, by the preacher. The preacher is typically the only one who is privy not only to the decision elders make…but how they reach those decisions. Without a minister willing and able to challenge the elders, the church is left with only a partial view of reality. More on that in a future post. 

To illustrate the leadership eclipse: Some people believe the most important thing about taking Communion is making sure to do it every week. To them (though they wouldn't say so), one's heart, one's behavior and even the spirit in which they do it is less relevant than making sure Communion is observed on the first day of the week. Hogwash! The weight of the New Testament teaching on Communion is clearly on honoring Christ and secondarily, loving His people. When we taking it unworthily we eat and drink judgment on ourselves. The answer isn't to say Communion is bad and we should cease sharing it because when abused it puts us in the position of eating and drinking judgment on ourselves. The answer is to take Communion in such a way that we honor Christ, love His people, and don't eat and drink judgment on ourselves.

The point here is similar to the point I'm making about elders. Elders are not the problem. It's the Lordship of preserving the form of elders over all else that simply has to change. That is an eclipse of real biblical leadership. Elders who "eld" the way the Chief Shepherd desires are priceless to the Body. However, they aren't so because of the "office." They are so because the Chief Shepherd is shepherding His people through them. Biblical leadership is biblical when it's biblical not simply in form, but in substance. When it's biblical in form and not substance, it isn't biblical.

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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5 thoughts on “An Eclipse of Leadership – On Church Leadership, Part 2

  1. Al,
    Unfortunately, many don’t know that…or at least have no way to effect change in cases of toxic eldership. I would encourage you to thoughtfully consider the wisdom of some of your Brothers here without assuming they aren’t anchored firmly in Gospel. The warnings you give are duly noted.

  2. Surely you know that when elders function in an unscriptural manner, they are to be opposed and deposed
    and replaced. Just follow the pattern of sound words and don’t sin by superimposing your own feelings on the problem situation. Or, are you just looking for an excuse to grab a little power?

  3. I am a 52 year old preacher who has long believed that this whole issue of leadership that has prevented us from experiencing the kind of growth that we could actually experience in our churches. Far too often the preacher functions as the “head coach,” but with no ability to make any decisions. When the team (church) falters the “coach” gets the blame. I have read your blog for quite a while now and have enjoyed it greatly. I also appreciate the fact that you are not leaving our fellowship. I get so frustrated when so many of our finest young ministers just leave lock stock and barrel. I when to school with Randy many years ago and have just reconnected thru Facebook a few weeks ago. I pray that God will bless you in your new work. Keep writing.

  4. i have to assume — and i am indeed assuming (i don’t know with any certainty) — there already were shepherds in early christian congregations before they were actually named as such. we know elders were “appointed,” but it seems to me this would have involved recognizing whom had been gifted with abilities to shepherd the flock — AND whom was already using those abilities for the maturation of the church. those functioning as elders, then, would have been named (appointed, or recognized) as elders.
    i’m saying this because it would seem to support the idea that form follows function when it comes to elders and leaders in the church.
    but i think it should function the same way with teachers and preachers and the like. recognize those who are gifted and already working in these roles. that seems better to me than voting men into titles of positions they don’t actually hold. [or hiring guys to preach just because they have a bible degree.]

  5. Tim,
    This is another good post. Would you mine if I distributed to the Leadership Committee where I serve?
    And speaking of a leadership committee…the congregation where I serve has no elders and it will probably be some time before that happens which leads me to a question. You rightfully conclude by saying: “Biblical leadership is biblical when it’s biblical not simply in form, but in substance. When it’s biblical in form and not substance, it isn’t biblical.” But I also wonder… Even though I believe there is a need for shepherding elders in the local church, I wonder if Biblical leadership (substance, as you say…or function) and exist without the Biblical form? I ask that not because I am so eager to jettison the form in scripture but because I believe we can get so caught up in trying to reduplicate a particular form that we cannot imagine any way but that form even if the form does not work (substance/function).
    Thanks for the great post!
    K. Rex Butts